Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
TUESDAY 23 OCTOBER 2001
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.
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.
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
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'salthough he has other responsibilitiesis
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
(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
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.
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.
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 responsibilitywe 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 doand 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
(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
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.
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