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Piecemeal approach to devolution has placed the Union under threat - Lords Committee

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has today published a major report 'The Union and devolution'. It warns that successive UK Governments have taken the Union between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales for granted, without giving proper consideration to the cumulative impact of devolution on the UK as a whole. The time has come to change that.

The Committee believes that the nations of the UK are stronger together than apart. Any future devolution must not be at the expense of the stability, coherence and viability of the Union.

The report identifies a number of the key elements which underpin the Union: the economic union, the social union, the political union, the cultural union, and the security and defence union. Ending or substantially weakening any of these elements would cause grave damage to the integrity of the Union.

The report states that the UK Government should identify which public responsibilities are essential to the effective functioning of the Union and which therefore need to remain at all times the responsibility of the UK Parliament and Government. These core functions should then be protected in any further discussions regarding devolution settlements. 

The Committee says any future proposals for devolution should always be published alongside a detailed Devolution Impact Assessment. That should include an assessment of the proposals against core UK responsibilities to ensure that they will not have a negative impact on the Union. It should also address whether and how the proposed powers would lead to better outcomes for citizens in the region or nation in question, and what the impact would be on citizens living in other parts of the UK.

The report sets out a number of principles that should underpin any future consideration of devolution. These should help ensure that any further demands are considered in a coherent fashion, rather than proceeding in the haphazard manner that has been evident to date. The principles, which are explained fully in the report, include: solidarity, diversity, responsiveness, consent, subsidiarity, and clarity.

Power should be devolved to a nation or region only when doing so would benefit the people of that nation or region and would be without detriment to the Union as a whole. Powers should not be devolved simply because theoretically they can be exercised at a lower level of government.

Commenting, Lord Lang of Monkton, Chairman of the Committee, said:

“We must stop taking the Union for granted. Since 1999, devolution has been largely demand-led and piecemeal. The Committee saw no evidence of strategic thinking about its cumulative impact on the Union as a whole. The Government does not seem to recognise the pressures being placed on the United Kingdom by the ad hoc, reactive manner in which devolution has taken place, and continues to take place. It's now time to focus more on the Union.

“We have previously called for all political parties to articulate a coherent vision for the shape and structure of the UK. In this report we set out how the needs and interests of the Union, as well as of the nations and regions of the whole UK, can be protected in the event of any further demands for devolution in the future.

“UK Governments have failed to adapt to devolution. We urgently need ‘a new mindset' within Government. Devolved competencies now cover so many areas of public responsibility that the delivery of government policies often requires collaboration between the UK and devolved governments. This is not yet being done effectively.

“Instead of the ‘devolve and forget' attitude of the past, the UK Government should be engaging with the devolved administrations across the whole breadth of government policy. Not interfering, but co-operating and actively managing the cross-border and UK-wide implications of differing policy and service delivery choices. Shared and overlapping policy areas need to be handled sensibly, with each administration conscious of the interests of the others.”

Other conclusions in the report include:

  • The ‘inadequate' Barnett Formula should be replaced with a ‘needs based' system for the allocation of funds to the nations and regions. As the devolved institutions become responsible for raising and spending more revenue locally, it will become increasingly important that central government funding is allocated on the basis of need to ensure a fair redistribution of resources across the UK.
  • The Committee are ‘strongly opposed' to full fiscal autonomy for the constituent nations of the UK saying it would ‘break the Union apart'.
  • Provision for any future independence referendum should be set out in primary legislation by the UK Parliament to enable proper scrutiny by representatives of all four nations of the UK.
  • The Joint Ministerial Committee that brings together the UK and devolved governments should be reformed to promote co-operation and collaboration, rather than grandstanding and gesture politics.
  • Civil servants in a unified Civil Service can face conflicting priorities when a devolved government takes a position diametrically opposed to the UK Government on a major policy issue. Clear and definitive guidance for such situations should be issued now, rather than when political tensions have already started to rise.
  • UK Government services should be branded throughout the United Kingdom, to make clear the distinction between services provided by devolved and local governments and those provided by the UK Government.
  • The Committee ‘cautiously welcomes' devolution deals being developed in England, but expresses concern at the ‘apparent lack of consideration' given to how these deals will affect its governance. In particular, the report states that is unclear whether the UK Government has a clear set of objectives in mind to guide the development of the deals, or any vision of what it seeks to achieve.
  • The Committee questions the imposition of directly-elected mayors as part of the devolution deals, particularly when the areas involved have previously rejected the mayoral model in referendums.
  • The Committee states that federalism does not provide a solution to the tensions in the constitution. A federal structure would require either an English Parliament, which would introduce a destabilising asymmetry of power to the Union, or elected regional assemblies, which currently lack both public and political support.
  • It is vitally important that independent public sector broadcasters, including the BBC, continue to provide a common UK-wide service in addition to regional and local coverage, particularly in relation to topics such as news and current affairs. By providing a shared source of culture and information, they play an important role maintaining a common British identity.

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