United Kingdom: The Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:54 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:54 pm, 23rd June 2022

My Lords, with the evolution of the three devolved Governments, the United Kingdom has become a very unbalanced and insecure centralised country. I mention in passing that the question of whether the UK includes the Crown dependencies is left deliberately ambiguous. The Council of the Isles was set up with representation from the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. The Procurement Bill with which we are currently dealing contains a clause that says that UK suppliers include suppliers from the Crown dependencies. However, I recall very well that the last commission on the constitution, in the 1970s, made it clear that the Crown dependencies are not part of the United Kingdom. I will leave that aside for this debate, although we will no doubt continue to address this, with all of the intricacies of tax avoidance that are involved.

The stresses upon the union are clearly growing, but I will talk mainly about the stresses being caused within England. In passing, I say that I am conscious that not all Conservatives below the leadership are still unionists: some English nationalists—the Ukippers of the Conservative Party—would be quite happy to see Scotland and Northern Ireland go, although they have not really thought about Wales. They think that it would save on tax transfers, but it would leave a very discontented north of England dominated by southern England and suffering as a result. That is not an impossible prospect, and we need to be very carefully aware of it.

Mention has been made of the Whitehall mindset, but it is also the ministerial mindset and what one has to call the Diceyan mindset—namely, that Parliament only temporarily devolves powers and may take them back whenever it feels like it. That is clearly not compatible with the continuation of the union. I keep reminding Ministers that Dicey wrote his doctrine on the constitution at the same time that he was writing violent pamphlets against any devolution to Ireland, and this clearly biased and influenced the way he wrote about UK sovereignty.

England has the most centralised democracy in the developed world. What is more, successive Governments muck about with local and regional structures. The Constitution Committee’s report on a stronger union says:

“we believe continued and frequent restructuring will risk undermining Whitehall’s capacity to manage a fundamental part of the United Kingdom’s governance arrangements.”

The latest example that I am aware of is the enforced dislocation of the governance of North Yorkshire by the abolition of district councils and the imposition of a single council, which means that some councillors will have to spend over two hours driving from the ward that they represent to the basic unit of local government to which they will now belong. I note that district councils still exist in Surrey, and I hope that they are about to be abolished in the same way; if the Government believe in single-tier local government, they have to impose it everywhere.

This change was made in the face of all but one of the 19 councils in Yorkshire saying clearly that they preferred an overall Yorkshire structure which would represent the clear identity of the region and its 5 million people—twice as many as in two of the three devolved Assemblies. This was overruled by the Government, with the imposition of metro mayors—some even wish to impose a metro mayor on North Yorkshire somehow. This is not a competent way to restructure local government or rebuild public trust in democracy as a whole, particularly when Governments mistrust metro mayors and very infrequently consult them on arrangements.

What do we need to do? We need to think hard about how we devolve powers within the dominant country of the United Kingdom. We need to think about how we make the necessary fiscal transfers much more transparent, and about how we build that into our union structures. I increasingly believe that the second Chamber should be based on representation of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, which is part of what would build in the checks and balances of the United Kingdom as a whole. For the clearly neglected regions of England—they feel even more neglected now—it would also symbolise that they are represented and seen in this disunited country.

We must worry about Scotland and we have to worry about Northern Ireland, but we must not forget that there are many parts of England which are now fundamentally discontented with our current Government. No doubt the voters of Wakefield will demonstrate that today, but I read in the Financial Times yesterday a very good interview on the sense of betrayal at the abandonment of most of Northern Powerhouse Rail; at the refusal to build an underground station in Manchester even though they are building one at Old Oak Common; and at the abandonment on the grounds of cost of putting a new tunnel through the Pennines even though they are putting a large and much longer tunnel under the Chilterns for HS2. All those things build distrust and discontent at the local and regional level. This very southern-based Government need to be aware of that, and as we look at the problems of maintaining co-operation with the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, it should not be forgotten.