Category Archives: Civil service

Christmas and pre-Christmas reading

The approach of the end-of-year break has brought with it a flurry of interesting essays and interviews. I’d particularly draw attention to the following:

  • David Marquand argued in a column in Monday’s Guardian that England’s hostility toward the EU and support for it in Scotland and Wales create a risk of break-up of the UK.  I’ve taken this view for many years, though I think Marquand over-states the short-term likelihood of this.  That piece is here.  Timothy Garton Ash follows in similar vein in today’s issue, here.
  • Jim Sillars was interviewed in the Scotsman on Tuesday.  Sillars, still very influential among SNP members and other Scottish nationalists, expresses a good deal of scepticism about the impact of the European Union on an independent Scotland, particularly over currency and the Euro.  He supports the idea of a separate Scottish currency, underpinned Continue reading

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Filed under Civil service, EU issues, Plaid Cymru, Scotland, SNP, Wales

Weekend news

  • According to BBC News (reported here), trailing Cheryl Gillan’s speech to the Conservative Party conference, the ‘Ap Calman’ commission is to be announced in Parliament in November.
  • Eddie Barnes in Scotland on Sunday (here) has a leak of a number of suggested new names for the reconstituted right-of-centre party in Scotland, if Murdo Fraser is elected leader.  They include ‘Scottish Unionists’, ‘the Scottish Reform party’, the ‘Scottish Progressives’, ‘the Progressive Conservatives’, ‘Scotland First’ and ‘Scotland Forward’.
  • The Telegraph reports (here) serious disquiet from unionist politicians about the role Scottish Government officials are playing in supporting the SNP’s constitutional policies.  All three unionist party leaders in Scotland have written to Sir Gus O’Donnell about the role Peter Housden, permanent secretary of the Scottish Government, has taken in the debates.  They seem to believe that officials’ actions in supporting their ministers have gone beyond the requirements of impartiality set out in the 2010 versions of the Civil Service Code.  (There are now separate codes for UK Government and the Scottish Executive, both of which state both the importance of political impartiality and the duty of civil servants to ‘serve the Government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability’ and ‘act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers’. The Scottish code is here, and the UK one is here. )  While it’s clear that civil servants have assumed what might be seen as a more political role in the Scottish constitutional debates than is customary, this has not just been on the Scottish Government’s side.  One might point to the way the Scotland Office’s role has become more politicised since 2007, for example, especially if it is co-ordinating what looks very like preparatory work for an anti-independence referendum campaign, as this Reuters report suggests.  One might also look at the support arrangements for the Calman Commission.  This looks rather like a case of unionist politicians thinking that what’s sauce for the goose isn’t sauce for the gander as well.
  • It’s also worth drawing attention to ‘Thinkpiece’ written for the Labour-supporting group Compass by Owen Smith MP, called Towards  a New Union ..?  (available here; there’s also an edited version on WalesHome here ).  Smith acknowledges the incomplete nature of asymmetric devolution and Labour’s failure in office to think through its implications, particularly with regard to England.  He regrets the failure of Labour’s ‘regional’ agenda, though doesn’t seem to acknowledge the dynamic nature of the constitutional debates (he likens David Melding’s ideas for a federal Britain to ‘Alex Salmond’s plan to bifurcate Britain”, for example).  However, his solution – greater localism in England – isn’t one that appears to command much support, either among politicians or the public at large.  (I say that with confidence having had early warning of some very interesting survey data due out shortly from IPPR, about which more in due course.)

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Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Civil service, Conservatives, Devolution finance, English questions, Labour, Referendums, Scotland, Wales, Westminster, Whitehall

Institute for Government event on the making of Scottish devolution

The Institute for Government is holding an event in its ‘Policy Reunion’ series on the making of Scottish devolution in 1997-9.  The speakers include politicians, political advisers and civil servants involved – including Lord Wallace of Tankerness (then, Jim Wallace MP and MSP), Wendy Alexander, and Lord Butler of Brockwell (then Cabinet Secretary).  It takes place at 5 pm on Wednesday 30 March, at the Institute’s home on Carlton Gardens, London SW1.  (The Institute generally make webcasts of their events available afterward, for those unable to get to London).  Full details are here.  Attendance is free, but you will need to email Events@instituteforgovernment.org.uk to register.

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Filed under Civil service, Events, Labour, Lib Dems, Scotland, Whitehall

Confusion of the Quangos

News of the UK Government’s plan to cut a number of quangos raises immediate devolution concerns.  I can’t pretend to understand how the UK Film Council relates to bodies promoting the film industry elsewhere, like the former Scottish Screen (now part of Creative Scotland); there may well be overlap and duplication, even if such bodies have different remits.  But two raise immediate concerns.  One is the merger of UK Sport and Sport England.  Another is the abolition of the Health Protection Agency and absorption of its functions by the Secretary of State and the Department of Health (detailed in the report of the Department’s review available here).

The HPA has a complex constitutional position.  Its functions are reserved or non-devolved, but carrying them out successfully depends on close liaison with health departments and chief medical officers in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland – both to gain information about disease outbreaks as they occur, and then to take action to contain them.  The Department of Health is for pretty much all practical purposes an England-only department (99.3 per cent of its spending is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), and it has a poor track record over recent years for considering the implications of its actions for those other parts of the UK.  (Its main remaining UK-wide functions are contagious disease control, the HPA’s responsibility up to now, and licensing of medicines and medical devices.)  The status of the HPA means, on the one hand, it’s easier for such an agency to treat all four governments equally, and on the other that it is accepted as being an impartial honest broker, because of its independence.  That will be lost with merger into DH.  There’s a very real risk that the need for policy and action to be co-ordinated on an equal footing with all four governments, not just colleagues in the same department, will be overlooked in future.  The consequence of this going wrong  in a disease outbreak would be very serious, and great care will be needed to avoid the risk of that.

The merger of UK Sport and Sport England may create scope for a limited measure of administrative savings – but it will introduce a similar degree of confusion between England-only and UK-wide matters.  Again, it’s at best risky in policy terms (thankfully, there aren’t the same potentially catastrophic consequences that occur if there’s a failure to contain a disease outbreak).  A more imaginative approach could yield advantages here – maintaining the remit of the distinctive agencies, and their boards, but merging their employed staff and particularly corporate support.

It’s also worth noting an important omission from the list of quangos reviewed by the DH: the Food Standards Agency, subject of this earlier post.  Sense appears to have triumphed there, at least.

Meanwhile, the Home Office’s consultation paper Policing in the 21st Century: Reconnecting police and the people (available here) on new arrangements for local policing proposes a ‘National Crime Agency’, combining functions devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland (fighting organised crime, presently undertaken by SOCA), with reserved/excepted ones (control of the UK’s external border).  The NCA would also assume functions presently exercised by ACPO (which operates only in England and Wales – Scotland has a separate body, ACPOS).  These changes will need the consent of the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly, under the Sewel convention – not that one would know that from the Home Office’s paper.

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Filed under Civil service, English questions, Policy issues, Scotland, Wales, Whitehall

New permanent secretary for the Scottish Government

I’ve only just noticed that the appointment of a new permanent secretary for the Scottish Government was announced on 21 May. The Cabinet Office”s news release for the appointment is here, and the Scottish Government’s is here.  Sir John Elvidge is to retire toward the end of June, and his successor as permanent secretary will be Peter Housden, currently permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government.  It’s an intriguing appointment, as Housden has a local government background, rather than a traditional Whitehall one; presently heads a department that is almost entirely English in its responsibilities; and has never worked in Scotland at all.

It’s also interesting that Housden’s appointment was made following the Calman principle, whereby the UK Prime Minister has no involvement.  This is probably the first part of the Commission’s recommendations actually to be implemented!

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Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Civil service, Scotland, Whitehall

The new Memorandum of Understanding is published

Clearly they’ve been busy in Cabinet Office.  As well as a new Cabinet Office Manual dealing with such tricky issues as a hung Parliament, they’ve also now finalised and published the version of the Memorandum of Understanding agreed a few weeks ago at the JMC (Domestic) meeting.  The new version is Cm 7864, and can be found on the Cabinet Office website here.

I’ve only had time for a quick scan of the new version of the MoU, but there’s only one substantial change from its earlier incarnations that I have noticed: the new protocol on dispute avoidance and resolution, which was published separately a couple of weeks ago (and which I discussed HERE).  The provisions relating to the working of the JMC (Europe) and devolved administrations’ engagement with EU institutions have also been made more detailed and explicit, and there are some changes setting out clearer arrangements for such matters as financial assistance to industry.  There are also more explicit provisions about the role of the Joint Ministerial Committee (paras. 23-6 and Supplementary Agreement A), and secretariat arrangements for the JMC.  Beyond that, there are a large number of minor updating changes, for new departmental names and so forth.  One that I notice are specific exceptions for UK Budget proposals and national security from the commitments to consult the devolved administrations (new paragraph 6).  Given the entangled nature of the financial system, and the fact that UK Budget decisions have a direct bearing on devolved functions when it comes to public spending, excluding these from all consultation requirements appears to me to be utterly wrong.  I’ll return to this issue in due course.

Cabinet Office also say that they have updated their devolution guidance, which is available here.  It’s not immediately clear to me what has changed here, as the important material – in the Devolution Guidance Notes (the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, not Cabinet Office, in any event) and the Cabinet Office’s Guide to Making Legislation – remains unaltered.

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Filed under Civil service, Intergovernmental relations, Whitehall

Evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee

I gave oral evidence to the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee for their ‘Wales and Whitehall’ inquiry on Tuesday morning.  A video of my appearance should be available here, for those so inclined (I’m listed as ‘Constitution Unit, University College London’).  The transcript isn’t available yet, but should be shortly.  When it is, it will be here.  My written memorandum of evidence to the Committee is HERE.

It was quite a lively session, and I hope it was useful for members of the Committee – at least one of whom, it emerged, is a reader of this blog!

UPDATE:  There’s a report of the session on the BBC News website, available here.

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Filed under Civil service, Events, Wales, Westminster, Whitehall

Westminster Committees look at intergovernmental relations

Both the Commons Welsh and Scottish Affairs Committees have got interested in how what happens in Whitehall affects their specific devolution settlements.  This follows the report of the Commons Justice Committee last May on Devolution: A Decade On, as well as such matters as the Welsh Affairs Committee’s ongoing interest in legislative competence orders (on which they published a report last week, available here).

Details of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry on Scotland and the UK: cooperation and communication between governments are available here, and of the Welsh Affairs Committee’s inquiry into Wales and Whitehall are available here.  (I’m giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee next Tuesday, 2 February.)

Some of the evidence that has been given is very revealing, and taken together these inquiries will certainly put a lot of valuable material into the public domain.  Witness have Continue reading

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National Assembly debate on referendum on Part 4

A date has been set for a debate and vote in the Assembly on whether there should be a referendum on Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006.  It will be on 9 February.  The Western Mail has a news story here.

In other news from Wales:

  • Rhodri Morgan has just become a member of the National Assembly’s ‘Subordinate Legislation’ Committee, which itself is likely to announce a formal change of name shortly, I believe to ‘Constitutional Affairs Committee’.
  • In evidence to the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, Sir Jon Shortridge, former permanent secretary of the Welsh Assembly Government, has complained of Whitehall reluctance to share information with the Assembly Government – something that’s not news in itself, but which is notable given the source.  A report of his evidence (given with that of Rhodri Morgan, again from the Western Mail, is here.

UPDATE, 13 JANUARY: Today’s Western Mail reports further unease within Carwyn Jones’s administration about a referendum, and in the other parties at the delay in holding the vote.  Martin Shipton’s story is here.

The Western Mail also has news of the special advisers appointed to support Carwyn’s government, here.  One fascinating feature is the appointment of Lawrence Conway, formerly a a civil servant and longtime principal private secretary to the First Minister, as a special adviser looking at public service reform.  Lawrence formally retired before Christmas, and was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in the New Year’s Honours list.

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More official secrecy about putting devolution in place

There’s news today that Jack Straw has exercised his powers to block the Information Tribunal even considering an appeal about an application to obtain minutes of the Cabinet’s DSWR committee on devolution in 1997. The Ministry of Justice’s press statement on the matter is available here.

Some years ago I sought a much less sensitive piece of information: simply to verify the dates of meetings of DSWR during 1997.  It met very intensively in the first couple of months of the new Labour government, as issues like the legal powers of the devolved bodies, or how they would engage with the European Union, were thrashed out.  I had previously considered seeking the minutes, but decided there wasn’t a hope of getting them and decided instead to seek an innocuous piece of information that I could see no substantive ground for withholding.  Even this modest request was rejected by Cabinet Office officials, and regrettably Continue reading

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