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House of Lords

Wednesday, 2nd February 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle.

Scottish Executive: Concordats and Ministerial Committees

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    To what extent the system of concordats and the associated ministerial committees have been used in relation to Scotland.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, the Memorandum of Understanding and the four over-arching concordats were published on 1st October 1999, setting out the overall framework of working relationships after devolution. Sixteen bilateral concordats covering more detailed working arrangements between the Scottish Executive and UK government departments were published in three tranches during November and December 1999. All those concerned are now working within these frameworks. The arrangements appear to be working well.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her reply and I did of course see the Government's publication in October. But is a concordat likely to be invoked over tuition fees and the present compromise whereby English students at Scottish universities and Scottish students at English universities will have to pay fees, a matter now being examined by the European Commission as well? Are the proceedings of the concordat system to be made public in the interests of transparency and freedom of information?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, the issue of tuition fees is a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament in so far as it affects Scotland. It is in the nature of devolution that the power and the right to make these decisions goes to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive. United Kingdom Ministers and Scottish Ministers are in frequent contact on a wide range of matters and keep each other informed of policy developments, as anticipated by the Memorandum of Understanding and the various concordats. Neither the Government nor any of the devolved administrations has felt the need to call a joint ministerial committee for the purpose of resolving a dispute on either this issue or indeed on any other issue, which is why there has not been a meeting of the joint ministerial committee.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House how the concordats and

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committees can actually help the Government to pursue their objectives properly? Can she say how items arrive on the agenda? Can Members in either House write to suggest items for the agenda? When does she expect the joint ministerial committee to meet?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, my noble friend has asked a variety of questions. I shall try to deal with as many of them as I can in a brief time. It has not been necessary so far to hold a meeting of the joint ministerial committee in plenary format. The JMC annexe to the Memorandum of Understanding, published in October states that it will meet at least once a year. No date has yet been arranged for that first routine meeting. However, we have already held an initial meeting of a functional JMC on poverty and will follow that up with one on the knowledge economy.

Those two committees reflect the Government's commitment to economic stability and to social justice. We should all welcome the establishment of the JMC on poverty. The Government have committed themselves to eradicating child poverty and this JMC will facilitate co-ordinated thinking and action across a range of devolved and reserved matters. As a result of measures like the working families' tax credit and the New Deal, 60,000 children in Scotland have been lifted out of poverty. That is an encouraging start and the JMC on poverty will enable us to take this much further. My noble friend asked about the agenda. It is open to any Member of either Houses to write to a Minister and suggest that this be looked at.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the noble Baroness comment on the question of agriculture? That is a devolved matter but negotiations are in the hands of the United Kingdom Government. It is very important indeed that there should be close co-operation and joint efforts to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take up the money he could get out of Europe if he would pay his whack in this country. At present agriculture needs that money.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, there is a concordat with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is up to the UK department and the departments in the devolved administrations to work out a co-ordinated policy for the benefit of the whole of the United Kingdom.

Baroness Young: My Lords, further to the supplementary question of my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy on student fees, does the noble Baroness agree that the unbelievably confused situation which seems to have arisen as a result of the Government's policy would not have arisen had the policy that was produced in the House of Lords been accepted by the Government?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness. I do not believe that there is confusion. The position is perfectly straightforward; the UK government policy is

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perfectly straightforward; and what is being announced in Scotland is perfectly straightforward. I see no confusion.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Baroness told the House that there were no ministerial committee meetings on the subject of student fees. Did ministerial "meetings" take place by telephone to discuss this policy--and if not, why not? The result of the two different policies north and south of the Border has resulted in discrimination against Scottish students at English universities and against English students at Scottish universities inside what is still supposed to be one United Kingdom. Was there communication between Whitehall and Edinburgh?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, it is the noble Lord who is confused now. Of course there is communication between Whitehall and the devolved administrations. There is constant communication between UK departments and Ministers, or, in the case of the Welsh Assembly, Assembly members. Joint ministerial committee meetings would be called if there was perceived to be a problem that could not be resolved in the normal communication and activities between the two groups of officials. No issue in relation to student fees or any other matter has necessitated that.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, did they communicate by telephone?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, the noble Lord insists on asking that question. I am sure that they did. They communicate all the time by every modern form of communication.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, will the noble Baroness answer my question as to whether the proceedings will be made public, and therefore communicated to the public?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I am not sure which proceedings the noble Lord means. If he means joint ministerial committee meetings, of which none has taken place, those would be covered by the usual procedure and the details of minutes would not be covered. As to concordats, there are copies of all of them in the Library. They are open and transparent.

Government Special Advisers

2.44 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the estimated total cost of the Government's special advisers in the current financial year as compared to 1996-97 and what changes there have been in their duties and responsibilities.

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The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, the estimated cost of special advisers in the current financial year is £4 million. That compares to £1.8 million in 1996-97. With the exception of up to three posts in the Prime Minister's office, special advisers are appointed for the purposes of providing advice to Ministers. Successive administrations have used special advisers in that way.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that Answer. However, can I take it that there has been no overall change in the duties and responsibilities of special advisers? Given that they have unparalleled access to Ministers and, apparently, a "licence to leak" on behalf of Ministers, should there not be some standard as regards their qualifications? At present, most seem to have very little experience outside either academia or Westminster. I understand that the number of special advisers at No. 10 has gone up from eight under the previous administration to 25. Surely such a huge increase with no change in duties and responsibilities must, sadly, imply a lack of confidence on the part of the Prime Minister in the advice of his senior official civil servants--for example, the Secretary of the Cabinet or his Principal Private Secretary.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it certainly implies no such lack of confidence. There is no basis for such a suggestion. The Neill Committee states in its report that special advisers have a very valuable role to play. The evidence of the First Division Association, the trade union for senior civil servants, said:

    "Members say that a good Special Adviser is well worth having in any department ... it is also fair to say that this government has used its special advisers in a much more upfront way. A good Special Adviser is an asset in a department, both to the Minister and the Civil Service".

The special adviser helps the Minister. He helps the civil servants in the department as well by providing a useful interface between the two.

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