I was due to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Scotland Bill Committee on Tuesday 18 January. I’ve now had to withdraw from that, and sadly won’t be able to assist the Parliament with its inquiry into one of the most important issues that’s come before it since it was established.
My reasons for this derive largely from what happened when Professors Drew Scott and Andrew Hughes-Hallett gave evidence, on 11 January. They went expecting to be asked questions specifically about the bill and their evidence on it (highly critical, which isn’t surprising if one’s followed their work over the last couple of years). What they were pitched into, instead, was an inquisition about their work on fiscal autonomy. Strictly speaking, issues of full fiscal autonomy are beyond the Committee’s formal remit, which concerns only the Scotland Bill and the legislative consent memorandums relating to it. Scott and Hughes-Hallett had emphasised in their written evidence and opening statement that they were concerned only with the bill, not with fiscal autonomy, but this was overlooked by the committee. The resulting session was clearly highly acrimonious. There’s a news report from the Scotsman here, and the full transcript is available here (their evidence starts at col 155).
The way the Scotland Bill Committee works was always going to be contentious. It is chaired by Wendy Alexander MSP, who first proposed the idea of what became the Calman Commission when she was Scottish Labour leader. Its expert advisers are Jim Gallagher CB, who was formerly Director-General for Devolution at the Cabinet Office and head of secretariat for the Calman Commission, and Professor David Ulph, a highly distinguished economist and formerly a member of the Independent Expert Group which advised the Commission. This has created a widespread belief that the Committee’s outcome is pre-determined, and as a result two economic experts on the broadly nationalist side of the debate, Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, have declined to give evidence to it. This treatment of Scott and Hughes-Hallett, who have also been identified with that side of the debate (though they disown a political purpose in their work) may well reinforce that.
In a political sense, what the Committee appears to have been trying to achieve by its discussion of Scott and Hughes-Hallett’s work on fiscal autonomy is quite understandable, even if it isn’t a political fix. The Scottish Government has persistently preferred to talk about its preferred policy, of full fiscal autonomy, rather than the proposals set out (now) in the bill. It’s been doing this for quite some time – when I was advising the Lords Select Committee on the Barnett Formula, John Swinney tried in giving evidence to avoid the issues that concerned the Committee but instead insisted on discussing a paper the Government had published the day before on Fiscal Autonomy in Scotland: The case for change and options for reform. The Government’s more recent papers (such as this one, which prompted the exchanges on Tuesday) have relied heavily on work by Scott and Hughes-Hallett as their intellectual underpinning. Particularly at issue is the ‘growth bonus’ that might arise if full fiscal autonomy were enacted. It’s understandable that the Committee might wish to delve into the basis of such a claim, given that the Government had put it on the table as part of its response to questions about the Scotland Bill. But this is at most right on the edges of the Committee’s terms of reference, and in any case it’s the Government’s doing, not Scott and Hughes-Hallett’s. Given the terms of the remit and Call for Evidence, expert witnesses would be quite entitled to think that it was not an issue for discussion unless they were expressly told it was. Scott and Hughes-Hallett appear to have become collateral damage of the Committee’s pursuit of another objective, the SNP Scottish Government.
The problem that concerns me here isn’t that members of the Committee raised the issue of Scott and Hughes-Hallett’s work on fiscal autonomy, or that they pursued their inquiries in a robust manner (though some consider they overstepped the line in doing so – including Scott himself, and the Committee’s deputy convenor). It’s that the Committee did so without advising witnesses who were appearing before them as experts what was going to be considered. That’s a basic courtesy to any expert witness, routinely complied with both at Westminster and in Cardiff Bay, at least in my experience. Seeking to obtain evidence by ambush from such witnesses is harsh treatment of those who (unlike politicians, civil servants or those subject to government regulation or control) have no professional obligation to give evidence.
Giving evidence to legislative committees is a remarkably unrewarding activity for academics. It’s a demanding and time-consuming thing to do, especially as committees normally expect a submission drafted expressly for them. Despite that, it’s unpaid – the most one gets are travel and subsistence expenses (and that not even on the scale parliamentarians themselves usually get). There’s no academic credit for doing it; it didn’t do anything for one’s standing under the RAE, and even with the new rules for the REF, which do emphasise ‘public engagement’, it counts for very little in practice. People do it out of curiosity, a desire to have influence, a belief it gives them status, or a desire to improve policy – not for any other reason.
The way the Scotland Bill Committee has gone about its business on this occasion has added further levels of political contention to a complex and already-contentious situation. Moreover, it’s blurred the line between the technical and economic aspects of the legislation it’s considering, and the political concerns that are clearly foremost in its members’ minds (a flaw it shares with the Calman Commission’s report). In its zeal to build a case for the bill’s proposals by attacking the Scottish Government’s position, it has bludgeoned one of the few sets of critical witnesses willing to appear before it. The bill, and the procedures surrounding it, were already complex enough.
An episode like this is unproductive in several ways. It damages the reputation of the Parliament, particularly among expert witnesses, and may make create problems in persuading them to assist it in future. It also means that the Committee doesn’t get the best help it could from those witnesses when they do appear before it, because they will be on the defensive. This is because that sort of engagement calls for a pretty high level of trust, which is seriously undermined when experts are ambushed as Scott and Hughes-Hallett were. Once damaged, that sort of trust is very hard to rebuild.
As a result, I felt I needed to have confirmation from the Committee’s convenor of the issues that would be covered during my evidence session. While I welcome robust engagement with politicians about the issues on which I work and accept the need for flexibility about the questions that are raised by members of a committee, I also need to know what’s expected to be discussed in order to prepare to give evidence. My attempt to do so on Thursday – only three working days before I was due to appear – produced a good deal of activity, but not much action. Indeed, it rather seemed as if no-one had a clear idea of the purpose of the session I was due to attend and what was to be discussed at it until I pressed the issue. Such confirmation as I’ve had has been vague, clearly incomplete and so late that it’s not been satisfactory. As I’ve not been able to get the sort of clear indication of what would be discussed that I sought, I’ve had no option but to pull out.
The Scotland bill is a flawed piece of legislation (as was the Calman report before it), but it’s an important one. (I’ve set out the main features of my views on it HERE and HERE.) I would like to have helped the Parliament in working to improve it, not least in making clear that it will only be the first step in a much wider process of reviewing devolution and not the end of that process, assuming it becomes law. I’m very sorry not to be able to assist the Committee at its coming meeting, and mean no discourtesy to the Parliament by withdrawing, but this sort of affair makes it very hard to work with it.
UPDATE, 15 January: Drew Scott has posted a comment on this post, which he says will be his only public response on this for the time being. It’s available HERE.