United Kingdom: Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:35 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Humphreys Baroness Humphreys Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Wales) 1:35, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I am grateful the noble Lord, Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, for securing this debate, which has afforded us the opportunity to examine the state of our union.

Before I carry on, I will add my tributes to Lord McAvoy. He was the Labour Chief Whip when, 10 years ago, I became a Lib Dem whip. I must admit that he terrified me until I began to understand his sense of humour—which was a really different sense of humour.

We have had a fascinating, informative and wide debate and it has been good to hear voices from across the UK, from Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and the north-west of England. Before I bring some comments from Wales, I will highlight two or three speeches that I have heard today. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, for his reference to Wales so that we did not feel left out; and his emphasis on the fragility of the union because of the situations in Scotland and Ireland was an excellent analysis of the situation in both nations. He did say that, in opinion polls, 50% of people are still in favour of independence in Scotland and I concur with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that it is a pity that those voices are not represented in this Chamber—we need to see and hear them.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, for the lesson in the pronunciation of her home town—I hope I attempted it rightly—and for her really moving speech about her background, her father being a police officer and his shooting resulting in them having to move house. This of course was the background to her setting up the organisation Together UK. I thank her for that speech; it was wonderful.

I will also comment on the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. I really object to the term “language fascism” and I thank Members in the Chamber for their response to that comment. People fail to understand that Wales is a bilingual nation, and people have the right to use their first language, whichever language that is, or both languages, if they want to.

I will now turn to the subject of the debate. From my point of view, and perhaps from many people’s point of view, the United Kingdom’s greatest weakness is that it is an unequal, or asymmetric, union. We are union of four nations: three smaller nations and one which is much larger in terms of land mass, population, wealth and political power. And each nation has a different vision for the future of its people. But it is in the area of political power, however, that the disparity between the four nations became increasingly obvious. For many of us in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there was a desire to see government from a dominant and distant London replaced by a Government in our own country.

The first 20 years of devolution and our National Assembly brought a feeling of relative stability, for possibly two main reasons. First, the area of north Wales and the valleys qualified for EU funding because its GDP was among the lowest in the regions of the European Union. Secondly, and most importantly, the Welsh Government and consecutive UK Governments worked collaboratively to honour the Sewel convention and protect the Welsh devolution settlement. I concur fully with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, when he spoke in the gap.

All that changed with the 2019 election. The new Government’s desire to strengthen the union and bind it together led to a more cavalier approach to the Sewel convention and to increasing financial and work pressure on the devolved Administration as they struggled to defend their settlement, all resulting in a fraught, fractured relationship between the two Governments. Engagement between the UK Government and the devolved Administration at ministerial level became less frequent, and of great concern to Members in this House and in the Senedd. It is clear that, if the relationship between the nations of the UK is to be strong, it must be based on mutual respect and co-operation. The leadership for that must come from the strongest nation. Constant attacks on the powers of the devolved Parliaments are counterproductive and give rise to resentment and sometimes enmity.

As your Lordships’ Constitution Committee report, Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st century, pointed out,

“the failure to develop a modern form of ‘shared governance’ which recognises central and devolved governments have distinct statutory responsibilities that often intersect, has undermined the strength of the Union”.

Do the UK Government have plans to develop such a modern form of shared governance, or do they have any other plans to develop the union in future?

The Welsh Government have indeed considered the future, and a recent report of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales included 10 recommendations for reform which focused on both strengthening and protecting devolution. The report included an analysis of three options for the constitutional future of Wales:

“enhanced devolution, Wales in a federal UK, and an independent Wales”.

It concluded that “each option is viable” and that

“each offers strengths and weaknesses, risks and opportunities”.

As a Liberal Democrat, my preference, of course, would be for a federal system whereby power is devolved to the regions of England as well as to the three devolved nations. We really do need to solve the “English question”. England has no Parliament of its own, and its county councils, many of which represent areas larger than Wales, do not have the executive power our devolved Parliaments have—another disparity which will require attention over time.

I will end by referring to the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Bew. He reminded us that during the Brexit campaign, there were thoughts that Brexit might well destroy the union. It actually showed how difficult it is to leave the union. That is a lesson we all need to take from this: that it is difficult to leave the union. Perhaps, the words used during the campaign—as a Remainer, I would remember this—that we are “stronger together”, might apply here too.