The interesting business of Tuesday at Westminster was the Lords Second Reading debate on the Public Bodies bill. The debate went on for nearly eight hours, and the report in Hansard starts here. It’s a long time since I can recall a Government bill getting such a pounding – and from so many eminent members of the House as well. It must have been a tough day at the office for Lord Taylor of Holbeach, the Conservative whip who spoke for the Government on the bill, and if the Government aren’t chastened by the experience they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
Criticism of the bill focussed chiefly on the extensive powers it gives ministers not just to reorganise quangos listed for reform now, but to add ones to the list (set out in Schedule 7 to the bill) later. The provisions relating to S4C took a lot of flak from Lord Elystan-Morgan and Lord Roberts of Conway, and those relating to the Forestry Commission (which serves the whole of Great Britain, but relating to devolved matters in Scotland and Wales) from Baroness Royall of Blaidon, Lord Judd, and Lord Clark of Windermere (David Clark, a former chairman of the Commission as well as Labour minister).
Amidst all this, the only peer who picked up devolution problems arising from clause 9 was Lord Foulkes (also, as George Foulkes, an MSP). He raised the question of what would happen if the Scottish Government were not to assent to the abolition or reform of a quango with devolved functions, particularly the Security Industry Authority and the Forestry Commission. That’s a good way of airing the issue of the difference in view between the UK and Scottish Governments, but as the bill is framed, it isn’t a very good question as the answer is quite obvious. The consent of the Scottish Government (or other devolved administrations, where appropriate) is needed. If it’s not forthcoming, the order affecting devolved matters can’t be made – so the SIA would be left in being. Alternatively, the UK Government could abolish the body in question for England but leave the ‘UK’ body in existence for Scotland. And even then he didn’t raise the question of the way clause 9 confers powers on executives that properly belong to legislatures, which I made HERE.
There are real devolution issues lurking in this bill. The administrative costs of running a UK-wide organisation are not much greater than those of running a Scotland-only one. The proportion Scotland presently pays is a fraction of what it would need to pay for a stand-alone body to operate just in Scotland. Abolition of a body like the SIA (which is greatly valued north of the border; see also this leader from the Herald) would therefore significantly add to the costs the Scottish Government faces, for which of course there’s no compensation on offer. So it may be that the UK will need to offer compensation to cover those costs, where it proposes to abolish a body relating to devolved matters.
As far as the bill as a whole is concerned, the Government managed to stave off an attempt to refer the bill to a Select Committee for consideration at this stage rather than a Committee of the whole House (seen, perhaps wrongly, as a wrecking amendment). While Lord Taylor made various concessions in his closing speech (see here, at column 183), it’s questionable how much these really amount to. They don’t address the devolution point in any case.
It’s also worth noting that another aspect of the Government’s programme has run into legal difficulties on Wednesday – in the form of the abolition of regional housing targets, as part of the dismantling of the regionalised apparatus of government in England. (That’s particularly important as the work of what became regional chambers started with the need to come up with such numbers, even though they were never more than indicative.) The Government’s haste to act means it looks awfully accident-prone when it comes to legal matters. The Attorney-General and Treasury Solicitor are going to be busy, if they weren’t already.