20 Years of Devolution

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:28 pm on 11th July 2019.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow SNP Leader of the House of Commons, Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee 12:28 pm, 11th July 2019

The hon. Lady is an assiduous member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, and as I look around the Chamber I see other assiduous members. I agree with what she has said, but I think it is incumbent on us to have the mechanism, the infrastructure and the machinery to ensure that when Governments disagree—as they will when they have particularly different policy objectives —we can accommodate that disagreement, shape it up, and resolve some of the tensions and difficulties that are encountered.

Let me now go back to the beginning, because, as the hon. Lady knows, the Committee looked into this in great detail and heard a great deal of evidence. In the early days of devolution, everything was straightforward and easy. The Labour party was in government in Cardiff, Edinburgh and London, and intergovernmental relations were conducted among comrades, friends and colleagues who would just pick up the phone and get in touch with each other to resolve any difficulties. They were generally resolved very easily; I am sure that you remember those days, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Only one issue was not resolved, and it remains in the name of the bar in the Scottish Parliament. In a dramatic rebuke to Scottish colleagues who dared to suggest that they should become a Government, Big Brother down here—in the form of Labour Members—said, “They can call themselves the White Heather Club, but they will never be a Government.” To this day, the bar in Holyrood is called the White Heather Club as testimony to that fantastic rebuke from our Big Brother Westminster Labour colleagues.

It took the UK Government three years to keep up with developments and acknowledge the change when Alex Salmond rebranded the then—it has to be said—pathetically named Scottish Executive the Scottish Government.

I think it is fair to say that the cosy relationship that existed in the early days of devolution was pretty much shattered with the arrival of the SNP minority Government in 2007. This was an SNP Government who were prepared to push the boundaries of the devolution settlement and who tried to define a new means and method for us to assert ourselves as a nation, and they were not content being restricted to what was available in the then devolution settlement.

Then of course came the independence referendum, and who will ever forget that? Curiously, inter-Government relationships survived the referendum relatively intact, and that was because there was a need for engagement between the two Governments and we had the Edinburgh agreement and rules were set up for that. That taught us the lesson that things can be done if there is structure, rules and a means to come together for agreed objectives, and the agreed objective during the independence referendum was that it would be done properly and constitutionally.

Brexit has broken that, however. What we have with Brexit is two Governments, one in Scotland and one in London, with totally different objectives on the issue of leaving the European Union. Scotland wants nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit; it returned one MP with a mandate for an EU referendum, and we have consistently said we find this counter to our national interests. But of course we have a UK Government determined to deliver Brexit. We should have in place, however, a means to be able to accommodate that—to be able to ensure that these types of differences can be dealt with and negotiated smoothly.

That brings us to the machinery of all this. At the very top is the Joint Ministerial Committee. We looked at a number of options for transforming or even replacing it, but came to the conclusion that replacing it would not serve any great purpose. So we suggested a number of things that we could do to improve the functioning of the JMC, because it is not working properly; it does not have the confidence of the Scottish Government and it does not particularly have the confidence of the Welsh Government. The UK Government set the agenda, and they are responsible for all the dispute resolutions, and they seem to be the arbiter of what happens and how things are conducted.

We said that things have to change dramatically, and there is one phrase that runs through almost every chapter of our report: “parity of esteem”. We therefore propose that the JMC be a body where all four of the Governments are treated as equals, and as such we recommended that JMC meetings should be hosted and chaired by each of the UK Administrations on a rotating basis, and that meetings should be held frequently and have a set schedule with agendas agreed in advance between all parties.

We also asked the Government to explore third-party mediation, because again we received a number of pieces of evidence that suggested that this was not working. We also said that the JMC should look at dispute resolution and made a number of recommendations about Whitehall Departments becoming devolution-proof.