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Devolution remains unfinished – and it’s created a democratic deficit

Devolution remains unfinished – and it’s created a democratic deficit

Former South Ayrshire Council chief executive George Thorley says there is an absence of accountability across a range of public services

The case to establish a devolved parliament for Scotland was rooted largely in a belief that London-based governments failed to properly reflect the interests, priorities and needs of the Scottish people and businesses.

It was a reasonable expectation that a new Scottish Parliament would both better understand Scottish traditions and crucially be closer to the people to understand them and their communities’ needs and aspirations.

The new Labour Government elected in May 1997 embraced the concept and by 1998 the Scotland Act created a devolved Scottish Parliament.

Embodied within the new parliament was the hope that this new democratically accountable institution would oversee the planning and the integration of public services and that it would be able to innovate and experiment in meeting Scotland’s needs. Most fundamental of all, however, was the belief that the new parliament would spend and legislate in the best interest of the country.

With two further Scotland Acts (2012 and 2016), the Scottish Parliament has accrued more responsibilities, resources and powers across a wide range of public services. The Scottish Parliament can now levy a range of taxes, borrow and spend on capital infrastructure and administer a range of social security benefits.

The Scottish Parliament therefore has legislative control over a large part of the public realm, including most of the public services used by the Scottish people on a daily basis. Its 2021/22 budget is over £55bn. 

The advocates for a devolved Scottish Parliament would surely find its current legislative freedom, range of responsibilities, and scale of financial resources impressive.

What the original advocates might not understand however is why the underlying principle of devolution, subsidiarity – where power and responsibility is allocated to the lowest appropriate level of accountability – has remained so undeveloped by successive Scottish Governments.

Despite loudly arguing for more and more powers, funds and responsibilities to be devolved from Westminster to Holyrood, the Scottish Government has with two marginal exceptions (City Region Deals and Integrated Joint Boards) failed to further devolve any of its responsibilities to the other level of democratically accountable government in Scotland – local authorities and their partnerships. In that sense, the devolution project remains unfinished.

The Scottish Government has chosen to maintain direct executive control of over 75 per cent of its spending through its departments and its retinue of 43 executive non-departmental bodies, seven advisory non-departmental bodies, three tribunals, four public corporations, 23 health bodies, 10 executive agencies, eight non-ministerial offices and 13 other significant national bodies.

Yes, that’s a whopping 111 national public bodies (quangos) for 5.4 million people.

One could possibly understand why, in its initial settling in phase, the Scottish Government wanted to retain direct executive control over the bulk of its responsibilities and then subsequently devolve funds, powers and responsibilities down the line. Such caution is understandable given that, like Wales and Northern Ireland, devolution has resulted in unicameral legislatures (i.e. there’s no process involving a second, revising chamber like the Lords). This means getting legislation right first time and in turn this has led to the much admired development of a sophisticated approach to public consultation on proposed Scottish legislation.

However after over 20 years existence, the surprise is that rather than extending the principle of devolution within Scotland, the Scottish Government has in fact retained all the transfers from Westminster and in addition has taken away functions from local government.

The most notable example of this was the creation of Police Scotland, which merged eight joint police boards, populated by councillors, into a single non-elected board. The same applies to the board of the Fire and Rescue Service. The consequence of both centralisations is a substantial loss of local democratic accountability in two key public service areas. With the exception of the two National Parks – where directly elected board members and council nominees are in the majority – the same applies to all Scotland’s quangos.

With no local accountability for their actions, plans, activities and expenditures, the only recourse open to the public in formally expressing views on any aspect of Scotland’s 111 quangos is to contact the quango, contact their MSP, or contact one of the ten cabinet ministers. 

Depending on how many of these organisations are directly answerable to each minister, there will clearly be an impact on the amount of time each minister will allocate to each individual quango given their requirement to account for the management, direction and performance of each quango. Ministerial accountability to the Scottish Parliament and its committees and in responding to the media and the public will as a consequence focus ministerial minds and that of their senior civil servants and advisers on the individual workings of each quango – pushing them more and more into a micro-management frame of mind.

Is this what we want from a devolved government? There are only so many working hours in a day and, if a significant proportion of ministerial time is spent in mining quango detail, who is looking to the horizon, detecting opportunities and anticipating upcoming issues and also pinching the best ideas from other nations? Who is taking advantage of the freedoms and innovative opportunities that devolved government provides?

This is where we reach a classic bind in that if the answer to the above train of thought is, “Ministers don’t really spend that amount of time dealing with quangos,” it poses the response “Well, who is accountable for the £22bn that quangos receive?” 

Preoccupation with detail and a focus on micro-management diverts ministers from what they should actually be doing and that is working with their ministerial colleagues on finding robust cross-government solutions to the many wicked issues that have bedevilled our country for generations. If working collectively with your colleague ministers is challenging enough, coordinating the activities of over a hundred quangos each with their individual boards and management teams to ensure they focus on delivering priorities and outcomes makes effective coordination of services and projects at the local level difficult to deliver.

Interestingly enough, in an early initiative that looked very promising, in 2003 the Scottish Parliament placed a statutory duty on councils to each prepare and deliver community plans that focused on local needs and opportunities. This legal requirement reflected the understanding that the key strengths of councils with their 1,200+ councillors is their ability to understand their area, identify local needs and opportunities and coordinate their considerable range of services to deliver solutions. 

All quangos were required to participate but unlike councils they did not have a statutory duty placed on them to adhere to the policy and investment outcomes from the community planning process. Being answerable to government ministers meant their policy and performance focus was national and not local. Primarily for that reason, community planning has still not delivered on its early promise of fully integrated local public services.

It is not doubted that Scotland’s 111 national public bodies, their boards, management and the thousands of public servants work hard to deliver their organisation’s priorities. They have achieved improvements in the performance of services and delivered on national priorities.

It is however a serious challenge to a devolved parliament that seems to believe that channelling billions per annum to organisations that have no local accountability is a satisfactory outcome after 23 years of devolution. 

The absence of local accountability and transparency can generate an alienation of the public from a large part of the delivery of public services. It is surely time to reflect on a 23-year journey that increasingly centralises services in organisations that have no local accountability and takes powers and responsibilities from local government.

A re-purposed local government that is embedded in our constitution, that is able to assess local needs and opportunities, to plan, co-ordinate and deliver all within a locally accountable system would better serve the Scottish people and businesses.

If we are to avoid a situation where the democratic deficit simply moves from London to Edinburgh with all the negativity that that entails, we need to start with a commitment from the Scottish Government that it:

  1. Reaffirms the concept of subsidiarity to the workings of the Scottish Government;
  2.  Agrees to the principle that decisions will be taken at the lowest possible, democratically accountable level;
  3. Embeds local government within a written constitution for the governance of Scotland.

Stimulating a national conversation on these three proposals would hopefully result in an agreed basis for determining which public services and activities should properly be accountable and managed at the national level or at the local level and as a consequence strengthen our democratic structures.

George Thorley is the former chief executive of South Ayrshire Council a member of the Mercat Group, an affiliation of six former local authority chief executives. It also comprises Bill Howat, David Hume, George Thorley, Gavin Whitefield, Keith Yates.

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