Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-228)


26 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q220  Alun Michael: I see the point that you are making. How do you see this developing in the future? Do you see the development of a separate Scottish Civil Service or do you think that cross-fertilisation is likely to continue to be part of the pattern?

  Sir John Elvidge: Well, it is the current Scottish Government's policy that there should be the development of a separate Scottish Civil Service and it is clearly my duty to seek to deliver that but, of course, the Civil Service is a reserved matter and that could only happen by agreement with the UK Government. Whatever happens, I think we will continue to see strong channels of mutual learning between the different administrations. My own view is that the UK has been a little slow to realise that it has such a potentially positive real-time experiment in comparative approaches to reasonably similar challenges for government in hand and that we have not always been as good at sharing the learning as we might have been. I think we are getting much better at that between the three devolved administrations. Getting that shared learning working between the devolved administrations and the UK Government is a slightly slower process, although I hasten to say that Sir Gus O'Donnell and my permanent secretary colleagues in Whitehall are as committed in principle to making that happen as I am.

  Q221  Alun Michael: Does that not argue for a stronger relationship and strong links between the Civil Service in the devolved administrations and in Whitehall in order to make sure that all the institutions, including Whitehall, get the benefit of cross-fertilisation and mutual challenge, as it were?

  Sir John Elvidge: I absolutely agree that it argues for strong links. You are tempting me onto ice I do not want to be on if you ask me to relate that to the question of whether there should be a separate Scottish Civil Service or not.

  Alun Michael: I understand the political point.

  Q222  Chairman: Can I move on to how the practical arrangements work, how the wiring operates. How often do you talk to your counterparts in Westminster? How often do your Strategic Board members talk to permanent secretaries? Is the wiring at the lower level and is it there?

  Sir John Elvidge: The wiring is certainly there. I will try to tease that apart a bit. Since early in 2007 I have adopted a practice of going to London most weeks to meet with my Permanent Secretary colleagues through their regular Wednesday morning meeting. That was not possible before then because the Scottish Cabinet met on a Wednesday and that was not a very difficult conflict of priorities to resolve, was it. Now that the Scottish Cabinet meets on a Tuesday it is possible for me to be in London on a Wednesday and it is clearly a very effective way to concentrate my engagement at permanent secretary level into that on a Wednesday morning and I often do related business on the back of that. The degree of contact that my director-general colleagues have will vary significantly from subject area to subject area. Our education and health systems are essentially self-contained and although there is a structured dialogue about exchanging experience, particularly around education where the permanent secretaries from Whitehall and the relevant senior officials in the three devolved administrations do meet on a regular basis, there is a structure of periodic exchange of experience. I would not suggest that in those areas it is anything like week-to-week, it might not even be month-to-month.

  Q223  Chairman: If you take those areas for a moment, there are some things where although they are separate systems and devolved, the GPs' contract was negotiated on a UK basis. How does the wiring deal with something like that?

  Sir John Elvidge: At a lower level, that is the third level.

  Q224  Chairman: Or maybe not very satisfactorily?

  Sir John Elvidge: I would not say that. To take the doctors' contract as an example, colleagues here would be fully present during the processes around that, they would function not quite as part of the team, because we have to remember they are always accountable to ministers with a different mandate but, nevertheless, fully embedded in the process. That is an extreme example. Yes, sometimes the degree of involvement that colleagues here who are engaging with single issues have with processes in Whitehall is a bit less fully integrated and less satisfactory than that, but there are very strong links on an issue-by-issue basis where there are clearly cross-border interests at stake. Whatever happens at the more senior levels rests on a bedrock of very frequent and close involvement at working level.

  Q225  Chairman: Do you find you have to bang on the door? It reminds me of my childhood when I used to listen to radio programmes in which they said, "Scottish listeners now have their own programme". Sometimes the atmosphere in London seems to be one in which the Scots can go and do something different from time to time but there is not very much awareness of this fact. Do you have to bang on the door and say, "This is going to affect Scotland differently. We need a proper engagement between officials in both sets of departments"?

  Sir John Elvidge: Yes. I think I would argue it has always been so pre and post-devolution. The risk that the different circumstances of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland will be overlooked is ever-present and it is part of my responsibility to try to make sure that does not happen. Yes, I am frequently the boy at the back of the class putting up my hand and saying, "Please, sir, there is another dimension to this".

  Q226  Chairman: Is it by accident that you have not mentioned the Scotland Office?

  Sir John Elvidge: No, it is not by accident. As the strength of bilateral contacts has grown, and I think to some extent as I have been able to re-establish the strength and frequency of contact at permanent secretary level, gradually the role of the Scotland Office has moved to different territory. I do not think of them as the key interlocutors in making contact work. They do play a part, I think, in helping avoid that problem of oversight by Whitehall colleagues. One of the advantages they have is that they see the internal flow of UK Government correspondence in a way that we do not. We can point out the Scottish dimension of something we are aware of, they will sometimes see things which we do not have sight of and they play their part in tapping their colleagues on the shoulder and saying, "I think you have missed a Scottish dimension here".

  Q227  Chairman: The bilateral Concordats, of which I think there are 26, have they worked? Has the way in which they work changed with the change in Government?

  Sir John Elvidge: It depends what you mean by "worked" really. One measure of them having worked in a sense is that almost no-one, I think, refers to them as documents. They set a climate of expectation about what the working arrangements are, but by and large are a rulebook that people go to and say, "You have broken the rules". They have worked in the sense that they have set the right set of expectations about the standards that the relationships should reach. They do not stop things going wrong sometimes but that would be an unrealistic expectation of them. I suppose now we also have to reflect on the fact that they were written and tested in one era of political relationships and it is an open question whether they will prove as robust in a changing era of political relationships. There has to be an element of suck it and see about that.

  Q228  Chairman: I imagine you would not want to endorse Professor Jeffrey's claim that current structures for intergovernmental relations within the UK are not "fit for purpose"?

  Sir John Elvidge: Well, it is an observable fact that there are cobwebs on some of them. The JMC machinery, apart from JMC Europe, has fallen into disuse. There was a purpose behind the JMC mechanism to allow sharing of thinking at the most senior ministerial levels and to allow for some preliminary exploration at least of intractable disagreements, which is not obviously being fulfilled by any other piece of machinery at the moment.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed, Sir John. We are very grateful for your evidence. We are going to take a break and the Committee will resume at 11.15 sharp. Thank you.

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