Future of the UK Constitution and Devolution — [Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:29 am on 8 March 2023.

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[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden 2:30, 8 March 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of the UK constitution and devolution.

It is a pleasure to open this debate in Westminster Hall. Members may or may not know this, but the Minister is a keen historian—he was in gainful employment before he came into politics. The great thing about this debate being in Westminster Hall is that this is the site of the 1265 Parliament, where Simon de Montfort made his name. I do not want to give a history lesson, least of all to the Minister, who knows the history much better than I do, but that Parliament was noted because it was about the relationship between the localities and the centre, and the powers of the Crown, Parliament and the magnates—barons and others—not just taxation. Although money and tax matter hugely—indeed, they are largely the story of how Parliament developed—other things matter, too, for the health of this United Kingdom. I refer, in particular, to the relationship between local areas and regions and the centre, and I want to address that this afternoon.

The millions of people watching this debate may think to themselves, “What is the point of debating something like the constitution and devolution?” These things change quite slowly, so why should we give up our time to think about and debate them? There are two big reasons why this debate matters, particularly now. First, it will surprise nobody in this Chamber or the House that our Union and our constitutional arrangements, including the relationships among and within the four nations of the United Kingdom, have been under strain in recent years, and that has had all sorts of political consequences. It is important that we find better ways of working together as four nations and within our nations. That is the first reason: it is important for the health of our country in its most fundamental sense that we debate this issue and come to a broad agreement.

The second reason is the economy, on which we have numerous debates; we have interminable discussions about inequality, levelling up and regional disparities. Although Members on both sides of the House, quite responsibly, sometimes have competing visions about how best to address those problems, we all share an understanding that we need to address them. Governance —how this country is run and works—is as central to the economic future of this country as decisions about tax, regulation and public spending.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Labour, Weaver Vale

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making such a powerful opening speech. I have just come from a meeting with Cheshire and Warrington business leaders, and they echoed exactly what he says. Their frustration is that they have made a plea for a devolution deal for Cheshire and Warrington but have not yet had a reply from Ministers. We agree, and there is an appetite out there.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, which is well timed, because I am about to come to his very point—not so much about the tardy response from Ministers, but about the necessary engagement on devolution deals and other such mechanisms between localities and the centre.

It is fundamentally important that we regularise the local government and devolution structures across England, in particular. I will come to the other nations, but let me first focus on England, which was the topic of the intervention. In a county such as Hertfordshire, there are district councils and a county council. In central Bedfordshire, a neighbouring county, there is a unitary system. In the Tees Valley, there is a mayoralty, but the powers are different in that mayoralty from the west midlands, and the powers are different again in London. I have probably missed out other forms of local government as well.

When we speak to people who are trying to navigate their way through our local government structures, they will often say—they definitely this say to me—that it takes them forever to figure out who is responsible for what. I have not even mentioned such things as local enterprise partnerships or the chambers of commerce, which overlap all those structures—let alone NHS trusts, integrated care boards and the other things that cut across the structures.

I mention that because it is critical, both for the health of our democracy and how our country runs and for economic growth—holding in mind those two things —to regularise local government structures, so that we do not need to worry about whether there is a devolution deal in this area or whether the right Minister or MP is lobbying in the most effective way. Everybody will have a clear sense, broadly speaking, of whether they are in one of three areas: in a county, where we should have unitaries; in a smaller urban area, where there should be a mayoralty with certain powers; or in a large urban area, such as Manchester or London, where the mayoralty should perhaps have greater powers. We need to regularise the structures so that we can finally move to a system in which people understand what the powers are and who is responsible for what. That responsibility is critical for democratic health and for economic investment and growth.

I was recently in Germany. When I speak to German businesses and say, “How does it work with investment?”, whether into Germany or into the UK, they often say that, if they are investing in most countries in Europe, they will go to the local mayoralty, for cities, or to the region, but in England—I say that precisely—they often do not know where to go. For example, in my county, if someone were to invest in life sciences in Stevenage, which is a hugely growing area and doing very well, they might go to Stevenage Borough Council, but the council would say that they also need to speak to the county council about different things and North Herts Council about certain other things. That inhibits our economic growth, and that is just one example.

Regularising and standardising the relationships is important, but this is not just about that. Let us assume that we had managed to do that, and we had a more standardised local government structure, such that people started to understand who is responsible for what. It is important that local leaders—we often talk about the importance of local leaders—have a more direct relationship with Westminster as well. It should not just be that someone elects a Member of Parliament and, indeed, a Government in the general election, and they elect their local leader in a local election, yet the relationships between the local leader and the centre are not formalised. We should move to a system in which local leaders have, in a more standardised fashion, formal mechanisms to engage with central Government and Parliament. We could use the House of Lords, perhaps with positions in an ex officio capacity, though that may not be necessary. However, the broader principle is to have a more formalised way in which leaders from Cheshire, for example, have a relationship with Westminster and Whitehall that enables them to lobby and make their voices heard, and enables MPs to feed into that process effectively, so that we get much better governance. I am talking not just about Cheshire, as such a system might benefit Hertfordshire, for example.

Regularising these things would not cost much money, if any at all. This is not about paying extra and it would not change a huge amount. However, it would make sure that the voices of local people and local leaders are heard here in Parliament.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am not exactly sure what the hon. Gentleman is proposing that regularisation should look like. In Scotland, we have a system of unitary authorities—32 local councils—that meet together in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which is the forum where negotiations with the Government happen. Local leaders are all members of and involved in COSLA, and they have a relationship with the Government through that system. Is he suggesting something similar, with a kind of unitary authority structure?

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

As with the intervention from Mike Amesbury, the hon. Lady’s intervention provides me with a perfect segue to talk about Scotland and, indeed, Wales and Northern Ireland. We live in one United Kingdom—I appreciate that we have opposition from the hon. Lady on that particular question—and it is important that local people in all parts of the United Kingdom have broadly similar relationships with the centre, with Westminster and Whitehall, regardless of whether there is a devolved Assembly or devolved Parliament. By achieving that, we will help to knit our country closer together and, again, build the understanding and awareness of responsibilities with the population, business and economic actors in this country and outside it.

The next part of my remarks relates to the second Chamber, the House of Lords. People have been talking about Lords reform for more than 100 years and I am pretty sure that in another 100 years, people will still be talking about Lords reform, although I do not intend to be here then—[Interruption.] You never know.

Personally, I am not a proponent of an elected second Chamber, but I strongly understand and recognise the concerns of those who feel that it needs an elected element. It is clear to me that there is a way to help to sort out some of the glaring inconsistencies and problems with the House of Lords. We are all familiar with those issues, whether we are talking about a sense that it is too big, concern about certain people who have been nominated to it, the fact that there is no retirement age, or various other things that a lot of people have problems with, in my view very reasonably. We can try to kill two birds with one stone by engaging local leaders in the broader governance of the country and by using the second Chamber partly to help that process to happen.

By doing that, we would help the voices of local people to be heard, because they would not just elect a local leader to deal with their local issues, and that was that. That local leader would then have a national voice that would help the governance of the wider country. Presumably, we are all here to help to improve the governance of our country. Where there are local leaders who have something to add and to offer, that should be shared and voiced, which could benefit everybody. In my view, we should use the House of Lords to do that.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

I hope that we can all agree that the bishops and hereditary peers have no place in a House of Lords. For the moment in the House of Lords, representation is disproportionately by peers from London and the south-east. Will my hon. Friend outline what could be done to improve representation from other parts of England and the United Kingdom?

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

This is how that could work. First, alongside what I was saying about local leaders, a standardised system of local government—whether people live in unitary authorities or a mayoralty, and whether they live in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland—would by necessity spread representation all over the United Kingdom. That is how we build in a lot of regional balance. Secondly, we could change the system by ensuring that, in the weight of the total number, there was always at least a significant minority—if not at least 50%—represented in that sort of way, rather than this being just about appointments. Ultimately, lifetime appointments cannot be made on a regional basis; even if we tried to, people are free to move around. However, if by necessity, in an ex officio capacity, the Mayor of Newcastle had a right while they were Mayor to speak in the second Chamber, it would have that regional balance.

This matters because not only would it improve democratic accountability and increase economic growth, as well as helping investors understand who to go to, but it would help to spread good practice and ideas. Constitutions matter because of what they practically do to the governance of the country. We currently have ad hoc relationships that depend on the political colour of the Government and, for example, of mayoralties, and whether particular individuals are perceived to be effective. To some degree, that is always the case. However, where we find good practice happening, we need to highlight it and have a vehicle for it to be aired in a public forum. Parliament, if nothing else, is a vehicle for the public airing of issues and debate. Linking local governance with the review of the second Chamber in that way would be effective.

I will add a bit more detail about why, economically, it makes a big difference if we get more standardised control of how our local government works, and how it links in with central Government. I like data—it is important. If we look at the data for most of the 20th century, inequality in GDP terms between the regions of the United Kingdom was quite low by European standards. However, by 2010, we had started to perform quite badly in comparison with our European partners, and we have continued to perform badly in that vein. I happen to think that that is more about the strength of London than it is about the weakness of certain parts of the country, but we can have a debate about that.

The consequence of that high degree of regional inequality has been twofold. First, it has caused political problems. In certain parts of the country, people feel left behind and that, economically, they have not been given a fair shake. There are calls to reform the Green Book and the Treasury. There are all sorts of political shenanigans and things that Opposition Members will appreciate, as we do on this side of the House. Secondly, that regional inequality has contributed significantly to our national productivity problem, which is well documented. It is out of the scope of this debate to go into that in detail, but if there are big portions of the country performing economically poorly—even if London and the south-east are doing well—the country’s economy overall is not going to improve as much as it needs to.

How does effective devolution help the national productivity problem? Some people might argue that it is about tax, education or skills policy passed in Westminster. Effective devolution, standardised and regularised in the way that I am describing, will help. There are two broad reasons economists give for productivity and regional inequality. The first is poor transport infrastructure in huge swathes of our country. The second is poor policy on innovation clusters, particularly in areas of high skill and around universities. Compared with the UK, other countries are just doing better in those two areas, although the economic debate is broad. If we had more effective power for local leaders, more of a voice to spread good practice, a clearer understanding of who was responsible for what and when, and a more effective fiscal package for each of those local areas, I submit that we would perform better in both those areas.

It is impossible for any centre of government in Whitehall and Westminster to focus appropriately on every single need of every single part of the country, because we make broader national and international policy. We cannot deal effectively with everywhere; that is the role of local leaders. Helping them do that better, whether that means transport infrastructure, skills or innovation clusters around top universities and areas of learning, is what we need to do, and to do that effectively we need to talk about money. It is easy for me to talk about powers and how things should be better and more effective. We have to talk about not just the money available for local authorities and leaders to spend, but what they are accountable for raising. I will be candid with the House. One of the difficulties politically that I and many party colleagues have felt at times is that certain local leaders seek to blame Westminster for all that goes wrong, yet take the credit for everything that goes right. I know it will be a shock that any politician would think of doing something like that.

In this country, we are incredibly centralised fiscally. About 12% of taxes are spent and raised locally, the lowest proportion in the G7 by some stretch. The next is Italy at about 17%, then Germany at about 30%, Canada at about 50% and the United States at somewhere between 40% and 50%, depending on how it is calculated. We are an outlier. I do not want to stray beyond the subject of the debate into Treasury policy, as we have the Budget for that—I know the Minister will be itching to weigh in on the Treasury, and will hold himself back—but when we think about raising more revenue, we should do that as closely as possible to people in the places where that money is spent.

We should politically enable local areas to raise more money, because people would know what they were responsible for and how they were responsible for it in a more standardised way. By raising more money locally, they would be responsible and accountable for it, and there would be a higher degree of trust that the money would be spent well. If that money is not spent well, local people will vote for somebody else. That is how democracy works.

I finish by saying that yes, we need the powers to be regularised. Yes, local leaders across the whole United Kingdom need to be linked in much more closely with Westminster. I have not touched on the powers of the devolved Parliaments, because I am not convinced that a huge shift in power required at devolved level is necessary. When we think of England, we should ensure that what we do mirrors existing models. Kirsty Blackman described how local government in Scotland interacts with Holyrood. That is the sort of model we could bring in more broadly, on a UK-wide basis, but the money really matters.

Enabling local areas and local leaders to raise and spend more of their own money, whether through property taxes, local income tax or a reformed version of business rates, rather than always relying on Westminster to raise all the money and dole it out, would be an effective way to build our democratic Union, as well as helping our understanding of how we are governed and our economy.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield

I shall move to wind-ups from the Opposition spokespeople at about 3.30 pm.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy) 2:55, 8 March 2023

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Ms Fovargue. I thank Bim Afolami for his detailed introduction, much of which I agree with.

Like many hon. Members, I am a passionate advocate for devolution, because I am also a passionate advocate for democracy. When I see surveys that tell us that more than 50% of adults believe it does not matter who they vote for as nothing will ever change, and over 60% of people believe that Britain has a ruling class that will always rule the country, no matter what, then the message to me is very clear: something needs to change.

Democracy is fragile and cannot be taken for granted. We can protect our democracy by ensuring decision making is brought closer to people, so they have greater confidence in the decisions that are being taken on their behalf. We can do better than making areas jump through multiple hoops, at the cost of great time and expense, to take part in a competitive bidding process that is often neither fair nor transparent, the terms of which are often ultimately dictated by the centre. Genuine devolution is about empowering local communities to choose their priorities.

Speaking as a former council leader, and sitting next to another former council leader, my hon. Friend Samantha Dixon, it seems there is a certain level of distrust and snobbishness about the ability of our local leaders to be granted additional levels of power and resources. As we know, the biggest prizes on offer always seem to come with the precondition of an elected Mayor. I believe our local councils have proved themselves more than capable of working together, particularly through the pandemic, when there were multiple examples of cross-border working on a subregional basis.

My constituency of Ellesmere Port and Neston is governed by Cheshire West and Chester Council, which along with Cheshire East Council and Warrington Borough Council forms part of the Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership. It is not a metropolitan area or a city region. It does not have a single urban centre, but is made up of several large towns, one city and a considerable number of smaller towns and villages. It does not really have an established identity. It is not a defined place, as such, and it is made up of separate areas of economic activity.

In my part of the world, we look towards north Wales and Merseyside as much as we look across Cheshire. That is significant because although a case can be made for a single figurehead for a city or city region, it should be recognised that non-metropolitan areas have significantly different sets of circumstances. Be in no doubt, I warmly welcome the opportunities any devolution deal will bring to my area, but I am not convinced we need a Mayor to deliver that.

I genuinely hope there is a real opportunity to improve our area and that that is not lost because of Government intransigence over the governance arrangements. If it is the Government’s position that there has to be a Mayor, then the biggest opportunities for devolution are denied to us. I do not believe that we should forgive such a petulant and inflexible approach; I suspect the public we represent will not forgive such an approach either.

Genuine devolution is not about telling areas what governance they must have, creating extra layers of bureaucracy or dictation from the centre. As we know, in this country power and wealth flow towards London and the south-east, then upwards into Westminster. Any power and resources that are given away usually go on Westminster’s terms, with Westminster’s priorities at the forefront. I believe that is the wrong approach. For too long people have felt left behind and held back by a system that does not work for them.

People already feel they do not have the power to take important decisions about the things in their lives that are most important to them, whether it is a local hospital that should stay open, where a new school might go or even how often the buses run. To empower local areas, we need a different, long-term approach that actually attempts to tackle the underlying issues and to really empower local communities by giving them the responsibility, power and resources to shape their own futures by—dare I say it—allowing them to take back control.

My plea to the Minister is to meet us and give us the keys to unlock the potential for our area. I have been in this place for nearly eight years, and throughout that time we have heard many times how the Government are prepared to allow greater devolution in Cheshire, but we always get left behind. We are seeking devolved powers, particularly in transport—on buses, for example. As we know, we are currently at the mercy of bus companies pulling out services at a moment’s notice. We also want to improve economic regeneration and get more housing in the right areas to meet the local housing need.

There is a well-developed plan, which has been on the shelf for many years now, and we just want the opportunity to deliver it. Leave preconditions about mayors who do not have local support at the door and, instead, talk to us about what more we can do to improve the lives of the people we represent. Do not dictate to us; liberate us. That is what genuine devolution is all about.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy 3:01, 8 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. In the next six or seven minutes, I hope to set out a contra-view of the Union. I compliment my hon. Friend Bim Afolami on bringing forward the debate. Colleagues will know that this is a subject close to my heart to which I have given considerable thought; they may think differently at the end of my speech, but I hope they will find it interesting none the less.

Let us take the old joke of a visitor coming to a rural area and asking for directions. The farmer, or whoever it is leaning on the gate, says, “Well, if I were you I would not start from here.” Sometimes, when we approach a subject such as this, there is that sense of that if we disregard where we are at and start from some idealistic blank page, or some other framework that does not exist in reality—if we believe hard enough and screw our eyes up tight enough—we can imagine that it is that way and start from there and a bright new dawn awaits us. I just do not think that is where we are at.

I am afraid that when I hear words such as “regularising”, I immediately think of words such as “cookie cutter”, “wait your turn” and “stand in place”, because that big stamp that is coming along will get you as well and turn you into something—into a moveable piece that fits with the rest of the puzzle created somewhere else. I find instinctively that that does not fit with me. Members will not hear a defence of the status quo from me. This is not an exercise in party political point scoring—which Members have avoided so far, and I commend them for that—but about exploring what the Union means, what its future holds and what role devolution might have to play in that.

I hold an organic view of a Union that has started and developed inevitably from things such as our location in the world; the temperate climate we enjoy, our maritime nature and identity have all contributed to the nation that we are. We cannot and should not ignore that, and we would not wish to. The system of law we have is, again, an important part of our identity. Identity—there we are. How has our reputation, for good or ill, developed around the world? The values we hold, the Judeo-Christian principles that have been at the heart of so much of who we are as a nation—these things have shaped us. Inevitably, that has dictated and shaped the relationships we have formed around the globe.

When Bill Gates came here a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to ask him why he came to the UK Government. He said, very simply, “Because of your network of relationships around the globe.” He recognised that history and the depth of contact and relationships we have across the globe and the influence that came with them. From that, then, comes the economy. We are the fifth or perhaps the sixth-largest economy in the world, and part of that is because of that network of relationships. Part of that, too, is driven by the internal relationships we have forged and the transport links, which have already been mentioned, across all parts of our United Kingdom.

We then need to think about the future. In understanding ourselves as a Union, what are we moving towards? That is an absolutely salient and current question. I again commend my hon. Friend for bringing forward exactly the question that we face now: what are we, now we are post-Brexit Britain? If we are no longer on a trajectory into a federalist, liberal, social democracy within the EU, where are we heading? Some would say we are going back to the days of empire and colonial oppression —that kind of thing. I do not think it is, but what are we heading to? That is the Union I think of, and it is absolutely correct to think about what the future holds.

Time does not allow me to develop my points in the way I would wish, but I want to make a couple of key points. I contrast the covenant that holds us together with the contract that is presented in the form of devolution. The covenants that hold us together are those relationships built on shared dreams, shared ventures, shared losses and shared institutions that we have built on the values we hold together. All those things speak to me of covenants, and a vested interest in what every other part of the Union is thinking, feeling, experiencing and hoping.

I contrast that with what we did by devolution. Let me be clear that I fully support the democratic establishment of devolved Assemblies and Parliaments across the UK—there is no disagreement from me on what has been established democratically. The biggest damage that has been done to our Union was not in the creation of those institutions, but in convincing us that the relationship is now not covenantal but contractual—that it is a transactional relationship that says, “You now do these bits. You now make the decisions on these policy areas, and we will give you some money for it.”

Trying to turn that covenant into a contract and a series of transactions does not work, just as it would not for my own marriage: “Right, Robin, on a Monday, you do the bins, and on a Wednesday, I will wash the dishes.” It is the same for our Union. Phrases like “regularising” and the focus on a technocratic design chill me a bit, because they do not capture the essence of who I think we are.

When we start to look at how the contract operates on points such as accountability, we start to find flaws. I support subsidiarity—decisions should be made as close to the local point of impact as possible—but we must not imagine that what we have done is perfect or should be replicable. There are deep problems, which I do not have time to develop today.

Let me finish with one analogy. We are all familiar with new housing estates. Very often, there is a green space in the middle of them. When the houses go up, and the green space is marked out, brown lines cutting across that green space, faint at first, start to appear very quickly. There is actually a phrase for them—they are called desire lines. Those desire lines do not reflect the footpaths that are in place.

I am sure hon. Members know what I am talking about. Residents have decided that the shortest way from A to B is to walk across the green. That is absolutely a metaphor for what we need to learn and how we need to think about the mistakes we have made and the lessons we need to learn about our institutions and how we think about our Union. There is a temptation to say, “We can create a beautiful place. We can put down straight lines, and maybe even curved lines, that reflect what people want,” but we would soon find that people’s actual desires —their organic response to their environment; the thrust of where their ambitions, hopes, dreams, relationships and ties take them—cuts across that place, and creates desire lines, not always where we designed for them.

I urge caution in imagining that technocratic cleverness could take us to a better Union. I urge the proper consideration of the organic model we have, which has grown the covenant that holds us together, and of the bright future ahead.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield

I remind hon. Members that they should bob if they wish to be called in the debate. I call Samantha Dixon.

Photo of Samantha Dixon Samantha Dixon Labour, City of Chester 3:09, 8 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate Bim Afolami on securing this debate on an issue that is really important to the local authorities, businesses and constituents in my area. I am pleased that this is not just a debate on devolution to the nations, but on devolution within England as well.

The question of devolution to Cheshire and Warrington is something I had been working on for a long time before I was elected as a Member of Parliament. It is a journey that started when I was the leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council, and one that I am determined to continue now as Chester’s representative in Parliament.

Cheshire and Warrington has so much potential and so much to offer, and a devolution deal would give our region even more opportunity to fulfil that. Cheshire and Warrington has an important role to play in partnership with mayoral combined authorities in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region, and as a gateway to north Wales and the north-west of England. We have built a successful, inclusive economy, embarked on a net zero agenda and developed public service transformation projects. The three local authorities—Cheshire West and Chester Council, Cheshire East Council and Warrington Borough Council—have worked closely as a sub-region over many years, alongside partners in policing, fire, health and the local enterprise partnership.

Compared with the complex governance outlined by the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, the current system of collaboration between the three leaders of our three councils provides a strong, simple model that reflects our geography, our history and the identity of our different places. There is no need for local government reorganisation—we did that 15 years ago, and my hon. Friend Justin Madders has the scars to show for it. With so much local talent and potential, it makes sense for powers to be devolved and decisions to be made closer to home by local people who understand what our region needs and what it can offer.

A devolved Cheshire and Warrington could further progress its work on transforming our transport networks, backing our towns and rural communities, creating green jobs and achieving net zero—the list goes on, and the potential is endless. Locally, there is a real drive to see Cheshire and Warrington as one place with one voice. That is based on the county’s shared culture and history, but it also respects distinct local identities. Too often, it feels like Cheshire is left behind; too often, my constituents express concerns that Cheshire and Warrington risks missing out on the funding and freedoms enjoyed by our neighbours in the cities.

I point out to the Minister not only that a devolution deal for Cheshire and Warrington is beneficial for our region, but that the region’s strong economic base—in particular the Cheshire science corridor and net zero ambition—can help to meet the Government’s levelling-up goals. There is no point in pitting region against region for funding. The only true way to resolve this issue is through devolution. I have one simple question for the Minister: what plans does his Department have to consider a devolution deal for Cheshire and Warrington, and will the Department meet representatives from across the area to discuss that further?

Photo of James Grundy James Grundy Conservative, Leigh 3:12, 8 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend Bim Afolami for securing the debate. However, it is unusual that on this occasion, like my hon. Friend Robin Millar, I have some doubts about the vision for regularisation, uniformity and conformity presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. My view is that devolution, as the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) have said, is not a one-size-fits-all process.

As Opposition Members have rightly said, a mayoralty is a deeply unsuitable model for some non-city areas. Indeed, there are even some people in cities who feel that the mayoral model is not appropriate—certainly not the Osbornian model. I have spoken to people across the north-west, and the view not just in Cheshire but in Lancashire is that a combined authority model, or something similar—like the Greater Manchester Combined Authority before the mayoralty was created—is a much more collegiate and sensible model. I was speaking to colleagues in Lancashire, who said that a mayoralty would not work. One person representing the interests of everywhere from Silverdale to Skelmersdale could not do a good job. There is considerable diversity in the area, and it is a considerable geographic area; putting all that into the hands of one person is the wrong model. My understanding is that Conservative colleagues in Cheshire feel, similarly, that a mayoral model would not be—

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I am listening to my hon. Friend’s speech with interest. He has thought a lot about these matters. If we are considering organic change and development in a small c conservative way, as well as a big C Conservative way, I suggest working with the grain of what has already happened in the west midlands and Greater Manchester, which both have Mayors. Is he suggesting that we go back on what we have already done in certain areas, such as the mayoralty in Greater Manchester? That is perfectly reasonable and fine, but a more small c conservative way of thinking would be to say, “We have already established a mayoralty in certain places. Let’s work with that and then try to smooth out the huge distinctions between areas”, rather than saying, “Let’s revert to a period of time before there was a mayoralty”.

Photo of James Grundy James Grundy Conservative, Leigh

I am not arguing at this stage for the abolition of the mayoralty, although I know that some do. Some feel it has not worked in the way it should. In Greater Manchester—this is the view of Greater Manchester Conservative colleagues—the mayoral model is distinct from the one in London because it has no Assembly to hold the Mayor to account, so there is no scrutiny, accountability or responsibility. Equally, I welcome the fact that there are slightly different models around the country, because different models take account of the different needs of different areas. That is a benefit of the system and not necessarily a downside, whether it means different mayoralties having different powers, some areas not having a mayor, some using the combined authority model or similar, or collaboration between existing local authorities.

Where everyone agrees that certain powers should be devolved further, that absolutely should happen, but where there is discord and dissent or where people feel it is not appropriate, it should not happen. Where there is cross-party support, which there probably is on what they are trying to do in Cheshire, clearly that model should be adopted. I agree with Opposition Members that a mayor would not be appropriate for Cheshire, given that it does not have a major metropolitan centre.

On the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden made—you will, no doubt, be amused by this, Ms Fovargue—the creation of large unitary authorities can sometimes be controversial. There was great distress in 1973 when my own seat of Leigh was merged with the neighbouring rival town of Wigan, which my hon. Friend may have heard me speak about on a previous occasion when he served in a previous role. At the time there was a great phrase illustrating the problem with devolution if done the wrong way. In 1973 the campaign against the creation of huge metropolitan authorities saw the process as one that took power away from local communities and gave it to a larger, more remote one, and its slogan was, “Don’t vote for Mr R. E. Mote”. That did cause problems for Conservative candidate Roger Moate during the following election. But that is how people sometimes feel—that power is being taken further away.

To finish, because I realise we are pressed for time and others may wish to speak, devolution down to regions does not always work. I will give my hon. Friend a good example of this. On transport, he is 100% right in principle. In the mid-1960s, one of the predecessor local authorities to Wigan—Golborne Urban District Council—wrote to the Government on the desperate need for a bypass for the town of Leigh and the villages of Lowton and Golborne, which were mining communities at that time. About 60 years on, we are still waiting for that bypass to be finished, because the problem is that it would run all the way from Bolton down through Leigh and then down to Warrington.

In 1984, when I was a small boy, the middle bit of that bypass was finished—the bit that runs from virtually the border with Bolton down to the border with Warrington —but neither end has been finished. That is because it runs across three different local authorities and two counties—Cheshire and Greater Manchester. The question whether Greater Manchester is a county is a point of debate for many. Certainly, people in Saddleworth would get angry if someone said they were not in Yorkshire. Devolving powers down to the mayor would not work because we would still have to deal with the problem of Cheshire—

Photo of James Grundy James Grundy Conservative, Leigh

That is perhaps a blunt way of describing it.

In some cases, it would be better if these powers and the fragmented responsibility for delivering local infrastructure were taken up to the departmental level, as we do with national schemes, and other powers were devolved down.

By and large, this has been a non-partisan debate, and I fundamentally welcome that. We must listen to what local representatives say about the model of devolution and the suite of powers they want, and not be too prescriptive about the model and powers. Standardisation is the wrong way, although I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden was trying to argue. If we listen to local representatives, we will get the best version of devolution with proper scrutiny and accountability, and a system that actually works and that local people believe in. The worst thing we could do is impose a uniform model of devolution on everyone whether they want it or not. The Government would lose the good will of a goodly number of Back Benchers if they tried to do that, and would face considerable opposition from the other side of the House.

I am a great champion of localism; it must be the founding principle of devolution. As I said, one size does not fit all.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:21, 8 March 2023

It is a real pleasure to speak in this timely debate, and I thank Bim Afolami for securing it. It is even more pertinent to us in Northern Ireland. Its title is “Future of the UK Constitution and Devolution”—how important that is for us. I am mindful that we are in the middle of a proposal from the Prime Minister, and I do not intend to develop that debate, but I will talk about what is important to me.

This Union is of the utmost importance to me. The flag of our four nations means so much to me personally and the people I represent. Whenever I go into Central Lobby, I never fail to look at the four nations together as one. I say respectfully to Kirsty Blackman that I believe we are stronger together.

The Union is also important to me because members of my family and many other families made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives in service to the flag and the Union it represents. I am sure there is not one person in this Chamber who does not understand what I am saying and why the Union is important to us. My cousin, Kenneth Smyth, a sergeant in the Ulster Defence Regiment, was murdered by the IRA on 10 December 1971—by those who could not abide his service to the Union under the Union flag.

I have said previously that the red-line debate on Northern Ireland is not about a line in pen over pride; it is about a line in the blood of people we have loved and miss to this very day. That is why the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland means so much to so many of us who are honoured to take our seats in this, the mother of Parliaments. I do so with pride. It is a privilege and an honour to be here serving the people of Strangford in Northern Ireland, and I never take that lightly. It is our responsibility to do all we can to tell others without that experience why we cling to our position in the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Devolution is essential. People with local knowledge, accountable to local people, are vital. That is why I support devolution, and why it is important that we have it in place. I know that some will say, “Then get back to it,” but that is the crux of the DUP’s issue. The last thing we wanted was to walk away from Stormont. We believe in it, as imperfect as it is. We lived for years under an absent, faceless civil service, which led decision making. It was not good, and we recognise the dangers of that.

However, when faced with the insidious protocol and the burden it placed on local businesses, as well as the devastation it caused to our constitutional position, we had to take that decision. The future of Northern Ireland within this Union is worth every sacrifice that we have given, and every sacrifice that we ask for. That is why our Members of the Legislative Assembly took that decision overwhelmingly, knowing that their pay would be cut and that they would have difficulty making ends meet in their families. The Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland means as much to them as it does to me.

That is why we were thankful for the PM’s intervention and negotiations, but we have to seek a legal opinion and I understand that will be back within two weeks. We have to understand what the intricacies of this agreement and the Windsor framework mean. We do not want the Windsor framework to become the Windsor knot for those of us who are of a Unionist persuasion, so we need to know the full detail and to have a full understanding. Ultimately, we seek the opinion of the people of Northern Ireland, whom we represent, in relation to this deal.

Time stops for no man—no woman, either. I understand that I am not a young man, and I suspect that I have a few more years on the clock than nearly everyone in this Chamber. That is just the way things are. I still feel young, by the way. My thoughts have turned to the legacy that I will leave my children and my grandchildren, and my constituency of Strangford. I hope to leave a legacy as someone who stood over the decisions taken as being in the best interests of Northern Ireland in this great nation. I do not say that lightly—it means as much to me as I believe it means to many others in this Chamber.

For me, devolution is the way forward, but that cannot be in place without the Unionist people having a seat at this table. We have been put out in the cold for sticking to our principles. I remind everyone, gently but sincerely, of two prominent architects of the agreement and the peace settlement in Northern Ireland: Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. Both of those gentlemen are of prominence in the Republic of Ireland and, of course, as former Prime Ministers. Both have said that no agreement can go forward without full consideration being given to it by those of a Unionist persuasion; in other words, an agreement can never be an agreement without our input. We are a sturdy people and we will remain so until the resolution is one that will leave a stable Northern Ireland in the Union for my six grandchildren and for every grandchild across the whole nation.

I will be urging my party’s MLAs to nominate a Speaker, as soon as I can face the Unionist people with the knowledge that devolution and democracy are not being circumnavigated. We need to ensure that we can celebrate the Good Friday agreement, and not simply because the President of the United States of America is declaring that we must do so. I am always reminded of a comment he made when he was first elected. I watched it on TV. He was going to a state celebration and someone asked him a question, and he said that no Orangeman was welcome there. Well, as an Orangeman since 1981, I have great pride in my organisation, and I take a real exception to the President’s comments. If I do meet him, I will remind him that he is shaking the hand of an Orangeman, just to remind him of that particular occasion when he said that and tried to denigrate us as Orangemen. We will make the decisions for ourselves without any undue pressure from others, because that is what a sovereign nation does, and I believe that we have just about maintained sovereignty on the mainland, if not in Northern Ireland post Brexit.

If this framework is the way forward, it will still be the way forward once we have had time to study and to consult. For the EU and its bureaucracy to try to dictate the timeline of our consultation and study is something that cannot stand up to the true meaning of democracy. I strongly believe in the importance of democracy.

I finish with these comments: the Union means the world to me, and I would give everything in the world to protect it for my grandchildren, who deserve to grow, to live, to work and to love in a thriving Northern Ireland. I ask everyone in this room, from all parties, who believes in the UK constitution and devolution to not just listen to my words but take in their meaning, to understand my approach and to stand with me—and the Ulstermen and Ulsterwomen—and for the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland when the time comes.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:29, 8 March 2023

I am glad to speak in this debate on International Women’s Day. Unfortunately, we are significantly outnumbered, but it is nice to have a woman in the Chair and to hear a colleague—only one, sadly—speak with a huge amount of knowledge and experience that she brings to her role.

I thank Bim Afolami for securing the debate, which he opened with a short history lesson. I give him credit: it was very interesting. This is also the building in which William Wallace was tried; if we are talking about the history of the constitution and devolution, this building plays an important role in that part of Scotland and England’s history.

This has been quite a disparate debate with a lot of different takes on what is an incredibly broad subject; I understand why everybody has come to it with slightly different views and from slightly different positions. I will talk a bit about what a number of people around the room have said, and then about my views and my take on the debate title we were given.

First, on the way that local authorities work, we have 32 unitary authorities in Scotland. My constituency is Aberdeen North, which is wholly within the Aberdeen City Council area. The Aberdeenshire Council headquarters are also in my constituency, because Aberdeenshire surrounds the city, so I have the honour of having two local authority headquarters in my patch, which I am not sure that many MPs are able to say—certainly not in Scotland. The 32 local authorities work through COSLA in their relationship with the Government.

The hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden in particular, but also several others, spoke about financial matters. In recent years we have instituted participatory budgeting for local authorities. One per cent. of local authorities’ budgets has to be spent through a participatory budgeting route, which means that people in local communities decide where to spend that money—regeneration money, in a lot of cases—to best improve their communities. It does work, because the people choose their priorities. The priorities do not come from the centre; they are chosen by the people. Suggestions are put forward and costed up, and then decisions are taken by people who have the ability to vote if they live in certain areas of our city. I am speaking specifically about Aberdeen, but we do it across Scotland. The process works, it makes a difference and it is helpful for returning power to local communities.

We have done an awful lot to improve community empowerment in recent years with things such as community asset transfers, whereby buildings that are no longer being used by the city council, for example, are transferred over to community groups for very little money, giving those groups the opportunity to run them and to have a place. Community asset transfers do not just involve buildings; in some cases, tracts of land have been transferred. They have been incredibly successful.

One thing that could be done to improve local leadership is paying councillors reasonable salaries, as we have done in Scotland. I confess that although I have tried, I do not understand the local government systems in England. They seem to be different in all different parts of England and I am utterly baffled by the whole thing. In Scotland, councillors are paid a salary that, while not enough to live on—it is supposed to be two thirds of a full-time wage, although I do not know any councillor who only works two thirds of the time—is an actual salary.

Photo of James Grundy James Grundy Conservative, Leigh

Let me try to help the hon. Lady. There are often different wage structures in England because the different tiers of authorities have different responsibilities, whereas with the unitaries in Scotland the responsibilities are obviously uniform across that system. For example, county councils deal with roads and potholes, while district authorities tend to deal with lower-tier things, which sounds hilarious compared to potholes. I hope the hon. Lady understands that although the wage structure varies greatly, that is the reason why.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct on that, but the thing is that if we are not paying councillors a reasonable amount of money, we are not going to get the high-calibre local leaders that we need, or even just people who are able to dedicate the time that is necessary to do the role for the money they are given. That is one thing that I suggest could be improved.

Dr Poulter made a suggestion about the House of Lords. Abolishing the House of Lords would be a better way forward than giving it more power. Labour first stood on a platform to abolish the House of Lords in 1910. Despite some moves towards having fewer hereditary peers, we have not yet got to the position of having none. If we are going to give any more power to the unelected House of Lords, we need to have a serious look at the way its Members are selected, particularly given recent events.

The constitutional settlement is broken, and the situation is getting worse. We are supposed to have parliamentary sovereignty and a situation where Parliament can and does make decisions. I disagree with Robin Millar, who suggested that we need to look at what we have and fix it, rather than starting with something new. With the constitutional settlement and the way this place works, I think we are beyond tweaking and fixing.

The whole idea proposed about Brexit was that it was about returning power—people said, “We want Brexit because we want power to be returned”—but over the years this Conservative Government have repeatedly moved power away from Parliament to the Executive. That continues to happen. We will see it next week, when I imagine the Chancellor will present the Budget without an amendment of the law resolution. That seems like a small thing, but it makes a significant difference to parliamentary power and sovereignty. It is a change in the way that our constitution works that has just been slipped through. A former Chancellor wrote to the Procedure Committee to say, “This is just a tweak—it is just a small change.” It is not; it massively dilutes MPs’ power to amend the Budget.

In Scotland, we have an agreed devolution settlement. The problem we have is that the Westminster Government, in their post-Brexit antics, have done what they can to return power from the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood to this place, most recently with the section 35 order. Absolutely, that is in the Scotland Act 1998, but it is supposed to be used only in extremis, when there is a massive negative impact on the rest of the UK. There is no good argument that Ministers can make that that is the case now. The only way we will solve the problem and get a collegiate relationship between the Scottish Government and the UK Westminster Government is if Scotland is an independent country and we are able to have this conversation on our terms—on the terms that the people of Scotland want us to have it. In Scotland, it is not Parliament that is sovereign; it is the people of Scotland, and we intend that the people will be able to have their say and choose the way forward.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:38, 8 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate Bim Afolami on securing this important debate. I believe that our constitution, and in particular the devolution ideas in it, holds the key to many of the challenges that we face as a country. With the right approach to these issues, we can unlock the enormous potential of all our nations and regions and embark on a period of national renewal.

With characteristic courage, the hon. Gentleman set out a full new constitutional settlement. I thought that was a good place to start the debate. I agree with the need for greater coherence. Like the hon. Members for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) and for Leigh (James Grundy), I would probably stop short on standardisation, but the clarity that the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden gave on that helped too.

This is an interesting issue, because I think we meet in the middle on a lot of these things. There are disagreements on the Government Benches and there are disagreements within the Labour party, whether on Lords reform, electoral reform or devolution. That we have disagreements within our parties is a good thing, and pretending we do not is a bad thing. That disagreement makes these debates very interesting.

I agreed with an awful lot of what the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, particularly the twin points that our constitution and the Union more generally are under strain, and that the constitution and devolution are at the root of tackling our economic challenges as well. Those points were very good.

The Cheshire caucus was well represented in the debate. In his intervention, my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury talked about getting a deal for Cheshire and for Warrington, and my hon. Friend Justin Madders talked about the multiple hoops and hurdles that it feels like his local community has to clear just to take some degree of control over what happens to them.

I was particularly taken by what my hon. Friend Samantha Dixon said about the way in which local people there had got themselves organised. A lot of the complications and hurdles that the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden talked about do not apply to them because they are organised. I have an awful lot of confidence in our local leaders—I love local government and am a localist at heart—so my commitment to the people of Cheshire is that we believe they should have access to the maximum powers. I will set out how we will go further than the powers set out in the Levelling-Up White Paper. That should not be contingent on a governance model; it is for local people to decide, not for me. I strongly believe that.

That takes me to the points that the hon. Member for Leigh made. I think the different models of local government are a strength, because I want them to reflect local realities, whether that is geographic realities, cultural things or whatever else. The thing for me is that local authorities should all have access to the same powers; as to how they organise themselves, that should be a local decision.

Jim Shannon made important points about the Union. This is fundamentally a question of our Union. He used the word “legacy”; the thing that weighs on me is that every generation and every Parliament that is elected are, for that period of time, the custodians of our constitution, democracy and Union. That is quite a heavy weight to be bear. We all have a responsibility to say at the end of our time here, whether short or long, that we safeguarded and protected those things and bequeathed them to the next generation in a strong and healthy way. That is much of our challenge.

The hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said that we are too centralised, and I wholly agree. We hold communities back because we have a system that hoards power in this place. It is a system that thinks that, whether we are discussing what is best for skills, transport, planning or job support, we know better than the people who actually live in our communities. I fundamentally disagree with that view. It has created an unbalanced economy that makes too little use of the talents of too few people in too few places, with the rest of us—my community included—being written off as not being able to contribute. That is why there is so much appetite for a new approach. So much of our political debate over the last decade has been underpinned by people’s yearning to have more control over their lives and over the country; the clamour for a fairer future, with new opportunities for the next generation; and the desire to build back for our communities, supported by strong local economies and underpinned by decent public services.

The country knows that it is time for a change. We have seen the devolution of power to England’s regions in recent years, but it is not sufficient. There are too many deals, the ambition is too modest, and too many places have been shut out. It should be a point of great anger for many of us—especially those who are locked out of the current settlement, as many colleagues are—that at some point Ministers looked at leaders in parts of the country, whether the West Midlands, Teesside or Greater Manchester, and thought they were good enough to have certain powers, and looked at the rest of us and thought we were not. That is fundamentally wrong.

By dint of our common personhood, we should have access to the same opportunities. That is why the Leader of the Opposition asked Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, to produce a report on the future of the UK. We are currently consulting on it, but it contains really great proposals that, at their heart, would represent the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

From a Welsh perspective, the Gordon Brown report was extremely unambitious. I encourage the shadow Minister to realise that there is a huge opportunity for Labour, as it goes into the general election, to deal with many of these issues, especially by empowering the Welsh Government with the necessary fiscal levers they need to deal with the Welsh economy. I encourage the Labour Front Bench team to be as ambitious as possible going into the next election.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which I will take as a contribution to our consultation. That point has been well made by our Welsh colleagues, so it has been heard.

In January, the Leader of the Opposition set out the type of thing that we are talking about today when he spoke about our “take back control” Bill, which is about new powers for our communities over skills, the Department for Work and Pensions, transport, planning and culture, all to help to drive growth by developing hundreds of clusters of economic activity. It would be a fundamental shift in power and something to be really excited about—I know I certainly am.

Power is one half of the arrangement, but the other half is, of course, finance. We have to change what the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands called the “broken begging bowl culture”. Local Government Association research shows that over the four years to 2019 there were 448 separate funding pots from which councils were invited to bid. Much of that was for fairly basic services, such as cleaning up chewing gum or having more public toilets.

We need to get away from that competitive bidding process in which the Government pick winners and losers, and someone always loses. In fact, the winners are also losers, because the money they get back is less than they have had cut from their budgets. We need to end the beauty parades as soon as possible. The Government must address the point that they do not want to address in respect of round 2 of the levelling-up fund: many communities up and down the country put hearts and souls into good bids, only to find out later that they could never win. Communities being held in such contempt has to change.

I will use my remaining time to talk about our Union, because a debate about the constitution and devolution is a conversation about union. I am a unionist in many senses of the word: a trade unionist all my adult life and a UK Unionist for as long as I can remember. I believe strongly in the power of the collective and co-operation. I value others’ contributions and they value mine, and together we are better than the sum of our parts. Unionist is what someone is; unionism is what they think and do every day. We work that muscle to build that.

It is clear that the next Government will have a huge job in restoring our Union. I am sad to say, because it is a loss to us all, but the Government have been the best friend to nationalism that those who wish to leave our Union could ever have. We need to restore our settlement to a union of equals, restating that self-government and shared government are hugely beneficial to all the nations of the UK. The Brown commission spoke persuasively on that.

We need to restate that we believe in local decision making not just when the decision is one that we want made, and that differences strengthen rather than weaken us. We should also restate that there is huge economic potential across all our nations and regions, but there is not the same degree of opportunity. I believe we have reached a positive consensus on devolution, at least in England, although we have to do much more in Scotland and Wales, as colleagues have said.

The challenge is to get that power and those resources out of this place and to those communities, setting them free. That is how we will improve communities, restore the public’s faith in democracy and get economic growth that benefits everyone. That is a really big prize that is incumbent on us to deliver.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 3:47, 8 March 2023

It is as pleasure to respond to this wide-ranging debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Bim Afolami on securing it. He was kind enough to say at the outset that I used to be a history teacher; I could not help remembering marking bright undergraduates’ essays. I would sometimes write, “This is a very good essay, but I can’t help but think you might have got the title wrong.” We have four overlapping debates. One is on history, which I shall indulge in; one is on the nature of English devolution; one is on UK devolution; and another is on the structures of the constitution. Those things obviously interlink.

Jim Shannon was right to mention where we were, in Westminster Hall. Central Lobby is the embodiment of our four nations and the four physical parts of our constitution: the Lords, the Commons, the ancient Westminster Hall and the Committee Rooms all coming together, along with England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Kirsty Blackman mentioned that William Wallace was tried in Westminster Hall. She did not mention that it was also where James VI was greeted when he came to be both King of England and King of Scotland. The evolution of those two ancient kingdoms tells us a lot about where the debates on localism come from, because they are very old indeed. In several cases, the shires of England are older than England itself; indeed, Kent probably dates to the pre-Roman period.

When we hear debates about whether Wigan should be allowed to switch over, I am reminded of the passionate arguments against Humberside. I also thought my hon. Friend James Grundy was very brave—in this company—to refer to the problem of Cheshire, because we have heard powerful advocacy on behalf of the people of Cheshire for the sort of local representation they would like.

It was from the shires of England that Parliament was formed in the 13th century. In the pre-conquest period, the leaders of the shires were represented in the Witan. These are very old structures and identities, and that history still infuses the debates we have today about where boundaries should lie and about where power should derive from. Obviously, the answer is in the interaction between the centre and the locality and in the adequate balance of the two.

On English devolution, I respect the remarks from Alex Norris about these issues crossing party lines, and that has contributed to the open and good-natured debate we have had. The reason this issue cuts across party lines is that it is not easy, and there is variation in how people see things in different parts of the country, based on their geography, history and recent experiences.

Pity me somewhat, for I am merely a Parliamentary Secretary in the Cabinet Office, not a Minister in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but I have heard the representations made by Members from Cheshire, and I will be certain to put them to colleagues in DLUHC. I am sure they will thoughtfully consider what has been said and the request for a meeting.

The Government have been a powerful advocate for devolution, and we have practised what we preach. I have seen the results in my time in Government. I was lucky enough to be the Minister for Apprenticeships in my last job but one. In Teesside, I saw the new Tory Mayor working with central Government and with local communities and business to create staggering new opportunities. It was the first time that I had seen all these things come together. The Government created the freeport—a place where there could be opportunity. The Mayor got in touch with BP, and said, “Here is a place we can do business. Come and put your hydrogen plant here.” BP went to the local colleges and said, “We want the people who are coming through your colleges to get the jobs in our plant.” Opportunities were created for local people by negotiation between central and local government, and that, I strongly believe, is levelling up.

In answer to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden made on standardisation versus variation, and to the fears my hon. Friend Robin Millar expressed about a cookie-cutter approach, we have cookie cutters of several different shapes. We think those are the best way of delivering effective devolution, with the opportunity for there to be combined county authorities or individual unitary authorities, based on the needs and experience of local communities.

Let me turn to devolution across the UK. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North—I have debated this point with her before—said that the use of section 35 should only be exceptional. Well, it has been used only once. There is no greater illustration of how it is used only in exceptional circumstances than the fact that, in national devolution’s 25-year history, it has been used only once, and even then only in very particular circumstances and on sound legal advice to maintain the balance of laws across the United kingdom. I hope the hon. Member will see—although I know she will not—that that shows that the mechanisms of devolution are, to a certain extent, working and being respected.

I acknowledge what my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy and the hon. Member for Strangford said about the need for there to be respect between nations. That is absolutely right. We are all in this together. In respecting those relationships, we must also understand that this building is one of the places in which the nations come together and that there remains a role for the UK Parliament in the structures of the United Kingdom.

That whistlestop tour does not necessarily answer every individual question, but I am happy to come back to any hon. Member who feels I have not covered their points.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

The debate has been commendable for the tone in which it has been conducted on both sides of the Chamber. However, I must observe that, when the Labour Government introduced the devolved Assembly, it had an unintended consequence. The anecdote at the time was that doing that would deal with nationalism but, with great respect, we have a strong nationalist presence in this House under this Administration. Has the Minister given thought to the factor of unintended consequences?

To cite one example, tax-raising powers have been devolved, but in the case of Wales they have not been taken up. I use that example as a further illustration of the unevenness and the natural response—the phrase I used was “desire lines”. Will the Minister comment on that in the minute he has left?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Few people have thought about this issue more than my hon. Friend. He is certainly right to say that the Labour party was wrong in its assessment that devolution would kill nationalism, although these were cross-cutting issues even at the time. I remember Charles Clarke arguing openly that the Government were mistaken and that the nationalists would be empowered. That goes to show that parties can hold different views.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Nottingham North on one thing. I think that the constitution of the United Kingdom remains incredibly strong. Indeed, it seems capable of coping with everything we throw at it. One of its great strengths over the centuries has been its ability to adapt, evolve and grow, and when it comes to the agenda this Government are pursuing on devolution in England, it is doing just that.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden 3:58, 8 March 2023

I thank the Minister, Opposition Members and Government Members for an interesting and thoughtful debate. The nub of the debate around English devolution is this: in 1265, and for centuries subsequently, two MPs were sent to Westminster from among the leading citizens of the town, and two knights came to Westminster from the counties. We heard from the Minister the respect in which the shires have historically been held. It is not standardisation to say that we can have that sort of respect for the relationship between all local areas and the centre. I would urge everybody to bear that in mind.

If we are serious about more power going to local people, that is going to mean more money. If we are serious about there being more money, we are going to have to clarify the responsibilities between local authorities and the Treasury.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).