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Lords to examine if Scotland Office should be 'strengthened' in new inquiry on constitution

Peers in the House of Lords | Alamy

Lords to examine if Scotland Office should be 'strengthened' in new inquiry on constitution

A House of Lords Committee is to look at the arguments for beefing-up the Scotland Office.

Peers will also consider "whether there is scope to strengthen" the Wales Office and Northern Ireland Office as part of an inquiry into the governance of the Union.

The Constitution Committee, which counts ex-Scottish Conservative leader Baroness Goldie and Scottish Labour grandee George Foulkes as members, will probe the relationship between UK-wide and devolved administrations and examine "respect for" the Sewel convention.

Under that rule, the UK Government "will not normally legislate" on devolved matters without the consent of the relevant parliament. 

Peers have asked for evidence on whether that convention "has eroded or strengthened in recent years" and the extent to which devolved administrations are consulted before UK ministers introduce legislation which changes the executive competences of the administrations.

The move comes two years after the introduction of new intergovernmental relations measures aimed at improving relationships between London and teams in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

And it comes after the cross-party panel produced a report calling for "the creation of a revitalised, better-functioning and less rancorous Union".

Baroness Drake, who chairs the committee, said: "Now is an opportune moment for the committee to consider the efficacy of the new structures. It is also a timely moment for the committee to revisit the issue of consultation with the devolved administrations and assess current adherence to the Sewel convention. 

"We encourage input from all those with knowledge and expertise on this issue. It is only through the support of witnesses and hearing a wide range of perspectives that we can conduct our inquiries most effectively. My committee and I look forward to reporting on this inquiry in due course."  

What does the Scotland Office do?

In the words of the UK Government, the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland "acts as the custodian of the devolution settlement".

It "acts as Scotland's voice in Whitehall" and works to "champion the UK Government in Scotland", working across government with other UK Government departments to develop policy reflective of Scottish interests.

Alister Jack | Portrait by Anna Moffat

The current Secretary of State, Alister Jack, was first appointed by Boris Johnson and has said he will not seek reelection as MP for Dumfries and Galloway at the next election.

Critics including Edinburgh North and Leith MP Deidre Brock have branded the department "pointless" and attacked its staffing bill, which increased by £1.2m last year.

However, in an interview with Holyrood, Lord Offord, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Secretary of State for Scotland, said his team is "the most active Scotland Office... in 25 years" and is "working within the UK Government to get the best deal for Scotland".

Labour's Ian Murray has said his party would revamp the Scotland Office if it comes into power, saying it will "transform the operation, making it an advocate across the globe for 'Brand Scotland', a powerful voice at the heart of a Labour government and an ear in communities".

How does the Sewel convention work?

When UK ministers ready a bill which includes elements that fall within the scope of the convention, they are expected to consult with devolved administrations and take their views into account. When the resulting bill is introduced to parliament, devolved administrations then publish legislative consent memoranda (LCMs)which include, amongst other things, an explanation of why they believe consent should be given.

First Minister's Questions in the Scottish Parliament | Alamy

Devolved parliaments then vote on whether to grant the LCM, either in full or in part, with this taking place before the UK Government bill reaches its final amending stage.

If devolved parliaments vote to withhold consent, the UK Parliament can either amend the bill's provisions or pass it without change.

Because the Sewel convention is not legally binding, it cannot be applied by the courts and MPs can pass bills where devolved consent has been withheld.

The Lords Constitution Committee has previously raised concerns about the use of delegated powers to legislate in areas of devolved competence, calling for "more meaningful dialogue" between Westminster and devolved parliaments.

It also found that Brexit had "placed a strain on the legislative consent process", while the public health response to Covid "exposed long-standing tensions in intergovernmental relations".

Haven't I heard something else about intergovernmental relations recently?

Indeed, you have. In the House of Commons, MPs on the Scottish Affairs Committee have been conducting their own inquiry into the matter.

Last week former first minister Alex Salmond was amongst those giving evidence to the panel in person.

He clashed with member Douglas Ross and convener Pete Wishart had to remind members asking questions about Gaza, the Iraq War and the Scottish Government's WhatsApp retention policy that this was not on-topic.

 

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