Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 46-59)


29 JANUARY 2008

  Q46 Chairman: Secretary of State and Mr Middleton, welcome. We are very grateful to you for assisting us with our inquiry into how devolution is working after 10 years. It is not a review into how Scotland is governed but rather into how the whole devolution structure has developed and might develop in the future. What about your job as Secretary of State for Scotland? There was an estimate in one of the newspapers this morning that you spend 10 to 15% of your time on it. It is clearly not the job that the Secretary of State was before 1997. What is it?

Des Browne: I saw that article in The Times this morning and I have to say that, as an arithmetical exercise, if I had handed that to the person who taught me arithmetic they would have said, "Can I see the workings, please?"

  Q47  Chairman: So is it more than 10 or 15%?

  Des Browne: It was not immediately obvious how that figure had been arrived at. My honest answer to that is that it is difficult to give an estimate because the work that I do is intermingled. I have tried to be open and transparent and if people draw their conclusions, they draw their conclusions. The job that I do is the job that all Secretaries of State for Scotland have done since devolution in 1999 and that is fundamentally to promote the devolution settlement and act as the guardian of it here in Westminster. That has a number of manifestations which you may want to explore, but that is fundamentally it.

  Q48  Chairman: Is it a relatively small minority of your time?

  Des Browne: I think the answer is yes.

  Q49  Chairman: Has it changed in terms of the character or extent of the work you have to do with the arrival of the new SNP administration in Edinburgh?

  Des Browne: I do not think the role of the Secretary of State has changed. I find it difficult to answer that question because I have had no experience of the job in another environment. I have only been the Secretary of State for Scotland in a context where there has been a minority led SNP administration in Scotland so I have no comparator. Rather than speculate, the best thing is to say to the Committee if you could persuade somebody who previously did the job to come and explain what the job entailed then you could draw your own conclusions just as the columnist in The Times did this morning.

  Q50  Jessica Morden: Mr Middleton, in your biography it states your job title as being "Head of the Scotland Office, at Senior Civil Service Director level, within the Ministry of Justice". Can you explain what that means in practice? Why does Scotland not have a Permanent Secretary?

  David Middleton: The Scotland Office is only a relatively small department of around 50 people and would not justify someone at Permanent Secretary level for that number of staff. It has been at that level, director level—in old money Under-Secretary—since 1999 and that has been found to be a satisfactory level to conduct the business of the Office. Obviously everyone has to report into somewhere and I believe between 1999 and 2003 the Head of the Office reported into part of the Cabinet Office, but since 2003 it has reported into first the Department for Constitutional Affairs and now the Ministry of Justice.

  Q51  Jessica Morden: Your staff is at 50. What would be the budget of the Scotland Office and how does that compare to 1997 and then 2001 and in terms of staff levels as well?

  David Middleton: It is almost hard to compare with the old Scottish Office because the old Scottish Office prior to devolution ran into thousands. Indeed it depends how you define it. If you define it as the relatively small number that deal with policy it is about 4,000 or 5,000. If you include all the staff of the various agencies of what is now the Scottish administration it could run into 10,000, 12,000 or 13,000. So the comparisons are between a very small organisation focused on secretariat liaison duties and a big organisation which not only had a policy capability to advise ministers but also to direct and manage services throughout Scotland.

  Q52  Jessica Morden: What about the budget?

  David Middleton: The budget is about £7 or £8 million. It is a budget which covers the staff of myself, the Office of the Advocate General and it also covers a small amount of capital expenditure for the buildings that we occupy both in Edinburgh and London.

  Q53  Chairman: How do the staff numbers compare with the London end of the Scottish Office prior to devolution?

  David Middleton: I think that is hard to give a direct comparison to because the London end of the old Scottish Office was composed of a small number of permanent staff that stayed in London, but it also included Scottish Office staff who travelled up and down to serve on Bill teams and who came down to meet with colleagues in Whitehall. Therefore in a sense Dover House in full session might have 70, 80 or 90 people in it on a given day, but that would be a different 70, 80 or 90 on any working day. The actual permanent staff in Dover House prior to devolution would still be relatively small compared to the large number in the Scottish Office.

  Q54  Julie Morgan: Secretary of State, Mr Middleton mentioned the merger of the Scotland and Wales Office with the Department for Constitutional Affairs. What do you think was the rationale behind that arrangement?

  Des Browne: I am reluctant to do this, but just as far as the figures are concerned, the outturn of the budget for the Scotland Office last year was £5.793 million. Mr Middleton got those figures slightly wrong, but that is the actual figure. I have the figures for the outturn of the budget divided between the Scotland Office and the Office of the Advocate General and the figures for staff for the years from devolution in 1999 all the way through to 2006-07. It may be of assistance to your inquiry to see these and I would be happy to send them to you. There is no point in going through them here in the context of this evidence. I was the PPS to Donald Dewar in the latter years of the Scottish Office. My sense certainly, although I never counted the staff when I was in it, is that the staff that was in the Scotland Office then was significantly more than the staff that is in the Scotland Office now.

  Q55  Chairman: As you would expect. They were running hospitals and prisons.

  Des Browne: Absolutely. As Mr Middleton points out, the staff who were coming down to do policy and other work were coming down to England to advise ministers and there was a different level of accountability here in Parliament so that is a significantly different office. To get to the linking of those devolved administrations' offices with the DCA, I did research this in anticipation to today because I thought you might ask about it and I cannot find any substantial written material in relation to this, but as I recollect it, at that point the then Lord Chancellor who was in charge of the DCA took on responsibility for constitutional reform across the Government and for devolution and that was the logic of bringing the Scotland Office and the Wales Office into that parenting and that has been the consistent policy. Since then the MoJ has had that overall responsibility for constitutional matters and constitutional reform and that is just a logical place for devolved administrations to be. It has the advantage that Mr Middleton pointed out, which is that for pay and rations purposes we have a bigger organisation that has an administration. We do not need to replicate that administration for those purposes. Thirdly—and I think this is really important—from the point of view of those people that work for us, it gives them opportunities in terms of development and in terms of career progress and a coherent environment that we could not offer them because of the scale. We have only got 48 or 50 people working for us so we cannot offer that to people; we cannot offer their own development progress. It makes sense and it sits, arguably, exactly where it should be, in the Government.

  Q56  Julie Morgan: Even though the Constitutional Affairs Department has now become the Ministry of Justice and Scotland has its separate legal system, do you still think it is an appropriate place?

  Des Browne: Scotland has always had a separate legal system. That goes back to the Act of Union 1707 when the right for Scotland to have that separate jurisdiction was preserved, although necessarily, because it shared the parliament for a long period of time, there has been convergence in terms of the law in Scotland in certain areas and there have been changes in law in the rest of the United Kingdom which have been inspired by things that have happened in Scotland and that has been to the benefit of the whole United Kingdom. Justice is devolved now of course. To the extent that justice is different in Scotland, it is devolved; there is a Minister for Justice in the Scottish Executive so that is devolved. There are still areas of reserved powers such as, for example, counter-terrorism that work their way through the justice system which are reserved for very obvious reasons.

  Q57  Julie Morgan: One of the Scotland Office's main objectives is to "ensure that Scotland's interests in relation to reserved areas"—like the one you have just mentioned—"are known and represented within the UK Government." How do you achieve that in practice?

  Des Browne: We do that in a number of ways. The principal way is that there is a Secretary of State sitting at the Cabinet table. So when these issues at the high level of policy are discussed then there is a Scottish representative there, not just MPs or ministers who happen to be from Scotland, but there is a person there who has a responsibility to ensure that the decisions that are being made take into account the circumstances of Scotland and particularly the fact that, for example, on terrorism, the administration of justice is devolved. Secondly, my Minister of State, who is an assiduous and hard working and very good minister, works very hard right across the whole of Whitehall to ensure that there is a constant awareness of the difference in Scotland where there needs to be awareness of that difference. So there is quite a heightened awareness across Government that when people are considering policy changes or the development or application of policy they have to take into account the possibility that the fact that some powers are reserved to Scotland may be of relevance to the development of that policy. I have a Minister of State who reminds them of that constantly at ministerial level and makes sure our officials do it at official level if they do not remember. Then we have the constant networking that goes on among officials. We have a unified Civil Service that goes all the way into Scotland and that is an enormous advantage because officials talk to each other all the time. People ask questions constantly about how often, as the Secretary of State for Scotland, I talk to Executive Ministers. I do not have formal meetings as the Secretary of State for Scotland or as the Minister of Defence with other ministers across Government very often because I rely on officials to do it at different levels, at the level that is appropriate and that is happening all the time. There are hundreds of those contacts north and south of the border going on every day and there is probably the same number of contacts going on across Whitehall. That is not intended to be exhaustive but indicative of how it happens.

  Q58  Julie Morgan: Do you see your role as representing Westminster's policies to the Scottish Executive?

  Des Browne: I think I have a function in that where I have responsibility for it. It was reported widely in the media on Friday that I had met the First Minister and we were discussing issues to do with the administration of elections in Scotland and, in particular, the recommendations of the Gould Inquiry. We hold responsibility for that in the Scotland Office and in terms of the Scotland Act. If necessary, there is an Order presently before the House of Commons about the administration of elections in Scotland. We have a responsibility to do that. To that degree—and that is a very specific point—I do represent the policy position of the United Kingdom Government to the Scottish Executive and through them to the Scottish Parliament. On occasions we otherwise represent Scottish Government policy in other areas. For example, my Minister of State has developed a significant expertise in the area of climate change and energy where there needs to be discussions going on. He has expertise in other areas such as broadcasting and other areas where responsibility is reserved. There is also quite a lot of communication between departmental ministers and secretaries of state and their equivalents in Scotland. I can think of conversations which have taken place between the Minister of Justice in Scotland, the Home Secretary and Jack Straw, as the Head of the MoJ and as the Lord Chancellor. That sort of conversation goes on. Our department is not the exclusive conduit of that; there is a lot of bilateral discussion goes on. I know that the minister with responsibility for fisheries in Scotland talks regularly to the fisheries minister here in the UK Government. I cannot be exhaustive about this, but it just happens all the time, it is routine.

  Q59  Chairman: I am wondering why they need you. You have told us about all these wonderful processes of discussion and that is all to the good, but why do they need you?

  Des Browne: The purpose that we serve in the Scotland Office is primarily to ensure that the devolution settlement works for the people of Scotland. That does require a degree of concentrated expertise in Government here with a Scottish focus. Scotland traditionally has had a voice in the Cabinet. I do not think any party who aspires to Government in the United Kingdom has a policy not to allow Scotland to have that voice in the Cabinet. I might be wrong about that. I know from the Conservative Party's Manifesto at the last election they committed themselves to that quite explicitly. If there is any party that wants to tell the Scottish people that they want to remove that voice then it would be nice to hear it, but I have not heard it. That is part of the way in which this settlement which has led to the United Kingdom is preserved, it is part of its history and I am very much in favour of it. Our exclusive province is not to represent Westminster policy to the Scottish Executive or to the people of Scotland. As I constantly remind people, Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom's ministers' powers still run in Scotland in the reserved area unencumbered and in some of the devolved areas there is shared responsibility.

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