United Kingdom: The Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:45 pm, 23rd June 2022

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for bringing this excellent debate to the House. It has been extremely interesting and was very much enhanced by the valedictory speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and we wish him good luck for the future.

I draw the House’s attention to the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 general election, where it said that

“strengthening the great Union between the United Kingdom’s four nations” was one of the ways the Conservatives intended to

“unleash our country’s full potential.”

In a recent QSD, the Minister repeated the Government’s commitment to strengthening the union, by

“protecting and promoting its combined strengths and the values that we all share, and ensuring that the institutions of the United Kingdom are used to benefit people in every part of the country”.

I am sure, having heard this debate, that we would all agree with those sentiments. He said also that the Government were “great believers in devolution”, and that the new IGR arrangements would

“herald a new era for collaboration across the United Kingdom”.—[GC 122.]">Official Report, 9/6/22; col. GC 122.]

I am sure we would all like to see more collaboration, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said, devolution is not always that easy.

I thank the Select Committee for its excellent report, which helped us understand many of the issues.

I turn to some of the issues raised in the debate. A common theme was that the stresses and strains are getting worse. The departure from the European Union has clearly affected relationships within the union of the United Kingdom, as well as with the EU. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for going into quite considerable detail about this. As the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said, the present situation remains untidy; there is much to be done. We know that the common frameworks process was set up following Brexit, but that led to disagreements between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government. The House of Lords Constitution Committee concluded, in a report earlier this year, that implementing Brexit had placed the Sewel convention “under great strain”.

Disagreements have also arisen between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations over post-Brexit funding arrangements, so no wonder there are stresses and strains, and it seems that the situation is getting worse.

A number of noble Lords talked about the particular issues around Northern Ireland. We know that the DUP’s response to the protocol has had an impact on the functioning of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland in recent months. I will not go into detail about this as it was covered excellently by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. But the issues around the protocol are clearly very serious, and the Government, as the noble Lord said, have to take this much more seriously, and not make quick decisions based on politics rather than the likely outcomes of those decisions.

We know that non-unionist parties in Northern Ireland have expressed their strong objection to the Government’s approach to the protocol, and wrote a joint letter—which is very unusual for those parties—to the Prime Minister sharing their concerns. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, explained the situation further, referring to the Government’s inability to sort out the problems we now have in Stormont. We will never move forward until we can resolve these issues.

One thing that has come through strongly in this debate is the importance of co-operation, collaboration and engagement, which has been mentioned on a number of occasions, and the fact that this Government have seemed incapable of doing that in a constructive way, particularly regarding the problems with Northern Ireland. If we are going to resolve these issues, surely that is what we need to do with all our devolved Administrations and with the EU, where appropriate.

Scotland has also been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. The current point of tension regarding the Scottish Government’s intention to hold a second referendum is clearly very difficult as we look at how the union is going to survive going forward. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in particular talked about the stresses this policy of independence is placing on the Scottish Government. Nicola Sturgeon is arguing that Brexit represents

“a significant and material change” to the circumstances in which independence was voted on back in 2014. She will push very hard for this, and the Government need to think about how they will manage and handle this going forward.

There was also discussion about Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, mentioned that Wales is becoming more and more unhappy with the current constitutional arrangements. The Government really need to tackle this early on. They need to talk to the Welsh Government, councils in Wales and so on about how they want to see the constitution going forward, so that we can move forward together.

Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, talked about England, particularly Yorkshire. We must not forget that the rest of the UK is a critical part of strengthening our union. Right across our country, there are local communities who feel they are being denied a voice in the decision-making which affects their day-to-day lives. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said, absolutely rightly, that many areas of the UK are very different. There is a widespread feeling that the UK is not working for everyone at the moment. The Government’s lack of enthusiasm for delivering power to nations and regions could also put the union under threat.

We feel that Ministers must properly examine our democracy, constitution, future direction and future purpose as a country as a basis for any new constitutional arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, talked about the fact that we are the most centralised democracy. That is not healthy for the union. However, any new devolution must be delivered by working with communities—with the metro mayors, mayors, local leaders and councillors—so decisions are made together.

We also feel that the stresses on the union have been exacerbated by the economic policies we have seen recently, which have levied disproportionate public service cuts and amounted to a sense that we have not all been in this together. For this reason, the UK also needs a new and transformational economic settlement to properly level up the country and show that the union can exist to reduce regional inequalities. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn talked about the importance of levelling up. This must be central to any constitutional work going forward.

From this debate we have seen that there are concerns right across the UK as to the genuine desire, ability and political will of this Government to live up to the manifesto commitment I referred to at the start, to truly strengthen our union and unleash our country’s great potential. It does not seem to be happening at the moment. As we have discussed, co-operative working is really what is needed, along with—as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said—calmness and purpose. We need a sense of the importance of making thought-out, considered decisions regarding the union and any devolution and, above all, to have respect for each other.

I am really looking forward to the Minister’s response. This has been an excellent debate, and I would particularly like to hear his thoughts on the proposed committee idea. It is good to have a debate in which there has been real, constructive thought on how we can move forward.