United Kingdom: The Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:54 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Photo of Lord Greenhalgh Lord Greenhalgh The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 4:54 pm, 23rd June 2022

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for securing this debate on such an important topic. I also enjoyed the valedictory speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. He raised two important issues in a succinct contribution: the role of the monarchy in holding the union together, which is fundamental—we saw this with the Platinum Jubilee—and the role that faith communities, communities of all faiths, play in our lives. For a time, until the first reshuffle, I was the Communities Minister and had responsibility for faith. I was able in my last few days to launch the Faith New Deal, which was a way to put money into projects to work with faith communities to improve the lives of everybody in this United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom is a family of nations and a nation of families, standing up for and embodying in its institutions liberty under the law, respect for all, fair play, free trade, parliamentary democracy and progress. In response to the points made by my noble friend Lord Norton, the union is very much a living political, cultural and economic success story. As he pointed out, there is so much to gain from the union. When we act together as one United Kingdom, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous.

The union also provides safety and security, allowing all parts of the UK to benefit from the economies of scale offered by our shared resources and our ability to influence on the international stage. It enables us to protect the values we hold in common across our United Kingdom. I think a noble Lord called into question whether we would retain a seat on the Security Council. Clearly, that is somewhere where we gain great stature as a United Kingdom.

I also reaffirm that we are absolutely committed to devolution. Devolution offers citizens the best of both worlds. It allows decisions to be taken closer to the communities they affect, while still benefiting from the broad shoulders the union provides. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned the English question, but we recognise that it is important to celebrate devolution. That is why we launched the levelling up White Paper with a commitment that, by 2030, every part of England that wants a devolution deal will have one. Devolution is critical to delivering levelling up, supporting local leaders so they can more flexibly and innovatively respond to local needs, whether on transport, skills or regeneration.

We are also committed to working collaboratively with the devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Many noble Lords mentioned that in January 2022, we marked a new chapter in intergovernmental relations with new principles and structures for working together, agreed after a joint review. Each Government have agreed to operate under the improved arrangements and to move forward together with implementation of this new system. I point out to my noble friend Lord Norton, who called for comity, which, I believe, is an association of nations for mutual benefit, that we are absolutely committed to translating both the spirit and the content of the new arrangements into consistent approaches and actions. Already, more than 10 portfolio-level inter-ministerial groups are fully up and running, and the two middle-tier inter-ministerial standing committees have each met at least once. We have a Minister for Intergovernmental Relations; I am in his department, and that is why I am at this Dispatch Box. The Minister has had 80 meetings, I think, in the past year on aspects of the union, and there have been 440 inter-ministerial meetings with Governments. We show a real commitment to working collaboratively with the devolved Administrations.

It is hard to characterise the working relationship as one of imperial condescension when the facts are that we are providing 20% more funding per person as part of the spending review. That is 26% more per person for the Scottish Government, 20% more per person for the Welsh Government and 21% more per person for the Northern Ireland Executive. These are substantial sums of investment into the other nations.

I return to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, about taking forward my noble friend Lord Cormack’s idea. We believe that interparliamentary relations were strengthened by structures such as the Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit, and the Government will consider further developments in this area. Should the Speakers of each House whish to explore setting up such a forum, we will consider supporting it. We will take that away from this debate and consider it in due course.

One of the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, was on Civil Service capability. We have implemented the vast majority of the recommendations of the Dunlop review, and we have a programme to enhance the devolution knowledge and intergovernmental working of civil servants, enabling them to deliver more effectively when designing and implementing policies—it is important to have that underpinning.

Further to getting devolution to work, we started the process of city and growth deals, which began in 2014, with a joint agreement between the UK Government and the relevant devolved Governments, local authorities and partners from the public, private and education sectors. The UK Government have so far committed almost £2.9 billion in funding across 20 such deals in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including almost £1.49 billion in Scotland, £791 million in Wales and £617 million in Northern Ireland. We continued this good work by reaching a landmark agreement with the Scottish and Welsh Governments to work together to deliver two new freeports in Scotland and one in Wales.

Comment was made on the common frameworks that have been developed. The common framework programme is an integral part of our consensual approach to the union. Throughout its development, the programme has embodied the spirit of openness and transparency with the devolved Governments. It has enabled us to manage regulatory divergence covered by the programme in a way that works for consumers and businesses in the union. We are working closely with colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to publish the six remaining frameworks for scrutiny by Members of this House and the devolved legislatures. Ministers within the UK Government and the devolved Administrations play an important role in scrutinising and approving those frameworks.

I turn to Northern Ireland. It is vital that the parties form an Executive as soon as possible—that continues to be this Government’s central message. Northern Ireland has the best of both worlds when it has a stable Northern Ireland Executive backed up by the support and strength of the UK Government. The New Decade, New Approach agreement previously restored the devolved institutions after a three-year impasse. As set out in legislation, this agreement provided for a period of up to 24 weeks for Northern Ireland’s political representatives to restore functioning devolved institutions. The Government expect the parties to make full use of this time to engage with one another in earnest to restore fully functioning devolved institutions at an early stage. The people of Northern Ireland need a stable and accountable Government who deliver on the issues that are important to them, which is why we continue to urge the parties to come together and form an Executive as soon as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, all mentioned the proposed legislation introduced last week, which aims to fix the practical problems that the Northern Ireland protocol has created. We believe that the legislation avoids a hard border, protects the integrity of the United Kingdom and safeguards the EU single market. However, it is our preference to resolve this through talks; our door remains open, but the EU has so far not been willing to change the protocol, which is necessary to deliver the solutions needed for Northern Ireland.

The union’s strength and its value have been displayed time and again over recent years, from providing up to £400 billion in Covid support to individuals, businesses and public services, including 1.7 million jobs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to having regular meetings with devolved government Ministers to discuss the illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and agreeing the UK-wide approach for settling Ukrainian refugees.

Now more than ever, we should pool our collective efforts in addressing the most pressing problems of the day. That is why our citizens expect our focus not to be on divisive activities that threaten our union. As the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said, Scotland has not voted for independence. I am pleased that my noble friends Lord Strathclyde and Lord Cormack stand firm in preserving the union and, in the case of my noble friend Lord Cormack, campaigning through his son against Scottish independence. As the Government have said many times, this is not the time to be talking about referenda. The people of Scotland rightly expect both their Governments to work together and place their full focus on the issues that really matter. That is what is important at this time.

Last year’s Autumn Budget provided the largest annual block grants in real terms of any spending review settlement since devolution in 1998—that is real commitment—and included the first allocation of the UK-wide funds, including the levelling-up fund and the community ownership fund. The Spring Statement set out measures to support citizens across the United Kingdom with shared challenges, not least the cost of living. Since then, families and businesses across the UK have benefited from a 12-month cut in fuel duty, and millions of UK households are eligible for access to a £15 billion package of targeted support.

We are taking specific action in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, including putting local voices at the heart of decision-making through the UK shared prosperity fund, launching an innovation accelerator in Glasgow City Region and establishing a UK national academy to provide a first-class education to all children in the United Kingdom.

Levelling up is a national effort that will require all levels of government to use the levers at their disposal. We look forward to ongoing collaboration with the devolved Governments on this crucial work and will support our citizens to take advantage of opportunities wherever they may live, for that is in the best interests of our union.

I hope that I have made it clear that this Government are doing what we believe to be in the best interests of the union and the citizens who live in every part of it. We will continue the mission to deliver a strong, prosperous and united kingdom, one which stands strong on the world’s stage.