Greater respect and partnership between the different governments in the United Kingdom in order to improve the shared governance of the country, are called for by the House of Lords Constitution Committee in an extensive report published today.
In Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st century, the committee calls for the creation of a revitalised, better functioning and less rancorous Union, and set outs how such a Union of respect and co-operation can be achieved.
Starting from the admitted standpoint of believing in the United Kingdom and "the principle of mutuality on which it rests", the peers seek a range of "practicable, achievable improvements" to the functioning of the Union and its interrelationships.
Reiterating its previous concern about the tendency to "devolve and forget", the committee also warns against a unilateral approach to strengthening the Union, one that is "insufficiently sensitive to its pluralism". The UK Government, it believes, needs to set out a clearer vision about how the Union will be shaped in the present century.
Regarding the Sewel convention, the committee believes that other than in exceptional circumstances, the UK Government ought not to seek to legislate in devolved areas without consent. It also calls for "more meaningful dialogues" between the UK Parliament and devolved legislatures on legislative consent issues, as well as greater accountability from the UK Government about its approach. With parliamentary sovereignty generally, "Parliament’s legislative authority must continue to be exercised with respect and restraint if the Union is to be strengthened."
While welcoming the recently published Review of Intergovernmental Relations, the report states that believes the new structures for cooperation will only be a success if they are accompanied by a stronger culture of respect, co-operation and partnership between the UK Government and the devolved administrations, even in the face of fundamental political differences. The new arrangements should be accompanied by enhanced interparliamentary relations to allow all legislatures in the United Kingdom to scrutinise the arrangements, holding their respective executives to account and helping to foster greater mutual respect.
The report strongly supports the development of devolution within England, to help improve economic performance and address regional inequalities. This would also benefit the overall health of the Union, by rebalancing power between central government and the other parts of the UK. Considering its importance, the committee regrets the long delay in the publication of the Government’s "Levelling Up" white paper.
Whitehall also needs to transform how it manages, and mediates between, the different interests of the nations and regions, introducing significant culture change including "the end of its top-down mindset".
As for funding arrangements, the committee believes the Barnett formula requires reform to introduce a fairer allocation of funding between the four nations and calls on the Government to examine how funding arrangements could more effectively address relative needs across the UK.
Committee chair Baroness Taylor of Bolton commented: "After the challenges of Brexit and COVID-19 there is a clear need and a clear opportunity to reset relationships between its constituent parts to achieve a better functioning Union. This will help us to keep pace with the rapid changes and many challenges that confront all of us and which every layer of government will have to address in the 21st century.
"The UK Government needs to articulate a compelling vision and narrative for the United Kingdom in the 21st century. The committee’s vision is of a more co-operative Union based on a renewed sense of respect and partnership between the different layers of government and a new emphasis on shared governance in the interests of all its citizens. But for this to be a success requires good faith and a constructive approach from central, devolved and local government."