United Kingdom: Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:52 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Cameron of Lochiel Lord Cameron of Lochiel The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 1:52, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, it is a very great honour for me to be standing here before your Lordships and to be delivering my maiden speech in a debate secured by my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning. I thank him not just for his guidance in the past few weeks but for his stalwart service to Scotland and the United Kingdom in this past decade—service that has been far more pivotal than many people realise. I also express gratitude to my two noble kinsmen who acted as supporters at my introduction last week, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and my noble friend Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton. Having turned back with the rest of the Jacobite army at Derby in 1745, it has taken Clan Cameron only another 279 years to reach the capital. To the noble Lord and my noble friend, to Black Rod, to the Clerk of the Parliaments, to the doorkeepers and to many others who have given me invaluable assistance, my heartfelt thanks.

I believe it is customary before turning to the substance of the debate to say a few personal words. In terms of my own career, having studied history at university, I practised law in Scotland as an advocate, before being elected in 2016 to represent the Highlands and Islands in the Scottish Parliament. That too was a great honour as an MSP representing my home region—a place of wild and staggering beauty but inhabited by communities often challenged with depopulation, lack of connectivity and a frail local economy.

The task for any elected representative is of course to try to improve the lives of people within those communities. As someone who has now been given the huge privilege of serving as a Minister, the question for me becomes: what can government do to assist in that endeavour? Perhaps the answer lies in the islands of the west, if your Lordships might allow me to explain. If one travels along the main road that runs up the spine of the Western Isles, one uses a number of small stone causeways to make one’s way from island to island—causeways that many would never notice, given the majestic views offered on all sides, framed in the ever-changing light for which those islands are renowned. But those slight structures are important in the long, rich story of the Hebrides, and the tides of history that brought cultures and peoples to and from their shores: Gaels from Ireland, Vikings from Norway—waves of men and women sweeping in and sweeping out.

It was the last ebbing away of people from the islands in the 20th century as a result of eviction, world war and emigration that pre-empted the causeways’ construction. Quietly, steadily, they were built from the 1940s onwards in a bid to stem depopulation, linking tiny, fragile communities and so ending the isolation of centuries. That was a small accomplishment at the very edge of this country, achieved amid the crashing waves of the Atlantic and the cry of the oystercatcher, and far removed from the cut and thrust of metropolitan politics here in the capital.

However, those causeways are just as much part of our great country as the busy thoroughfares of London, and they represent one example of what government should be doing everywhere; namely, building the causeways for our citizens to walk safely over, both literally and metaphorically. A Government should connect their citizens and communities and allow them to realise their own potential. A Government should enable and empower, end isolation and ensure that every citizen feels entirely connected to, and part of, our joint efforts. No man is an island, indeed.

I turn to the substance of today’s important debate, which also supplies one argument for the union, and the role of the United Kingdom Government in strengthening that union by connecting the nations of the UK through strategic interventions, and thus bridging the gaps between us. It will not surprise your Lordships to hear me say that this Government have few higher priorities than strengthening and protecting our enduring union. In a moment, I will respond to various issues that have been raised here today, but I will begin by setting out why our union is of course worth safeguarding.

This Government believe that each part of the UK is stronger by being part of it, and the UK is stronger because of the immense contribution of each of its nations. 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, including our Armed Forces, our common social security safety net and our National Health Service, and we are better able to tackle the big problems, from supporting families with the cost of living to leading the international response to Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. The UK Government are committed to delivering on the issues that matter most to citizens: driving down inflation, growing our economy and maintaining the UK’s energy security.

In the UK, our internal market is the basis on which thousands of businesses are able to trade freely across the whole of the UK, minimising red tape and maximising opportunities. In Scotland, for example, the majority of outgoing trade is with the rest of the UK, more than with the rest of the world combined. I firmly believe that the UK provides the best platform for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England to thrive.

This Government are steadfast in our mission to level up all parts of the UK. To date, UK government investment in levelling up across the country has included over £3 billion of direct investment in Scotland, more than £2.5 billion for Wales—plus a further £500 million to secure the future of Port Talbot’s steel industry—and just over £1 billion for Northern Ireland.

In practice, levelling up means working with local partners across the UK to regenerate our town centres and high streets. I am delighted that last week the Chancellor announced £20 million over 10 years for a further 20 towns across the UK as part of the long-term plan for towns. Those towns include Arbroath, Peterhead and Kirkwall in Scotland, Rhyl in Wales, and Derry/Londonderry and Coleraine in Northern Ireland.

Levelling up also means spreading opportunity more equally across the country, be it funding the first fully licensed UK spaceport in Shetland, committing £2 million to boost global investment and trade in Northern Ireland or launching an agri-food launchpad to grow innovation clusters across mid and north Wales.

The Government are proud of our work with the devolved Governments. In that spirit, we welcome the return to power sharing in Northern Ireland and the positive impact that the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive will have—a point I will return to in a moment.

This Government are also proud and respectful of the devolution settlements, which strike the right balance between allowing decisions to be taken closer to the communities that they affect, while still benefiting from the shared resources of the United Kingdom. I am delighted that, over the course of the debate, your Lordships have recognised and highlighted this important balance. I am particularly grateful for the contributions from those with experience of each of the devolved legislatures. I pay tribute to the experiences of my noble friend Lady Goldie and the noble Baronesses, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee and Lady Humphreys.

My view, from almost eight years as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, is that the significant powers that each of our devolved institutions possesses provide great opportunity to deliver on behalf of people in every corner of the UK. In my career, I have been proud to play my part in a number of initiatives; for example, promoting the Gaelic language as a part of the shared heritage of people in the Highlands and Islands and beyond.

People across this country rightly expect their Governments to work together, dedicating attention and resources to the issues that matter to them, their families and their communities. The UK Government engage with the devolved Governments regularly in a variety of ways, including through the formal intergovernmental machinery. Since the beginning of 2023 alone there have been more than 200 ministerial meetings between the UK and devolved Governments, underpinned by constant official-level engagement. In the very short time that I have been a Minister, I have already seen that at first hand.

This Government are committed to making devolution work by conducting positive and effective working across all levels of government, using the respective levers at our disposal to deliver the best possible outcomes for people, businesses and communities, and to tackle the challenges we collectively face. Such collaborative working is at the heart of important initiatives such as freeports, city and growth deals, and investment zones.

In relation to the last of those, the UK Government are also committed to engaging, via the east-west council, on the scope to extend Northern Ireland’s enhanced investment zone benefits to the Stranraer/Cairnryan area in Scotland, recognising this vital union connectivity route and boosting growth. In my experience, we are at our strongest when we work together, delivering on the priorities that matter the most to people across the UK.

I will now respond to some of the very important points raised today. Following a former Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, the former director of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and a former party leader in Scotland, this is very much like a trip down memory lane. They are all prominent figures in my past, which is intimidating and reassuring in equal measure.

I begin with my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning and thank him for his very kind words. In his powerful and incisive speech, he cited John Buchan and the contradiction between unionism and nationalism —perhaps that provided a template for the future of the union. He is correct; the union is one of diversity. I suggest that the union flag itself reveals that; with its jarring symbols and clash of colours, it operates in the plural not the singular. Having said that, as he accepted and I think we all acknowledge, we of course celebrate the crucial UK-wide institutions and our British identity, and we adhere to those.

My noble friend Lord Lilley was the first of many English voices in this debate. It is so welcome to hear those voices because they have traditionally been quieter than those of the slightly louder Celtic contingent. He was right to celebrate the union. He spoke about the range of things that unify us: language, culture, history, ancestry and, perhaps most powerfully, sacrifice in war. My noble friend also spoke about the need to be positive and enthusiastic and to celebrate the union.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, spoke about the upheaval of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union and how much greater an impact sundering a much older union would have—how right he is. He spoke about being careful about using Ireland as a model for an independent Scotland, especially in economic analysis. On behalf of the UK Government, I say that we of course welcome the return of the Executive and devolved government in Northern Ireland, after two years without an Administration. This deal has ensured that power sharing is up and running again, as people in Northern Ireland want and need.

The Government still provide the Executive with an unprecedented £3.3 billion spending settlement, with a new approach to support stability, prosperity and sustainable public services. This underlines Northern Ireland’s integral place in our union, fulfilling the Acts of Union and affirming that we will not countenance any diminution in that position without consent. Lastly, it safeguards the UK internal market, guaranteeing unfettered access for Northern Ireland firms and supporting trade across the United Kingdom, enabling all parts of the UK to benefit.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, spoke about his belief in devolution and made an important distinction between party-political support for the union and the support of the populace for the union. He asked for the UK Government to be robust. I reassure him and will give a brief exposition of the UK Government’s position on Northern Ireland’s place in the union. In accordance with the Good Friday agreement and the principle of consent, Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK for as long as its people wish. The Government recognise and respect the legitimacy of different constitutional ambitions, as long as they are pursued peacefully and democratically, and we are steadfastly committed to upholding the Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. None the less, this Government are proud of Northern Ireland’s place in the union. We firmly believe that Northern Ireland has the best of both worlds, with the Northern Ireland Executive backed by the support and strength of the UK Government.

The agreement is explicit that any change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would require the consent of a majority of its people, and there is no clear basis to suggest that a majority of people in Northern Ireland presently wish to separate from the United Kingdom. The overwhelming consensus in Northern Ireland, rather like in Scotland, is that it needs a strong Executive or Government to deliver on the issues that really matter to people day to day—health, jobs, the cost of living and education—and that will remain our focus.

My noble friend Lady Goldie has long experience in the Scottish Parliament, and serving as a Minister in the UK Government here in your Lordships’ House. She posed various questions that she answered using this experience and expertise. I will reflect on them more broadly. The theme underlying her contribution was partnership and personal relationships, and I reassure her that they exist in government. There has been mention of the intergovernmental relations review, which proposed various levels of engagement. In my few short weeks at official level, I have seen that working as a reality. I also point out to my noble friend initiatives that the UK Government have brought forward such as the Islands Forum. Personal relationships are key, as she said, and, from a personal perspective, having been in the Scottish Parliament with colleagues who serve as Ministers in the Scottish Government, I hope I can play a small part in fostering those relationships.

The noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, gave me a warm welcome, for which I thank her. She spoke about her part of the world in Fermanagh, and that reminded me that, as an MSP, I would often drive down the Kintyre peninsula to Campbeltown and be able to gaze across to the Northern Ireland coast, a visible reminder that the Scottish highlands and Northern Ireland are close physically, geographically, emotionally, culturally and politically. There are so many ancient links between our two parts of the world.

The noble Baroness spoke about the rollout of the Covid vaccine across the United Kingdom. It was, of course, one of the greatest achievements of this Government. My noble friend Lord Moylan spoke coherently about the union of Parliaments, the voluntary nature of this union and how unusual it was. He spoke cogently about the affection binding the union together.

In relation to the Welsh language, I will be clear: the UK Government fully support the Welsh Government’s aim for there being 1 million speakers of Welsh by 2050. The Welsh language is devolved, but the UK Government are committed to supporting its promotion and use in Wales. Languages belong to everyone and, as I said earlier, I have taken a long interest in promoting the Gaelic language. I hark back to the UK Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s and their contribution to Gaelic broadcasting.

My noble friend Lord Godson likewise gave me a very generous welcome. He might not remember, but the first time I met him was at a Policy Exchange event about the union. I recognise and pay tribute to his own interest in these issues over many years. In relation to security and defence, I point to the good working between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Irish Garda. There is an embedded culture of collaboration there. They co-operate in the context of terrorism—I accept that it is not a state threat—but, on the more specific questions on defence and security, I commit to writing to my noble friend on these issues. They are very much in the domain of my noble friend Lord Minto, whom I will make aware of these matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, spoke of being Hanoverian—another important English voice—and about Cumbria and its similarities to Scotland. I of course defend the levelling-up programme. It is a government achievement that occurs across the United Kingdom. Many towns in England have benefited, as well as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I commit to writing to him in relation to the borderlands.

My noble friend Lord Udny-Lister spoke about issues relating to national security. I reiterate the same commitment to him to write to him in due course. I acknowledge his long interest in the union and recall meeting him in Edinburgh a few years ago.

My noble and learned friend Lord Keen of Elie spoke about Sewel. I am anxious not to step on the toes of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, which I know is looking at this at the moment. The United Kingdom is committed to the Sewel convention and the associated practices for seeking consent. The United Kingdom Government seek legislative consent for any Bill that legislates for a devolved matter or alters devolved competence. We can and do take account of devolved Administrations’ views on those issues, including in reserved policy areas.

In relation to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, I will indeed take the point about the SNP and this House to the Leader of this House. I just point out today that the objection to taking part in your Lordships’ House is the SNP’s, and effectively it is a red line for it as a political party.

The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, was a welcome Welsh voice. She asked about the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future for Wales. That report was, of course, commissioned by the Welsh Government, and it is for Ministers in Wales to respond directly to it. People and businesses in Wales want to see all tiers of government working effectively together to tackle the issues that matter to them. Delivering on what matters to people and communities is exactly what the UK Government are focused on doing.

To the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, I reiterate the points I made about working together and repeat that I have already seen that happening in practice. The review of intergovernmental relations is up and running. All four Governments are jointly responsible for upholding the spirit and content of the IGR structures and ensuring productive governmental relations. Since the review was published in 2022, we have established 16 interministerial groups. The interministerial council has met six times; the interministerial financial standing council has met five times; the council has met once, and the secretariat has been established. There will always be evolution, and it is vital through scrutiny such as this debate that we can help mature that system.

I will conclude with some words of assurance. This Government will never cease to be a Government who put the safeguarding and strengthening of our union at the centre of our work. As I have set out, I am honoured to be able to champion this mission in this place as a proud representative of the Scotland Office. However, we must never be complacent. We must always remember that safeguarding our union is an ongoing mission and not simply a short-term response to temporary political turbulence.

All parts of our great nation contribute to the strength of the United Kingdom, which remains the most successful political and economic union the world has ever seen. Under this Government, that will always be the case.