Martin Rosenbaum of the BBC has been following one of the long-standing Freedom of Information Act requests – about the establishment and introduction of the Sewel Convention, which requires Westminster to obtain the consent of the Scottish Parliament, and now National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly, if it proposes to legislate on devolved matters. He first discussed the protracted delays in the Information Commissioner’s response to this request (initially made in early 2005!) here. In his most recent post, here, he discusses what is revealed by the (small number of) papers on the Sewel convention that have been disclosed following the Commissioner’s ruling. The Commissioner had largely upheld the refusal of the Scotland Office to disclose much of the documentation requested but ordered some further disclosures, so what has come into the public domain is only a small part of what exists in the UK Government’s files.
Nonetheless, this disclosure suggests that the introduction of the convention was a more difficult affair than many (myself included) believed, with considerable reluctance on the part of Whitehall departments to alter their practices, and unease about Whitehall’s readiness to use the Convention.
There are several stories here. One is the continuing culture of secrecy and non-disclosure in Whitehall, even when it’s hard to see what harm might be done by publishing the material sought. Another is the problems which Whitehall departments had in coping with even the first steps of devolution, and the role civil servants played in fighting the battles (a term that’s only slightly an exaggeration) in making it happen. A third is the way that a convention about inter-parliamentary relations became something first and foremost of concern to governments, and about how executives relate to each other. While that has been reshaped by the new procedures introduced following the inquiry of the Scottish Parliament’s Procedures Committee in 2005 (available here), the leading role remains with governments not legislatures. Each of these issues deserves attention – and the second and third have been particularly overlooked so far.