Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


13 NOVEMBER 2007

  Q20  Dr Palmer: I wanted to probe Professor Curtice a little more about his surveying of public attitudes. First, on the fourth question, "Do you feel English or do you feel British?", I did notice that the number who said neither has increased quite markedly, that in the first point of your graph it was 4% and in the last point it was 12%, if I remember correctly. I wondered whether you had a view on the reason for that. Is it that they are people who are saying they are nothing in particular or they are European or they are Pakistani or what is going on here?

  Professor Curtice: The question gives people about 10 or so options which include Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, Irish, European—and that is pretty much the list, though there may be one or two others. The first thing to say is that a very small proportion of people say they are European, it is about 2 or 3%; it is very low. The second is that I suspect what you are picking up is, probably to some degree, what would be principally the ethnic minority/migrant population into the country, at least for the time being, not necessarily wishing to pick up either one of those two identities. But I can look a bit further into that for you, if you wanted.

  Q21  Dr Palmer: It is quite a substantial number, 14%.

  Professor Curtice: Yes, sure. Some of it is also people saying they are Scottish, and there are about 800,000 Scots living in England and, equally, people from Wales also.

  Q22  Dr Palmer: How strongly did the public actually feel about this at all? My impression is that, if you ask people in almost any context, "Do you want a bit more power in the place where you live?", they will say, "Yes, go on", and, if you say, "Are you in favour of different services according to where you live?", they will say, "No, that's a bad idea", but in both cases I am not sure that they feel very strongly. What is your view?

  Professor Curtice: Well, I certainly think it is worth bearing in mind that the answers that you get to questions about devolution and about the distribution of power do vary very substantially depending on how you ask the question. In both Scotland and in England, if we simply say to people, "Do you think that Scotland should be independent or do you think that England should be independent?", and I do not define what I mean by "independence", in Scotland you can easily get at many points in time over half the people saying yes, they want independence. And there has been some work done in England at the end of last year and the beginning of this at around the 300th Anniversary of the Union with again around about half the people saying, "England, yes, it should be independent". But of course we do not know what they mean by that. That is an indication of possibly two things. One is that people do not necessarily immediately fill the word "independence" with all the resonance and meaning which perhaps most people in this room would do. If you simply say to people, "Should Scotland be independent?", "Well, yes, we don't want to be run by England", may be what they are simply telling us. But actually do they mean that they want it to be constitutionally independent? That may be another thing? The second thing is that, yes, therefore, it may well be true, but I have almost an indication that these views are not necessarily always that strongly held and certainly on a number of items, for example, on the West Lothian question in England and, equally, on more powers in Scotland, the mood tends to be one of agreement rather than necessarily of saying, "We strongly agree". You certainly are also correct that, if you ask people, for example, in Scotland, and we have done this in the past, "Do you think the Scottish Parliament should be allowed to increase, or reduce, the level of unemployment benefit?", they say no and that, if you ask, "Should Scotland decide what level unemployment benefit is?", they say yes to it. But then that is telling you something also. It is telling you, that a lot of this is about the importance of symbolism, that at the end of the day people in Scotland would like, it seems for the most part in many of these things, people in Scotland making the decisions, even if at the end they would also like it to be clear that those decisions are not disadvantageous vis-a"-vis their counterparts south of the border.

  Q23  Dr Palmer: Yes, this question of disadvantage is interesting because I think all of us would agree that, if you have devolved decision-making, the inevitable outcome will be differences in services, differences in health and the areas that they manage. My feeling is that people are really quite averse to that, but what is your view? Have people who favour devolution really taken that on board, that they will sometimes have worse services and sometimes better services?

  Professor Curtice: The answer to that is obviously not necessarily, but I think it is also worth saying that it also depends on the dynamics of the politics, and I think here there is a difference between England and Scotland. Obviously it has been true recently that some of the differences in public policy between Scotland and England that appear to advantage Scotland viz. free nursing care, students not paying tuition fees and in about four years' time free prescriptions, those have been picked up by particularly Members of the Opposition in this House, saying, "This is not fair". There are, however, examples of policy whereby provision in Scotland is, arguably, not as good as that in England. For example, whereas in England it is going to be true by the end of next year that it is meant to be only 18 weeks from initial GP appointment to treatment, Scotland has to wait until 2011 for that event. It looks as though we are going to see the school leaving age in England raised to 18 and there is no plan at the moment in Scotland so to raise it. Of course, the interesting thing there is that the Opposition, now the Government, in Scotland, but for eight years the Opposition in Scotland, who might want to say to use the comparison with England as a way of criticising the incumbent administration, in the way that the Conservative Opposition has done here, did not do so because of course it is a nationalist party and the last thing that a nationalist party wants to do is to say, "Hey guys, what we want Scotland to be like is to be like England". So the degree to which these things get politicised depends also on, as it were, the perspectives of the opposition parties in the countries concerned and there is a crucial difference in the dynamic. It, therefore, means as a result, I think, that there is undoubtedly certainly more debate in England and, therefore, perhaps more public awareness of the ways in which Scotland has services that England does not which is the other way round. But, in truth, the other way round does also exist.

  Q24  Dr Palmer: Were we to have either English votes for English laws or an English Grand Committee or any other such system was in the UK Parliament, the obvious difference from the Scottish arrangement would be the absence of an English executive. Is there potentially support actually for a parallel English executive?

  Professor Curtice: Let me go back very slightly because it also goes back to some of the questions Dr Whitehead was asking. In a sense, looking from the perspective of public opinion, you have to ask yourself, "What is the English problem?" Now, so far as public opinion is measured in England so far, if there is an English problem, it is simply that they feel that where this place is dealing with just English legislation, it is not obvious why Scots and Welsh MPs should be voting on it. Otherwise, it is not obvious that the English think there is a problem. They seem to think, "Yes, it is fine for the Scots to have devolution, but no thanks, we don't want it for ourselves". There does not seem to be the same sense in England of feeling that a distinctive sense of identity, be that Englishness or to do with regionalism, has to be reflected in distinctive political institutions. We, therefore, as far as public opinion is concerned, have ended up with an asymmetric devolution settlement because we have an asymmetric state of public opinion, though that still leaves, as you have quite rightly said, the question of English votes for English laws. Now, I think insofar as you believe the English public opinion can be eventually driven by what we might call "the anomaly perspective" which is, "Why haven't we got what the Scots and Welsh have got?" as opposed to, "Why haven't we got what is best for England?" which is, arguably, a different question—insofar as you think you can drive that, my own personal view is that English votes for English laws will prove to be a very unstable halfway house. Because, if at the end of the day the argument is that the Government of England should be treated in the same way as the governments of Scotland and Wales, then yes, first of all, the first thing to say is that devolution did not just give Scotland and Wales a legislature/assembly, but it also gave them a government. It would seem, to my view, not obvious at all why, for example, we might have a House with a majority of Conservative MPs but we still have a Labour, English, Health and Education Minister with substantial freedom of manoeuvre to do what they want so long as it does not require Parliamentary approval. It seems to me fairly rapidly you move to the question: why does England not have a government? There are also other anomalies. The first and most obvious is that Scotland and Wales have systems of proportional representation, England does not. Indeed, arguably there is an even bigger English question than why is it that it is possible for an English majority to be overturned by the Scots and Welsh, and that is that the English plurality in the last election was overturned by the electoral system within England. The Conservative Party had the most votes, the Labour Party has a majority of seats. That strikes me as a pretty big English question. There is then in addition the fact that you have another anomaly remaining, which is that you would still have English legislation coming within the remit of the House of Lords yet Scottish legislation does not. This has had a practical effect. The reason why both fox-hunting and Clause 28 were got rid of in Scotland before they were in England was because the House of Lords was unable to block it. So if you are going to go down the road of "Hey guys, England should be treated in the same way as Scotland", there should not be any anomalies, it is not going to stop at English votes for English laws. You are going to rewrite the constitution for England.

  Q25  Chairman: Professor Hazell has an interesting quizzical expression. Do you want to address, from the standpoint of theory rather than of public opinion, whether you think English votes for English laws really requires the existence of some kind of English executive?

  Professor Hazell: I wholly agree with what Professor Curtice has said that it is the beginning of a very long and slippery slope and none of us can say for certain where we would end up, but I think it is quite likely that we would end up with a parliament within a parliament and we would de facto have created an English Parliament. So it is potentially a huge change.

  Q26  Chairman: That is very interesting. Can I turn now to the inter-governmental relations which exist within the system as we have it now, which are non-statutory, and both Professor Hazell and Professor Jeffery have expressed concern about this, or concern as to whether it is sustainable. Would you like to add to or perhaps briefly refer to the arguments that lead you to that conclusion?

  Professor Jeffery: I am less concerned whether inter-governmental arrangements are statutory or non-statutory, formalised or not, written into a constitution or not. I think the question is much more a set of arrangements which are fit for the purpose before them. What we have is a set of arrangements which are not fit for purpose because they are the arrangements which were essentially used before devolution for the accommodation of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish interests into UK government positions. That is a set of arrangements based on civil servants working together in a spirit of collegiality and goodwill across departments of a single government, as was, with any problematic issues or disputes ultimately being arbitrated by ministers in a single government, as was. Now we have different governments, we have civil servants responsible to different governments in managing relationships between those governments, and we have ministers from different governments and, after the election in Scotland this year, a new party political division has entered that equation. I think those arrangements are very, very difficult to make work in that situation when you have governments produced by different electrical processes throwing up different party constellations. We have something which was fit for 1997; it is not terribly fit now. I think there are a number of examples of the unfitness of those arrangements. Firstly, there are many examples in which legitimate devolved interests have not been considered adequately by UK Government because there are no regularised forums of communication which would make UK Government aware of those concerns. There is a problematic attitude towards differences of opinion, which are pretty much natural conditions of decentralised politics. We have seen rather more of them since May of this year in the Scottish-UK relationship than beforehand.

  Q27  Chairman: They existed prior to then, not least because the Government was different in political complexions, a government of two parties, but there might have been some even if that were not the case.

  Professor Jeffery: Yes. We have a particularly vivid expression of those now, and I think the problem both before May of this year, and especially since, is a sense of dramatisation of dispute. Before May this year this led to an exaggerated effort to keep dispute behind closed doors and not to carry out in a public sense what is in effect an issue of public interest, that is, one government produced by voters disagreeing with another government. What we have now is a rather more public version of that but also a sense of crisis attached to difference. I think we have to de-mystify dispute and accept that this is absolutely normal and governments need to work together when their constituencies coincide on the same territory to provide answers to disputes in a more considered way. There is a further problem which arises from the way we have translated the old system into the new system, and that is we have a very limited sense of using relationships between governments to define common interests and pursue them. This may well have happened in the pre-devolution situation, it certainly needs to happen now but we do not have that sense of regularised forums for interaction which would allow the definition of the pursuit of common interest. I think we have a whole series of failings which essentially reflect the way that these arrangements were transformed from pre-devolution to post-devolution contexts.

  Q28  Chairman: Was there no mechanism, for example, whereby the Scottish Executive could secure the assistance of the UK Government in the successful bid for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games as an example where both governments might well think this is something in the UK's interests? Presumably they found some way of talking to each other about it.

  Professor Jeffery: Possibly they did but we do not really know about it, and I suspect the lack of transparency in these arrangements is one of the biggest problems. When governments which are responsible to different electorates engage together in the resolution of disputes for the pursuits of common interest, I think there is an accountability issue. We really ought to know what positions were brought in to discussions, where the differences lay, because differences are legitimate, and what was done to address them. One of the problems of those relatively few occasions when we have had a formalised engagement of UK and devolved governments in joint ministerial formations, the commitment to communicating what happened in those engagements has very rarely been carried through. I think Professor Hazell will confirm there is actually a formal commitment to do so in relation to at least one of these formations on Europe which was made to a House of Lords inquiry. We just do not know what is happening in our name, and I think that is a problematic feature of arrangements designed for use within one government but now adapted for use between governments.

  Q29  Chairman: Perhaps I can confess that during the foot and mouth crisis, the previous one, I found it easier to ring up the Scottish minister, who would tell me what was going on because he was attending the meetings which were taking place at UK level, because there was shared responsibility.

  Professor Curtice: Nothing to do with the party at all?

  Q30  Chairman: There might just have been.

  Professor Hazell: Could I just reinforce three of Professor Jeffery's points, one, that disputes are perfectly normal between governments post-devolution and only to be expected. They happen in all devolved and federal systems. Secondly, the way to handle these disputes is, as Professor Jeffery said, through the machinery which was established at the beginning of devolution and is described in the Memorandum of Understanding that was negotiated and agreed between the UK Government and the devolved governments and that provides, at the very least, for there to be a meeting once a year of the plenary Joint Ministerial Committee between the UK Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and the First Ministers and Deputy First Ministers from the devolved governments. In fact, no such meeting has taken place, I think, since October 2003 so four years have now elapsed with no plenary Joint Ministerial Committee being held, my understanding is because the UK Prime Minister has seen no need to convene such a meeting. But in a healthy system there would also be sectoral joint ministerial committees, of which the only effective example is those on Europe, that have been regularly held, and our understanding is they are very effective forums in which, in particular, before important European meetings the devolved administrations make their views and interests known to the UK Government, which will generally lead the UK delegation in these European negotiations. Thirdly, can I reinforce Professor Jeffery's points about the need to make the system more transparent and accountable, and to publicise when these meetings take place and to give some brief account, be it through formal minutes or issuing a communiqué, as to the main subjects that have been discussed and what has been decided. There were for a time such communiqués on the website of the old Department for Constitutional Affairs. They are no longer to be found, so this is a small "for instance" where the requirement on all government departments to be more proactive in publishing information under the Freedom of Information Act has actually taken a step backwards rather than forwards.

  Professor Curtice: Can I just add a parenthetical point about rows and public opinion? One of the views I have come to quite clearly about public opinion in Scotland, and certainly one of the motivations as to the way in which people decide to vote in Scottish Parliament elections is they seem to think it is quite important to have an administration in Edinburgh that they regard as standing up for Scotland's interests—and that does not just simply mean effectively and efficiently disposing of the devolved powers. It also means representing Scotland's interests within the Union. If that is correct, can I suggest to you that at least while it may be true that having a more voluble government in Edinburgh might persuade the Scottish electorate that perhaps the Union is not worthwhile, it is also at least as plausible that a more voluble government in Edinburgh may actually convince people that Scotland is now being more adequately represented within the Union and that therefore as a result people may become rather happier with the devolution set-up than so far appears to be the case.

  Q31  Julie Morgan: I was going to ask about arrangements in Whitehall. Do you feel that the present arrangements for the management of devolution policy in Whitehall are appropriate?

  Professor Hazell: No, they are not yet ideal. The difficulty has been the fragmentation within Whitehall, where there have been several different centres responsible for different aspects of devolution, in particular, obviously, the three offices of the territorial Secretaries of State, the Wales Office, the Scotland Office and the Northern Ireland Office, and when there was an active policy of regional government in England there was a fourth centre in what was the old DETR and then the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. There was a fifth centre with nominal responsibility for devolution strategy in the old Department for Constitutional Affairs and they had a division in their Constitution Directorate that was responsible for devolution policy. So there were five centres within Whitehall, each with an interest in devolution. In effect, there still are. We still have the three territorial offices. Regional policy in England has gone rather quiet as an active area of policy but there must be a part of the Department for Communities and Local Government responsible for regional policy in England, and the Ministry of Justice does still have an interest in overall responsibility for devolution strategy and indeed, very recently has appointed a senior official, Jim Gallagher, at Director General level to be Director General responsible for devolution policy within the Ministry of Justice two days a week and two days a week in the Cabinet Office.

  Q32  Julie Morgan: How do you think the situation could be improved?

  Professor Hazell: Ideally, I think in the medium to long term I would like there no longer to be three separate territorial Secretaries of State. They are part of the pre-devolution structure and post devolution I do not think Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland need any longer to have a privileged position in Cabinet through having designated Secretaries of State to represent their voice and interests because that voice and interest is now strongly represented through the devolved institutions. So over time I would like to see the merger of those Secretaries of State.

  Q33  Julie Morgan: Do you remember when the Constitutional Affairs Department was set up there was an outcry, certainly from Wales, and I presume maybe from Scotland as well, because the implication at the beginning was that there was no longer going to be a Wales Office and a Scottish Office. There certainly was a great deal of concern about that. How do you think that sort of view can be overcome if you think the best idea is for the three bodies to come together?

  Professor Hazell: I hope over time, as the devolution arrangements bed in, that in Scotland and in Wales there will be much greater confidence that they no longer need a Scotland Office or a Wales Office. Professor Curtice can tell us whether there was a similar outcry in Scotland. I am not sure that there was. To the extent that these interests do need to be represented, I think they should be represented in the Cabinet Office as a part of the central secretariat supporting the inter-governmental machinery. That is logically where they should be, at the centre of government, supporting the UK Government in its relations with the devolved governments, and that is where you find that machinery in other central governments in other systems.

  Q34  Julie Morgan: So you do not think there is a role for Secretaries of State of the three different bodies?

  Professor Hazell: No. Forgive me, but they are a hangover from pre-devolution days.

  Q35  Julie Morgan: I do not know if you could tell us about Scotland, whether there was any feeling at that time?

  Professor Curtice: There was an elite feeling. I am not sure anybody even bothered to ask the question in an opinion poll about the subject. Certainly in Scotland the Secretary of State now has a pretty low public visibility because he or she has usually got something more important to look after. Insofar as the role is a public one of speaking on behalf of the UK government to the Scottish media, it tends to be performed by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary.

  Q36  Julie Morgan: Do you have anything to add?

  Professor Jeffery: Just one additional point to that. I think that kind of reform would need to be seen as part of a package. There may be a sense of loss of voice for Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland through the loss of a Secretary of State but if we move to a more systematic pattern of inter-governmental relations, including meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee at Prime Minister/First Minister level, there is going to be a different route, and arguably a route more fitting for the current circumstances, for representing Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish interests at the centre. I think one goes with the other. It is a balancing effect.

  Q37  Julie Morgan: What about the context of policy making in Whitehall? How do you think that has responded to devolution and the differences that have emerged in policies?

  Professor Hazell: In the early days of devolution certainly I think different Whitehall Departments were more sensitised to devolution in different ways, and there were some that were notoriously insensitive and, since their names have changed, we can name and shame them. The DTI was one and DETR, as was, was another. Those were both pretty hostile to devolution in Whitehall. Again, I think it was not helped by the different centres within Whitehall responsible for handling devolution relations. There was no single strong centre that could tell all the Whitehall Departments how to come to terms with devolution save for the Cabinet Office, which in the scenario I painted previously was a very weak player, except in the very early days when there was a Constitution Secretariat in the Cabinet Office that was primarily responsible just for putting the devolution legislation through. That capacity in terms of officials did not last very long and so the Cabinet Office has had effectively no devolution secretariat since the Constitution Secretariat was wound up, but it needs a stronger centre, I think, to ensure more consistent performance in awareness of devolution across all the Whitehall Departments.

  Professor Jeffery: An addendum to that, if I may. I think we have seen waves of sensitivity which are often based around individuals or groups of individuals who build up relationships between Whitehall Departments and counterparts in the devolved administrations and, as those relationships develop, you get better sensitivities but, in the way of things, people move on. I think the problem lies probably at a civil service training level in mainstreaming devolution sensitivities right from the outset for all civil servants. We are in a situation where we rapidly lose gains when somebody moves on to a new job.

  Q38  Mrs James: I wish to come to devolution and the governance of Britain now. You have already touched upon this slightly. The Prime Minister has started a debate about the British statement of values, et cetera, and one of the quotes that I have been very interested in is Vernon Bogdanor's, when he says that the question of Britishness is now a surrogate for the problem of holding together the post-devolution multi-cultural United Kingdom. What do you three think has been the role of devolution in bringing about the current focus in political debate on British identity and British values?

  Professor Curtice: I am tempted to say "not much" because I think in truth the debate about Britishness is different in the four territories of the UK. The interest in Britishness as a multi-cultural concept that might be capable of being defined in such a way that all of the populations of England may feel able to sign up to it, including not least those from the ethnic minority communities, has clearly been quite important in England. And certainly, if you look at the polling evidence, it suggests that in England members of ethnic minorities find it easier to adhere to a British identity than to an English identity. It also seems to be true that those people who adhere to an English identity are usually adopting views that are somewhat less friendly towards immigrant populations or members of ethnic minorities than those who adopt a British identity. In contrast, in Scotland what you will discover is that the ethnic minority population there is relatively small but that population seems more inclined to adopt a Scottish identity than a British identity, and certainly when you look at the pattern of attitudes, you do not find the equivalent pattern in England, i.e. you do not find that those who feel predominantly Scottish are more likely to be hostile to immigrants or members of ethnic minorities than those who adopt a British identity. In Scotland, in other words, it appears that the identity that has been turned into a multicultural identity is Scottishness rather than Britishness. Certainly if you hear nationalist politicians talk, I think it is true that the First Minister of Scotland on the announcement that Glasgow won the Commonwealth Games said this was an indication or a celebration of the multi-cultural nature of Scotland. So you can see how the nature of discourse is different. I will leave Wales because I am not so expert there but obviously there it is partly tied up the issue of the relatively high level of English immigration into Wales and there is a whole issue about language, but then obviously, in Northern Ireland Britishness is associated with one of two communities. In contrast to the other three parts of the UK it is seen as being largely antithetical to Irishness. For example, when I do the kind of research I do in any of the three parts of the UK, around 40% of people will say, if you give them the chance, "I am both English or Welsh or Scottish and British." In Northern Ireland only about 2 or 3% of people will say they are Irish and British. Britishness in Northern Ireland does not look like a form of identity that is capable of uniting the two principal communities, let alone anybody else. One of the problems that faces this idea of using Britishness as a way of bringing communities together is not necessarily that it divides Scotland from England or England from Wales or whatever but rather that Britishness has different meanings and associations within each of the four territories and that, to some degree at least, those meanings and associations are contradictory to each other.

  Q39  Mrs James: So a British statement of values is going to open the debate?

  Professor Curtice: My own personal view is that an awful lot of the debate about British values that has been instigated by our current Prime Minister was that in part it provided a mechanism for talking about his view of the world before he was Prime Minister, a view of the world that was sometimes subtly different from that of the then incumbent Prime Minister. But, by putting it in terms of British values, this at least in part provided him with an uncontroversial way of doing so, because these are things that everybody is in favour of. Having said that, it is also obviously clear that the current Prime Minister does feel very strongly this idea that Britishness matters and Britishness is important and that probably, for him at least, it is also about an idea of a commitment to the Union. But I think in truth, as you can guess from some of the data I have shown, his perspective is not a perspective which is relatively common amongst most of his fellow Scots.

  Professor Jeffery: If I could add a couple of thoughts, one is that the Governance of Britain Green Paper was surprisingly silent on devolution and in that paper these issues were not connected to devolution although I think, as Professor Curtice has said, the inspiration behind that paper has a bit of previous on the matter and did present a series of speeches over the years which did connect the notion of shared values across the parts of the UK as one of the glues which might provide coherence for a post-devolution state. I would like to inject a note of scepticism about values in that setting. I think the values which were raised in those speeches and alluded to in the Green Paper are values which are just as good a justification of the union of England with Canada as they are with Scotland, because they are pretty universal values which are shared across western liberal democracies. There is nothing peculiarly British about them.

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