United Kingdom: Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:44 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 1:44, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys; her comments on strengthening and protecting devolution were thoughtful and very helpful. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, for securing this debate, and echo his words of welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Lochiel, whose maiden speech I look forward very much to hearing.

This has been a helpful and interesting debate. Our union is precious to many of us. For some, that is because of our shared historical ties, common bonds and family ties. For others, there is an economic reality that we are more prosperous as a united group of nations. We believe in and respect our differences and our often-overlapping identities, and think that by pooling aspects of our sovereignty, we are better off and more secure. Prosperity, security, and opportunity: that is the promise of our union.

The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, invited us to celebrate the union, sharing his personal affection for it, but I would say that we must guard against the perception of support that relies too heavily on—how can I put this—a whimsical historical reference, as this can be at times alienating to some. I think the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, warned us of that in his introduction.

Most speakers in this debate have referred, at least in part, to the risks or threats we face, and they are right to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, reminded us of the importance of public service delivery and demonstrating continual improvement. His analysis of the improving situation in Northern Ireland was positive; I hope that can be sustained. I warmly thank him for his kind words about Lord McAvoy, which were echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, and the noble Baronesses, Goldie and Lady Humphreys. I did not know Lord McAvoy as well as many noble Lords did, and I really feel, having listened to their comments this afternoon, that I missed a treat. I am sad about that.

As many have said, our union must never be taken for granted or assumed to have a God-given right to exist. Respect and care must be taken, especially by the UK Government. The call by the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, for an attitude of partnership was spot on. Her insight about respect, pragmatism and the importance of personal political relationships was valuable and very well made. It is sensible to acknowledge that the past decade has presented its challenges. Brexit, nationalism and, at times, the approach of the UK Government have all put the union under stress. The noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, reminded us that independence is not inevitable—of course she is right about that—but neither is the safeguarding of the union, hence this debate.

I was sorry to hear the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, refer to “linguistic fascism” in Wales. I invite him, gently and with a great deal of respect, to consider his use of language and whether the tone that he deployed in that remark, which I think could be perceived as high-handed, serves in the longer term to strengthen or weaken the union. He referred to Gordon Brown. The central tenet of Gordon Brown’s report for the Commission on the UK’s Future is that our constitutional arrangements and our economic success are inextricably connected. He points out that the UK is one of the most politically and economically centralised countries in Europe. This leaves us stuck with great inequality between different regions and an economy that is less competitive.

Whitehall has failed to manage relations with the devolved Administrations well, sometimes interfering in areas it should not, while at other times pursuing a rather laissez-faire approach when agreed UK-wide joint approaches would have been much more effective. The UK’s different Governments have to work together. This is what the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, referred to as the physics of the union. It is widely recognised that the present Joint Ministerial Committee system has long struggled to be effective and has virtually been allowed to fail under the present Government. At the same time, there are no mechanisms for the voices of the cities and regions of England to be heard at the centre. The UK needs new and much more effective mechanisms for co-operation between regions and nations. These must respect local and regional voices as well as those of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Sadly, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, reminded us, there is a sense in the devolved Administrations that the UK Government have at times been happy to ride roughshod over devolution and do not trouble themselves over disrespecting convention. During the passage of the EU withdrawal Act in 2020, the UK Government overrode the Sewel convention but said at the time that it was a singular, specific and exceptional necessity. The problem is that the Government have proceeded to breach Sewel subsequently without even seeking to offer a justification. This is not a recipe for a strong union. For example, the shared prosperity fund, the levelling up fund and the widening levelling-up agenda have left the Welsh Government excluded from any meaningful involvement in the decision-making processes for these funds. Engagement between the UK Government and the Welsh Government was, it appears, superficial, late and limited in scope. Return of control of these elements of economic devolution to the Welsh Government, where it belongs, would be an important first step in improving this situation.

The decision to bypass Ministers in the Welsh Government is an overt and deliberate disregard by the UK Government of the constitutional settlement approved by the people of Wales in successive referenda and opens the door to progressive, incremental repeal of the devolution settlement with no debate and no consent from the people of Wales. Support for the union cannot be a thing of romance or nostalgia. It is about making sure that every citizen benefits and that power, wealth and opportunity are shared. As support for the union waxes and wanes, it is vital that those who believe in it and think it the best way to secure the future of all regions and nations continue to make the case for it. That is how the union will be protected, not for its own sake but for the sake of all those whom it exists to serve and protect.