Select Committee on Public Accounts Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Annex A

Devolution Guidance Note 12



  1.  This note provides guidance to UK Ministers and civil servants* on how to deal with invitations to attend Committees of devolved legislatures. It does not provide guidance on the giving of evidence to these Committees. If such guidance is required, in addition to that which is already available for giving evidence to Westminster Committees, it will be provided once it has become clearer how the Committees in the devolved legislatures will wish to operate.

[* Also covers special advisers, who are employed as civil servants.]

  2.  It is open to any of the UK legislatures (the UK Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly)** to invite Ministers (or Secretaries) and civil servants from the UK Government or the devolved administrations to attend and to give evidence to a Committee. This guidance note covers only the situation where a Minister or civil servant of the UK Government has received such an invitation from one of the devolved legislatures. The Constitution Secretariat in the Cabinet Office (0207 270 5914) should be notified of all such invitations.

  [** While section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 is in force, the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended.]


  3.  The devolution legislation has created powers to require by law the attendance of individuals at a particular Committee meeting. There are rare circumstances in which a UK Minister might be so required to attend a committee of the Scottish Parliament. It is not expected that these circumstances will arise very often and in most cases a Minister will be invited to attend (as they are invited to Westminster Select Committees). In all cases, therefore, the invitation will fall into one of two categories: (a) the Minister is required to attend and give evidence; (b) the Minister is invited (ie not required) to attend and give evidence. The difference in respect of the three devolved legislatures is set out in the respective legislation as follows: section 23 of the Scotland Act 1998; section 74 of the Government of Wales Act 1998 and section 44 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It may not always be easy to determine the exact legal position in any particular case and legal advice may be required on interpretation. Paper A gives an outline of the legal position but in all cases of doubt legal advice should be sought.

  4.  While UK Ministers' over-riding responsibility is to the Parliament at Westminster, any request for a Minister to attend a Committee of a devolved legislature should be treated with as much care and courtesy as an invitation to attend a Commons or Lords Select Committee. If the assessment of the legal position is that a Minister could be required to attend a meeting then sending a representative will not usually be acceptable and every endeavour should be made to attend when and as required by the devolved legislature.

  5.  If Ministers are invited to attend in circumstances where they cannot be required to do so then it is a matter for them as to whether they attend or not. It is expected that over time a pattern of response to such invitations will build up among UK Government Ministers.

  Initially Ministers will wish to consider each case on its merits taking into account the following considerations:

    —  Ministers' primary duty of accountability is to the UK Parliament, which retains sole authority for non-devolved matters;

    —  the relationship between the Minister's responsibilities and the subject of the devolved legislature's enquiry (ie how closely linked are the issues, are the ramifications within devolved areas of UK Ministerial decisions);

    —  whether the Minister or another UK Government representative has recently attended to give evidence on the same or a closely related topic; or, in the case of the Scottish Parliament, where a Minister has recently given, or been invited to give, evidence to a Commons or Lords Select Committee on the same or a closely related subject;

    —  whether there are particular aspects of the issue which weigh in favour of attendance (eg providing an opportunity for the UK Government to explain its policies or position; a high level of media interest in the devolved area or a specific case which has acquired a high profile);

    —  whether the devolved legislature might acquire the information by some other means (evidence may have recently been given to a Westminster Select Committee on the subject or if it is seeking mainly factual material might a memorandum be provided, at least in the first instance; and

    —  the effect on the Minister's other duties and other calls on his time.

  6.  In some cases, where attendance is invited, it may be appropriate for a junior Minister or a senior official to attend even when a Cabinet Minister has been invited. Indeed, in many cases it may be more useful to a Committee for someone other than the original invitee to attend. For instance, some senior officials with geographical responsibility in Scotland or Wales for a reserved matter may be particularly well placed to provide information to a Committee of a devolved legislature. Alternatively, Ministers may prefer to submit a written statement.


  7.  All civil servants working for the UK Government who receive an invitation to give evidence to a Committee of a devolved legislature (in their capacity as a civil servant) should seek the agreement of the relevant UK Government Minister before accepting or declining the invitation. All civil servants will appear before the Committees on behalf of Ministers. Depending on the nature of the subject at issue it may be necessary to seek more explicit instructions from Ministers on the giving of evidence.

  8.  As with attendance by UK Ministers it will be important to establish the legal position regarding attendance (see paragraph 3 above and Annex A). The considerations on attendance when it is invited (but not required) will be similar to those for Ministers as set out in paragraph 5 above. It will be for UK Ministers to decide whether they wish their officials to attend. However, invitations to officials to give evidence on politically sensitive issues should be treated with particular caution.

  9.  Committees of the devolved legislatures may also ask members of non-departmental public bodies to attend hearings. In such cases discussion between the NDPB and the relevant sponsor department will be needed to determine the response to the invitation and the approach to giving evidence. However, NDPBs are free to express their independent views, subject to any statutory or contractual responsibilities and security constraints.


  10.  If an invitation has been accepted (either by a UK Minister or a civil servant) and the subject is one which is currently under consideration by a Westminster Select Committee then that Committee should be informed through the Departmental Select Committee Liaison Officer. Irrespective of the current concerns of Westminster Select Committees it may prove to be good practice to inform them of approaches from devolved institutions.

  11.  On all occasions, and whatever the intention as regards attendance, Ministers and their officials should deal with devolved Committees with the same courtesy, respect and promptness as they would use in dealing with Westminster Select Committees. The Government wishes the devolved arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to operate effectively within the new constitutional frameworks that have been provided. Behaving in the proper way towards the devolved legislatures' Committees will be one way of achieving this aim.

Constitution Secretariat
Cabinet Office

March 2000

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