Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 460-479)


22 APRIL 2008

  Q460  Julie Morgan: What is your view of the Scottish Executive's claim that the residual functions of the Scottish Office and, in particular, the responsibility for elections to the Scottish Parliament, should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: I believe that should happen. We were always told there would be a review of the Scotland Act after about 10 years and I suppose effectively your Committee is part of that review and so are the Constitutional Commission and the National Conversation; they are all reviewing it after 10 years. One of the lessons is that what I would call internal housekeeping ought to be devolved. If I can give you a particular example, an issue arose when I was ill with prostate cancer. We found it was very odd that Parliament had no power to appoint a temporary deputy presiding officer, so two of them had to carry the burden of three for a short period of two or three weeks and they found it really very difficult. It seems crazy that we would have to go back to Westminster and ask them to amend the Scotland Act to deal with a matter like that. That is a fairly trivial example, but yes, the whole raft of internal organisation of elections should sensibly be devolved.

  Q461  Alun Michael: May I ask a supplementary on your reference to the idea of a Secretary of State for the United Kingdom with junior ministers to deal with the relations with the devolved organisations? Do you think that that Secretary of State should also have responsibility for regions within England as well in some way?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: That is the $64,000 question. I have always said it is up to the English to decide what they want and not for us Scots or Welsh, with respect, to tell them what they should have. I do not have any views on that. Until the English decide whether they want to have the equivalent of an English parliament it is an open question. I am not saying there should be an English parliament as such but an English entity within Parliament, an English grand committee or something like that or regions, which they have shown no appetite for, given the vote in the north east.

  Q462  Alun Michael: It is an interesting answer because it seems you had an opinion in relation to Wales and Northern Ireland and perhaps for London.

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: No, I do not equate the London Assembly with these other institutions.

  Q463  Alun Michael: A pity. The draft Constitutional Renewal Bill was published in March and it requires the Minister for the Civil Service to publish separate codes of conduct for civil servants who serve the Scottish Executive or the Welsh Assembly Government. I wonder what your views are about that requirement and how codes of conduct for those two establishments might differ from the UK-wide Civil Service code.

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: They need not differ at all, need they? Either we should continue as one entity or else we should learn from what is already happening. I see no case for attempting to re-invent the wheel on codes of conduct.

  Q464  Alun Michael: Yes; it was not my suggestion so I was wondering what your view was and what your view is perhaps about the future of the unified Civil Service in the United Kingdom? Are there benefits for Scotland and indeed Wales or is it an obstacle in any way?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: No, it is not an obstacle. We have benefited in the cross-fertilisation of people from different government departments and I have not heard much clamour for a separate Scottish Civil Service.

  Q465  Julie Morgan: How would you describe the cultural inter-governmental relationships during the time you were in the Scottish Parliament between the Scottish and the UK Governments in your experience?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: During my time it was very good and obviously Donald Dewar had been a member of the Cabinet before he was First Minister and so got off to a good start. We always said that the test of devolution would come when there were political differences between the Government at Westminster and the Government in Scotland and that, of course, has now happened. I do not have hands-on experience of it because I am retired, but I simply observe that there is a good deal of what I call needless irritation being created, presumably for political purposes, between the two and it comes from both ends. That is not particularly helpful.

  Q466  Julie Morgan: Did you feel that the good relationship between Donald Dewar and Westminster was based on the personal mix and the same-party issue?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: That is true. After all, he was closely involved in the drafting of the Scotland Act, the Scotland Bill, and that followed right through to his occupying the post of First Minister, so it was relatively easy. Even under his successor, during my time in the chair, there were no great problems. There is not a real problem now, except that, for party purposes, there is a good deal of froth and what I call irritation being created unnecessarily.

  Q467  Chairman: There was a Joint Ministerial Committee which is supposed to facilitate these relationships but it seemed to fall into disuse and the Westminster Government have indicated that it should be and perhaps will be re-convened; now that Paul Murphy has taken on the role of Secretary of State with this overall responsibility for devolution, that he might chair this ministerial committee. Did you have any awareness of its operations in the past?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: No. Sorry to remind you, but of course I was never part of the executive machinery; I was responsible for running the Parliament. I was not involved in that side of it at all.

  Q468  Chairman: I asked the question because it suggests that if this machinery functioned at all, it was very well out of the gaze of Parliament.

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: Absolutely; yes. I do not recall any reference at any time being made to it in Parliament, either questions about it or anything else. It did not happen.

  Q469  Chairman: When there are disputes between the governments, is there any kind of arbitration process that could be put in place, particularly if they are quite technical ones such as how you interpret the Barnett formula or the Olympics or something like that. I am not going into the Barnett formula at the moment, I might come back to that, but where there are disputes of that nature is there any kind of arbitration process you could build in?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: Not really, you just have to rely on commonsense with ministers on both sides of the border.

  Q470  Chairman: So it comes down to politics really in the end.

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: Yes and sensible cooperation should not be out of the window simply because you have different political parties north and south of the border in charge.

  Q471  Chairman: One of the symptoms of there being different parties involved at the moment is that there are two review processes, as you mentioned earlier, which are executive in their origin, the National Conversation and the Calman Commission. Is this a recipe for disaster, or can these processes be made useful?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: It is unfortunate that we have these two separate bodies; it would have been far better if we had had one organisation. However, there is a long history to this and I do not want to go back over the creation of the Constitutional Convention which led to the drafting of the Scotland Bill, but even then there were arguments about who was in and who was not in. So the argument has continued basically over the question of whether the Convention is or is not going to consider independence. I frankly have no objection to it considering independence because I think it would be rejected, so I do not know why it is not possible to look at it together in one forum. We now have two and we will have to live with that.

  Q472  Mr Turner: Could I ask whether the only devolved institution introduced in England has been the Greater London Authority? Do you agree with that?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: It is a tier of local government; it is not quite the same.

  Q473  Mr Turner: Why is that?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: It does not legislate.

  Q474  Mr Turner: In your view is there a problem of legitimacy at present in either England or Scotland in terms of the English question?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: No, I do not think so. I go back to the time when, during the latter period of the Conservative Government, we had a very small minority of Conservative MPs from Scotland here and we had the Scottish Grand Committee of all the Scottish Members, of which they were a minority. Although we had the committee stages of Bills in the Committee, in the end the House of Commons determined the law for Scotland. The great majority of members were not affected by the law. Now that the thing is the other way round and a relatively small minority of Scottish Members can determine the law of England it is not nearly such an offensive proposition as what happened before, yet there were not many objections before and it worked.

  Q475  Chairman: You have dealt with the first problem and then created a second. You have dealt with the problem of the English making the law of Scotland.

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: The problem is a lesser one now than it was before.

  Q476  Chairman: Can you explain that?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: Because you had the elected representatives of Scotland in a tiny minority in a chamber which determined the law of Scotland. Here you have the law of England determined by a chamber in which there is a minority of Scots. The outrage was stronger before than it is now. There was not much outrage, people lived with it, and they did in Northern Ireland as well.

  Q477  Mr Turner: So it obviously was not that that caused the devolution in Scotland. What was it?

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: That was a contributory factor because there came a point finally in the 1997 election when there were no Conservative MPs left in Scotland, so how could you organise a Scottish Grand Committee with the government side having nobody on it?

  Q478  Mr Turner: In much the same way as you organise government in Northern Ireland.

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: I am not quite sure how.

  Q479  Mr Turner: There are no Conservative or Labour parties.

  Lord Steel of Aikwood: The setup of the Scottish Grand Committee was every Member from Scotland met in the Scottish Grand Committee and you had the government side and the opposition side and with each passing election, the government side was dwindling until finally in 1997 it did not exist.

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