102.The Scotland Office (formally the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland) is a department of the UK Government responsible for ensuring “Scottish interests are fully and effectively represented at the heart of the UK Government, and the UK Government’s responsibilities are fully and effectively represented in Scotland”. It has three main objectives:
103.The department’s role has changed significantly since devolution. Originally the department dealt with most aspects of the domestic governance of Scotland. However, since devolution, its responsibilities have been limited to representing Scotland at the UK Government level on reserved matters, such as foreign policy and employment, and representing the work of UK Government within the Scottish Government. This role includes facilitating the smooth operation of devolution, and administering certain reserved matters of government relating to Scotland.
104.During this inquiry we heard mixed evidence about whether the Scotland Office adds value to the relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments. Some witnesses felt the Scotland Office still serves a useful purpose. For example, Sir Peter Housden, former Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government (2010–2015), told us the Office played an important role during his time in office by drawing Whitehall officials’ attention to potential devolution implications of policy changes.
105.Michael Moore, former Secretary of State for Scotland (2010–2013), argued that the Scotland Office was also a key player during the Scottish independence referendum and further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament in the 2012 and 2016 Scotland Acts. The UK Government made the same point in written evidence. Similarly, Alun Evans, former Director of the Scotland Office (2012–2015), also highlighted the important role played by the Scotland Office during the independence referendum, alongside three other key departments - No. 10, the Cabinet Office, and the Treasury:
We had two things that none of the other departments had. One was the expertise in Scottish issues, particularly constitutional issues, and secondly[…] expertise and knowledge on media and communications in Scotland, which, for all they might think, No. 10, the Cabinet Office and Treasury could not do.[…] I would say during the period when I was Head of the Scotland Office, there was a clear role for the Office, clearly, and I would say it worked quite well.
Michael Moore also argued that, during his time in office, the Scotland Office played an important role as “front of house” for representing the UK Government in Scotland, and the Scottish Government in London:
The challenge is: how does the United Kingdom Government wish to be represented in Scotland?[…] As Scottish Secretary, that was very much my role and I went around the country talking about great subjects, like welfare reform and other things that were challenging and needed to be worked through.
106.Rt Hon David Mundell MP, Secretary of State for Scotland, did not give oral evidence to our inquiry, instead writing to us to set out the UK Government’s position. Using the Scottish City and Growth Deals programme as an example of effective collaboration, the Secretary of State noted that the Scotland Office plays an important role in “engag[ing] and represent[ing] Scottish stakeholders in the work of the UK Government and communicat[ing] the work of the UK Government in Scotland”. UK Government Minister for the Constitution, Chloe Smith MP, made a similar point, claiming that the territorial offices “support and strengthen the union, they stand up for the interests for that part of the United Kingdom, and they[…] champion the work of the UK Government in that part of the United Kingdom”. The minister added that the current territorial offices ensure “the interests of the people of those areas, [are] at the heart of Cabinet”.
107.Other witnesses were less convinced that there remains a meaningful role for the Office. Lord Wallace, former Deputy First Minister of Scotland (1999–2005), argued that the role of the Secretary of State for Scotland added little value during his time in Government, because most UK–Scottish Government working was carried out on a department–to–department and official-to-official basis, rather than through the territorial offices:
My experience as a Scottish Minister was not that I needed the clout of the […] Scotland Office to try to get anything done or get arrangements. It was done on a departmental–to–departmental level, at both ministerial level and, quite crucially, an official level. That informed my view as to why I don’t think we would have been any worse off if […] the Scotland Office had disappeared.
Michael Russell MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, made a similar point, arguing that the department’s role in supporting the UK–Scottish Government relationship is “no longer relevant”. He agreed with other witnesses that most intergovernmental working occurs on a department–to–department basis, and described the Scotland Office as “this other appendage hanging on,[…] there is not really much point in it”.
108.Professor Jim Gallagher argued that the Scotland Office could be abolished and replaced by a single, powerful department at the centre of government”. Similarly, Lord McConnell recommended that the Scotland Office could be replaced by a “Department of Constitutional Affairs” or a “Department of the Nations and Regions”. He suggested that this could be “headed up by a powerful Secretary of State who was a senior figure—one of the top four positions in the Cabinet—and you could retain offices within that department that were responsible for some of the liaison on helping to resolve disputes and so on”. Lord Wallace supported this proposition, adding that this more accurately reflects the way government currently works. He said this approach also notes the role that David Lidington—the minister responsible for constitutional affairs and the integrity of the Union—plays in managing the relationship with the devolved administrations; “I suspect he carries more clout for Scotland’s interests, if I dare say so, than Mr Mundell does”. This point was echoed by Michael Russell MSP, who claimed that “David Lidington has the responsibility for devolution”.
109.However, Rt Hon David Mundell MP, Secretary of State for Scotland told us that he “strongly disagreed” that a single department responsible for intergovernmental relations would be better placed to represent the interests of the devolved administrations. Mr Mundell argued, instead, that the Scotland Office plays a key role in ensuring “that Scotland’s interests are reflected in the policy work of the UK Government”, and that this is best achieved by having Scotland’s interests represented by a dedicated Secretary of State in the Cabinet.
110.The Scotland Office has played an important role during high profile, Scotland–specific political developments in recent years—such as the passage of Scotland Acts. However, outside of these major events it is clear that the majority of most intergovernmental relations are conducted directly between the Scottish Government and the relevant Whitehall departments. The Scotland Office needs to adapt to the reality of how devolution is working on the ground. We do, however, recognise that there is a legitimate role to be played in terms of the Office representing the work of the UK Government in Edinburgh.
111.We have not heard any evidence to suggest that the Scotland Office’s representative role, or its handling of devolution matters, could not be dealt with by an altogether different model of devolved representation in Whitehall, such as a single department responsible for devolution and constitutional affairs. We recommend that the UK Government reviews the role of the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland. As part of this review, the UK Government should explore options including replacing the territorial offices of state with a single department responsible for managing constitutional affairs and intergovernmental relations. The review must ensure that any changes do not reduce the quality of how Scotland is represented in the UK Government nor reduce the ability of the UK and Scottish Governments to work together.
225 Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland and Office of the Advocate General for Scotland, , July 2019
226 Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland, , [accessed April 2019]
227 House of Commons Library, , July 1997
228 House of Commons Library, , November 2018
229 UK Government, Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland,
232 Secretary of State for Scotland ()
235 Secretary of State for Scotland ()
241 Professor Jim Gallagher ()
244 UK Government,
247 Secretary of State for Scotland ()
248 Secretary of State for Scotland ()
Published: 7 June 2019