Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Memorandum to the Liaison Committee

1.  Devolution has had a major influence on the nature of the inquiries undertaken by the Scottish Affairs Committee. Since July 1999 many of the functions of the former Scottish Office have passed to the Scottish Executive and scrutiny has become the responsibility of Committees in Edinburgh. In some respects this has reduced the scope of the Committee's activities. However, the existence of a Select Committee to monitor Scottish interests in reserved matters has become even more important. The Committee is keen to keep a watchful eye on Scottish interests with regard to reserved matters, and also to establish a good working relationship with Committees in the Scottish Parliament.

2.  The Committee has adapted well to its new environment, and examples of the importance of joined-up working are shown below. The UK Government made the decision to reserve those matters that would benefit the whole of the United Kingdom by having a "consistent and regulated approach". The Scottish Affairs Committee is committed to this view, and to ensuring that the best interests of the people of Scotland are considered in these important areas.

The Scottish Affairs Committee post-devolution

3.  In November 1998 the Committee published a Report on The Operation of Multi-Layer Democracy[31]. Evidence was taken from academics, experts in constitutional matters and representatives of Scottish local administration. In this Report the Scottish Affairs Committee aimed to consolidate expert advice and to discuss the ramifications of the new system. The Report made it clear that, in the view of the Committee, " ... it is in the interest of all people of goodwill to work towards making the new configuration a success.".

4.  Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament the Scottish Affairs Committee has been careful to confine its recommendations, where possible, to subjects for which the responsibility is reserved to the UK Parliament. On occasions, however, it has been useful for the Committee to request both formal and informal evidence on devolved issues, in order to gain a full understanding of all aspects of an inquiry. Evidence has been provided willingly by Departments of the Scottish Executive. For example, the Committee's inquiry into Poverty in Scotland[32] benefited from oral evidence from Wendy Alexander MSP, Minister for Communities. The Committee also requested background information from the Scottish Department of Health in advance of the inquiry into the Drinks Industry in Scotland.

5.  In January 2000, members of the Scottish Affairs Committee visited Glasgow to host an informal meeting with members of the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee of the Scottish Parliament. During this meeting, members from both Committees expressed a wish to work together and to swap information wherever possible. The Committee's inquiry into Poverty in Scotland provided a classic example of the problem of overlap between reserved matters (for example, social security benefits, employment policy, energy pricing) and devolved matters (such as health, education, careers advice, housing, area regeneration). There is no formal structure in place for joint meetings between committees of both Parliaments, therefore it was agreed that if the Committees wanted to meet, an informal session in a neutral setting would be the most appropriate way to proceed. To date the Scottish Affairs Committee has neither requested a further meeting nor been involved in any request from a Committee from either Parliament for a meeting. Committee staff do, however, regularly relay information on the progress of inquiries. In its recent report on Poverty in Scotland the Committee recommended that the Procedure Committee should examine the situation with regard to meetings between Committees of the House and Committees of the devolved assemblies, with a view to facilitating joint meetings.

6.  In March 2000 the Committee held an evidence session with Dr John Reid MP, Secretary of State for Scotland and Mr Ian Gordon, Head, Scotland Office, on The Work of the Scotland Office Since Devolution [33] . Topics under discussion included the work of the Joint Ministerial Committee; the relationship between the two Parliaments; and the representation of the Scottish electorate. This subject may be revisited by the Committee in the future.

The direction of the Committee's work

7.  The 1999-2000 Session illustrates the direction of the post-devolution Committee, and shows further examples of the Committee's adaptability.

8.  During the 1999-2000 Session the Committee completed a detailed and extensive inquiry into Poverty in Scotland and held a one-off evidence session on the work of BBC Scotland. The Committee returned to the subject of Scotland Since Devolution and also held an evidence session on the Scotland Office Annual Report 2000. Finally, the Committee gathered a huge amount of evidence in advance of the new inquiry into The Drinks Industry in Scotland, which began towards the end of the 1999-2000 Session and will continue into 2001.

9.  The Committee places great emphasis on visiting Scotland and does so frequently. It endeavours to talk informally to as many interested parties as possible connected with an inquiry. The poverty inquiry could not have been conducted properly within the confines of the House of Commons. It was necessary to visit various parts of Scotland and specifically to talk to individuals and communities affected by poverty who otherwise might not have been able to contribute to the Committee's work. For example, as a priority, the Committee met with homeless people at a drop-in centre in Glasgow. The structure of the programme showed the care taken by the Committee to gather evidence in as appropriate an environment as possible for the source of information. Evidence was heard at formal meetings from established organisations; others were asked to send their views in writing [34]. Towards the end of the inquiry the Committee attended an informal meeting with the Director General of the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OfGem) in order to discuss issues of fuel poverty.

10.  The inquiry into Poverty in Scotland illustrated the main thrust of the Committee's inquiries: to scrutinise areas of reserved responsibility and to offer realistic and helpful suggestions to Government Departments in the Committee's final Report.

Government Replies

11.  The Scottish Office and its successor, the Scotland Office have seldom provided the Committee with a Government Reply within the required two months of publication of the Committee's Report. [35] The Scotland Office maintain that this is because of time spent in liaison with other Government Departments and waiting for each part of the reply to be authorised by the appropriate Secretary or Minister of State. For example, the report on Poverty in Scotland was published on 19 July. The Government response was received on 4 December. The Scotland Office Parliamentary and Constitutional Division increasingly finds that it is required to be an intermediary between the Committee and other Government Departments, and this can delay the provision of information to the Committee.

Relations with the Government Department

12.  Liaison with the Scotland Office is, in general, cordial and effective. However, there have been occasions over the last year when the Scotland Office has neglected to inform the Committee of important developments. For example, the Committee was not sent a copy of the Department's Annual Report, nor was the Committee Clerk informed that it had been published. The Department does not tend to be proactive in offering information. Without prompting it is very seldom that Committee staff are provided with the dates of Scottish Grand Committee meetings or the progress of a Government reply or memorandum, and on no occasion has the Committee Clerk received any special notice of either a new initiative or the Minister's views on a subject. The Scottish Affairs Committee staff are keen to develop more co-operation with the Department at an administrative level.

Resource Accounting and Budgeting

13.  The Scottish Affairs Committee raised implementation of Resource Accounting and Budgeting by the Scotland Office during the oral evidence session in June 2000 on the Scotland Office Departmental Report 2000 [36]. The Rt Hon Dr John Reid MP, Secretary of State for Scotland, assured the Committee that the Department was on line to produce resource estimates and accounts in line with the Government's plans.

Memorandum from the Scotland Office

14.  Annexed to this Report is a memorandum from the Scotland Office[37] which, with the exception of those contained in the Government reply to the report into Poverty in Scotland[38], provides information on progress on recommendations made by the Committee in its reports during the current Parliament. This document was compiled diligently by the Scotland Office in consultation with other Government Departments and the Scottish Executive. The Committee is extremely grateful to the Scottish Executive for the spirit of cooperation demonstrated by their willingness to participate in this exercise.

Response by the Scottish Executive to the Committee's report on Poverty in Scotland

15.  On 30 November the Secretary of State for Scotland wrote to the Chairman of the Committee with the Government's response to the report on Poverty in Scotland. On 21 November the Minister for Social Justice wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland outlining the response by the Scottish Executive to the same report. The Committee compliments the Scottish Executive on the constructive nature of their contribution to its inquiry and the high standard of their response.

Joint meetings between Select Committees and Committees of the Scottish Parliament

16.  There currently exists no easy mechanism to enable formal joint meetings to take place between committees of the House of Commons and those of the devolved legislatures. In its Fourth Report on The Procedural Consequences of Devolution[39], the Procedure Committee recommended that: "Committees should not hold formal meetings in conjunction with Members of the devolved legislatures without the express authority of the House, and Members should be aware that there is no guarantee that their words enjoy the protection of Article IX of the Bill of Rights in any informal joint meeting."

17.  In its report into Poverty in Scotland, the Scottish Affairs Committee requested that the Procedure Committee re-examine ways to facilitate appropriate formal joint meetings. The Government's response to this recommendation indicated that this was a matter for the House authorities. However, any change of the sort envisaged would require an amendment to the Standing Orders of the House and, possibly, to the rules of the Scottish Parliament. The former would require a motion on the Order Paper which would originate with a Government Minister, probably the Leader of the House. Therefore in the view of the Committee, the matter ultimately does rest with the Government.

18.  Under the circumstances the Liaison Committee might wish to request that the Procedure Committee look further at the issues involved.

13 December 2000

31   HC 460-I, Session 1997-98. Back

32   HC 59-I, Session 1999-2000. Back

33   HC 390-i, Session 1999-2000. Back

34   Annex 1 shows the extensive number of organisations and individuals the Committee met in Scotland during the inquiry into Poverty in Scotland.  Back

35   A table showing dates when Government replies were received is attached at Annex 2. Back

36   HC 607-i, Session 1999-2000. Back

37   Annex 3. Back

38   HC 55, Session 2000-01.  Back

39   HC 185, Session 1998-99. Back

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