Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)

RT HON HELEN LIDDELL, MP, MR GEORGE FOULKES, MP, DR LYNDA CLARK QC, MP AND MR IAN GORDON

WEDNESDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2001

John Robertson

  40. I asked it yesterday so I may as well ask it again. Now that the Scottish Parliament has been in existence for over two years, do you believe that 129 MSPs is the right number to carry out the work of the Parliament effectively?
  (Mrs Liddell) As you know, Mr Robertson, I announced yesterday that we would consult on this. Indeed, if you look over the debates that were held at the time of the Scotland Act's passage both through this House and the other place, it was made clear at that time by my predecessor Dr Reid that we would be pragmatic in our view as to the size of the Scottish Parliament, bearing in mind the process of the bedding down of the Parliament and how it functioned in the first three to four years of its existence. My view throughout all of this has been that one of the great achievements of devolution was to broker a broad consensus on the Scottish Parliament and I think on this issue I should seek to find a consensus as well. There is no way I can give you an answer as to whether or not I want 129 or whatever. I am open-minded as to the consultation, it will be a genuine consultation, and I think it is appropriate that the Scottish Parliament, and indeed members of this House, have an opportunity to express their views on, and that a proper debate—and that may mean people disagreeing—takes place.

  41. My feeling is that we are perhaps a bit early for this consultation. I know you disagree. After two years of a new Parliament it strikes me as being bit premature in re-looking at it. Do you not agree that we should be waiting a bit longer to give it a chance to bed down?
  (Mrs Liddell) If you look at the Scotland Act, again you will see that it is quite explicit in the Scotland Act about the size of the Scottish Parliament. Given that issues relating to the size of Scottish representation in this place are live issues now I felt it was appropriate to begin this process of consultation because I think it would not be in the best interests of brokering a sound partnership were we not to listen to the representations that were being made.

Chairman

  42. How wide-ranging will the consultation be?
  (Mrs Liddell) It will be up to whoever wishes to make representation, members of the public, organisations, Members of Parliament, whoever wishes to express a view on this will be gratefully received.

Mr Lazarowicz

  43. As part of the process, Secretary of State, will you consider looking at the experience of other European countries in relation to devolved government? I know that when the proposals were first developed there was considerable interest in what happened elsewhere in Europe and it seems to me it would be useful to look at other parts of Europe. Is that something you would consider as part of the consultation exercise?
  (Mrs Liddell) As pert of keeping ourselves informed about best practice in devolution I and my ministerial team take a close interest in the devolution systems of other countries. I was in Canada two weeks ago and visited the National Parliament in Ottawa and had discussions about the functioning of devolution there. I have been in Italy where they are going down a similar route to us in relation to devolution. I am due to go to Spain because there are also very interesting issues emerging not just about the relationship of the Devolved Administration to the National Government but also, where you do not have one-size-fits-all devolution, the relationship of the Devolved Administrations one with one another. That is a very interesting area that we need to have more thought and analysis on. As for me proactively going and seeking solutions or routes from other devolved parliaments to resolve this issue of 129, I think that would be beyond my position as the arbiter of the consultation process, however, it would not be out of order for people to draw to my attention from their own analysis of other Devolved Administrations their view as to how best practice could best be taken into account in this consultation for the future of the Scottish Parliament. Bear in mind that the next elections to the Scottish Parliament in 2003 will be on the existing system; this does not become live until 2007.

Mr Carmichael

  44. The terms of the Scotland Act require that, with the exception of Orkney and Shetland (which is a very important exception, I am sure you will agree) the constituencies for the Scottish Parliament should be coterminous with those applicable to Westminster. The ratio of constituency to regional members in the Scottish Parliament is currently 56:73. Do you see any need to amend these arrangements?
  (Mrs Liddell) Let me say first of all that I have no plans to seek to change the operation of the voting system for the Scottish Parliament, but I think you raise a very, very important point about this issue of co-terminous boundaries of MSPs' constituencies and MPs' constituencies. There are significant issues that need to be addressed and they are not easily addressed, they are quite complex. It is important for us as parliamentarians, who as constituency members deal daily with these issues, to have a serious and detailed examination of how a system that did not have co-terminous boundaries would actually function. I am saying that in a sense of saying, "Look, we are the people that deal with the nuts and bolts. We need to get our heads round how a change in the system would work." I am not saying it would not work; I am just saying it is time for a grown-up debate about this.

Mr Duncan

  45. In terms of that problem of coterminosity would it have been easier if during the passing of the Scotland Act you had accepted an amendment on the de-coupling of the numbers?
  (Mrs Liddell) I do not necessarily agree with that given that Lord Sewel in the other place made it clear at that time that we would be pragmatic. The whole issue of de-coupling at that stage was not backed up by the analysis that I have just responded to in terms of saying how exactly it will work having boundaries that are a different size and also taking into account local government boundaries. You could have a situation where one Member of Parliament here had three local authorities and maybe three MSPs. All of us who work on a day-to-day basis know that that could be quite a complex issue to deal with. I think that is something that people need to look at. We also need to take into account that political parties in this country are currently organised on a Westminster constituency basis. The political parties will have a view on this because it affects their operation as well and in a democracy you need properly functioning political parties.

Mr Weir

  46. Secretary of State, I speak as somebody who has already got three local authorities in their constituency.
  (Mrs Liddell) I am awfully glad I am not in your situation!

Mr Joyce

  47. Secretary of State, two very important members of your staff are special advisers. Can you give us an outline of what they do?
  (Mrs Liddell) Can I firstly on behalf of my ministerial colleagues congratulate Mr Joyce on his recent happy event. Managing to have your family increased by two at one go is quite dramatic and I would be grateful if you would pass on our good wishes to Rose. The job of the special advisers is actually a very, very important one, and it has to be remembered that although much of the work that I do with Scottish Members is as the Secretary of State for Scotland, I am a member of the Cabinet and as a member of the Cabinet I have wide-ranging responsibilities and a wide range of areas where I need advice, and not all of it is the kind of advice that can be given to me by career civil servants. One important role that special advisers promote is to protect the Civil Service from any charges that they may be seeking to give me what is, in essence, political advice. Also because we are a very small ministerial team and we have a country to deal with of five million people, there are lots of different organisations that I need to keep in touch with, not just formally as the Secretary of State for Scotland but also as a Labour politician, for example with the trade unions and so on, and it would be inappropriate for career civil servants to do some of these contacts. That is where I am greatly helped by having one special adviser who has a particular background in the trade union movement as well as a wide academic background. Also in relation to the point Mr Robertson made in looking at my objectives, part of my role is to popularise and promote the devolution settlement. Some of that has to be in a political way rather than a straightforward Ministerial way and I am helped by my other special adviser in doing that. I have been around the political process since the early 1970s when the whole system of special advisers—or political advisers as they were called at the time—was introduced. I think it is a very helpful way forward in ensuring not just that Ministers have advice that sometimes it would be difficult for a civil servant to give, but also that Ministers are kept in touch. One of the hardest things to do as a Minister is to keep in touch because of the volume of paper, the volume of work that has to be done. I find it very, very useful to have sensible advice that is rooted in the communities and institutions of Scotland that it would be inappropriate for civil servants to speak to me about.

Mr Duncan

  48. Can I run a quote from the Opposition past you, Secretary of State, which read: "This is no longer a government; it is purely a propaganda machine. They are drafting in more civil servants not to do the work of government but to do their political dirty work for them." That Opposition was dated prior to 1997. I wonder if your views have changed since?
  (Mrs Liddell) I think we have modernised the system of special advisers. They operate very tightly within a Code of Conduct and indeed the use of Short money to fund the Opposition Leader's office is a means of giving political advisers to the Opposition as well. Indeed, it was a Labour Government that introduced that system. There has always been a tradition of special advisers in this Department. Every time the issue of special advisers is raised in relation to my office, I always remember one special adviser to Lord Forsyth who was appalled at the prospect of women being allowed out of the home, and he regarded nursery education as something that was way beyond the pale and would lead to Armageddon. Not only is he likely to be appalled by the fact that the New Deal for Lone Parents has meant that 52 per cent of lone parents, who are predominantly women, are able to find work, but I suspect now with a female Secretary of State he probably looks out the window in the morning to make sure that the milk float is not drawn by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I think it is important to bear in mind that special advisers have a significant role to play and often when people attack them it is based on sour grapes.

Mr Carmichael

  49. How do you acquire a special adviser? How do you appoint them?
  (Mrs Liddell) By application.

  50. Is it open advertisement?
  (Mrs Liddell) It has got to be approved. Perhaps Ian Gordon can take you through what the actual procedures are because I cannot completely recall what the procedures are.
  (Mr Gordon) It is a personal appointment by the Minister but it can only be made with the approval of the Prime Minister. So the Minister will put forward names to the Prime Minister for approval and when the Prime Minister has approved them, then discussions can take place.

  51. How do we acquire the names?
  (Mr Gordon) It is a personal appointment by the Minister.

  52. So there is no question of advertising?
  (Mr Gordon) Different procedures can be observed.

  53. Do you advertise?
  (Mrs Liddell) I did not advertise because I was appointed, as you may recall, on 24 January in a completely unexpected manner and I needed to have special advisers very quickly indeed, and I knew of people who I felt could give me the kind of advice that I required and were available to come to me very quickly. They resigned at the time of the General Election and subsequently made it plain to me that they would welcome the opportunity to continue working for me. I was comfortable with their work, in fact very impressed with their work and wished that to continue. Indeed, you will find, for example, that Jim Wallace has two special advisers in the Scottish Executive. There is no way that a Minister can work with a special adviser that does not have a similar mind set and vision because the special adviser quite frequently needs to share the vision of the Minister. I have a very specific vision of where I want to take the Scotland Office not just as a facilitator of the devolution settlement but adding value to the government of Scotland and to the government of the United Kingdom, not least of which the European setting because major issues about the future of Europe have to be confronted. And I was very anxious to have a special adviser experienced in European matters.

  54. I do not dispute the sort of profile that you are outlining. Everybody round this table would have similar considerations when they appoint their own staff. But do you not think it would do a great deal for the legitimacy of special advisers and go a long way to answering some of the criticisms we have heard here today?
  (Mrs Liddell) I think there is transparency in their appointment. The Minister has to justify to the Prime Minister why that person has been chosen and they have to submit a CV and that is gone over in some detail. That appointment cannot be confirmed until the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary have approved it. There are procedures and safety nets all along the process. In my own case speed was of the essence. I needed somebody extremely quickly, given that I had not had an opportunity to plan in any sense in advance. In fact, I think it is generally known that when the Prime Minister was seeking to find me to appoint me nobody had actually thought to look for me at the Despatch Box which is where I was at the precise moment when I was becoming Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr Lazarowicz

  55. When the devolution settlement was established it was always envisaged that the Joint Ministerial Committees would be a very useful way of providing an additional consultation mechanism between the various devolved administrations and the UK Government. Can you give us some assessment of your experience of the committee structure to date?
  (Mrs Liddell) At the time devolution was conceived I think we probably were not aware of how rapidly and how effectively bilateral relations would develop between Scottish Executive Ministers and Ministers of the UK Government, and that has been one of the very successful elements of devolution. Where the Joint Ministerial Committees come into play is as a forum for best practice, for discussion, for raising issues. Indeed, there was a Joint Ministerial Committee in Cardiff just last Tuesday and it was very useful to share best practice and also in a forum to say the areas where perhaps things could be done better. Often there are minor aspects of our day-to-day working that could be improved and that is why the overall JMC chaired by the Prime Minister is very useful. There are, of course, specific JMCs on specific issues that allow the kind of debate and discussion that is not normally able to be fitted into a very business-like bilateral arrangement. It is more the apex of the system of bilateral relationships that is very important. Indeed, that is the way that the work in the Scotland Office is evolving because we intervene much earlier than the JMC meeting to help Scottish Executive departments or help Westminster departments, and we are often a facilitator where we can lift the phone if we see a difficulty emerging that may not have been spotted and we can try and ease those difficulties. The JMC as a sort of clearing house is much more the image of what is actually happening rather than the template that was set down at the time of the devolution.

  56. How often do both the full JMC and the functional JMCs meet?
  (Mrs Liddell) I have attended one of the main JMCs just last week. The functional JMCs met as follows: the JMC on the Knowledge Economy, February and May 2000; JMC Poverty, December 1999 and May 2000; JMC Health, April 2000, twice in June 2000 and once in October 2000 and once in October 2001. But the real workmanship is in the bilaterals. It is not just bilaterals with Scottish Executive Ministers to UK Ministers; it is also bilaterals between the Devolved Administrations as well.

  57. One of the functions covered by a JMC is the European affairs side of things. My understanding from the original Memorandum of Understanding was that it was envisaged that the European Affairs JMC would be where there would be discussion about the participation by the devolved administrations in the UK representation at the European Council and other European levels. Is that function still being carried out by that JMC and, if so, can you give us an update of the number of occasions that Scottish Ministers have taken part in the UK delegation?
  (Mrs Liddell) Again there is a much more workmanlike system that has developed. There is a Committee called Minicor, which are European Ministers from all departments which I have sat on in all my various guises as a Minister, the Devolved Administrations sit on Minicor, and it is there that the real "nuts and bolts" work is done in relation to Europe. Again in relation to the Devolved Administrations appearing at Councils, that is often done on a pragmatic basis. There are issues of specific relevance to Scotland where Scottish Ministers have been the lead Minister in the European Councils. I do not have the specific number but I will certainly give the specific number to the Committee. My memory has been jogged. In relation to the JMC Europe, it has met once before and indeed it is due to meet very shortly.

  58. Perhaps I might make an observation. Bearing in mind what has been said about the value there has been to the Secretary of State and Ministers from contact with their counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland, maybe that is something this Committee should think about—the ways in which it can learn from the experience, for example, of the Welsh Affairs Committee. Perhaps that is something for this Committee. Can I ask the Secretary of State about another issue arising from the Memorandum of Understanding. What assessment has been made of the operation of the four over-arching concordats which were also provided for in the Memorandum of Understanding. Has there been any assessment of their effectiveness to date?
  (Mr Gordon) The very first meeting of the top JMC, the one the Prime Minister chairs, took place just over a year ago, and it commissioned a review, in effect, of the system of Memorandum of Understanding. The Memorandum of Understanding is underpinned by four multilateral concordats, which are the ones that you are referring to—exchange of statistics, financial assistance to industry, EU business and international relations. Those were reviewed throughout the course of last year and a report was submitted to the JMC. The bilateral concordats between each individual administration and their counterparts in Whitehall are constrained within that higher level Memorandum of Understanding.

Mr Carmichael

  59. Following the review of the working of the Memorandum of Understanding, what new advice on devolution matters and associated best practice has been promulgated?
  (Mrs Liddell) In relation to the MOUs, these were discussed at the JMC last week with the Prime Minister and some minor textual changes were made. I am not sure when they are going to be published but I think it is pretty shortly. I will arrange for the Memorandum to be made available to the Committee. As well as operating in terms of the Memorandum of Understanding it is in terms of day-to-day working that we can best share best practice. It varies between bilateral arrangements between Ministers as well. Some departments have excellent bilateral relations, some edged into bilateral relations more slowly than others. Sometimes it can be a question of the issues, sometimes it can even be issues of personality. They are now operating extremely well indeed. I can remember the discussions when I was in the Scottish Office before devolution and it was envisaged that the MOUs would be needed much more to resolve conflict. I think it is fair to say, apart from one or two cases, that has not been the case.


 
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