Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 286-299)


26 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q285 Chairman: Deputy First Minister, welcome. We are very glad that you have given some time to this sitting of the House of Commons Justice Committee. We very much look forward to hearing your evidence. One of our witnesses, Professor Keating, said that: "devolution is about allowing policy divergence and a healthy competition among governments to innovate and respond to challenges". Is that how the process is able to work?

  Nicola Sturgeon: I certainly agree with Michael Keating that devolution and the new constitutional arrangements we have allow for policy divergence where that is appropriate and in the interests of, in our case, Scotland. What I would not want to leave Members with the impression of though is that the Scottish Government is out to be different for the sake of being different. We will judge every issue against a measurement of what is in the Scottish interests, what is best for the people of Scotland, and if that requires a different policy response then we will certainly not hesitate to give that response and there have been numerous examples of that over the years. Yes, that is what the devolution settlement allows. Because of the limitations of the devolution settlement there are other areas where policy divergence may be in the interests of the Scottish people but because of the particular constitutional settlement we do not have that freedom as yet. Most people would recognise that is a positive of the settlement, that we are able to do things in our own interests, and that is as it should be.

  Q286  Chairman: If we have a look at the mechanisms for dealing with those cases where there are either differences or some engagement between the Scottish Government and the UK Government is necessary, one of the main mechanisms that was first put in place, the Joint Ministerial Committee, has actually not met in plenary format since 2002. I understand the First Minister wanted to see it operating. How do you see that process working?

  Nicola Sturgeon: The fact that the Joint Ministerial Committee set-up does not really function and, as you say, the JMC in plenary session has not met since, I think, 2002 and, with one exception, none of the sub-committees have met since at least that time either, that is a huge missed opportunity. The working relationship between the Scottish Government and the Government at Westminster would be strengthened on a day-to-day basis if that machinery worked better than it does. That said, there are very good bilateral relationships at official level and increasingly at ministerial level on a range of issues and they work well most of the time on a day-to-day basis. I would hope very much we see progress on re-establishing the JMC structure sooner rather than later. The Secretary of State for Wales has now been given the responsibility of overseeing the JMC and the British-Irish Council, so that is probably the strongest sign we have had to date that that machinery may be reactivated, and we certainly hope to hear confirmation of that very soon.

  Q287  Chairman: Do you see any dangers if it is not reactivated?

  Nicola Sturgeon: First, to be positive, there are now signs that it will be. You mentioned the First Minister's approach to the Prime Minister in August last year, to which there has not yet been any official response, we do take the additional responsibilities given to Paul Murphy as a good sign and, therefore, we are very positive about the prospects. I think it is important that the JMC does become active again because it would provide a real opportunity to discuss reserved issues that impact on devolved areas or, vice versa, to discuss issues where there is difference to perhaps avoid disputes escalating more than they have to. I would rather see it as the positives we can get from the JMC being reactivated than dwell on the negatives. There is no doubt in my mind that there would be an enormous missed opportunity not to have the JMC working properly. We would like to have seen that being the case before now but let us hope it happens before too long.

  Q288  Chairman: Under devolved government, does Scotland need a voice in the UK Cabinet in the form of a Secretary of State?

  Nicola Sturgeon: You have just heard from Bruce Crawford. I did not hear Mr Crawford's evidence, but no doubt he will have told you of the day-to-day working relationships that he principally has with David Cairns. I think the Secretary of State for Scotland and, indeed, the Scotland Office is of a past era. Perhaps in 1999 the role was more obvious and more necessary. Although some of the functions of the Scotland Office would continue to be carried out, it is important that a reserved government knows what devolved government is doing and vice versa. It is important that there is co-ordination, but I think that co-ordination could be carried out in different ways through the co-ordination role of the UK Government, through the Cabinet Office perhaps, and through the JMC working more effectively than it does at the moment. I do not think there is a case for retaining the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland as separate entities. On policy areas, while sometimes the Scotland Office appears as if it is presenting itself as Scotland's reserved government, in fact in policy areas it has next to no direct responsibility and the policy areas and relationships that count are the bilateral direct relationships between Scottish ministers or officials and UK ministers or officials. Almost 10 years on, I think it is time to look again at the role of the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State. A critical examination would probably lead everybody to the view that its time has been and gone.

  Q289  Chairman: Are you confident that you are not cutting off your nose to spite your face, you are not getting rid of something which, although it does not reflect your long-term aspirations, is thought by some people to benefit Scotland because of the presence of that voice in the Cabinet?

  Nicola Sturgeon: Obviously it is no secret that the Scottish Government thinks that Scotland should be independent and that is the best constitutional settlement for Scotland, but while we remain within a devolved set-up there is a real need to have good, constructive working relationships on a day-to-day. We have good day-to-day working relationships, but the question is does the Scotland Office add any value to that. On policy issues, Scotland's voice is the Scottish Government working directly in devolved areas on reserved areas, particularly where there is a crossover and an impact one on the other, and then the real voice of Scotland is the Scottish Government working with the UK Government directly. In terms of the day-to-day machinery I just question whether we need to have a Scotland Office and a Secretary of State for Scotland with all of the expense and bureaucracy that surrounds that or whether those co-ordination arrangements could just as easily and effectively be carried out elsewhere. Increasingly, I think they could be carried out just as effectively in other ways. I have mentioned the Cabinet Office and the Joint Ministerial Committees which if they were working properly, which they are not at the moment, could do a lot of that work.

  Q290  Alun Michael: Could we have a look at one of those areas where obviously there is a need for good liaison, which is on European issues, European negotiations and so on. Is that working well in terms of Scottish interests being taken into account?

  Nicola Sturgeon: I think you are absolutely right to say it is one of the areas that have to work well. One of the frustrations the Scottish Government has is that the UK Government tend to see European affairs as being a branch of international relations when in reality the decisions taken by the various arms of the European Union impact directly on areas of devolved responsibility. We have some good relationships, if I can run through the different aspects of the European dimension. We have got good relationships with the European Commission at official level and Scottish Government ministers have had a range of very constructive meetings and ongoing dialogue with individual Commissioners. We have got a good relationship with our Members of the European Parliament and as the European Parliament takes more of a role in European policy-making that becomes increasingly important. I suppose where I think there is most room for improvement and where the frustration of the Scottish Government would be greatest is in terms of our dealings via the UK Government with the Council of Ministers because the constitutional arrangement dictates that we have to operate through the UK Government. Scottish ministers do on occasion attend Council meetings, participate directly in Council meetings, and there have been occasions when Scottish ministers have led for the UK in Council meetings. There are areas of policy, if we take fisheries, which is probably the best example, where I would be very confident that the expertise that we have in the Scottish Government on fisheries is far greater than anything that exists within the UK Government. Clearly our interest is much greater and I think we should be able to work an arrangement where on areas like that it is the Scottish Government minister who leads routinely for the UK Government. Another area where we do think there is real room for improvement, and it may be a bit unfair to say this since it is the only arm of the Joint Ministerial Committee that is functioning, is the European Sub-Committee. While it is good that it has continued to meet regularly, I think there is a real sense that it is not working as effectively as it should be. The Minister for Europe, Linda Fabiani, in the Scottish Government has raised this directly with the Foreign Secretary. It is very often a forum at which different departments of Whitehall sort out their differences rather than a forum at which the UK Government can properly consult the devolved administrations, and the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons, I believe, has raised real concerns about the lack of involvement of the devolved administrations in policy formulation.

  Q291  Alun Michael: Forgive me, there are two elements. You have made clear the policy position of the Scottish Government but in terms of practicalities—I am a little out of date but I have seen the way that works between the UK Government departments and Scottish Government representatives and the other devolved administrations—what would you see as the areas where it is working well in terms of delivering on Scottish needs at the present time?

  Nicola Sturgeon: There are some examples. In the recent Treaty negotiations I think there was a good relationship between the Scottish Government and the UK Government on some aspects of it, the Justice and Home Affairs aspects for example. In other areas of that there was a real frustration that our concerns over fisheries provisions were simply not listened to by the UK Government and, therefore, were not reflected in the UK's negotiating position. My view is while there will be cases where things work better than in others, in answering the generality of your question there is a real need, and it is not just the Scottish Government that thinks this, as I mentioned earlier on the European Scrutiny Committee has made similar points, where the UK Government does not work hard enough to make sure that the devolved administrations are involved in policy formulation. You know my view and you know the Scottish Government's view that we would be better being directly represented in Europe. While we have the situation we have where so much of Europe directly impacts on our devolved responsibilities it is not good enough for us to be constantly knocking on the door and not always getting an answer when we should be integrally involved in these discussions at every stage, and in some cases we should routinely lead at the Council for the UK Government because it makes sense.

  Q292  Mrs James: I want to turn now to Choosing Scotland's Future. We are aware that there is a national conversation going on based on the document Choosing Scotland's Future. How is that different from the Constitutional Commission that Wendy Alexander has announced?

  Nicola Sturgeon: The working party, or review as it is now called by the Prime Minister, I believe, the national conversation, is a wide-ranging inclusive process. It was kicked off last August by the First Minister with the publication of the White Paper, Choosing Scotland's Future. In that White Paper, and I have no doubt you have looked at it, we, as the Scottish Government, very clearly set out our preferred option of independence for Scotland but we recognise that others have a different view; others want more powers for the Scottish Parliament short of independence; others want financial independence for the Scottish Parliament but not full independence. We have very deliberately set out to have a conversation that allows all of these views to be expressed. That is going very well, it has generated a lot of interest, and I think the conversation is alive and kicking and generating a lot of enthusiasm in Scotland. It is interesting that when we started off just after the election we had parties like the Labour Party, for example, being implacably opposed to any more powers for the Scottish Parliament and now we have all parties arguing for some form of further constitutional change, and perhaps that is the biggest sign of the success of the national conversation so far. How it differs from the Commission/review/working party, whatever we want to call it, is very clear. I should say first of all that I do not think anybody in Scotland is particularly clear yet, not least some of the participants in the Commission, what form exactly it is going to take or what exactly its remit is going to be, how exactly it is going to go about its business. I have seen in the papers this morning some emerging signs of disquiet within the Commission about its future direction. I suppose the key difference is that whereas the national conversation is inclusive and invites all strands of opinion, the Commission expressly excludes consideration of one of the key options for Scotland, and that is independence. The Commission is not a substitute for the national conversation. At some point it may be able to formulate an independent view to independence that it can then feed into the national conversation but it remains to be seen whether or not it will ever get quite that far.

  Q293  Mrs James: You have already mentioned the Prime Minister's comments on this. How do you respond to his comment that the review was not a "one-way street" and that some powers could be returned to Westminster?

  Nicola Sturgeon: I suppose to be charitable, constructive and positive, first of all, it was good to hear the Prime Minister at long last acknowledge the fact that the debate about the Constitution is ongoing, alive and dynamic in Scotland. Sometimes over the past few months it has been reminiscent of the dark days of the 1980s when the UK Government appeared to want to just stick its head in the sand and pretend there was no debate about constitutional change. That was not sustainable then and it is not sustainable now. That was the positive. It is certainly regrettable that the Prime Minister's first serious contribution to this debate seemed to focus more on taking powers away from Scotland than on doing what the vast majority of people in Scotland want to see done and that is have more powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I would suggest that demonstrates either that the Prime Minister is slightly more out of touch with public opinion in Scotland than even I would have said he was, or there is that, I suppose, I was going to say Westminster but that would include this Committee which is unfair given you are here showing this interest, old Whitehall tendency to try and get control of a process so that you can try and contain it. I suspect that is what the Prime Minister was trying to do by downgrading Wendy Alexander's Scottish Commission to a Westminster review. I do not think that is sustainable and I do not think that is what people want to see this debate taking the shape of.

  Q294  Mrs James: It is interesting that the debate is going on, but clearly what is coming through in many of the pieces of evidence we have taken is that people are interested in powers and want to proceed but they are not interested in independence.

  Nicola Sturgeon: I do not think I am grabbing any front pages by saying this, but I do not agree with you on that. I think there is very strong support for independence in Scotland. I am not saying there is not very strong support for other constitutional options as well. That is the interesting feature of the debate just now and it is what makes the national conversation so dynamic and inclusive because we want all of these strands of opinion to be openly discussed. We can trade any two politicians of any two parties, and we do this a lot in Scotland, we can trade opinion polls and say one option is more favoured than another but, ultimately, one of the big questions we have to face up to in Scotland is how do we ultimately settle the question of whether we favour independence or more powers short of independence. The view of the Scottish Government is very clear, we think there should be a referendum that allows the Scottish people to settle that question. I am more than happy to take my chances in a referendum, I am pretty confident the people of Scotland would choose independence. For parties who do not support a referendum, the real question is how else do we settle the question because I believe passionately that this should not be a debate that is confined to politicians and the odd academic, since I suspect there is still one or two sitting behind me here, or to parliaments even. This is a debate that should involve the Scottish people and be ultimately settled and decided on by the Scottish people.

  Q295  Julie Morgan: Our previous witness, an academic, said that the SNP Government had to put independence on the backburner. What is your view on that?

  Nicola Sturgeon: I will have a chat with him later, once I find out who it was! I do not think that bears scrutiny. All along, what the SNP said before we were elected into Government is we believe in independence, we campaigned for independence and we seek at every opportunity to advance the case for independence. Ultimately, it will not be the SNP that decides the question, it will be the people of Scotland in a referendum. Of course, we have also always said that we wanted to get elected to government in the Scottish Parliament so we could show what we were capable of by using the powers of the Scottish Parliament as they are better than they have been before, build confidence in the ability of Scotland and the Scottish people to govern ourselves and do things better when we have our own interests up front and centre. I think we are doing an extremely good job around that just now. I would say that, but I think that is a view reflected across the country. As we have seen through the national conversation and the White Paper, we continue to make the case for independence and use the success of the Government using the powers that we have now as a further argument for independence. As people see what can be achieved with limited powers, the appetite for greater powers and more autonomy up to and including independence becomes very strong.

  Q296  Julie Morgan: As a party, have you moderated your views as a result of the reality of government?

  Nicola Sturgeon: On what particular topic?

  Q297  Julie Morgan: Independence.

  Nicola Sturgeon: No, we continue to believe that independence is the best constitutional settlement for Scotland. I noticed one of the questions you posed in your remit was whether the asymmetric nature of devolution within the UK is appropriate and sustainable. I think emphatically not. Although we are keen to debate some of the other options, federalism, fiscal autonomy, they all throw up their own anomalies. All of the rational arguments point to independence as being the best outcome for Scotland. I should stress that independence is about giving Scotland political and economic power over the whole range of issues that other normal independent countries have. I also think it would strengthen the relationship we have with the rest of the UK as well because it would be a relationship of equals. We will continue to make that case as passionately and as powerfully as we have always done before and all of the evidence is it is a case that is gaining ground and winning converts by the day.

  Q298  Julie Morgan: In the present situation that we are in, what is your view about the English Question?

  Nicola Sturgeon: First of all, it is not for me or any member of the Scottish Government to try and answer the English Question. Just like the future constitutional shape of Scotland should be determined by the Scottish people, the future constitutional arrangements of England should be determined by the English Question. It is of course too tempting for me not to say that independence at a stroke would solve the English Question. I see Andrew Turner shaking his head and to some extent he is right to shake his head, it would get rid of the English Question at a top level but clearly there are issues in terms of the governance of England as well which are for the people of England to determine. What it would get rid of is this rather bizarre and anomalous situation where you have the Westminster Parliament operating simultaneously as a Parliament for the UK and also a Parliament for England which I think does throw up a great deal of frustration in England and is a situation that is unsustainable.

  Q299  Mr Turner: I would like to pursue this matter of asymmetric devolution. So far we have been giving your views the benefit, but let us give ourselves an alternative where people are enthusiastic about the current level of devolution but not terribly enthusiastic about the last jump, and that is equally likely. Do you not think then it will be necessary to have a pause and for England to get the opportunity to come up-to-date?

  Nicola Sturgeon: What I do not think is that Scotland determining the best constitutional settlement for Scotland cannot somehow be put on hold for matters elsewhere in the UK to—to use your terminology—catch up. I think there is an opportunity already for people in England to determine what arrangements they want that best suit their interests. That is a process that is not constrained by anything that is happening in Scotland. It is a process that is ongoing, at least in terms of growing public debate in England. I hesitate to say too much about what I think the outcome of that should be because fundamentally it is for people in England to determine the best outcome for them.

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