Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st century is the title of a recent report from the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which I chaired while it considered this important topic. The words in the report’s title are carefully chosen to reflect the Committee’s conclusions about the future governance of the UK after months of taking written and oral evidence and visiting our equivalent committees at the Senedd and the Scottish Parliament.
2022 marks the centenary of the UK, the Union. However, it has been evident for some time that tensions exist, and they pose serious threats. A feeling that decisions are made in some distant and out of touch centre does not inspire confidence in our democracy. The fact that the UK is exceptionally centralised also means its decision making may be holding back our economic development. As a Committee we have a collective confidence in the Union but we believe that the current stresses and strains must be addressed.
The world is changing. Brexit has undoubtedly led to greater tensions between the devolved institutions and Whitehall. Like the Dunlop Review of intergovernmental relations, we regret that better arrangements were not in place before Brexit. While tensions can partly be attributed to political differences, there are steps that could be taken to ensure better working relationships. Whitehall has responded to the Dunlop Review with some positive measures but what will really make a difference is each institution treating the other with respect. An example of where this has been lacking is the absence of mutually agreed agendas for previous meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee. This may seem minor but indicates the need for a change in culture.
COVID-19 has given rise to similar issues. In the earliest days of the pandemic the Prime Minister included the devolved administrations in Cobra meetings but then decision making moved to two cabinet committees and the devolved administrations were excluded. Pandemics do not respect boundaries and joint working was beneficial and should have continued.
We recognise that the success of changes to intergovernmental structures will depend on all parties being committed to using the new structures and cooperating on achieving shared objectives rather than manufacturing, or taking opportunities to accentuate, political differences.
We recommend that for parliamentarians in all institutions to have better scrutiny of intergovernmental relations there should be new and enhanced interparliamentary relations. There were tentative moves towards this pre-COVID but now is the time to increase this engagement to promote interparliamentary collaboration on common problems.
The report makes specific recommendations about the process for legislative consent from the devolved institutions (the Sewel Convention). The legislative consent process generally worked well from 1999 but implementing Brexit put it under great strain.
We did not recommend that the courts should be involved in legislative consent as we believe that it is Parliament’s role to scrutinise its operation. New interparliamentary cooperation could have a role here. Certainly, the House of Lords should strengthen its scrutiny of bills which engage the Sewel Convention.
The Committee was very impressed by the evidence we heard about the need to enhance devolution within England. Councillors James Jamieson and Nick Forbes made a very strong case for this, giving examples of ways in which local delivery of services could be more effective and more efficient. The fact that civil servant numbers have risen in recent years as the numbers employed by local government has decreased illustrates the problems facing local authorities.
The long-delayed levelling up White Paper will need local and regional authority to deliver change. This will require capacity building, changes to funding arrangements and greater fiscal devolution.
The multiplicity of funding pots from which local government is invited to bid occupies a disproportionate amount of its capacity. Lack of fiscal devolution prohibits local areas from determining how locally raised money is spent. This must change if local authorities are to dedicate resources to the vital and long overdue task of levelling up the country.
The report’s central message is that a renewed focus on respect and partnership is required to strengthen effective relations among the Union’s constituent parts. After the challenges of Brexit and COVID-19 we now have the perfect opportunity to reset relationships and achieve a better functioning Union.
Ann Taylor was MP for Bolton West between 1974 and 1983, and for Dewsbury between 1987 and 2005. She stepped down from the Commons at the 2005 general election and joined the Lords as Baroness Taylor of Bolton. In 2014 she joined the House of Lords Constitution Committee, becoming its chair in June 2017. She stepped down from this role in early 2022.
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