Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Grayling Political Strategy


  Grayling is an international public relations, public affairs and event management group. The organisation has been operating for over 25 years, and is now part of Huntsworth plc.

  Grayling's public affairs arm started life as Westminster Strategy in 1986; the Brussels office opened in 1990 and then, ahead of devolution, offices were opened in Edinburgh in 1996 and Cardiff in 1998. The four public affairs offices are known as Grayling Political Strategy (GPS). We also work in association with an independent company in Northern Ireland

  GPS is the only organisation of its kind with directly managed teams, working in an integrated way across the four "political capitals" of London, Brussels, Edinburgh and Cardiff. We are founder members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants.


  As an organisation we are politically neutral and have no collective view on questions of whether more devolution or less is to be preferred, or whether a new constitutional arrangements between the nations of the United Kingdom is a good thing or not.

  Where we feel we can legitimately comment and be helpful to the Committee is in addressing questions from a practical point of view, relating our comments to the experience of working with many organisations, often with more than one political institution.

  We have specifically concentrated on Scotland and Wales, as the two areas in which devolution in the UK has been in place the longest, and where we have had our own two teams working with clients alongside the devolved administrations since they were established.


Question 1: Westminster: How does Parliament deal with devolution issues, eg legislating for Scotland and Wales?


  There have been numerous conflicts between the Westminster Government and the Scottish Executive and Parliament. Some of these have emerged as a result of genuine differences in view on policies such as free personal care, foundation hospitals and higher education funding.

  However, there have also been examples of an apparent lack of communication in relation to policy making; for example over the Serious Organised Crime Agency where British and Scottish Ministers had different perceptions about roles and responsibilities; or the new UK Supreme Court where Scottish Ministers were apparently not adequately consulted before the announcement despite obvious implications for the Scottish legal system.

  Current mechanisms rely to a large extent on goodwill, a point recognised by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution which said:

    "We are concerned by the sheer extent of the reliance on goodwill as the basis for intergovernmental relations within the United Kingdom. We are also concerned that goodwill has been elevated into a principle of intergovernmental relations: it is used to explain the avoidance of disputes and to justify maintaining the present informality of the system." And went on to state that "we have an unresolved concern that these mechanisms may not prove adequate to the challenges arising from a highly-charged political dispute, especially if the parties are accustomed to informal rather than formal dealings with each other".

  Another area of concern is the use of Legislative Consent or "Sewel" motions. This was a mechanism initially designed so that the Scottish Parliament could agree to let Westminster legislate for the whole UK on matters which were technically devolved but on which a UK solution was deemed to be preferable. However, this was supposed to be the exception and not the rule and it was envisaged that only a couple of such motions would be brought forward annually. In the first two sessions of the Scottish Parliament, 76 such motions have been lodged. This suggests that the issue of the respective powers of the two Parliaments has not been definitively answered.


  There has been increasing comment in Wales—amongst the media, politicians, and our clients—on the "West Lothian" question: or the "West Clwyd" question, as it is becoming known in Wales. Under devolution to date, the absence of primary powers has left the National Assembly in the position of hoping that primary legislation bids are included in the Queen's speech. Inevitably a packed Westminster legislative timetable has meant that only one out of four bids for Welsh legislation is successful. This will change under the new Government of Wales Act. The Assembly will have a more formal process for proposing its own legislation, and this seems likely significantly to change the relationship between the National Assembly and Parliament.

  Over the last decade there have been numerous occasions in which policies of the Westminster Government have been in conflict with the National Assembly. Some of these conflicts have in part been due to the lack of a majority held by the—Labour—Assembly Government. An example was the decision not to introduce top up fees in Wales. Divergence in policy on this subject area was down to opposition parties voting together to set a clear difference in policy to that in England: a valid democratic tactic, it could be argued, but one which perhaps was not necessarily envisaged when devolution was initiated. Such outcomes may be more common if and when different political parties run the administrations in the National Assembly and Westminster.

  The Assembly Government has managed to take formal positions on issues it could be argued are beyond its devolved remit. For example, although the National Assembly has no power over planning decisions on energy facilities generating more than over 50 megawatts, the Assembly Government has stated its formal opposition to new nuclear power stations being built in Wales. This position may be tested if in the future the Westminster Government decided—as it is currently entitled to do—that there should be new nuclear power stations built in Wales.


  All the evidence, so far, is that the devolution settlement in Scotland and Wales, far from being a fixed position, is in fact a long-term process in which more responsibilities flow to the devolved institutions. Inevitably, this will increasingly highlight concerns about the ability of Scottish and Welsh MPs to influence legislation affecting only England.

Whitehall: What impact has devolution had on Whitehall? Has there been a change in culture? How have they responded to the divergence in policy making? How have the Concordats developed, and are they working?

  In our experience, this is very much "work in progress". The reliance on goodwill has been mentioned. Areas such as public health—where the ability of health systems to join up in the prevention of a disease such as Avian `Flu will be critical, may warrant fuller investigation.

  The emergence of separate drug regulatory regimes and other divergent services in Scotland, England and Wales rightly attracts considerable attention. Does a "fair" democratic settlement equate to everyone, across the UK, having access to the same treatments or a similar level of social care or education? Tension about these matters is clearly rising. How long before the "Barnett formula" is re-opened for investigation?

  Although these and other battles are likely to be fought pretty robustly in coming years, the shifting culture towards a new way of working should be noted. In the public sector, some organisations have created offices in the devolved institutions and work effectively with them. Most are focused on improving their understanding and standards of representation; have begun to develop their own communication programmes; and invest considerable time in creating closer ties with their counterparts in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Northern Ireland.

  While such activity creates cost, it should be encouraged and allied to a wider education programme—across the UK—about the new constitutional settlement. Given the generalized lack of UK national media coverage about the new devolved institutions—particularly for Wales—this should be a priority.

  This would also help the private sector, where understanding of the new constitutional settlement is patchy. As would be expected, company engagement in the devolved institutions relates directly to two factors—"do we have business interests that are affected by these new bodies", and, if so, "what powers do they have which affect us?" Probably inevitably, it has taken time for many companies to perceive how their interests are affected but it is also clear that, in the last two or three years, more are waking up to the need to consider their interests. A small but growing percentage of clients commission our services in two or, sometimes, all three of our UK offices. Clients regularly comment on the strong interest in collaborative working they discover in the devolved institutions. But confusion continues about the precise roles of both institutions, particularly in Wales.

What is the future of the current Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Are the current arrangements for the Wales and Scotland offices within the DCA appropriate?

  Of paramount importance is the need for clarity in working relationships and protocols between the UK Executive and the devolved institutions.

What are the other outstanding issues around reserved and devolved issues? How could these be best resolved? Is the UK's model of asymmetric devolution sustainable?

  At a devolution conference GPS hosted in London in December 2006, an expert panel drawn from academics, politicians and advisers in Scotland, Wales and England lamented the fact that devolution had found no resonance in England. This "asymmetric devolution", the panel felt, presents a huge challenge. Voter indifference everywhere will become a concern if levels of activity and engagement continue to decline and will in turn rob the devolved institutions of their legitimacy if voters seem less and less willing to turn out. Hopefully the May elections will prompt not just analysis, but consideration by politicians themselves about ways of stimulating local democracy across the UK.

What are the broader consequences of devolution for the future of the UK's constitution?

  For the last 10 years, Labour has dominated the politics of the mainland Britain. A different era, one in which other parties or coalitions come to the fore, will test the new devolved structures. We have no view as to whether or not the UK should adopt a federalist structure, but the implications of devolved power should in our view be debated much more widely in society.

  It is a particular concern in our view that there is virtually no UK-national media coverage of the Welsh Assembly, and that coverage of the Scottish Executive and Parliament—while strong in Scotland—remains thin in the London-based media. Newspapers of course essentially report what they think will interest their readers and it is therefore pointless to demand greater coverage. It will have to be led by politicians themselves and their willingness to lead an engaging and vivid debate.

  Another point worth noting is that the outcome of the May elections is masking an important underlying change. Voters are being asked to use different electoral systems. Thus in both Scotland and Wales, voters now have experience of a constituency plus regional list system as a result of devolution—alongside first past the post which is used at UK level. Moreover, in Scotland a Single Transferable Vote system will now be applied to local government elections. Does this matter? GPS is not itself in a position to draw conclusions, but it is possible that voters may find this confusing. It may also lead some to conclude that they prefer one model to another.

Viven Hepworth

Chief Executive

April 2007

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 24 May 2009