My Lords, I am very pleased to introduce this debate on the report from the Constitution Committee, Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st Century. I want to place on record at the start my thanks to all members of the committee and our staff and advisers, who worked very hard on this report and throughout my time as chair. This inquiry was very interesting and demanding and I think we can all see that it is a very substantive report. Therefore, there was an awful lot of work involved. I look forward to hearing the contributions of committee members and the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame—I may be the first to pronounce that incorrectly, but we look forward to the speech.
The timing of this debate is very interesting, because it is exactly a year to the day since we published this report. That highlights two things. The first is that, too often, reports from this House, which are very insightful, important and topical, are welcomed when they are first published but then go on a shelf and we wait a very long time before we manage to have a debate on them. That is a concern for many people on many committees and I think it is something that the House needs to do more to address.
Having said that, the timing of this debate proves the importance of the decision of the Constitution Committee to undertake this inquiry. It is right that we need the insight into the constitutional relationships. I hope this debate will not be dominated by the current controversy about Section 35 powers, so I will not go into that here, tempting though it is. However, the fact that the situation we are now seeing is so toxic illustrates the need for a change in relationships and attitudes, which this report outlines.
The report is titled Respect and Co-operation and that is not without good reason. Indeed, the title was chosen very carefully and reflects our conclusion about the future governance of the UK after months of taking evidence, both written and oral, visiting parliamentarians in Scotland and Wales, and having discussions with those in Northern Ireland.
Last year marked the centenary of the United Kingdom in its current form and we were conscious of that while we were doing our work. It was evident to the committee that many tensions existed in the UK and that they posed a series threat to the union but also our democracy as we know it. We are not just talking about tensions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; there is a devolution problem within England as well. There is a feeling in many parts of England that decisions about people’s lives are made in some distant, out-of-touch centre and this does not inspire confidence in our democracy.
The fact is that the UK is exceptionally centralised. We heard evidence from the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, who told us very bluntly that there is unanimous agreement that current arrangements are far from optimal. The UK is one of the most centralised countries in the modern developed world. He was very clear and many others supported what he was saying. There is a general belief that this overcentralisation is holding back the UK in economic and development terms, but also in terms of dealing with social policies.
Some of the reasons for individuals feeling cut off from decision-making are to do with the pace of change in the modern world—new technology, the information revolution, the problems of climate change and even the pandemic. However, there are issues, especially with our withdrawal from the EU, that have tested our system of government, and Brexit itself has undoubtedly led to greater tensions between the devolved institutions and Whitehall.
We have to acknowledge that part of this is due to political differences, but as the committee pointed out, there are measures that can be taken to improve working relationships. However, we say in the report that the arrangements and attitudes pre-Brexit did not put us in a good position to face those challenges.
Similarly, in dealing with Covid, at times the Government were provocative and damaged relationships unnecessarily. In the earliest stages of Covid, the Prime Minister included First Ministers in the COBRA meetings, quite sensibly, but then decision-making moved to the Cabinet Office and First Ministers, the devolved representatives, were excluded. That was unreasonable, given that it is obvious that pandemics do not respect boundaries and that joint working would have been beneficial.
I mention this because, although the committee made specific recommendations about some of the formal factors such as the regularity of formal meetings, we concluded that it is still the case that attitudes, perhaps on all sides but certainly in Whitehall, need to change—hence the relevance of our report’s title, Respect and Co-operation. I have seen the Government’s response to that report and the recent correspondence from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up to my noble friend Lady Drake, the current chair of the committee. The tone of some of it suggests a calmer and more reasonable approach. If so, that is to be welcomed, although some people might think that the past few days have called this into question. The real test of relationships in future will be how much institutions and individuals are willing to embrace the principles and spirit of respect and co-operation. I must flag up the retained EU law Bill, which will test those very significantly.
The committee made some positive and constructive proposals. I cannot deal with all of them in the time available, but I want to raise some key points. The first issue is the working of the Sewel convention and the process of legislative consent. We felt that the legislative consent process generally worked well from 1999 but political change and implementing Brexit has put it under considerable strain. We did not recommend that the courts should be involved, as we believe that this is a matter for Parliament and something we must take on board, but we did recommend a strengthening of the way in which this House scrutinises Bills which require, or could be considered by the devolved institutions to require, legislative consent.
I know that the Procedure Committee is looking at this issue; I hope there can be progress here because I note that the Government’s response said:
“We will carefully consider the Committee’s recommendations”.
Personally, I take that as meaning the long grass and that little in the Government’s attitude may change. If that is the case, it is even more important that Parliament steps up its game in ensuring that it is fully aware of problems arising from legislation when there is a question about legislative consent. Moreover, I share the concern of many people in this House that the Government are increasingly looking to use secondary legislation as a means of avoiding the legislative consent process that is required for primary legislation.
I turn to devolution in England. Bearing in mind the evidence of Councillor Jamieson about us being the most centralised country in Europe and the developed world, we were told that local government has been the sector of public service delivery most affected by job losses throughout the decade of austerity while, at the same time, there has been a growth in Civil Service numbers. There is no doubt that those involved in local and regional government believe that they could deliver more, and do so both effectively and efficiently, if they were given the opportunity.
Personally, I can understand why Ministers—from all parties—want to interfere, want to set targets, believe that they know best and, indeed, want to fulfil their political commitments, many of which derive from a political mandate. I think they find it difficult to say, “We won’t interfere or try to micromanage”. However, if we are talking about efficient and effective delivery, we need Ministers to acknowledge that there are problems with the current system and its structures, which cause difficulties in delivery and add up to people feeling alienated from the decision-making process.
We were given significant evidence—it is worth reading—of the problems that confront local authorities when they have to bid and compete with each other for small amounts of money. It can be costly for them to prepare that bid with no guarantee of success. They often have to go through an elaborate process of box-ticking and, they tell us, are often denied essential data. Councillor Jamieson said:
“The current process is very contractual. It is very much about a deal”— a deal that is delivered by central government deciding what should happen, which we have seen recently with yesterday’s announcements. We heard more about this issue yesterday in terms of the levelling-up fund and some of the reaction to it. Local authorities’ reaction—I share their concern—was summed up by Andy Street, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, when he said that
“this episode is just another example as to why Whitehall’s bidding and begging-bowl culture is broken … I cannot understand why the levelling up funding money was not devolved for local decision-makers to decide on what’s best for their areas.”
That confirms what others have said: we really need a proper framework. No one is saying that one size fits all, but we need a proper framework for devolution in England so that we can transfer powers and resources. Those in local government simply do not have confidence that that is the direction of travel at the moment. Again, respect and co-operation should be the theme.
One other point I want to highlight is the potential for improvement in interparliamentary relations. I must place on the record the work done by the Lord Speaker in this respect by encouraging the Interparliamentary Forum to function well and committees to visit. Our committee found our visits to Scotland and Wales extremely useful; I hope that others can build on that work. However, I mention the need for UK Ministers to be willing to attend and appear before the devolved legislatures; this sometimes happens but the Government will not write it into the Ministerial Code. All of us who are members of committees know that it can be difficult to get Ministers to appear; I just have to live in hope on this point.
In conclusion, the attitude at the beginning of the devolution process was “devolve and forget”. I think we have moved on, but Whitehall cannot carry on as if nothing has changed. Both civil servants and Ministers need to accommodate the changes. It is always painful to let go of any power, but it will be damaging if we do not make devolution work because it is important for the success of the United Kingdom and all its component parts. When we devolve, we must apply the principles of respect and co-operation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare an interest: I served with pride on the committee that produced this report. We worked very hard for more than a full year under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, whose fine speech surveying and presenting the report we have just heard. We benefited enormously from having the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, as a member; we also had the acute observations of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy. We will hear from both of them shortly. To quote yesterday’s psalm, I think that, as usual, the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, will come before your Lordships “with a song” that will give us a new perspective on the debate.
Two major themes have come out of all this work. First, in this age of hyperconnectivity, instant communication and heightened identity, a modern union must be based not entirely on the legalisms of history or overly rigid interpretations of our unwritten constitution but on consent and the renewed attractions of belonging to a United Kingdom that fits into the 21st century.
Secondly, we are not talking about saving the union, which sounds backward-looking. We are talking about building a better union for the 21st century and beyond. Scotland is an ancient kingdom of unparalleled talent and influence. The last 300 years or so of British progress have depended heavily—almost entirely—on Scotland and its leadership in almost every sphere. Its international footprint is huge across the planet, with respect and detailed patterns of co-operation between neighbours that are outlined so well in the Dunlop review, which I have referred to. They are the very minimum that we should have been practising in the past, but we clearly have not done so with either Scotland or the other devolved nations.
Much more that is positive and highly beneficial to both partners in the union that is Scotland and England is now required. At the moment, we are struggling in the quagmire between reserved and devolved powers. On present trends, if we leave things unchanged, ahead there stretches a long avenue of bitter disputes as we ceaselessly try to define the limits between reserved powers and devolved powers. It is a struggle that can only ever be settled temporarily, because of a background of very fast-moving conditions with which tidy legal definitions can never hope to keep up.
For example, short of building a wall between Scotland and England, people can never be prevented from travelling and mixing, or families prevented from living between the two neighbouring states. Industry and trade conditions, woven together over centuries, can never be neatly kept apart, as the opposition of Holyrood to the Australian trade agreement implies that they can. It cannot be done. Security can never be split. It must cover every part of the British landmass to operate properly. For these integrated areas of life in the UK to work, there must be a new level of trust and respect and a new understanding, however much it is devolved in law. Throwing the legal book at the parties on either side cannot lead to consent. The only possible mix is one of practical arrangements, constantly being refreshed to meet new conditions, all within our joint, unwritten and highly flexible constitution.
Within that framework, many more powers can be devolved. The sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament can continue to be shared in practice, if not in theory, on the basis of being lent to a second Parliament in Scotland and, if it demands it, in Wales too. In Northern Ireland we already have one, in Stormont, although as we debated in this Chamber an hour or two ago, it is currently mired in local problems. As for the monarchy, that can continue to be shared. Most sensible SNP supporters—all but the extreme separatists—want that. Defence can be shared, foreign policy and external trade policy can be worked out first and shared, far more consensually than in the past, and then pursued by a joint and agreed team. For the rest, respect, real trust, good will and lots of reasonable flexibility can handle all the arrangements and keep our two old nations nicely in constant unison, powerfully reinforcing and renewing the union, to the infinite benefit of both and the other devolved nations as well.
It is all in our report before us today. I am biased in favour of Scotland, but I am also biased in favour of the union. For all the past bitterness, for all the arguments over our relations with our European neighbours and for all the differences, including even the gender ones which are in the news today, this is the formula that commands the real support among the utterly sensible majority of the Scottish people.
My Lords, it was a pleasure to listen to my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton introduce this debate, just as it was a pleasure as a member of the Constitution Committee to sit under her wise and effective chairmanship.
We know that the union is fragile and at risk. Institutional mechanisms will not successfully maintain the union unless proper care is taken by London. The demand for devolution has been a natural and proper expression of the wish by the peoples of Scotland and Wales to gain, in what should be the maturity of our democracy, a fuller measure of responsibility for their own government. Granted with good grace, as devolution was by the Labour Government in 1998, growing nationalism and separatism need not have followed. Respect and co-operation are not mechanisms but attitudes. For Boris Johnson as Prime Minister to describe devolution as a “disaster” was gratuitously offensive and foolish. For another Prime Minister, Liz Truss, to have publicly dismissed the First Minister of Scotland as an attention-seeker was inexcusably disrespectful to the holder of that office.
During our inquiry, we were struck by how little Whitehall departments were attuned to devolution and by how little officials in Whitehall knew or thought about it. The operation of the common frameworks was desultory. Legislation currently before your Lordships’ House, the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, shows the Government of the UK as having acted less than diplomatically and courteously over issues of consultation, legislative consent and regulation-making powers. Mr Gove is always immaculately courteous and no doubt he will appreciate these considerations. His recent letter to the committee shows that he is taking steps to improve these matters. The Government have handled the intergovernmental aspects of the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill entirely appropriately.
It is good to see that Mr Sunak has observed the proper courtesies towards Ms Sturgeon and Mr Drakeford and has visited Scotland at an early stage in his premiership. Inevitably, the confrontation between the Governments of the UK and of Scotland over gender recognition will impose strain on the relationship, as is no doubt intended by the SNP Government. However, the constitutional mechanisms to resolve the issue are there. It is regrettable that the First Minister spoke of UK Ministers having
“not one iota of good faith”, but Ministers should refrain from responding in the same coin.
The committee’s report has an important section on devolution within England. I have long believed that the public’s growing disaffection with our institutions of parliamentary government has one of its principal sources in central government’s repeated assaults on local government. The establishment of mayoral combined authorities was certainly a big step in the right direction, but devolution within England has been grudging and incomplete, characterised by deal-making, inconsistency, laborious and invidious competitive bidding processes, niggardly grants, and a refusal to provide fiscal freedom—which my noble friend referred to and the Mayor of the West Midlands has characterised as Whitehall’s “begging bowl culture”. If we are to revitalise local democracy and thence our national democracy, radical decentralisation is necessary.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and the committee, for an excellent report. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I do not go into the detail of the report but offer what might sound a bit of a left-field observation. The report is subtitled Building a Stronger Union for the 21st Century. However, an assumption that we often bring to these debates is that what we had in the 20th century and before will automatically persist and that everyone buys into it.
Please forgive me for doing a segue into a different part of the world, but I did a lot of work in Kazakhstan in the noughties. I remember that on one trip, having done quite a lot of media work with young people there, it struck me on returning to the UK via Frankfurt that over there they would forgive corruption and all sorts of things because they were building something that they were investing in. They did not quite know where it was leading but they were building a future of which they were very proud. When I came back to the west, I was struck by the fact that we do not talk about our young people building anything. We have a set of institutions, particularly arising from the post-Second World War settlement, which we expect our young people to inherit and to buy into, but what are they building? You will sacrifice your life for something that you are building, not something that you simply inherit. My concern is about many of the young people, particularly those I have come across from Scotland, who are quite frankly either anti or indifferent to the union.
On the very first page of this report, the first line refers to the committee and then to “we”. It just bugs me; who is the “we” that we keep talking about? My generation cannot construct a narrative. When I came back from Kazakhstan, the concern I had then was about a new narrative for Europe, not one that we simply inherit but one we can build. The only people who can tell us this are the young people who will be around when we are long gone. What are the mechanisms we are building to enable younger generations to explore and articulate a vision for constitutional settlements that command not just their intellectual assent but their imagination, and into which they will invest their energy? I am afraid I do not have the answer. I puzzled over it in relation to a vision for a new Europe, but I also puzzle over what this might look like in respect of the union. If anything commanded attention and could show some leadership from Parliament in convening conversations that begin to identify how young people see the world and the union, it would have done something very important. I commend that to the Minister and hope that it will be taken seriously.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate, and I appreciate very much the tone he struck. I am participating in this debate as a former Constitution Committee member, and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, for the skilful way in which she chaired it in tackling a big subject. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame. I know from government colleagues how valuable his legal expertise has been on a range of public policy issues, and he is a great addition to the House.
I want to make just two points. The first is the need to avoid a fatalistic pessimism about the union’s future. The Constitution Committee is not blind to the strains besetting the union, but it is confident in its future as a resilient and adaptable asset. Scottish independence is posed as the most immediate threat yet, despite recent turmoil, the independence cause has not achieved the breakthrough its supporters hope for. There are no new credible answers to the currency, borders and fiscal questions that so concerned Scottish voters nine years ago and still concern them today.
Of course, relying on your opponent’s weakness is not enough. Unionists must offer their own positive alternative vision, and since 2014 it is unionists, not nationalists, who have been thinking afresh. The Constitution Committee’s report promotes a co-operative union, and building a unionist consensus around this idea is more than achievable.
As we have heard, the Prime Minister, unlike his immediate predecessor, shows a welcome willingness to work with devolved Governments. Triggering Section 35 does not invalidate that. Section 35 is part of the devolution settlement—a safety valve, if you like, ensuring that devolved legislation does not inadvertently affect how the law operates across the UK. So, for all the hyperbole, there is no constitutional crisis. There is a legal disagreement that will be resolved.
My second point flows from the first. Let us not overreact to unduly pessimistic assessments of the union’s prospects by attempting an overambitious new constitutional settlement. Devolution represented a significant constitutional change. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown admit now that in 1997 insufficient attention was paid to devolution’s centrifugal forces and, therefore, to the importance of also strengthening the bonds holding the UK together.
Gordon Brown has produced a new constitutional blueprint that builds on the Constitution Committee’s own recommendations, and I agree with much of it. However, he proposes to increase significantly the role of the courts in resolving disagreements between the UK and devolved Governments. I worry that this will interfere with what should be a process of political dialogue and negotiation and thus inadvertently make our constitution more brittle and less stable. His report also promises yet more powers for Scotland and Wales—what it describes as
“the independence of Scotland and Wales within the UK”.
Devolution is unquestionably an unfinished project, yet the keys to its completion are extending English devolution and reforming the centre and intergovernmental relations, not devolving more powers to already devolved institutions.
More powers will never satisfy those who want full independence. The Brown commission proposes, for example, that the Scottish Parliament be given the power to enter into international agreements. That seems unwise, to say the least. The way to strengthen the union is to demonstrate the value of working better together, not creating new opportunities to drift apart. Scots are already frustrated that the Scottish Government do not focus on the day job without providing them with more scope to trespass on reserved policy and to further develop an independent foreign policy. If the union means anything at all, surely it is the ability to speak clearly with one voice on the world stage. I commend this report to the House.
My Lords, I and the whole House look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame—I apologise for my pronunciation. Mind you, having said that, it will not make him feel any better. As the immediately preceding speaker, I can imagine how nervous he will be, so I say that he will feel a lot better once it is over.
I am pleased to take part in this debate even though I was not one of the members of the committee, although I wish I had been. It is a tremendously interesting committee that has had the opportunity to explore and probe some of the most profound issues at the heart of what is still our unwritten constitution, with all the benefits and drawbacks that being unwritten can bring. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Taylor on chairing the committee and on having introduced the debate today, and I congratulate the clerks and all the other members who have made it a very important and timely report.
Why do I say timely? After all, I agree with my noble friend that it is a great regret that reports take so long to be debated in this House. However, when it comes to timeliness, you have to admit that to have the debate on a Friday when Section 35 was triggered on the Monday is about as timely as you could possibly get. I know that today’s debate is not about the events of this week—the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill and so on—but the fact is that the Bill was passed, and it opens up an aspect of the debate about the future of the union that was not there when the committee was undertaking its discussions, deliberations and report. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, and others, some issues are devolved and others are not. I am sure the current clash will be discussed in the courts, and I cannot predict what the outcome will be, but what does it tell us about the strength of the union and the basis of what it will be like over the next 25 years, given the way that it has evolved over the last 25?
The starting point for many of your Lordships is that we live in this unique union of four nations, which has developed over the centuries, and many would like to find a way to continue to do so. I ought to point out at this stage that I am one of those who hope that the union remains. In many families, people have relations all over the country and across borders. I do not know how many do but, in my own case, one of my grandmothers was born and bred in Scotland. For her entire life, she was identifiably Scottish to the end. My Dad, as a result, was half-Scottish and tremendously proud of his Scottish ancestry. It was a great privilege for him to be invited to address the Scottish Parliament in one of his pre-session moments of reflection. He was of course very concerned at the thought that Scotland would vote for independence, although that did not turn out to be the case.
Turning to the committee’s report, it is tremendously good analysis. It outlines the pressures that have built up over the years, including the financial crash, the information and technology revolution, the effects of climate change, the impact of Brexit—which is not by any means yet at an end—and the Covid pandemic and, of course, the new and emerging threats that we are now living through as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. It also draws wonderful parallels between constitutions and poetry and plumbing. I do find that a wonderful analogy.
The report has many excellent features and I have time to mention only two, which have almost been mentioned by others. First, there is the codification of the occasional practice whereby UK Ministers can and do appear before committees of devolved legislatures. That would be an excellent idea and it could be incorporated into the next edition of the Cabinet Manual, which we were discussing only a short time ago. The committee also calls for a new interparliamentary forum, which would bring Members of the legislatures of the UK Parliament and the devolved Parliaments together on an equal basis. That would also be an extremely good thing; the EU Bill coming towards us has been mentioned and that is a very good basis for it. Perhaps the Minister could tell the House whether there are, as I understand it, plans for such an initial meeting to take place in this House before very long.
I want to mention one thing very briefly, which was understandably not in the report: the consequences for the union if it were to be dissolved. I think of the international consequence for the UK. It just seems unthinkable that whatever remained—the rump—would be able, for example, to retain its seat on the Security Council as a permanent member. Although these wider considerations do not often play a part in our discussions, it would also be a tremendous loss of what we call soft power were we to find ourselves in that position.
My time is up but I commend the committee on its excellent report. Had I had longer to do so, I would have continued to commend it in further ways than I have been able to do.
My Lords, I am honoured to speak for the first time in this House on such an important topic and in a debate that sees the participation of so many distinguished noble speakers. I begin by expressing my gratitude for the professional and patient support that I have received from officers and staff of the House, especially the doorkeepers, who, among other things, helped make my introduction a wonderful occasion for me and for my family, who travelled from Reggio Calabria, the city in southern Italy where I was born and grew up. I was very lucky to have as supporters two dear friends: the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton.
The future of the union may seem an unusual topic for someone who moved to Britain only after his 23rd birthday. I have now spent most of my life in Britain. My career as a barrister, and as an academic specialising in international law with a wider interest in political philosophy, has been almost entirely here. Britain welcomed me and gave me opportunities that few other countries would afford newcomers. It was just over a decade ago that I naturalised as a British citizen. I suspect that means I am newer to being British than most of your Lordships.
I say this because millions of Europeans with settled status are now becoming eligible to apply for British citizenship, and they should be encouraged. The absorption of this large number of new citizens will be an extraordinary event in the life of our country. We should celebrate it as it will show, once again, the strength and enduring appeal of the United Kingdom. A key strength is that, as a multinational state, we are a polity defined by pluralism. We do not feel threatened by multiple, complex identities.
It is true that some regard multinationalism as a vulnerability. A number of multinational states in European history have failed, but I congratulate the report of your Lordships’ committee on, among other things, challenging the idea that there is some inevitable law of historical destiny that the union is up against. This does not mean that we should be complacent, but it does mean defending the union—all its constituent parts included—without accepting the premise of those who want to see its demise. The idea of a union of peoples across different islands, built on common purpose and founded on laws, may be old but it is certainly not outdated. On the contrary, this idea of statehood is better suited to modern values and identities than the alternatives being proposed.
On constitutional reform, there is no abstract model that can give the answers we need. As the report suggests, solutions must continue to be found in specific and practical proposals, subject to two caveats. First, like the report’s authors, I believe that this is no time for more transactional solutions or—as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, pointed out—quick fixes, but rather for an approach that is constitutionally more coherent and principled. The second caveat is that we should not, whether by accident or design, move towards some weak association of separate entities which are slowly drifting apart from one another. We should not dilute the union into a loose confederal arrangement. That would, I fear, jeopardise its future.
If the United Kingdom were to dissolve, we would all be diminished—not just in these islands but across the European continent. There are probably no political certainties in European history, but the stability, reassurance and moral leadership provided by the United Kingdom to people across Europe in times of conflict and turmoil comes closest to one. The war in Ukraine has shown this once again.
I am optimistic about the future of the union. I have confidence in the resilience of our institutions and in their ability to continue to bind us together, but we need to hone our constitutional sensibility. To be sustainable, constitutional reforms require thoughtful argument and broad support. Your Lordships’ House plays a vital role in promoting both. It is the greatest privilege to have joined your Lordships as a Member of this House and I look forward to contributing to its work as best I can.
My Lords, it is a great honour to follow a fellow historian, the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, to welcome him to your Lordships’ House and to praise his lustrous maiden speech. His learning, experience and scholarship take him deep into one of the crucial, perpetual questions of our time: the sustenance of liberty, which is now under threat in ways and places that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. I await with relish the book on which he is currently working, Can Liberty Last?—I fervently hope that the answer is yes—and many fine contributions to come in this House. My new noble friend, if I may call him that, brings his powerful intellect and word power to the defence of the things your Lordships’ House holds most dear. He is very welcome.
I declare my membership of the Constitution Committee and the advisory council of These Islands and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, for her leadership of the Constitution Committee. We did a lot of work, but she always made it fun.
When I was young, in the 1950s, we were rather proud of our largely incomprehensible constitution. It brought, so we thought, great flexibility in being unwritten, with very little going wrong that could not be put right by a bit of judicious tweaking by Olympian figures in authority deploying restraint, wisdom and a gift for muddling through. It is not so now. The constitution is still baffling, but very few think it is working well. The union, in particular, has come under serious and protracted strain with the rise of the SNP. And yet, the Constitution Committee has come up with a rarity. The document before us brings a shaft of light amid the thickets of pessimism in which our country seems trapped on so many fronts. The central message of our report is that the union still has vitality and could have still more if somehow a spirit of optimism and mutual respect can be applied to shared problems and future opportunities.
For a short while, I thought this document could have a different distinction—that of the least influential Select Committee report ever—for one of the three 2022 Prime Ministers thought that the solution lay in a single insight: that she should simply ignore the First Minister of Scotland and not talk to her. I have to admit that this was not a possibility that had occurred to your Lordship’s committee. In the end, it turned out to be the only policy of Liz Truss’s premiership that was implemented, albeit for only 45 days. Therefore, Mr Sunak’s working dinner with Nicola Sturgeon in Bute House last week came as a great relief to me and, I am sure, to many others. Who knows, the Constitution Committee may be in business once more in the ideas market, for it is in everyone’s interest, in every part of the kingdom, that the union, in all its devolutionary aspects, works well in both its mechanics and, perhaps above all, its human relationships.
I will finish with a few rather personal words about the union with Scotland. I have been a union man since I was 10 years old, when I first went to Scotland in a tiny Ford Prefect full of camping gear and family, driven erratically by my father from Finchley to the Isle of Skye. Since then, to adapt the opening lines of General de Gaulle’s memoirs, I have always had a certain idea of Scotland—of how we have fought and bled together, taught and read together, invented and manufactured together, politicked and organised together, laughed together and wound each other up, generation upon generation.
My fear is that the road to Scottish independence, if it happens in the coming decade, will be paved by a degree of English indifference for all of the centuries of lives lived together, the intermingling of families and much more. But what a loss it would be for England to lose the intimate companionship of Scotland, whose people have contributed out of all proportion to their numbers, across a mighty range of human endeavours, not just within these islands but across the globe.
The great Walter Lippmann once described public opinion as “maps in the mind”. In my mental map, whatever transpires, there will always be the union. If, as would surely happen, the Anglo-Scottish border eventually became coterminous with the EU’s boundary, there would be customs controls at Gretna, Carter Bar and Berwick. But there will never be customs posts in my mind. If dual nationality is on offer, my wife and I will be first in the queue, pleading her mother and my grandmother. If the Constitution Committee’s report adds but one ounce to the chances of survival of this most special of all the special relationships, it will be worth every minute we spent preparing it, for it is one of the profoundest questions facing the kingdom to come.
My Lords, I note the excellent maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, which defended the union, followed by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessey, one of our eminent constitutional experts, who revealed that he has been a union man since he was 10 years old. He spoke about the incomprehensible, unwritten constitution.
I remember, when I joined this House 16 and a half years ago, speaking in debates on the reform of the House of Lords. I was encouraged to do so by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and I will be eternally grateful to her because participating in those debates taught me about, and gave me an understanding of, our unwritten constitution. It is unique in the world: almost every country has a written constitution, but we have this delicate thread that links back over the centuries. It would be so easy to destroy this unwritten constitution, and one example would be the destruction of our beloved United Kingdom.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and her committee for its report, Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st Century. It starts by saying:
“This Committee believes in the United Kingdom.”
It also says that it is written in a “spirit of optimism”, and it then talks about the changing world that we live in, which is incredible, looking back over the last 25 years, with the development of the internet and how that has changed our world; with the financial crisis 13 or 14 years ago; with the awareness of climate change; with the withdrawal from the European Union in 2016, which is nearly seven years ago now; and of course with the global pandemic that came out of nowhere, followed by the Ukraine war. There has been one challenge after another, which is why the constitution really matters.
The report continues by describing:
“The United Kingdom’s unique constitutional arrangements”, and its
“multi-national and diverse state which accommodates a range of identities”.
That has not been touched on so far in the debate. What are our identities? I was born and brought up in India. It is a huge country with 1.4 billion people and over 30 states and union territories. Its people are proud of the state they come from, but, first and foremost, they are proud to be Indian. We do not have the term “United Kingdom-ish”; we use the term “British”. So I suggest to people in the United Kingdom that, whether you are from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, our identity, first and foremost, is British and we are proud to be British. The union gives us that ability.
The report talks about the importance of both:
“Improving the shared governance of the United Kingdom” and the Sewel convention; about ensuring that
“Parliament does not … legislate on devolved matters without … consent”; about intergovernmental and interparliamentary relations; about the governance of England and the devolution within it; and about the funding arrangements. I remember, when I joined the House, that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, was one of our most active Members, and he would say himself that his formula desperately needed to be reformed. I also think that it needs to be reformed.
In this country, we do not have a federation. India is a perfect example of a federal country, with a centre and devolved states. The United States is also a federal country. As has already been pointed out, the key aspect of the union of the United Kingdom is that foreign affairs, security and defence are central for every part of the union. If you divide them, that will weaken the union hugely. The European Union is not a federation; it does not have a fiscal union or a defence union. The UK is unique in having a union with an unwritten constitution.
I conclude by saying that we are the sixth-largest economy in the world; we have just been overtaken by India. This little country with less than 1% of the world’s population is still at the top table of the world. We are not a superpower, but we are a global power. The UK has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, is the number two nation in NATO, is about to join the CPTPP and is a member of Five Eyes—you name it, and we are there. We are a respected global power, and that is thanks to the United Kingdom.
I am very glad to follow that note that was so splendidly outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. It is a great pleasure to speak in a debate where an Italian-British Member of the House of Lords has given us such a fine maiden speech. I welcome and congratulate him. It is also a delight to see the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, back in our Chamber; he has done so much to advance the cause of democracy and to enlighten people about the history of our great nation.
When I was asked, at a sixth-form conference many years ago in my then constituency, if I would define myself, I said that my identity is English, my nationality is British and my civilisation is European—and I stand by that. I am a member of a mongrel family: my family comes from Scotland; I consider myself English. My eldest son, who lives in and was educated in Scotland, is married to a Scot, has Scottish children and considers himself Scottish. But we all consider ourselves British and members of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—a great, even if small, nation.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and her committee for giving us this thoughtful and penetrating report. I am sorry that it has taken a year to debate it, although it happens to be an appropriate week to be debating it. But we have to face up to the central dilemma, one that my very dear friend Tam Dalyell and I and others faced up to in the 1970s, when we were arguing against devolution, not out of any spirit of animosity or hostility but because, as Tam defined it, those who were campaigning in Scotland, or many of them—the SNP—did not believe in devolution, because they believed in independence. It is a perfectly honourable belief to hold, but completely contrary to the idea of sharing and devolution. The right reverend Prelate made some very good points in his speech, and we need to reinforce for the younger generation just how vital it is to understand the benefits of devolution.
I would like to see what I would call an internship programme. I have a group of Americans who come over every year for such a programme, and I would like to see British students from England and Scotland interchanging within their Parliaments. I would also like to see a contingent of British Members of the United Kingdom Parliament spend some time in Scotland and, indeed, in Cardiff and Belfast, and have a reciprocal facility for the members of those devolved Parliaments. Where there is ignorance, there is frequently hostility; where there is knowledge, there is frequently friendship. I believe that there is too much mutual ignorance as to the values and virtues of our separate countries within the United Kingdom, and we should try to do something to bridge that gap, particularly for future generations. The right reverend Prelate is right: young people do not just take it for granted, as I did. I was brought up in Scotland, because my father was given a commission in the RAF when I was six months old—that is where I spent the war years. So I have that built-in affection, but others do not, and it is our duty to try to create a system where they do.
My Lords, the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, has demonstrated that he is going to give much support to the discussions in this House. We cannot begin to do justice, in the time that we have been given, to this excellent report so, rather than applaud the many parts that I agree with, I am forced to question the parts that give me concern: first, the notion of sovereignty; and, secondly, the proposed role for the House of Lords.
The establishment of a Scottish Parliament in 1998 was a constitutional response to a political problem. There was such hostility in Scotland to the UK Governments of 1979 to 1997 that it was felt essential to respond to the Claim of Right of 1989, which asserted
“the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”.
The sovereignty of the Scottish people was acknowledged through the 1997 referendum and the subsequent establishment of the Scottish Parliament. When looking back at the debates in the Westminster Parliament, it is clear that there was a lack of clarity over the nature of sovereignty. Such a significant change in the constitution should have been recognised as a move towards a federal UK and shared sovereignty, with all the implications for England and the make-up of a second Chamber. Instead, we have found ourselves in a halfway house, with a quasi-federal set-up, without the systems in place to operate it.
While the UK was in the EU, the problem was disguised, as the same EU regulations applied across the devolved areas and England. The report recognises that the Sewel convention has been placed under strain by Brexit. The Scottish Government, not unreasonably, argue that the “unlimited sovereignty” of the UK Parliament
“makes it virtually impossible to guarantee the Sewel Convention”.
The report struggles to find a means of ensuring that the voices of the devolved Administrations are heard when Westminster legislation impacts on their devolved powers. It identifies
“a gap in the legislative process”.
I mean no disrespect to Members of this House, but the House of Lords in its present form is not the appropriate body for dealing with devolved issues. It is unelected, it is overrepresented by London-based Members, and it is not held in high esteem. Support for the current composition of this Chamber is just 12%, according to a Survation poll in 2020. There was a remarkable degree of agreement between those who vote for different parties in that poll.
Instead, it would make sense to recognise the federal nature of the UK and create a second Chamber that had the legitimacy to defend the rights of the devolved Administrations. A Chamber to deal with cross-territorial issues that were previously covered by EU regulations would resolve the “power grab” that has clearly happened.
The unresolved question is how England would be represented. The report makes the case for greater devolution in England and accepts that England should not be confused with London. This supports the argument that regions should have a direct voice in a second Chamber.
We should be aware of British exceptionalism which believes that we are better with an unwritten constitution, that we benefit from having an unelected second Chamber and that we can have quasi-federal systems without sharing sovereignty. I think we are mistaken.
My Lords, I add my thanks to those given to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, for this excellent report. I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, who I am sure will make distinguished contributions to this House.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, is not in his place, because it was with him that I had my first dealings with devolution, when in the 1970s we toured various parts of Britain asking, “Would you like to be run by Merthyr Tydfil council?” The answer we got generally was no, but we have come a long way from there and we now have much devolution in this country.
I spent many years in the European Parliament and travelled widely in Europe. My experience was that, with one exception which I shall come to, in every country where they had devolution the people who had got the devolution did not think it was enough and the people who had given it thought it was too much. We therefore need to be careful when we look at how much we devolve. The one country that was the exception was Germany, where they seem to have divided, but there, the second Chamber is concerned particularly with regional policy and the Länder. If we need to look at a second Chamber, it may need to be totally different from this one. It would certainly not have most of us in it, because I doubt that many of us would wish to serve on a regional authority and then be posted to the upper House, let alone at our age stand for another election. If we have a second Chamber, my conclusion is that it has to have a specific job to do; it cannot just be a revising Chamber given basically the job of “sort out the mess they leave behind”.
I would like to move on to that, because we do now have a lot of devolution of course. In my area, we have a police and crime commissioner, unknown and voted for by a handful of people—less than 20%; we have a Mayor of Cambridge, who is resident in Peterborough, so we do not know what he gets up to; we have a district council and we have a county council; and now, of course, we have a number of working parties between all four of them. None of the working parties is elected; no one really knows what they get up to, apart from the fact that they are about to wish a congestion charge on us—although I do not think that it will ever get through because they do not have much support for it. I suggest that the first thing that we should do is to look at the level of devolution that we actually have and see whether any of it needs sorting out.
The second—and, because of time, final—point that I want to make is in support of what Andy Street said about the devolved powers. The fact of the matter is that Whitehall still has too much power. Can we talk about devolution when the Secretary of State for Levelling Up is deciding whether Great Yarmouth should be given money to renew its pier? Of course not—it is absolutely ridiculous. The first thing that we need to devolve is financial responsibility which, since the days of Jim Callaghan, has been gradually pulled back into Whitehall. If the Labour Party’s devolution proposals are worth the paper they are written on, they have to be accompanied by the financial devolution that will let local authorities set their own financial priorities and raise the tax to pay for them, with a suitable grant from the centre but not one that is tied to whether or not you modernise your pier.
My Lords, I am a mongrel Scots-Englishman, with a father who served in a Highland regiment and a son in Edinburgh, so I am a natural unionist. However, it is clear that, if we are to maintain the United Kingdom, its constitutional arrangements must change. We should face the real possibility that we might not maintain the union.
As I came in today, I was thinking of the conference that took place in Prague in 1990, in which one of the Czechoslovak participants said, “I am Czech but my brother has decided he is a Slovak.” I remember, two or three years later, teaching students from what had been Yugoslavia—many were struggling with deciding whether they were a Bosnian, a Croat or a Serb, and feeling, as one of them said to me, “orphaned” by the collapse of the state.
The electoral system that we have at the moment accentuates the difficulties of holding the union together. We have, based on roughly half the population of Scotland, a phalanx of SNP MPs in the House and an underrepresentation of the other currents in Scottish opinion. We have a Conservative Government dominated by southern England, a Labour Party that represents Wales and the north, and a further party—mine—that hangs on to bits of south-west London, bits of north-east Scotland and wherever else we can manage in our electoral system to get through. That accentuates the problem, and I fear that, if we were to have another five years of Conservative Government, the union would break.
I want to talk briefly about chapter 7, on the governance of England, and chapter 3, on parliamentary sovereignty. This report rightly addresses the problem that England is the most overcentralised state in the democratic world and that it will be increasingly difficult to sustain the balance between England and the three devolved nations unless the governance of England is itself transformed. The political and economic imbalance within England is starkly portrayed by the betrayal of the grandiose promise of levelling up. Small packages of funding, distributed by Ministers according to opaque criteria, offer gestures from the centre without any sharing of power. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, that there is a link here with public disillusionment in western politics and a sense of powerlessness, which I hear from friends and neighbours in West Yorkshire, when they say that “those people down in London” are neglecting Bradford, Leeds and the trans-Pennine rail route. That is all part of the disillusionment with our constitutional democracy.
I have lived between London and Yorkshire for 40 years and have witnessed the widening gap between London and the north, while local government has been weakened and shrunk through successive reorganisations, and local control of finance has shrivelled. The Government’s approach to the reorganisation of local government, as others have said in the debate, has been incoherent, with evident political bias in redesigning the shape and size of the new authorities and the powers that they are given. Almost every authority in Yorkshire and the majority of Yorkshire MPs stated their clear preference to maintain district authorities within a “One Yorkshire” regional authority. The Government nevertheless insisted on four sub-regions, each with an elected mayor but without an elected assembly to hold the mayor to account. London has a regional authority with local governments beneath it; the rest of England is denied that.
The regional centres of government that linked central departments to the concerns of the north-west, the south-west and elsewhere were abolished 12 years ago. The Government now think that sending contingents of civil servants to Durham or Lancashire to continue to carry out the instructions of Ministers in London amounts to some form of devolution. If they were to return to the regions and cities the powers that they held 50 years ago, the civil servants would, of course, naturally follow.
The Conservatives promised in their 2019 manifesto to set up a constitutional commission, but broke that pledge, like many others. I hope that the next Government will address the governance of England as a high priority. We will not succeed in reducing the acute inequalities between the south-east and the rest unless the political imbalance is redressed. As paragraph 267 of the report says:
“The devolution framework should include steps to achieve greater coherence in England’s sub-national governance arrangements to improve democratic accountability. We recommend the development of devolution within England should ensure greater alignment between subnational bodies to create functioning economic geographies which also respect local identities”.
Hear, hear. I agree strongly, and the Government are absolutely failing to do that.
A reformed second Chamber should play its part in this. Interparliamentary relations would work better if Members of the second Chamber were elected, directly or indirectly, on a national and regional basis, and saw it as their job to assert those regional and national concerns against the dominance of London. When I was appointed to this House, I hoped and assumed that I would make the transition from an appointee to an elected representative from Yorkshire when the next stage of reform brought us regional and national representation in the House. But Labour hesitancy on this, as on so many other issues, and Conservative opposition in the Commons, blocked the 2011-12 reform.
This report reminds us that we will have to return to that, in spite of the resistance of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame. I hope that his expertise as an international lawyer will feed into our debates on the topic of sovereignty and its place in the constitution of a multinational state. Constitutional discussions in the UK are blighted by the undue reverence still given to the views on sovereignty of Albert Dicey, an academic whose interpretation of sovereignty was twisted by his embittered opposition to Irish home rule and his consequent insistence that sovereignty was indivisible and rested in the Government who held the confidence of the Imperial Parliament. Sovereignty in the contemporary world has to be shared—upward and downwards, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, was saying—with other states, and with the constituent bodies of states. The ideologues who deny that sovereignty can be shared with our neighbours are the same people who resist sharing it with Wales, Scotland and Ireland. It is they who threaten to destroy our union, just as their great-grandparents destroyed the union between Great Britain and most of Ireland. That is a real threat, and we have to adapt our constitutional arrangements to prevent it.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Taylor for introducing the report and all the members of the committee who worked to produce it. It is particularly welcome to see the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, in his place and to hear his very wise words. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, on his maiden speech. I very much look forward to his future contributions. There has been much discussion about Scotland in this debate, so I should declare that I am half-Welsh, and so represent that side of the union.
I think that all Members of this House who believe in the union will nevertheless accept that a significant proportion of the population have lost faith in it, as has been mentioned by noble Lords throughout the debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds talked specifically about young people in this respect. We believe the task for unionists now is to make the case for not just the union as it stands but the potential of what it can be.
It is on that basis that I very much welcome the report by the Constitution Committee. Its recommendations build a vision of a more balanced UK, a modern style of governance and a stronger culture of co-operation and partnership. Each of these principles is crucial for the future of the union. The noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, referred to Gordon Brown’s report, which I hope shows that we on these Benches are committed to this.
I will focus on the points made on central government. There is a real need to modernise central government so that it becomes dynamic, agile, strategic and focused, and it is on this basis that we believe we need a new constitutional settlement in Westminster. I am pleased that the committee has made recommendations on this and encourage the Government to consider the prospect of new constitutional statutes. I am especially interested in the prospect of guarantees over the autonomy of local government; I would add that people across the UK should be given a clearer idea of what they can expect from government.
Westminster and Whitehall should be driven by clear, measurable objectives focused on the needs of the people of this country. If we are to secure the future of the union, we must tackle geographic economic inequalities. For too long, our economy, public services and communities have suffered from sticking-plaster politics. If we are to deliver and grow the economy for everyone, we must move beyond this short-term mindset.
We also need to look beyond the responsibilities of Westminster, which is why I welcome the proposal of a principled devolution framework for England. In the other House, my Labour colleagues have recently announced plans for a new devolution Act to oversee the biggest transfer of power from Westminster in British political history. Our intention is that the Act will provide the framework and process for economic devolution to towns and cities right across England, building on the work of the Commission on the UK’s Future and forming the cornerstone of Labour’s mission to rebuild Britain. By spreading power and the levers of economic policy-making, people closer to the ground with stronger links to local industries and deep knowledge of local assets and skills bases can better tailor interventions and investment to help potential clusters really take off. The Act would give English towns and cities the tools they need to develop credible, long-term growth, with bespoke packages of powers to support prosperity.
New steps must also be taken to support Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Welsh Government will shortly publish the results of their own consultation on the future powers of the Senedd, which should be considered alongside proposals to broaden the powers available to the Scottish Government. It is similarly important that in Northern Ireland the UK Government support efforts to help restore and strengthen devolution, consistent with the principle of consent and the commitments in the Good Friday agreement. Each of these measures must also be paired with a new emphasis on the spirit of co-operation and intergovernmental relations.
I support the committee’s emphasis on interparliamentary relations; my noble friend Lord Stansgate referred to how important these are for new dialogue. The committee is right to call for openness, transparency and accountability in intergovernmental working. I would add that each authority should be able to not only raise concerns with each other but always expect a proper response. As the report and noble Lords have said, this is ultimately an issue of respect and co-operation. It is not enough for Ministers to phone the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and think that their job is done; we need a new culture of co-operation which means that representatives from each corner of the UK can input and work together effectively.
In conclusion, much as I welcome the Government’s response that they will carefully consider the recommendations in this report, I urge them to consider just how fragile the union looks today. People across the UK are crying out for change, and many of the proposals in this report can provide exactly that. As we have heard, Britain remains one of the most centralised states in Europe and it is only through bold proposals to counter this that we can spread power, wealth and opportunity to every part of the UK. Many people have, undeniably, lost faith in politics and its ability to improve their lives. We must take the opportunity to address this, to build a fairer society and a stronger economy where everyone has a voice.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, for securing this important debate on the committee’s report. I also thank her for her speech today; I look forward to reading it again in Hansard. I will consider some further responses to what she has said and will be in touch with her. I also thank the members of the Constitution Committee for their thoughtful inquiry into the union and subsequent report. I apologise that it has been a year before we have had the chance to debate it. I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions today. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame—I probably got that wrong—to this House: he is very welcome, and after his maiden speech, I very much look forward to his further contributions in this House.
We share the spirit of optimism written into much of the committee’s report. As reflected by my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford, while it may be positive, we do need to consider a modern union and continue to build a better union. That is important. I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, back to the House: it is very nice to hear him, and it is wonderful listen to his speeches—they are excellent, and I cannot say anything more than that. What stuck in my mind was that the noble Lord said that the union still has vitality. Yes, it does. It has vitality, but we need to continue to work on that vitality for the future, as my noble friend Lord Howell said.
However, we do share the spirit of optimism in the committee’s report, which I thank it for. The United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union the world has ever seen, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and is the foundation on which all our businesses and all our citizens are able to thrive. This is why the United Kingdom is committed to protecting and promoting the combined strength and values we share, building on hundreds of years of partnership and shared history. It is clear that when we work together as one United Kingdom, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous; we are better able to draw on the institutions that unite us, such as the National Health Service, the Armed Forces and our world-class education system. Crucially, as the committee noted, we are able to tackle the big problems, from supporting families with the cost of living, to leading the international responses to the illegal Russian war in Ukraine, and to being a world leader in offering the vaccine to our citizens. I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, that Covid was not a good example of close working. I think that this Government worked strategically with the devolved Administrations to save jobs and support communities and to bring out the vaccine programme that helped our country get through the pandemic. That was at administerial but also at official level. So I actually think it was a good working of the union at the time.
The UK Government are committing to delivering the best possible outcomes for people in all parts of the UK, ensuring that all four corners of the UK feel the benefits of the union. This is what the people of the United Kingdom want and expect. From the £55 billion we are spending this year to help families and businesses across the UK with their energy bills to the ambitious vision that is set out in the levelling-up White Paper to improve living standards and create opportunities in every part of the UK and the spending review in 2021 setting the largest annual block grant in real terms of any spending review settlement since the devolution Acts in 1998, this Government’s commitment to ensuring all parts of the United Kingdom feel the benefits of the union is clear.
As the committee recognised, effective working across all levels of government in the United Kingdom is critical to our ability to deliver better outcomes for our people and our communities. Citizens rightly want their Governments working together to deliver for them. This is why the Government ensure that every department makes it a priority in their work; for example, new structures and processes for engagement—this was brought up by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate—agreed through the intergovernmental relations review provide solid foundations for continued constructive engagement. From January to September 2022, there were more than 200 ministerial meetings between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Governments on a huge range of issues.
Somebody mentioned the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister made it his priority to speak to the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales on his first day in office. He also chaired the first meeting of the Prime Minister and heads of devolved Governments council on
We have worked constructively with the devolved Governments to deliver practical benefits for people across the United Kingdom. This includes welcoming Ukrainians through the Homes for Ukraine scheme and growing local economies through freeports and city and growth deals, investment ensuring that everyone, no matter where they live in this United Kingdom, has access to opportunities, skills and jobs for the future. We will continue to work together to deliver for all people of the United Kingdom.
As we set out in our response to the committee’s report, we share its ambition for informative, detailed reports on intergovernmental relations. We continue to evolve the regular transparency reports to allow more pertinent scrutiny and public engagement. We welcome opportunities, such as today, to discuss these relationships more. Co-operation across the United Kingdom is valuable in its many forms, and we will continue to support the interparliamentary forum and initiatives which facilitate collaborative working across devolved legislatures.
I welcome noble Lords’ ongoing support in strengthening the things that connect us across the United Kingdom. Our commitment to effective inter-governmental working exemplifies this Government’s commitment to devolution, a sentiment the committee shared in its report. Through devolution, policies can be tailored to support the needs and priorities of the different parts of the United Kingdom within the framework of the United Kingdom. It allows decisions to be taken closer to communities that they affect, all the while still benefiting from the broad shoulders that the union provides by drawing on a shared resources.
The committee noted the importance of the Sewel convention, and we recognise that importance. We remain fully committed to the convention and will continue to seek legislative consent and work with the devolved Administrations on all Bills that engage the legislative consent process. Our commitment is evident through the 28 legislative consent Motions secured across 17 Acts of Parliament during the last legislative Session, including the Health and Care Act 2022 and the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Act 2022.
A number of noble Lords talked about the governance of England, including the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Howell. We are bringing forward the levelling-up Bill—we have had its Second Reading, and we will have Committee after the Recess. Our commitment to devolution and our plans for further devolution are very clear. We have announced the biggest ever transfer of powers away from Westminster to local areas in England in that Bill and in the White Paper that preceded it, with devolution at the heart of our plans to increase economic growth and level up the whole country. We have made significant progress in recent months, including through an expanded deal for the north-east and the first county deals, which will establish directly elected leaders in Norfolk and Suffolk. These deals were not imposed by the Government; they were designed and set up with the local authorities involved. Taken together, deals signed last year will mean that 5 million more people can directly elect a mayor or leader to represent them about local issues in the future.
We are focused on ensuring that devolution works effectively across the United Kingdom, including making sure that an understanding of devolution and the union is core to all United Kingdom government departments. That is why we have progressed the recommendations made by my noble friend Lord Dunlop—I thank him for his positive contribution today—in his review of UK government capability to improve how the UK Government can deliver for all their citizens. For example, we have established and regularly convene a Cabinet committee focused on the union; Sue Gray was appointed as Second Permanent Secretary with responsibility for the union; and each UK government department now has a nominated non-executive director with responsibility for the union. In addition, we have an ambitious capability programme to enhance the devolution knowledge and intergovernmental working skills of civil servants, enabling them to deliver more effectively for the whole of the United Kingdom.
Before I finish, I want to respond to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds. His contribution was extremely interesting, and I would like to think on it further. Young people are the future—and they are the future of the union. Their views must be heard, and we must work with them. I thank him for his contribution, and I will give it some thought.
In my ignorance, I am not totally sure which department my noble friend is closest to; she seems to answer on every conceivable subject these days. Will she tell her friends in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to give particular attention to the knotty problem of giving Scotland a greater voice in our external affairs, treaty arrangements and international repositioning with all the other countries of the world? That is where a lot of our fate will be decided. One of the most bitter feelings the committee heard from our witnesses was that Scotland was an ancient nation which did have an international footprint but appeared to have no real say in deciding our international position. Could she give a push in that direction, please?
I thank my noble friend for that, and I certainly will. I do not do anything with the Foreign Office, but I will certainly take that back. I am in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but we also do some of the work on the union.
I thank noble Lords once again for their contributions today, and I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, for moving the debate and for her speech. I look forward to continuing this important discussion and working collaboratively on all the issues raised by noble Lords today.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this relatively brief debate on these significant issues. I am sure we will return to them on many occasions in this House, whether we are discussing the future of local government, in the way the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, was suggesting, or some of the suggestions made by my noble friend Lady Bryan, with whom I disagree on virtually everything—from her view on House of Lords reform to fatalism. I am sure we will have some significant debates in future.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame—we will get the name right eventually. I am sure he feels very comfortable in this House and will make many contributions in future.
We have heard from many colleagues who served on the Constitution Committee. My noble friend Lord Stansgate will not be surprised to learn that it was the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, who coined the phrase “poets and plumbers”. Today the noble Lord demonstrated why his particular lightness of touch is of such value to committees. The welcome he got in the House today reflects the esteem in which the House holds him, and it is good to see him here. The speeches we have heard demonstrate why it was such a pleasure to chair that committee. The word that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, used was “fun”. I am not sure I would go so far as to say it was fun, but it was a productive and enjoyable experience. Again, I thank all the committee members.
The noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, who has done as much work on one aspect of this report as anyone else, emphasised that the committee has confidence in the union and certainly in the potential for its future, but we all agreed that there is an element of fragility, as my noble friend on the Front Bench said, and we cannot be complacent about the future. There is a lot of opportunity, but a lot of work still needs to be done.
I return to the title of the report, Respect and Co-operation, because that is the key to getting these relationships right and getting the balance of power and the delivery of services that we would all like to see. Again, I thank everyone who has been involved in the debate, and I beg to move.