Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 86-99)


29 JANUARY 2008

  Chairman: Secretary of State and Mr Cogbill, welcome. When you and I were together towards the end of last week I was not expecting to be pressing you in this new capacity, nor you to be sitting there! On one of your very first outings we welcome you very much. I think we have a couple of interests to mention.

  Julie Morgan: I am married to the First Minister in Wales.

  Jessica Morden: I am Paul's PPS and so will be remaining silent!

  Q86  Chairman: You have found yourself suddenly in the job of Secretary of State for Wales. Is there a job?

  Mr Murphy: First of all, Chairman, and members of the Committee, I am delighted to be here. If you were shocked about what happened last week then you can imagine what I must have felt like! It is a great pleasure to be back in a job that I did from 1999 to 2002. It is a considerable pleasure to come before this Committee. You and I have talked over the years about how significant a Committee this is and this is the first time that I have had the opportunity to contribute towards your deliberations. Yes, there is a job. It is a question, incidentally, that I was asked constantly in 1999 all the way to 2002. The fact that there was a job then and there is a job now and there has been a job in between indicates yes there is. I think it is an integral part of the devolution settlement. When people voted for devolution in 1997 they voted for the package, which included the position of the Secretary of State for Wales, enshrined as it is, as few others are, in legislation by name. In addition to that, the Wales Office has been an integral part of the settlement too. I think the first important point to make is that when people voted for devolution they did not vote for separation, they voted for devolution within the United Kingdom and in Wales they only just voted for it at all in 1997 so they saw it as part of the settlement. I think the chief role of the Secretary of State post-devolution is in a sense a personal one, it is about relationships, it is about ensuring that the devolution settlement develops, but also that it is as smooth as it possibly could be between Cardiff and London. It is representing Welsh interests within the Cabinet of the United Kingdom Government, it is representing Wales and its interests throughout all the Whitehall departments, but it is also representing the United Kingdom Government in Wales too. A lot of the job that I did when I held the position before and I am sure I will do as well now is to ensure that the policies of the United Kingdom Government are explained in Wales and it is also a symbol of the partnership between ourselves and the Welsh Assembly. I am convinced that the awareness of Welsh matters in Whitehall is the job of the Welsh Secretary. It also means that we give proper scrutiny through the Wales Office to legislation which affects Wales, but we will probably come on to that in future. I am convinced that the job is a part of the settlement and is an important part of it.

  Q87  Chairman: This job was done as a part-time activity by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions until last Thursday. Does your appointment to it in a different way, with sole responsibility, mean that the job is now going to change?

  Mr Murphy: The job has changed since the second Government of Wales Act anyway in that the methods of Orders in Council, LCOs as they are termed, which will incrementally transfer power to the National Assembly, mean that there is a different type of role for the Secretary of State compared to when I was in the job so far as the legislation is concerned. Your question revolves more around times rather than the functions of the job. Peter Hain was a very assiduous minister, very hard working. He held my job initially on its own, but at that stage I believe he was dealing with European matters too. He then held a number of Cabinet posts together with the post of Secretary of State for Wales and undoubtedly it was a very hard job because of having to do all that. In my own case, I am not doing this job as a standalone because the Prime Minister has asked me to do other things. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to outline it to the Committee so your question is answered more fully. In addition to the job of Secretary of State for Wales I have now been appointed the Minister for Digital Inclusion, which involves a lot of cross-departmental work, and in addition to that I have been asked to chair the Cabinet committee on data security, which is something that of course is of enormous interest to Members of Parliament after what happened before Christmas.

  Q88  Chairman: This Committee has reported on it recently.

  Mr Murphy: I shall look forward to reading the report. In addition to that, I have to chair the Cabinet Committee on Local Government and the Regions, which is very interesting in a comparative sense, to look at how regional activities and possible government might occur in England. It is still a job which is important, but you can combine, as the Prime Minister has asked me to do, other jobs with it within Government.

  Q89  Chairman: Mr Cogbill, you are described as Director of the Wales Office but of course you are part of the Ministry of Justice. What does that mean in practice about the role and status and your relationship with the rest of the Ministry of Justice?

  Alan Cogbill: I suppose the first thing to say is that I am accountable exclusively to the Secretary of State for Wales in all matters which ministers will take an interest in. What it means is that the Wales Office as an associated office of the Ministry of Justice comes within a much bigger administrative pool, which means that, for example, we can look more broadly at bringing people into the Wales Office and we can look to the Ministry of Justice for all kinds of corporate services which it would be very difficult to sustain for an office of fewer than 60 people, i.e. the IT, financial systems and that kind of thing.

  Q90  Chairman: What are your current staff numbers and budgeting in broad terms, so we can understand?

  Alan Cogbill: In broad terms, we have currently 55 people. We are looking to recruit just a couple more at the moment.

  Q91  Chairman: So almost exactly the same size as the Scotland Office?

  Alan Cogbill: Yes, and the spend is about 5.5 million a year.

  Q92  Chairman: Do you have many dealings with the Scotland Office part of the Ministry of Justice on matters of common interest? Do you ever find yourselves engaged in discussions with them?

  Alan Cogbill: Yes, quite a bit. Since last year the Ministry of Justice has had a new Director General looking at handling devolution and strategy across all the devolved countries of the UK and we have periodic meetings which involve both the head of the Scotland Office and me so that we can see how developments are running in the different countries, and before that we used to come together on a fairly frequent basis, more or less formal basis, just to share the problems, see the trends and see if there were any common factors that we wanted to have in mind.

  Q93  Chairman: Do you make common cause?

  Alan Cogbill: Well, yes, to this extent. I have as my main building a listed heritage building, which is a bit of a headache in some respects. The maintenance and refurbishment of that is a little project for which, as it happens, I have been able to arrange for some people in the Scotland Office to help us. They happen to have someone who has the necessary skills and we can use that, and those kind of working arrangements happen quite a lot.

  Q94  Julie Morgan: My questions are to the Secretary of State. You mentioned the changes to the jobs since the 2006 Act, and one of the Wales Office's stated main objectives is to ensure that the changes to the constitutional settlement which flow from the Government of Wales Act are implemented and operate smoothly. How do you propose to do that?

  Mr Murphy: I think it is back to relationships again in the first instance. I think one of the important jobs of a Secretary of State is to be able to have a good relationship, we are necessarily a part of them, because, as you know, we are in coalition in Wales at the moment, but a good relationship in Wales with all ministers in the Assembly Government in dealing with these new proposals of how we deal with the transfer of powers incrementally. The first thing to do is to ensure that when the Welsh Assembly Government decides to ask for a transfer of functions that there is a good ability to be able to talk about those things between ministers here in London and ministers in Cardiff. Secondly, I think, the process itself is now beginning to bed in. It had a bit of a bumpy start, but all processes do. It is not the easiest process to understand, but I think it has really got going over the last number of months. I think it is working rather smoothly in terms of relationships between the ministers, in terms of the Welsh Select Committee, which has a responsibility to give prelegislative scrutiny to these new orders, to its equivalent committee in Cardiff. What we have not tested yet, of course, is how the matters will be debated here in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, because it has not yet come to that stage, but I think that the initial teething troubles that were experienced on that process of devolving these different functions are gone and I think things have improved quite a lot on that.

  Q95  Julie Morgan: So you are confident that this can go forward smoothly?

  Mr Murphy: I have no doubt that the process will be one that people will get used to and that it will be smooth. It is also a question, of course, of dealing with the other government departments in Whitehall, some of whom, of course, were not in the past used to dealing with a devolved administration. I think that is getting much, much better than it used to be when I was a minister in the Wales Office before. People are understanding the role of devolved administrations differently, they understand it is a very important role that they have, and in our case, of course, because English and Welsh matters are more linked than Scottish and English are for all sorts of reasons, it is important that those relationships do flourish, and that again is part of my job. When Mr Beith asked me about what my role is, it is also a role in liaising with other Cabinet ministers in the United Kingdom Government on matters such as the ones you have just described: handling the process of transfer, for example, is one of them.

  Q96  Julie Morgan: You have only been in the job a few days, I think, but has it struck you as being different from when you were in the job the last time?

  Mr Murphy: Yes, it is different, first of all, in the sense that the processes are different. When I was dealing with legislation from 1999 to 2002 there were perhaps one or two, at the most, Welsh bills going through the legislative process in Parliament. They would be bid for by the Welsh Assembly Government through me, through the system, and that is all we would deal with, except perhaps some parts of bills which had Welsh matters in them as well. Now it is very different. It has resulted in the second Government of Wales Act. The other thing, of course, is that we have a different political landscape in Wales than we did when I was Secretary of State before, obviously, with the advent of coalition politics that we have now got in Cardiff, and so that clearly is different as well. People have not changed an awful lot; most of the main players are the same. Wales is a relatively small place and I think, in many ways, one of the great advantages of devolution has been the accessibility of government—people know each other in a different way—something I experienced when I was the Northern Ireland Minister well. I think that that is beneficial and it means that you can talk to people in perhaps a different way than in an English context because England is so very big.

  Q97  Julie Morgan: We have just seen the Secretary of State for Scotland, Des Browne. How do you think your relationship with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Welsh Assembly would be different than the relationship in the Scottish context?

  Mr Murphy: I think the roles were different anyway, as it were, from the beginning. The perception of people in Scotland about devolution has always been different, but in Wales there was a much smaller majority. In the referendum in Scotland for devolution, it had its own Parliament in the past, it has got a separate legal and judicial system, a different educational system, different police forces and so it is a different place altogether, and the relationship between a First Minister in Scotland and then in Wales is different for those reasons alone. I also think there is a question of size. Scotland is bigger and it has more politicians. I do not think there are really good comparisons to be made between the two places, because these are different devolution settlements, just in the same as Northern Ireland. We have that type of devolution, asymmetrical devolution, in this country, and I think actually we benefit from it, and there is no reason, in my personal view, for example, why eventually we cannot have regional government in England which, like in Spain, is different from place to place.

  Q98  Dr Whitehead: Do you have a sense of the management of devolution from Whitehall in addition to the bilateral arrangements you have described between Whitehall and Wales? Is there a strategic overview of devolution which is on-going as a result of the process and do you have a role in this, or will perhaps you have a role in this in the future?

  Mr Murphy: There would be trouble if I did not. I think certainly that the change I have seen since I have come back is that from an official's point of view particularly, of course within the Ministry of Justice there has been established this new unit, so to speak, which deals with the overall policy of management of devolution, which I think is a good thing because it gives an extra reason why it is that Whitehall departments must now understand devolution generally and understand the differences between Scottish, Welsh and, indeed, Northern Ireland devolution, and I think that is a good development. I do not think it can ever replace the bilateral arrangements, though. Because I am a Welshman representing a Welsh seat, I go home to my constituency and I am going home to the area that I am responsible for in government here in Westminster, and also (the point I made to Mrs Morgan just now when we were talking about the need for personal relationships between politicians) to soothe things through. In a way all my ministerial life for the last nearly nine years now, on and off, has been about that type of politics, about dealing with people personally to overcome difficult areas and problems that we might have, and I think that is as much applicable to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in different ways. So, as important as the central unit is in the MoJ, and I do think it is very important and I will be having meetings with the relevant officials over the next few days, it will not replace, nor can it replace, the political bilateral relations which the Wales Office, Scotland Office and Northern Ireland Office actually represent.

  Q99  Dr Whitehead: Do you think the Secretary to the MoJ and perhaps the Cabinet Office, which also has a role in this, and, of course, the individual offices for Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland, do have, or should have, a collective view of reviewing how the machinery of devolution works and whether it works well or less well apart from the particular devolved administrations and governments that it is dealing with? Is there, in your view, as it were, a Whitehall barometer of success of devolution which needs to be managed and do you think, perhaps, that might be managed in one centre rather than the different centres there are at present altogether?

  Mr Murphy: It depends what you mean by the success of devolution, I think. In terms of the machinery of government and how the British Government deals with the devolved administration, I think there is a very important need constantly to monitor that. There is no problem at all with that. I think when it comes down to assessing the political advantages and disadvantages of devolution, they are essentially political questions and people have different views, obviously, about that, very diverging views, but devolution is also about allowing the devolved administrations to get on with governing Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and sometimes it is quite difficult to let go, I guess, over the years, if you have been dealing with government. It is particularly difficult for members of Parliament to understand that; it is difficult for me. I have been a member of Parliament for 21 years and certainly for the first half of that it was the old Welsh Office system where you could go to the House of Commons, ask the Welsh Secretary questions, have an input into the health and education service and all the rest of it, and that has changed and we have to accept that. In the same way, incidentally, I think that colleagues in the Assembly and in the Scottish Parliament have to accept that these, too, as MPs, still have a role in the governance of Wales. But that is a political question which, I think, in a sense, is different from the point that you were making, which is the machinery of dealing with devolved administrations constantly needs looking at because it is changing all the time—the landscape is changing. I think, certainly initially, in the late 1990s Whitehall was not really ready for devolution in the way that it should have been and there was sometimes a constant battle with Whitehall departments to get them to understand the significance of what was happening in Cardiff and Edinburgh and, indeed, to understand and appreciate that sometimes, even in the same party, that they might be going down different roads. I think that has changed a lot and, I suppose, in answer to the question you asked about what has changed the last few years, the awareness within government departments about that still needs attention but it is different from what it used to be.

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