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Devolved Authorities: Expenditure outwith Competences

Volume 835: debated on Monday 5 February 2024

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they expect to receive a report from the Cabinet Secretary on the arrangements for ensuring expenditure by the devolved authorities is spent in accordance with their competences and, if so, when.

The Government agree with the House of Lords Constitution Committee that the principle of a single Civil Service across England, Scotland and Wales should be maintained. The Government are in the process of considering what further guidance may be required for civil servants working in the devolved Administrations. I anticipate that this process will be completed in the coming months.

But my Lords, it is now more than six months since Simon Case gave that commitment to the Constitution Committee. We have had fine words from the Dispatch Box—we have them again today—yet the Scottish Government have actually intensified their spending on reserved areas, with a campaign for independence, overseas embassies and a whole range of other things, as if they are deliberately defying the UK Government. When will the Government at last take their courage in their hands and take some action on the ground to back up their fine words?

I know there are strong feelings about this, and people in Scotland want both their Governments to concentrate on the issues that matter most to them: growing the economy, gripping inflation and improving public services. On the point about timing, as I said, the Government only recently, on 24 January, responded to the committee’s inquiry, reiterating the work that is under way. I am delighted that the Cabinet Secretary is back; these issues are being given active consideration.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, as Scotland’s educational standards decline, its NHS faces acute challenges—not least the recruitment of consultants—and ferries languish in a Scottish government shipyard, overpriced, overdue and much needed by the operators, the response of the Scottish Government, not only to spend money on completely illegitimate and incompetent objectives, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said, but to make Scotland the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom, is, in the face of these challenges, as incomprehensible as it is regrettable?

I agree with much of my noble friend’s sentiment, and that the Civil Service should not carry out political work. It has its own Civil Service Code, which replicates the Civil Service Code that is operated across the UK, and it should pursue the priority items that people care about.

My Lords, now that devolution has been restored to Northern Ireland and there have been considerable discussions around funding issues—I acknowledge the funding that has already been promised by the Prime Minister—will the Minister indicate what further discussions are taking place about a new funding model for the Northern Ireland Executive to underpin the need for improved infrastructure to deal with health waiting lists and education priorities?

I think it is right for me to say that we welcome the return of the Executive and of devolved government in Northern Ireland. Indeed, I think the Prime Minister is attending Stormont today. A substantial budget has been made available as part of that settlement, and I look forward to hearing the outcomes of that, both from the new Executive and of course from our Northern Ireland Ministers.

Does the Minister agree that if Ministers in a devolved Administration wish to embark on a course of action or incur expenditure that may well be beyond devolved competence, one might reasonably expect civil servants to seek a written ministerial direction? What information does she have about the number of written ministerial directions sought from Scottish Ministers in the last five years, and what conclusions does she draw from either their frequency or their infrequency?

The noble and learned Lord makes an interesting and important point. I understand that any directions of that kind from a Minister would have to be published, and I am not aware of any such directions having been made in relation to the issues that the noble and learned Lord describes. The Government recognise the strength of the arguments and, as I said, are in the process of considering how guidance might support civil servants working in the devolved Administrations on areas that might relate to reserved matters.

My Lords, this request to put competence at the heart of decision-making is a dangerous, underhand way of trying to prevent policies being made on impetus and conjecture, which could really change government. For example, it would have prevented a recent decision by the Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice to describe an investigation into discrimination in the Prison Service, in which none of the complainants was interviewed and no documentation was looked at, as a very thorough, competent investigation.

I am not sure what sort of competence the noble Lord is talking about. Devolved competence is, of course, clearly set out in various bits of legislation. I note what he says about the investigation, which I was not aware of.

My Lords, does the Minister understand that in Wales the problem is the reverse? The Government sought to indulge in a power grab, particularly following Brexit, of competences that were already devolved, and in addition threatened to spend on road projects, for example, that the Welsh Government had specifically rejected. This works both ways.

I do not entirely agree with the noble Lord, but he may be pleased to hear that I am going to Wales to give evidence on the new border arrangements this week.

My Lords, the area in which we seem to have come unstuck, particularly over what is devolved and what are reserved powers, is the changing scene of foreign policy. Does my noble friend agree that there might be a case for revisiting the devolution legislation, in a completely changed world, to understand, for instance, the role of the various Scottish offices in other capitals? Are they concerned with trade or are they involved in foreign policy? Do major visiting officials from other countries visit Scotland as a separate entity, with separate foreign policy considerations? This is a very muddled and confused area, and it is getting more so. Does she agree that we need to clear up some of these contradictions?

I agree with my noble friend. This is a live issue, because there was the example of a meeting between the Scottish First Minister and Turkish President Erdoğan with no FCDO official present. I regret that and think it contravenes the protocols, which are designed to ensure that a Minister within the UK lands is properly informed and is making the right points on such a sensitive area—and also reports back, so that we have a joined-up understanding of foreign affairs. Foreign affairs are a UK competence.

My Lords, I return to the problems that the Scottish Government wish to be independent, pretend they are independent and then complain when they find that things they are trying to do do not conform to the devolution settlement, and that they are using UK Government premises overseas to promote their campaign for independence. Does this not have to be brought to a halt, and the division between what is devolved, what is reserved and what is shared clearly set out and enforced?

I agree that we need to consider the presence of Scottish Government offices in UK Government posts, but there is a case for having individual officials knowledgeable about Scotland engaged on issues such as fishing, where there is an important Scottish interest. I have seen that working well, so there is a balance here—but I agree with the general direction of the noble Lord’s comment.

My Lords, further to the question asked by my noble friend Lady Ritchie, we very much welcome the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. But in the letter to the Prime Minister ahead of their meeting today, Northern Ireland Ministers wrote that they want

“immediate and durable changes to our funding arrangements”.

How do the Government interpret that, and what is their response?

I am sure we will get feedback on these very important discussions, and I do not want to be drawn in to making a comment today, despite the persuasion and charm of the noble Baroness.