Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 176-179)


26 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q176 Chairman: This is a sitting of the Justice Committee of the House of Commons, at which we are very pleased to be able to welcome the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, Alex Fergusson MSP, and the Acting Director of Clerking and Reporting, Mr Ken Hughes, who are going to assist us with our inquiries into devolution 10 years on. The emphasis of our inquiries is on how the system works as a whole rather than in the individual countries in which devolved powers exist, and questions around England, where obviously devolved powers do not exist except to a limited extent in London. I thought we might just start by looking at what might appear a relatively technical question but I think is quite an important one, which is around the Sewel Convention and the way in which the Scottish Parliament deals with legislation where it chooses to follow Westminster, or allow Westminster legislation to have an impact in Scotland within a devolved area. Has there been any change either in the attitude to the Sewel procedures or, indeed, in the way they have been operating since the beginning of devolution?

Alex Fergusson: Firstly, thank you for your welcome, it is a great pleasure to be here, if I could say so, and welcome to Edinburgh. On questions of attitude to Sewel, the whole process of Sewel motions, I would have to say that the attitude to them is probably rather coloured by the political climate within a parliament at the time and, therefore, I would not be very happy commenting on that because that is not for me to do. The one thing I could possibly say is that since the last election evidence would suggest that the number of Sewel motions or Legislative Consent Motions, whatever you want to call them, that are being dealt with look to be roughly the same as was previously the case but, other than that, I do not think I would want to comment on the actual attitudes taken to them. There has been no huge desire or nobody has greatly come up with a demand that the whole thing should be revisited, so I leave that perhaps for you to ask later witnesses.

  Q177  Chairman: Mr Hughes, did you want to add anything?

  Ken Hughes: In terms of how procedures have developed, prior to 2005 the Parliament actually did not have any explicit or specific LCM or Sewel procedure and the Procedures Committee of the second session of the Parliament decided that they wanted to codify in some way the process as it applied to the Scottish Parliament. It launched quite a major inquiry that looked into the procedures and what we ended up with was the Parliament agreeing to a new set of Standing Orders applied to the process of Scottish parliamentary scrutiny of Legislative Consent Motions. That did a number of things. The Committee introduced rules in relation to the expectations of the timescales of when LCMs would be introduced to the Parliament, and they future-proofed it in a certain way in terms of looking forward to a situation whereby governments would be different north and south of the border and put in procedures that would cope with that eventuality as well. We have ended up with procedures now that we did not have formerly and they still seem to be working well.

  Q178  Chairman: One thing I do not quite understand about the procedures is whose job is it to be certain that a piece of Westminster legislation requires a Sewel motion, and can a situation arise in which the Scottish Parliament either thinks that it should have been a Sewel motion matter or discovers later to its cost that it should have been treated in that way but is actually now on the statute book?

  Ken Hughes: That side of the process is almost purely intergovernmental. It is up to the governments north and south of the border to agree what provisions in UK bills could be affecting devolved matters. It is the relationship between the two governments that decides whether the Scottish Government then comes to the Scottish Parliament to ask for consent or provisions to be included in a UK bill. One can probably never rule out the possibility of something hitting the statute where it has just fallen through the net but, without wishing to pass the buck, in the first instance that would be a matter for the governments.

  Q179  Chairman: Which government?

  Ken Hughes: Both. Again, post-2005 what we have tried to do is have an early warning system in as much as when the Queen's Speech is made I believe there is contact at that point between the two governments and the Scottish Government comes to the Parliament to say, "Here is a list of bills in the Queen's Speech. Here are the bills that we would expect an LCM or Sewel procedure to apply to".

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