Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 260 - 271)



  260.  I am very happy to have your considered thoughts rather than immediate thoughts. It does seem to me that whilst a Scottish constituent might be able to look at this and say actually now he has two people he can go and badger to do something on his behalf, the difference in effect would be this: the representations made by the member of the Scottish Parliament would be representations made by a member of the body which had responsibility for the matter, whereas representations made by a member of the House of Commons would now no longer be made by a member who had that responsibility. In that sense part of the role of a member of this House, representative function, has been taken away.
  (Margaret Beckett)  I see all of this, to be honest, to be a matter of shades. We are invited to and we do become engaged in discussion with a whole plethora of bodies with whom, strictly speaking, we have no relationship, over whom we exercise no responsibility and who are perfectly free to tell us to push off when we invite them to act on behalf of our constituents. Mostly they do not, though, and that is not because they see us as a specific representative of that person, it is because of the role of Parliament itself and the prestige Parliament has developed over the years and the fact that this is where ultimately the framework of the rules within which we all live and operate is actually set. I take your point entirely. I cannot give you a better answer than that though. I am not sure whether there is one, to be honest.


  261.  How do you perceive that your Government, that is a Government of the United Kingdom, will involve ministers in the Scottish Parliament in matters relating to, for instance, the European Union when there may be a dual role?
  (Margaret Beckett)  The primary responsibility with regard to negotiation with the European Union remains with the UK Government. What I would anticipate is that there will be a cooperative and fruitful relationship and exchange of information, advice and concerns.

  262.  You do not perceive any structures at this stage.
  (Margaret Beckett)  There may well be some perhaps informal structures which will grow up. There are bound to be in effect but it will be a matter of making sure that all the proper interests are heard and taken into account in formulating the overall negotiating stance the United Kingdom takes.

  263.  Really your memorandum in saying "by evolution" really meant that.
  (Margaret Beckett)  Very much so.

  264.  At this stage we are going to learn by experience.
  (Margaret Beckett)  Other governments have not dissimilar experiences and draw on them.

Mr Syms

  265.  Britain's experience of devolution principally this century has been Stormont. The Unionist majority there used pretty much to replicate legislation which was introduced by both Conservative and Labour Governments except on one or two exceptional matters where they seemed to take a slightly different view. At Westminster the Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland by and large took a self-denying ordinance not to vote on many domestic matters, which started to break down in 1964 over steel nationalisation; there was a bit of a row. The current plans for devolution are predicated to a large extent on everybody cooperating and working together. Do you think there ought to be some conventions between the United Kingdom Parliament and the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly about criticising members of other bodies or authorities? It is quite likely since the electoral cycle is different that one might end up with a separatist SNP administration north of the border with a different agenda and with members representing constituencies in this House who may be sharing a constituency with members of a different political persuasion north of the border. That might in itself lead to the dynamic of people chucking bricks at each other. Do you think it might be wise to foresee that prospect, the prospect of perhaps rows and criticisms and perhaps using it as a platform or do you not think in practical political terms that is at all possible and we just have to live with what the electorate produce?
  (Margaret Beckett)  I would not like to see us so anticipating it that we encourage it. In our evidence, we have suggested that perhaps this Committee might consider whether there are procedures we should adopt from the beginning, something like the kind of relationship that exists between the House of Lords and ourselves, of generally observing certain degrees of common courtesy and whether there might be merit in adopting perhaps slightly more formally a similar approach with regard to the devolved bodies. That is a matter for this Committee but it might be helpful, because irrespective of what is the political complexion of those who are elected to the devolved bodies, it can only make for better governance if those who are charged with different responsibilities seek to work together rather than to work against each other.

  266.  As you know, on the floor of the House if you are going to criticise another member it is a courtesy to let the other member know so they can be within the Chamber. What I fear is that there will be members jumping up and down from a particular constituency in Scotland criticising a member of another body and one may not be able to have that right of reply and could waste a considerable amount of time with people making speeches criticising some individual who is some hundreds of miles away making speeches criticising another individual down here. I do think perhaps some kind of code ... It would almost have to be done between the Speaker here and the Presiding Officer north of the border. Both would have to have a certain code of conduct. If a matter were perhaps raised here, which did stray into devolved responsibility, then perhaps there ought to be a convention that the Speaker, if she or he allowed that to be raised here, would tip off the Presiding Officer north of the border that this issue was coming up so they would not read about it first in the press, or vice-versa, so there was some kind of communication between both, otherwise people would be sitting in the tea room in Holyrood or wherever reading about these dreadful people down in London saying this and may have the press reports but not what was actually said. We know that press reports and what is said are sometimes a little different.
  (Margaret Beckett)  Indeed I am very conscious of that. That is a very interesting point. I was thinking as you began your remarks that this is very much something which seems to be a matter for the Chair but working on the basis of an agreed code of conduct or agreed criteria. The suggestion you make is an interesting one as to the way in which these relationships might develop.


  267.  Bearing in mind the matter that Robert Syms quite legitimately raised — I think it is an important one — do you think, bearing in mind the advances which have been made in electronic communication, it would be appropriate in this Palace of Westminster to have a room in which there would be an ongoing live feed of television showing what was going on in the Scottish Parliament, what was going on in the Welsh Assembly and what was going on in the Northern Ireland Assembly and perhaps duplicating that north of the border, that the Scottish Parliament might want to know what is going on in the United Kingdom Parliament? Do you think that would be a good move?
  (Margaret Beckett)  It is a very interesting idea. Anything which involves the necessity to find fresh accommodation is always something in which I step with considerable caution because I know that the committees of this House who deal with these matters have a nightmarish time as it is trying to find space for all the things we want to do. Certainly it is a very interesting point that our own methods of work and our own capacity, the way in which we do our job, is already affected by that kind of potential electronic support. It is a most interesting idea. Presumably you would require to have one for each of the devolved bodies because otherwise it would be chaos with different people trying to watch different things.

Mr Gardiner

  268.  A parliamentary channel.
  (Margaret Beckett)  Indeed.


  269.  Would you think this might be a proposal which we might put to the Broadcasting Committee of this House? Would it be appropriate for the Order Paper of the Scottish Parliament and the two assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland to be made available to members of this House? I am seeking to be helpful and constructive.
  (Margaret Beckett)  There is certainly merit in that kind of courteous exchange. It would foster the sort of relationship that Mr Syms was discussing. It may well be. My only slight hesitation at this moment is that these are proposals which perhaps ought to be aired with those devolved bodies as they come into being. Certainly that is exactly the kind of practical networking which might work well in the future.

Mr Syms

  270.  Just to pick up from the point about the TV link, video conferencing is something which is used pretty widely these days. I know there have been examples between Scottish Office and here and the Welsh Office and here. One wonders whether or not perhaps that facility ought to be provided within this House so that Scottish members could talk to other members who represent perhaps the same area or maybe our whips can talk to the whips up there or vice-versa. I rather suspect that people spend time on telephones but I do think perhaps a face to face means of communication might be worth it so that people could book in to talk to their particular colleagues.
  (Margaret Beckett)  That is a very interesting point and it is perhaps something which ought to be raised with the Information Committee because it actually has much wider application. This brings it into particular focus but it is a mechanism which we perhaps tend not to think about to the degree that we should. I am sure that too has considerable implications both for the facilities and for the use of rooms in this place. I am sure it ought to be pursued.


  271.  Before we move on to financial procedure may I just ask you one final question in respect of devolution. We have been putting questions to you, grilling you as it were. Are there any matters you would like to mention to us which you would ask us to look at in respect of devolution and its impact upon the House of Commons in building up and producing our report? Are there any areas where you believe that modest changes can be made which would ease the passage of devolution and make devolution a more successful development?
  (Margaret Beckett)  Most of the issues which I might have thought of raising are issues on which we have already touched. The only other thing I would think might be useful, and you may already have this in mind, is that it will be very important, particularly if we do proceed as I hope we do on an evolutionary path, that the changes which are made, the way things develop is kept under review, that it is monitored and re-assessed as we go along. That is very much the kind of role that perhaps this Committee and perhaps others might well play.

  Chairman:  One point of clarification. When we were talking about questions earlier on and what you had said in your particular memorandum to the Committee, I read that the Government expects that ministers relating to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will continue to answer oral questions in the House once very four weeks. They would welcome the views of the Procedure Committee on whether the amount of time allocated for each oral questions should be reduced once the new legislatures are functioning. In the case of Scotland in particular it is difficult to imagine that the reduced responsibilities of the Secretary of State will generate enough questions for 40 minutes on the floor. Given the continuing responsibilities for Northern Ireland and Wales, it may make sense that their 25-minute question periods remain unaltered. It is important to have that on record today. Thank you for dealing with devolution.

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