Skip to main content

Scottish Government: Devolved Competences

Volume 836: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Scottish Government regarding any activities it is undertaking that fall outwith its devolved competences.

My Lords, I start by welcoming my noble friend Lord Cameron of Lochiel and congratulate him on his recent appointment. I am sure he will prove to be a valuable Member of this House, and I look forward to working with him on all these issues.

It is a matter of public record that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary wrote recently to the Scottish Government to raise concerns about the need for FCDO representation when their Ministers were meeting overseas Governments. More broadly, as I set out in the House last month, the Government are also in the process of considering what further guidance may be needed for civil servants working in the devolved Administrations.

My Lords, that is all very well, but there is fury all over Scotland at the Scottish Government spending money outwith their responsibilities, particularly on vanity projects and jaunts overseas, while the services at home for which they are responsible are being cut again and again. I have had promises from the Cabinet Secretary himself that action is going to be taken. I have had Minister after Minister, including this current one, say that they are sympathetic to the point I am raising. When is someone going to grasp the nettle—I suppose grasp the thistle is more appropriate—and take some real action? If it is the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Lochiel, then I will welcome him. Somebody has got to take action to stop this abuse of taxpayers’ money.

I hope the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and myself will be able to take on the challenge of the thistle. I reassure the noble Lord that there have been official-level discussions on these matters, as you would expect. I am afraid that it would not be appropriate to provide a running commentary, but I will update the House in the coming months on the outcome of this work.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree, in pursuance to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that there has to be concern about the cost to the Scottish taxpayer of the Scottish Government taking unsuccessful court action to hold an independence referendum? They also took court action unsuccessfully to progress the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill and, after a vast amount of work, put on ice unworkable plans for a deposit return scheme. Does my noble friend the Minister have any idea of the costs of these endeavours?

I have no idea about the costs of those endeavours. However, I have no doubt that Scottish taxpayers will reflect on whether they were a good use of funds and whether the Government in Scotland should not be concentrating on the things that they are responsible for: health, education, social care and other matters.

My Lords, far be it for me to intervene on the internal squabbles of our Scottish cousins, but would the Minister not accept that there are many aspects of policy that are devolved, including cultural and economic matters, where there may be an overlap between the devolved powers in Scotland—or in Cardiff for that matter—with UK powers? What is important is that there is good communication and there is a respect from each end on such questions. When such matters arise, London, as much as Cardiff or Edinburgh, should inform the other about their interests and work in harmony to get the best for Scotland, Wales or wherever.

I agree with the noble Lord. There are well-established arrangements that underpin intergovernmental relationships. They do not always work. They are led by DLUHC, and I believe Brendan Threlfall is the director-general, working under Minister Gove. A recent good example would be the work together on green freeports—where there is overlap —with both the Inverness and Cromarty Firth freeport and the Firth of Forth green freeport. The Scottish Government have also been working on Project Gigabit very well, and the UK Government have contributed £50 million to this. It is important that people understand the devolution settlement and pursue the things that can be helpful on both sides.

My Lords, is it not ironic that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is complaining about the arrangements for devolution when it was a Labour Government that put them together? A Labour Government did it thinking that it would kill nationalism stone dead. A Labour Government have resulted in Scotland being the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom, with the threat of people leaving financial services and other professions, reducing the tax base and making it even more difficult to correct the disastrous damage done by the SNP to public services.

I can only agree with my noble friend, but I think it is a matter for Scottish taxpayers. I look forward with interest to the coming months and years. We need to try to work well together and be clear about the rules, but they were perhaps not perfect at the start.

My Lords, of course the Minister is right that it will be the people of Scotland who have the final say on the performance of the Scottish Government and their choice of priorities, and they will have the final say on the Government here in Westminster, too. But does the Minister understand that there has been—how can I put this?—something of a failure to respect devolved Administrations at various times by this Government? Does she also accept that the current system of joint ministerial committees has struggled to be as effective as it should be because of that, and that is one of the reasons that we have got to where we have with this issue?

I actually think that the joint committees are important and give a sort of discipline to business. Where I am with the noble Baroness is that it is actually important, on specific bits of policy, to work together with the devolved Administrations. Certainly, in the areas that I deal with, I really try to do that—with things like borders, for example; the country is borderless, so it is very important. We can always do better, but there are differences of view, and sometimes that complexity makes it hard, such as with statistics, which I was giving evidence on yesterday.

My Lords, Scotland has two Governments, both of which are dysfunctional and very unpopular north of the border. Will the Minister accept that what the people of Scotland would like is for each Government to accept their relative responsibilities, do them competently and not try to compete with each other to say how badly they are delivering for Scotland?

I do not recognise that as a description of the UK Government. I have tried to explain that we are taking a responsible approach. The UK Government make very large sums of money available to the Scottish Government—quite rightly—and it is for both countries to make sure that they are spending money well, in the interests of their citizens, in all sorts of different ways on which we have been touching today.

My Lords, the UK Government suspended payments to UNRWA following the shocking news that its staff had been involved in the kidnap and murder of Israeli civilians on 7 October. How can it therefore be right that the First Minister of Scotland undermines UK foreign policy by restoring those payments? What are the Government going to do about it?

I hear what the noble Lord says, but these are matters for the Scottish Government to answer. No doubt Scottish taxpayers will reflect on whether the donation to UNRWA was justified.

My Lords, despite our having some years of experience now with the devolved settlements, we still have a separate Scottish Office and Welsh Office in London and seats in the Cabinet. The Minister will have seen the arguments made by a number of people on our need for a smaller Cabinet. Would not it be sensible now, in making sure that the devolved Administrations have a central link with central Government, to have one department for constitutional affairs, rather than a Welsh Office and a Scottish Office with very little to do?

I think that the way in which the Cabinet is organised and the responsibilities of different Ministers is very much a matter for the Prime Minister, but I am glad that we have a new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Scotland Office. He has been an MSP, and I think that that will bring a new dimension to our discussions on this important subject.

My Lords, in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, with whose contribution I entirely agree, the Minister said that there were well-established relationships between Westminster and the devolved nations. But there is a report out today from UK in a Changing Europe titled Brexit and the State, which says that, particularly under the regime of the internal market Act, relationships are nascent rather than developed. The report very much focuses on how the Scottish Government have made a decision to remain, particularly in the agricultural area, closely aligned with standards in Europe—which means higher standards than we have in England. Does not much more need to be done to develop those relationships identified as nascent?

I have not seen that report. Of course, agriculture is devolved to Scotland, and it is Scotland’s choice, if it wants to do things in a different way. I think that we need to move forward on the new basis. I have nothing further to say.