Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)

TUESDAY 23 OCTOBER 2001

THE RT HON PAUL MURPHY, MRS ALISON JACKSON AND MR JOHN KILNER


Chairman

  1. Order, order. Welcome Secretary of State. Would you start by introducing your team?
  (Mr Murphy) Alison Jackson on my left has appeared before your Committee on a number of occasions and is the Head of my Department. On my right is John Kilner, who is Head of my Finance and Establishment section in the Department and who has not appeared before you in the past.

  2. Your Departmental Report says that now the devolution settlement has had time to bed down, the role of the Wales Office has become more clearly defined. How would you describe that role now?
  (Mr Murphy) I do not think the description of the role which I outlined to the Committee when this job started has changed. What has changed is two years of experience in doing the job. The fact that the Prime Minister decided after the general election to retain the role of Secretary of State for Wales, together with the Secretaries of State for the other countries, was significant. It meant that there was an important liaison role between Whitehall and Westminster on the one hand and the National Assembly on the other which my office performs. You will remember that in the first instance it is my job to present the legislative programme to the National Assembly each year, which I have already done. Indeed I go back from time to time to take up a seat which is mine in the Assembly, but I fear not a vote, to ensure that the Assembly are aware of legislative proposals which affect them and the people of Wales. Secondly, the role of negotiating the block grant, together with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary is something we have now experienced and you can imagine that that is a hugely important task for the people of Wales because there are no tax raising powers in the National Assembly and clearly the budget is based upon the block grant. Thirdly, there is the question of the legislative process. I believe that in the last two years we have seen and experienced quite a dramatic change in how legislation for Wales is made, as compared to what had happened before devolution. That has gone remarkably smoothly. The relationship between myself and the First Minister and the Cabinet and indeed other members of the Assembly, including their committees, is such that I cannot recall in the two years since this role started any disagreement of a major nature between the Assembly and the Government on primary legislation which has come before us in the House. For instance, we had our own Wales Bill on the Children's Commissioner and the extension of the Children's Commissioner's powers, but in addition to that there have been many Bills which have had Welsh clauses attached to them; those clauses are dealt with between my office, the National Assembly and the appropriate Government department here to ensure that goes through smoothly. In addition to that there is a symbolic role to play and a very important role in ensuring that Wales is still represented around that Cabinet table. Beyond the symbolism there are the very real, active and practical roles of membership of 22 Cabinet committees on which Don Touhig and myself sit. Wales is represented on all the major Cabinet committees which affect Welsh life by either myself or my deputy. We have become part of the constitutional settlement, we have become part of the political landscape which is now very different in Wales. I have enjoyed the job over two years. It is a hugely challenging, demanding and very exciting time for Welsh politics and for Welsh public life. Inevitably there have been teething troubles, as we knew there would be. On balance, over the last two years the settlement, which the people of Wales voted on some years ago, has now become very much a feature of our public life and, not least because of the fact that the Assembly spend £10,000 million a year on our public services, the people in Wales are now realising that it is a huge part of their life as well.

Adam Price

  3. I see from the Foreword that you say that devolution is an ongoing and evolving partnership, the crucial word being "evolving". It seems a little bit at odds with an earlier statement by the Secretary of State that devolution is an event and not a process. Has he revised his opinion?
  (Mr Murphy) What is in the definition of words? What matters to people in Wales is how their lives are affected by the existence of the National Assembly and the constitutional settlement. I am not saying that as the years go by there will not be changes in the way in which we are governed in Wales; not for one second am I saying that. What I am saying is that we are very early on in the process, two years since the Assembly started life and that it is the job of politicians in Wales and anybody in public life to ensure that the Assembly are now accepted as part, a hugely important part, of Welsh life. The way that affects people is how it affects the services which are delivered to them: the Health Service, the schools, the transport, local government and all the other things the Assembly are responsible for. There is still a tremendous amount of work which can be done within the constitutional settlement which the people of Wales voted on so little time ago which can affect their lives. Whilst I am saying, "Who knows that will happen in the future?", I still think it is early days for the Assembly. The essential element of what the Assembly and the Government must do between us is to ensure the effective delivery of public services. All of us who fought the last general election around this table, every single one of us, irrespective of the party we represent, will have got the message that it is those services which have to be delivered. Those essential services in Wales are services which are delivered by the National Assembly and not directly by us, although our role is to ensure, amongst other things, that we pass the necessary legislation and we provide the finance for those services, which I believe we have done.

Mr Williams

  4. Could you expand upon your role of ensuring that the enabling clauses in the Act of Parliament give the Assembly robust enough powers to deliver on such policy initiatives as the Learning Country?
  (Mr Murphy) That has happened on a very large number of occasions. When I addressed the National Assembly with the legislative programme I made it clear in my speech to them that I thought that enabling clauses were very often a good way in which the Assembly themselves, through secondary legislation, could determine the way they would go in the delivery of their services. I welcome that development and it is a development which we jointly and in partnership share in the sense that we work out between ourselves how best to ensure that those enabling clauses can actually deliver. There are times of course when that might not be possible because of the way the law is structured, but generally speaking enabling clauses are a good system which we could develop.

Julie Morgan

  5. Have mechanisms been created to guarantee that the primary legislation made in Westminster will enable the appropriate regulations to be followed in the National Assembly? I understand there have been some problems with GPs' contracts, where the primary legislation did not cover the fact that GPs were with local health groups rather than with primary health trusts. Doctors have been very concerned about this and also there is concern about the forthcoming consultant and GP contracts. Can you tell us how you can ensure that there is no time lag and the problems of primary legislation not fitting in neatly with the arrangements in Wales?
  (Mr Murphy) You will never guarantee absolutely that there will be a relationship on the time scales which is exactly right. There are several reasons for that: perhaps the most important is that our parliamentary year does not necessarily coincide with the Assembly year. There will be gaps which will be difficult to overcome. I do take the point you make about the GPs. It was early days. Since then there has been quite a lot of development in the way in which the relationship between Whitehall and Cardiff, in terms of drawing up legislation, has changed quite dramatically. Only yesterday we had a Joint Ministerial Committee on health for example. Clearly with the forthcoming NHS England and Wales Bill and the forthcoming draft NHS Wales Bill, primary legislation is going to be a means by which the Assembly can modernise the Health Service in Wales, albeit in a way the Assembly itself is determining. Nevertheless, it is now clearly known amongst Government departments here that liaison with my office and with the Assembly is now critical in terms of ensuring that we avoid the sort of problems you have just outlined. It is a question of experience, of time, of getting used to different systems and my job and Helen Liddell's job and John Reid's—although he has other responsibilities—is to get the British dimension aware of the importance of acknowledging the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I believe that is working.

  6. You think that with these new contracts coming up there will not be a time lag and it will happen about the same time.
  (Mr Murphy) What I know is that the Department of Health and the Assembly are working very closely together on those sorts of issues and indeed the issue you referred to has been discussed between the Ministers from Cardiff and from here in London too.

Chris Ruane

  7. Have you had any formal or informal requests to extend the powers of the National Assembly to areas like the police or fire service?
  (Mr Murphy) No. The formality of those requests would come through the normal channels. They have not come to me anyway, but they might have asked somebody else, though I am not aware of it. Those powers have not been requested. What the Assembly are discussing is obviously a matter for them but there have been no formal requests to me or indeed informal ones.

Dr Francis

  8. Could you bring us up to date on the work of the Joint Ministerial Committee and its four subject committees since we last met?
  (Mr Murphy) Yes. We had a JMC yesterday on Health. A JMC was also held in June 2000. Since we last discussed it as a committee the main JMC met on 1 September 2000 and we are due for a further meeting of the main JMC as well.

  9. Could you comment on the word you have used in describing the relationship between the Assembly and Parliament as a "partnership" and how that partnership has now developed? Would you say that it is an enthusiastic partnership on both sides, comfortable, uncomfortable?
  (Mr Murphy) The JMCs have considerably improved in the way that people get to know each other. The whole business of politics is personal relationships. The fact that you meet your counterparts from different parts of the United Kingdom, different Ministers of Health, for example, who met yesterday, means that they come to know each other through JMCs and the shared experience and best practice from those particular people and it does help in understanding the problems in our own countries. The fact that they bring people together to talk about common experiences and shared values is hugely important. The JMCs are not the only mechanism for relationships between the National Assembly and this Government. There are other ways in which it can happen. There can be bilaterals between the respective Minister here and the respective Minister in Cardiff but also a bilateral between Ministers from Scotland, from Wales and indeed from Northern Ireland as well. I know that those relationships exist and all good luck to them for doing that. In a strange sort of way we probably now know more about the Scottish health system and the Northern Ireland health system and the Welsh health system between us as a consequence of JMCs than before devolution, even though the Government had direct responsibility for the respective territorial departments for those particular services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, because people come together in a very different way now. That is something which is not generally known but which is to be widely expected to continue and to be welcomed.

Mr Caton

  10. Continuing on your relationship with other departments, why did the Wales Office decide to undertake the survey of departmental contacts which are summarised in Figure 4 on page 11?
  (Mr Murphy) Because each individual Government department has to try to find out some method of measurement of effectiveness of the departments or offices which the Departmental Report covers. It is very difficult in a department such as mine, which does not have executive responsibility—we do not run anything, we do not deal with planning applications or build roads or do all those things which Secretaries of State in the Welsh Office used to do—and any sort of evaluation of what we do inevitably has to be subjective. Sometimes they cannot even evaluate lots of what I do, because a lot of what I do is done behind closed doors in talking to people. They do not know what I say and sometimes I have no intention of telling them because at the end of the day it is the result that matters in that there is a smooth working relationship at the end of that exercise between myself with the First Minister, between the Ministers here and the Ministers there and the Assembly and the Government. Sometimes you have to do these things in private. We cannot always evaluate in the established sense of evaluation work what we do. I was not terribly impressed by that particular system and I doubt we shall have it again.

  11. Can you tell us a little more about it? Who was invited to participate and who responded?
  (Mr Murphy) I can give you the list: the Cabinet Office, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of the Environment, as it then was, Transport and the Regions, Health, Social Security, Trade, Foreign Office, Home Office, Treasury and yourselves as the Welsh Affairs Committee. Of course I exempt the Committee from the comments I have just made about the other departments. Not all responded; not necessarily in any sense out of discourtesy, but they did not feel there was a need to; others did. I thought it was too subjective in terms of what perhaps one official or two officials might think about what might have happened about the devolution settlement in the course of that year. The responses were all reasonable; none of them was bad; some were better than others. I did not really think that it was the best way to evaluate it. It is very difficult to know precisely how to do it in a department like the Wales Office.

  12. May I take you up on one of them? On one of them, "presentation of the UK Government's policies to the Assembly", you actually achieved a score of "less than satisfactory".
  (Mr Murphy) Yes.

  13. Why was that?
  (Mr Murphy) Because that was the view of one of the Government departments about that particular issue. That table was based on a small number of responses.

  14. Were any of the respondents from the Assembly?
  (Mr Murphy) No.

  15. There was no expression of dissatisfaction from the Assembly.
  (Mr Murphy) No; no. This was on whether my office was presenting the United Kingdom Government's policies to the Assembly in the best way as felt by another Government department. It could well be that my view of the presentation to the Assembly would have been rather different from another Government department's. My own view is that having done this particular job for two years I probably know a little more about the Assembly than they do.

  16. You have made clear that this system is not going to be used again. Are you looking for another way?
  (Mr Murphy) We shall have a look at ways in which we can deal with it. It is difficult in that you can easily evaluate performance when you are running things, but it is a very different thing when it is about performance of a political office. In the same way when I was a Minister in Northern Ireland, if you took any particular week when things were going badly then it would have been regarded as a rotten performance. On another occasion, because Northern Ireland is like that, it goes up and down, there would have been a different view on it. A political office, which is mine, is very different from an executive office and that is why I thought this was a rather inadequate way of trying to evaluate. If anybody has some ideas on how to do it, I should be tickled pink.

Adam Price

  17. On one of the other key objectives of the Wales Office, facilitation of communication between the Assembly and Government departments, I notice that the rating there is only "satisfactory". I take the point about the subjectivity. May I offer you another subjective view of the same role which is that of the First Minister of the National Assembly who said last week in relation to the BSE in sheep fiasco that part of the problem was the National Assembly were outside the Whitehall loop. Do you think that is a fair assessment of the current situation?
  (Mr Murphy) In terms of the agricultural side of it I know for instance that the Agriculture Minister, Carwyn Jones, meets very regularly with Margaret Beckett and all the other Agriculture Ministers. I must say that I have had no complaints in the sense of being outside a loop. At the end of the day we are separate administrations: we are a separate Government, the Assembly are a separate administration governing Wales. Ultimately there has to be some sort of difference because we are separate bodies. However, I certainly would not emphasise that too much. In fact he said it was a positive thing and not a negative one. What happened last week, in terms of what we have all read, would have been the subject of discussions between the territorial Ministers as well as the Secretary of State for that department. It is for that department to answer in detail on that rather than for me.[1]

Mr Wiggin

  18. You mentioned being outside the loop, but from your definition surely you would be the last person to know, if you were outside the loop. You said a few moments ago that you were being accused of being outside the loop, but by default you would not know. You are the loop effectively.

  (Mr Murphy) No, it was the Assembly who were saying that, not me.

  19. They feel they are outside the loop because they are not getting the information they require from you, surely.
  (Mr Murphy) You would have to ask them on that in terms of whether they feel they are. My experience over the last year or so is very much the opposite. If indeed there is a problem, because running the National Assembly is a huge business, then my advice to Ministers in the National Assembly and the First Minister as well is that my door is always open for them to raise queries with me and they do all the time. Every week there are telephone calls, meetings and different types of communication, which means that I have to take up matters with colleagues. Sometimes they are not very important, sometimes they are very important. That conduit for improving relations between the two bodies is very much open to the Assembly and I do not think there is a problem. Obviously because of the size of Government there could always be occasions when things will go wrong and then it is for us to try to ensure that does not happen again. I think that is improving from the early years.


1   See annex page 16. Back


 
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