Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


17 JULY 2007

  Q1 Chairman: Good afternoon. First of all may I congratulate and welcome the new Secretary of State for Scotland and his team to our session on the Scotland Office Annual Report 2007. We have a lot of business to go through this afternoon. Would you like to make any opening statement very briefly?

  Mr Browne: Thank you very much for your welcome. I am happy to be here this afternoon in my first appearance before this Committee to answer questions on the Annual Report of the Scotland Office and the Office of the Advocate General for Scotland. I am supported by David Cairns who is the Minister of State at the Scotland Office and by Jim Wildgoose who is the Head of the Office and I propose appropriately to bring them in on answers. Otherwise we have nothing else to say by way of introduction. We have, as you say, a lot of business to get through so perhaps we should just get on.

  Q2  Chairman: The Annual Report says the first objective of the Scotland Office is to ensure that Scotland's interests in relation to reserved areas are known and represented within the UK Government. What value does the Scotland Office add to bilateral coordination and communication between Whitehall departments and the Scottish Executive?

  Mr Browne: As the Report sets out in one of three objectives, we have a concentrated function. The value that we bring is adequately reported over the year that the Report refers to. We bring an appropriate concentration on devolution issues by those departments whose affairs affect or in some way come into contact with Scottish issues, particularly so that people are sensitive to the issues of devolution. Again as the Report sets out, we have a small amount of resources but very concentrated resources in the Scotland Office whose job it is to do that and keep in touch with, for example, the list of legislation that is set out in the annex of the Report and ensure where relevant that ministers and departments know where these Bills or other activities of those departments may affect Scotland and come into some sort of contact with devolution issues and, vice-versa, where matters which are properly the preserve of the Scottish Parliament and "e Executive of the Scottish Parliament, the Government effectively there in relation to those powers affect issues which are reserved. Again as you can see from the Report and its annex six—and principally this was the responsibility of my now Minister of State, David Cairns—a significant number of these Orders reflecting that interaction are to be taken through Parliament here. That is the value that we bring in terms of Scotland Act Orders.

  Q3  Chairman: If, as the devolution guidance note three says, the Scotland Office does not act "... as a conduit for the necessary communication between the Government and Scottish ministers" then what is its role in encouraging close working relationships between government departments and the Scottish Executive and between Westminster and Holyrood? How can you demonstrate that the taxpayer is getting good value for money?

  Mr Browne: The demonstration that the taxpayer is getting good value for money is the principal purpose of the Report actually. We can expand of course where appropriate on the detail of that but the Report sets out in very accessible terms what the Scotland Office does and that is to be contrasted with the view that is sometimes portrayed otherwise as to the worth of the Scotland Office. You are absolutely right to suggest that we are not the necessary conduit of communication between Scottish Executive ministers and ministers or departments of the UK Government that has grown up over the eight years that we have had devolution, channels of communication on a bilateral basis or on a multilateral basis between the Scottish Executive and those departments. To a large degree that has meant that it has not been necessary for the joint ministerial committee to meet formally because those processes have worked on a bilateral and multilateral basis. The Scotland Office brings a constant examination of these processes as they go through and I am sure you will understand that sometimes it takes the Scotland Office and its officials to point out to ministers and other government departments that there is a particular Scottish dimension to a process just to remind them that they have responsibilities that go beyond and interact with Scotland and in particular the Scottish Parliament and the Executive there. I refer again to the annex of measures both of UK Bills that have been examined, considered and have had some degree of relevance but the other way around too, the occasions when the Scottish Parliament has legislated and that has had a consequential effect on legislation which has a UK or England and Wales perspective and it has been necessary for the functioning of devolution for that to be reflected. So we do bring a necessary oiling of the wheels of devolution and we do it, as you will see from the Report, with a comparatively small amount of money and a comparatively small staff. We are a very lean organisation. It may well be that the current Scottish Executive may challenge us to do more and, if they challenge us to do more, then we may need to look at the particular capabilities and capacity that we have but that will be a matter for discussion.

  Q4  Chairman: Devolution guidance note three identifies a need to "... minimise the scope for surprises both north and south of the border". What went wrong when the Government announced the repatriation of the Libyan national in the Scottish prison? What are you doing to ensure that we avoid similar surprises in the future?

  Mr Browne: We subscribe wholly to the ambitions set out the in the principles of the Memorandum of Understanding with the devolved administration, including those aspects about minimising the scope for surprises. It is not in anybody's interests that we should generate surprises one way or the other. It has worked for eight years and there is no reason to assume that we will not continue to work in that fashion. International negotiations and agreements are of course the responsibility of the UK Government. As I recollect it the Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding[1] to commence talks with the Libyans on a number of separate matters including judicial cooperation and prisoner transfer. Bearing in mind that the UK has such prisoner transfer agreements with 96 other countries, it is entirely appropriate in the interest of our own citizens that we should have those arrangements because prisoners transfer both ways and some of our nationals would much rather be back here serving their prison sentences where they can be in close contact with their families and their friends. We arrange that facility regularly through these sorts of agreement. This MoU was the starting point for such an agreement, it was an expression by both governments that there was a potential for such agreement, it was the beginning of a process and in fact the MoU itself recognised that that process could take up to a year to be resolved. The MoU with Libya specifically stated that the UK Government would seek to obtain the agreement of all three jurisdictions within the UK for any aspects covered by it. There was no question: a process which would take a year to go through and which would necessarily have had to engage the Scottish Executive in its detail was hardly likely to be something that would produce a surprise at the end of that time and it will not produce any surprises. The other point I would make is that international negotiations sometimes move very quickly and those of us who have been involved in international negotiations sometimes appreciate that. You yourself who have made quite a significant contribution to international affairs, particularly relationships between UK and Pakistan, know that you may be in circumstances where there is an opportunity to take advantage of a particular route that is generated and there is a need to respond quickly to the shifting circumstances. Frankly I do not think there is anybody here or anybody in Scotland who thinks that beginning those sorts of talks with Libya about those issues was not a thing that we should have agreed to do. The MoU itself specifically says that all three jurisdictions in the United Kingdom would need to agree to any processes and we were well aware of devolved responsibilities in this area so I do not accept that there were any surprises. Given that agreement, I understand why it lent itself to the easy headline but of course the easy headline did not reflect the nature of the agreement at all.

  Q5 Mr MacNeil: Part of the surprise erupted on a BBC Newsnight about a week to ten days after the meeting of the former Prime Minister with Colonel Ghaddafi in Libya and it seemed to have been an example of surprise indeed. Given your previous answer where you mentioned Whitehall departments forgetting the Scottish dimension, was this not an example again of a Whitehall department forgetting the Scottish dimension? It took about ten days before the thing actually blew up and was fully realised. Is it not really making the argument for the joint ministerial committees to be up and running on a formal basis?

  Mr Browne: The first point I make in response to what you have said is that I never at any stage used the phrase that any Whitehall department had forgotten the Scottish dimension. I said that part of our job as the Scotland Office, and clearly this is a perfectly logical position for us to be in in the Scotland Office, is to keep an eye on what is happening and to bring to the attention of other departments that there is a Scottish dimension. I can think of no example where they have forgotten a dimension.

  Q6  Mr MacNeil: You did need to remind them.

  Mr Browne: I am sure we do not compartmentalise Government here in Westminster any more than the Scottish Executive compartmentalise Government. Everybody works together and there is a collective responsibility. I just point out that that was not the point that I was making when I was explaining the relevance of the Scotland Office but I am sure you agree that the Scotland Office has a relevance in terms of the devolution settlement. With respect to your recollection of events, I am not in a position actually to be able to identify a particular piece of journalism, be it television journalism or not, but there was no forgetfulness of the Scottish dimension. There is a very specific reference in the MoU to the very existence of the Scottish dimension, so there was no forgetfulness of it. This is a process that will take up to a year to go through. The fact of the matter is that the surprise element of it and the headline element of it was the assertion that this would lead to a particular prisoner being returned to Libya. We all know that that presentation of this MoU did not reflect the actual MoU, so let us get that out of the way first of all because it is not true. If we actually look at the MoU, there was an agreement to begin discussions with Libya about an issue which was a UK responsibility but which could not have been settled without an engagement in the separate jurisdictions. That is what it comes to. Why the word "surprise"?

  Q7  Mr Davidson: Would you accept, notwithstanding the points you have made about what was actually in the MoU, that Government at Westminster in general and the Scottish Office perhaps in particular were wrong-footed by the reaction of those who were seeking to take offence, were seeking offence, were prepared to travel miles to be offended and were intent upon creating mischief? Can we take it that the Scottish Office will not be caught napping in that way again?

  Mr Browne: One has to be very careful. I think the phrase is "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts". It is very easy to say that things will never happen again but no doubt people may do things in the future which could be characterised in that fashion. Your presentation of it is far more accurate than an assertion that somehow a gross error was made. People did of course travel quite far. They travelled right to the end of a year's negotiation. Hypothetically they concluded that negotiation and then they actually arranged in their minds for a prisoner transfer and got the headline out of it. You cannot travel any further than that. Would it have been better if the opportunity had not been created for them to do that? Yes. Should we guard against that in the future because it was unnecessary and I have no doubt it generated a lot of quite gratuitous offence to people who had been directly affected by the circumstances of the actual incident itself in which some of their relatives may have been killed? Should we try to avoid people having that opportunity in the future? Yes, of course we should.

  Q8  Mr MacNeil: Given the Memorandum of Understanding and following up Mr Davidson's point about the Scottish Office being caught napping, when would the Scottish Office have stopped napping? When was the point when you were actually going to tell the Scottish Government of this Memorandum of Understanding and in future when will the Scottish Government be informed when Memoranda of Understanding are signed in such a way? What is the formal process of making sure that this does not happen again?

  Mr Browne: Although there are 96 of these particular agreements, I am not in a position from here to anticipate any in the future. I am absolutely certain that the experience and the particular extravagant misrepresentation of the Memorandum of Understanding that happened in Scotland have heightened everybody's antennae to this particular issue.

  Q9  Mr MacNeil: That is a good thing.

  Mr Browne: As those who took advantage of the opportunity went to extraordinary lengths to make what was a misrepresentative point, then those of us at Westminster will now need to go to extravagant lengths to make sure that opportunity is not generated. The rest of your question is entirely hypothetical and I cannot answer that.

  Q10  Mr Wallace: Just a follow-up to that. I certainly recognise what you say about the end result being a lot of froth but the way international negotiations go this must have been recognised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as being something that would be raised on the Libyan trip, would be on the table to discuss, to be considered certainly. At that stage of just the very concept, that that may well have been up for grabs or for bargaining or whatever went on, would that not have been a better time perhaps to communicate with the Scottish Executive that this could come within the remit of those discussions with the Ghaddafi leader?

  Mr Browne: That is very welcome question because the answer is yes, it would have been a better time but for the reason that it would have avoided the opportunity for people to be as extravagant in their response to it as they turned out to be. We have all learned lessons from it, but the answer to your question is simply yes.

  Q11  Mr Davidson: May I follow on a point about the role of the Scotland Office in terms of assessing what is happening in the rest of the UK and what is happening in Scotland? I sit, as do a number of other members, on the Committee of Public Accounts and we consistently identify examples of best and worst practice. Does the Scotland Office have a role in identifying best and worst practice in Scotland which might have an implication for services in the UK if we want to pick out the best and avoid the worst and similarly to disseminate to the Scottish Executive examples of particularly good practice which might provide better services for the people of Scotland?

  Mr Browne: The answer to that is no, not because that it is not a good thing to do because it clearly is a good thing for those who have responsibility for policy to look well beyond the United Kingdom for examples of good practice and to learn from them. I know from the departments that I have been in that there is a process in the Westminster Government that does that and regularly policy officials and ministers take evidence from or look at examples right across the world in areas of delivery of policy to look for good examples. The role of the Scotland Office vis-a"-vis those areas which are devolved is very specific and is set out and has to operate in terms of the Scotland Act. Advising the Scottish Executive of the Scottish Parliament where there are good areas of policy that they should follow is not their responsibility. We need to be entirely differently structured to do that. It would mean replicating perhaps a lot of the policy and advice structure that should be there in the Scottish Executive departments rather than down here. Frankly Scotland is well capable of looking south of the border to find those examples for itself and the accountability mechanisms for that lie in the democratic process.

  Q12  Mr Walker: Secretary of State, you are probably bored of answering this question but it is down here to be asked anyway. You have a hugely complex job at the moment as Secretary of State for Defence. We have troops committed in Iraq and Afghanistan and there are some very severe situations in both of those countries. Given that that is probably a full-time job, why was it considered to give you even more responsibility by making you Secretary of State for Scotland? It would strike me that Scotland may rest much more comfortably under the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Admittedly it is not local government but given your responsibilities it might have rested more comfortably there. Alternatively perhaps we should even have a Secretary of State for Scotland who only considers Scotland within their portfolio.

  Mr Browne: Frankly I have to disagree with you that wherever the Scotland Office ought to rest in the longer term, it would be in a department which has responsibility for local government. Frankly I can think of nothing more calculated to offend the people of Scotland.

  Q13  Mr Walker: May I ask why that would offend them?

  Mr Browne: Because the people of Scotland rightfully consider themselves, after years of campaigning for, arguing for and successfully achieving a parliamentary status for their devolved Government, to be a nation which has in a broader union a devolved parliament. To put that into a basket that has the label "local government" on it would be offensive. I perfectly respect that you did not intend it to be so, but it would be offensive and broadly gratuitously offensive. The point that you make more generally is that the machinery of government should reflect a collective for the presence of areas which have devolved government and Westminster. My answer to your question is really that the machinery of government is a matter for the Prime Minister and this question has not only been asked of me but has been asked of the Prime Minister and he has given his answer to it and I leave his words rather than repeat them. If what lies behind your question is whether I am able to do this job while at the same time being the Secretary of State for Defence then I can only give you the same answer that I always give to this which is that I thought long and hard about this, I looked at the level of support that I would have both in the Ministry of Defence and here in the Scotland Office with an enhanced status in terms of my deputy but an experienced minister and I took the view that it would be possible to do both jobs. If the criticism of it is a criticism of perspective, that people say it does not look right, I am actually much more interested in getting on with these jobs. I have been in them now for a couple of weeks or thereabouts. I have not experienced any sense that either of them has suffered as a result of my having both of these titles. If my perspective on that is wrong and people want to point out to me where the reality lies and the reality is different, then they ought to do that. All I can say to you and to others is that you can criticise me for what I do but not for the titles. I think I am capable of doing these two jobs with the support that I have and that is why I agreed to do them.

  Q14  Mr Walker: I have not criticised you, I was asking a question. Let me probe a little further. We have a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Why could we not have the Right Honourable Sean Woodward as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Scotland and Wales? Why could we not double up on that department? Surely that would have made more sense? I am not criticising you but if you are sitting out there and every day you are reading the newspapers about British soldiers under attack and in mortal danger of their life, it is not a question of what you can do, it is a question of the fact that most people would think you should be focusing solely on your job at defence. We have a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the Right Honourable Sean Woodward. Could it not have been possible for him to have done Scotland as well, bearing in mind that both countries now have devolved powers?

  Mr Browne: It is possible to debate the merits of all sorts of different administrations, all sorts of different combinations. In the last form of our Government, the Secretary of State for Wales was also the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and it would appear that worked very well. Look at the progress that we made in Northern Ireland over that period in the peace process; certainly Northern Ireland did not suffer. That just shows that people can do both jobs and of course, as you will remember, Lord Carrington was both the Secretary of State for Defence and Chairman of the Conservative Party for a period of two years in the early 1980s and I am not conscious that either of these two jobs suffered while he was doing the two of them. People who know the history of our engagement at that time will remember that we had in excess of 30,000 troops deployed, although they were deployed to Northern Ireland and in the course of one of those years we lost a significant number of them. It is not unique in a situation where our troops are at risk that the Secretary of State for Defence should also be doing another job. It may not be ideal in some people's view but I actually prefer just to get on with the job. We can exchange and discuss any number of combinations that you like, but my view is that it will remain the same. I was asked to do this, I took the view that I could do both of these jobs with the support that was being offered to me and I want to get on with the job. Frankly my views in relation to any combination you may come up with are irrelevant because the machinery of government is a matter for the Prime Minister.

  Q15  Mr Walker: A cynic might suggest that Scotland requires a Secretary of State for Scotland to be Scottish, so perhaps that limits where the Prime Minister can look when he needs a Scottish Secretary of State for Scotland.

  Mr Browne: We are in a situation where we in Government—and indeed when your party was in Government the same applied—where it would have been a very unusual set of circumstances that would have, for example, produced a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that was Irish. You put candidates up in Northern Ireland but they do not get elected and we do not even contest the elections. In terms of the United Kingdom and representation of parts of it, neither of us has any doctrine about that. However, if you want my view in relation to whether it is better that the Secretary of State for Scotland is a Scot, yes. Is it better that the Secretary of State for Wales is Welsh? Yes. It would be better if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland were able to be Northern Irish but it is not likely to happen.

  Q16  Mr Walker: It would perhaps be better if the Prime Minister of this country were English. Bearing in mind that we have a huge number of powers devolved to Scotland and we have Scottish MPs voting on English matters, that same courtesy is not extended to English MPs and we get lumbered with a Scottish Prime Minister. Thank you, that is an interesting response to the question.

  Mr Browne: I am quite happy if this session is going to develop into a situation where you give the evidence; that absolutely suits me. It seems a remarkable observation for a Unionist, to be honest.

  Q17  Mr Wallace: Well perhaps as someone who is a Scot and now represents an English constituency, worked in the Armed Forces and was a soldier and is now in the defence industry, I might bring it slightly back to the defence issue. It clearly states at the beginning and in the memorandum that your job as Secretary of State is to represent Scotland within the machinery of government. The defence contracts that come out of the Ministry of Defence are very large defence contracts and with a consolidated defence industry there are very few options; there are only so many yards, there are only so many production lines effectively or defence contractors which can be in receipt of those contracts. In one sense the competition, because of our open defence market, is much harsher—a good thing—than it is in other countries. I do not question your integrity Secretary of State, I never have done and the answer you have given before when I asked how you can avoid a conflict of interest when giving out defence contracts with your other role of representing Scotland, and I am not questioning your integrity, often was that you can do your job to the fullest. There are no contractual jobs like that either in the private or public sector where it is just assumed, based on the personality of the person or the integrity, that people are removed or separated from certain decisions. What actual mechanism is there in place to ensure that when these defence contracts come up you are not in conflict with that role of representing Scotland, you can do your best for Scotland at that time without being in conflict? I represent a seat in the north of England, in Lancashire, so I have Barrow-in-Furness round the corner, I have defence contractors in England and I should be grateful to know what mechanism is in place to ensure that you do your job of representing Scotland without undermining conflicting interests.

  Mr Browne: I understand why you ask the question and I am grateful to you for the way in which you have asked it. You have already heard my answer to this question which is, and I do pride myself in this, that I make the decisions that I have made as a minister in the best interests of the responsibilities that I have at the time and any decisions that I make in relation to defence I will make on the basis of advice in the best interests of defence. I have not, as a Member of Parliament for a Scottish constituency, found any conflict of interests between my responsibilities to my constituents, some of whom work in defence industries, and my responsibilities as a minister. The mechanism that is in place that ensures that I continue to do that is the ministerial code which I observe punctiliously. Everything that I do is open to the nature of the audit that is there and fairly open and transparent and above board. Whether it be decisions in relation to the defence training review, whether it be decisions that I will need to make in relation to the naval base review, there will be a proper audit trail in the department in relation to those decisions. I am very conscious of that. I make sure that it is there. I make sure that these decisions are capable of being audited to make sure that they are decisions that are in the best interests of defence and proper value for money for the taxpayer. I rely upon those systems, those systems have served me well in a number of departments and they will continue to serve me well.

  Q18  Mr Wallace: If I am not mistaken, and you may correct me, when it comes to your constituency work there are mechanisms in place within Whitehall to ensure that ministers are not unduly using their power to favour their constituency work. Certainly the Prime Minister has that in place and—I am sure Whitehall will correct me—there is a safety barrier. It is not about how well you do each job, it is that one job is to champion and represent Scotland and sell their yards and the excellent facilities in Govan to produce submarines and the other job is to make a decision to build submarines or a super carrier or whatever and they just cannot be done by the same person. A mechanism is needed such as removing yourself from the room, which even people in planning committees do, or a mechanism of saying today you are Scotland and your excellent Lord Drayson, who I have to say is a very, very good defence procurement minister, takes that decision without recourse or redress to you or anything else. Something has to give if it is the same person making that decision.

  Mr Browne: I recognise in passing your perfectly appropriate recognition of Lord Drayson's abilities. Everybody who has had to deal with him either here in Parliament or beyond recognises those abilities and what he has brought to procurement and procurement processes and he is a substantial part of my ability to have confidence in the decisions that we make in the Ministry of Defence, the way in which he drives that part of the department. I do not accept the characterisation of my responsibilities in the way in which you set them out and I do not accept that this is an issue of a conflict of interest. I do not accept there is a conflict of interest in the first place. If you set about seeking to make decisions in the best sense of your responsibilities and on the basis of the evidence and if you are prepared to have those examined objectively, then there does not necessarily need to be a conflict of interest and there is not necessarily, in any event, the level of competition that you describe in relation to the limited opportunities that there are in the UK to build ships. The example that you give is of submarine building and there is a monopoly on submarine building in the United Kingdom which fortunately happens to be near your constituency and I have no doubt that some of your constituents work in those yards. There are limited opportunities. The challenge that we face is in sustaining that capacity, using the spending power that we have in a way which maintains the workforce and sustains that capacity and there are at least two people in this room who have devoted a substantial part of their political life to try to achieve that, very successfully I have to say. What I do not want is for people to judge me against a false prospectus. The measures that I will take and the decisions that I will take in the future will be made in the best interests of defence and the Ministry of Defence. Many people will put forward and articulate arguments and I may help them marshal them for different parts of the country, not just limited to Scotland, and give people the opportunities to put forward their arguments and I will punctiliously observe the ministerial code and all the steps that need to be taken case by case in each of these to make sure that there can be no suggestion that I have been doing anything which favours any particular part of the country unfairly over another part.

  Q19  Mr MacNeil: Last year, much to my amazement at the time, the then Secretary of State resisted the temptation to place on record his disbelief at the prospect of an SNP First Minister in Scotland. Then on 1 May, much to my fury, the then Chancellor, the current Prime Minister, said it would be impossible to work as Prime Minister with a Scottish-National-Party-led Government in Edinburgh. The SNP have always adopted a cooperative approach. Which do you think is the best approach and which approach do you think you will be adopting in your department: the cooperative approach of the SNP or the approach as deemed impossible by the current Prime Minister?

  Mr Browne: Again I do not necessarily accept these edited characterisations of predecessors. They may be examples of things that people have said but, that aside, I have made it clear in the short time that I have been doing the job what my approach to this will be and that is that I see my job as working in the best interests of the people of Scotland. I am instinctively an inclusive and cooperative person. I like to work with other people. I find in the other job that I do, which we have been discussing for some time now, as Secretary of State for Defence that I have to work increasingly internationally with governments of all hues, shapes and sizes in very demanding circumstances and sometimes I have in my political past worked with people whom I never thought I would find in the political environment. If I cannot work with other Scottish politicians after that experience, then it does not say very much about me. I am able to work with anybody who wants to work in a cooperative fashion with me in the best sense of the people of Scotland. It does not mean we will not disagree, it does not mean there will not be times when we may be saying things that are conflicting, but we should be able to work together.

1   Memorandum of Understanding and Supplementary Agreements between the United Kingdom Government Scottish Ministers, the Cabinet of the National Assembly of Wales and the Northern Ireland Executive Committee SE/2002/54. Back

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