17 November 2015

S4M-14820 “Changing Relationships: Parliamentary Scrutiny of Intergovernmental Relations”

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on S4M-14820, in the name of Bruce Crawford, on “Changing Relationships: Parliamentary Scrutiny of Intergovernmental Relations”... ... ...

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

In this week of all weeks, we know that Governments in these islands can and do work together. Tavish Scott talked about the First Minister’s reference to participating in COBRA meetings. I did that when I was a minister—certainly on one occasion and, I think, more than that. I still have the UK transport minister’s mobile number in my mobile telephone from when I was transport minister here. In practice, co-working is perfectly possible and is perhaps a little more common than is sometimes imagined. Sometimes, ministers are happy to bypass the civil servants to make things move that little bit faster than others might want.

Some co-decision making is already embedded in law. The former British Waterways Board was a cross-border authority that required Scottish and UK ministers to sign off decisions that ministers were required to make. Thus, when I was responsible for canals, I found myself signing of a decision that related entirely to a transaction in Birmingham. The deal was that I would do what the UK minister wanted to do in England and he would sign off anything that we wanted in Scotland. Crucially, that co-decision making enabled us to protect canals in the public sector in Scotland when, south of the border, the authorities wanted to travel in a fundamentally different direction. That shows that it can be done.

Similarly, appointments to the United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change are jointly made by the Northern Irish, Welsh, Scottish and UK ministers and require unanimity. On one occasion, when there was a serious discussion on the matter, I conducted the interviews with the candidates for a vacancy on the committee and, thereafter, we were able to achieve the unanimity that had not initially existed.

There are already some legislated areas of co-decision making. They are tiny, but the point is that they show that we have already accepted the principle of legislating for co-decision making. Practical experience shows that it can be done.

On finance, it would be particularly dangerous to imagine that there is no scope for legally embedding co-decision making, but equally, as others have said, there needs to be respect between individuals of different political parties, Parliaments and Governments who carry different objectives.

Baroness Goldie is correct in saying that one cannot legislate for everything, but there are some things that we could do differently unilaterally that would deliver shared benefit. There has been reference made to that already. The Government that most promptly publishes details of intergovernmental meetings and the subjects that are discussed will create the opportunity for both Parliaments to engage in their proper process of oversight. The laggard loses: that is a message to the Governments in Edinburgh and London. Neither Government is, perhaps, as rapid as it could be in publishing such information. Indeed, that is a message to those in Belfast and Cardiff as well.

I note from the report that Professor McHarg said that

“parliamentary scrutiny has been one of the areas in which the current system has not worked.”

That must be corrected. A shared acceptance of the need to legislate on intergovernmental relations is vital; we cannot simply leave it to a memorandum of understanding. There are old arguments that flexibility delivers benefit. It does, but I suggest that it provides substantially less flexibility to Governments.

Professor McEwen floats the idea of an additional parliamentary committee on intergovernmental relations. Others have made other suggestions for new parliamentary committees. Also, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s inquiry into our committee structures has almost universally attracted comments to the effect that we have too many committees and that too many members are on too many committees: some are on three committees. Who knows? The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee might suggest that MSPs should be members of only a single permanent committee. Note that there is a little weasel word in there, so there might be a way out.

On negotiations between Governments, the Scotwork process is the standard that is used in most commercial negotiations. It is called LIM-it—like, intend, must. In other words, one goes in with three lists. It is perfectly possible to publish in advance the “must”—in other words, what I need to get for my side when I go into the negotiations. I suspect that it is not possible to publish the “like” and “intend”, which are the dice that are played as negotiations play out, but there is more scope to publish the “must” intentions of various Governments.

I am one of the former ministers. There is nothing more ex than an ex-minister, but I did not realise how much power ministers had until I became one. I suspect that I share that with others.

However, there are opportunities for Parliament to take more interest. In my concluding remarks, I will refer to a couple of things that are coming to us.

Supermajorities are coming, and we will have to look at that. We have the opportunity in the debate and beyond to think about doing things differently. Perhaps ex-ministers, at least among SNP members, untrammelled by the prospect of offending anyone and not being appointed to the House of Lords, can be quite radical, where others might be more cautious.


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