In a post last month on this Blog (here) I looked at the new McKay Commission on the West Lothian Question, and especially at its status and operation, given that it was set up, and is sponsored, by Government, not Parliament. It argued that, despite this provenance, to have any credibility and utility it needed to demonstrate independence, openness & transparency, and real public and parliamentary engagement. This includes a genuinely open evidence-taking process, and transparency through, for example, a live website and an initial ‘consultation paper’.
The Commission met for the first time in late February, and it seems some of this minimum agenda has been adopted. For example, there is now a website – note the word ‘independent’ in the address, akin to that of the Silk Commission on devolution in Wales, a similar Government established and resourced commission. It is, at this early stage, a bit thin, but potentially it can be used as the engine of its operation in much the same way that the impressive, content-rich Silk Commission site has developed.
The crucial tests are those of openness & transparency and of genuine, evidence-based engagement with public and parliaments. For example, the Cabinet Office press release on 17 January suggested that the Commission “will be expected to call experts to give oral or written evidence.” The website front-page now invites “submissions and enquiries from those with an interest or views on the West Lothian question”, though its 2 March press release (hands up, all those who spotted this!) is a bit more engaging, stating that “the Commission is keen to hear from those with views on the subject of the West Lothian question” and quotes its Chair, Sir William McKay, as saying that “the Commission had a productive first meeting and will be meeting again soon to develop its thinking and initiate arrangements to progress its work.”
Does this mean that it is starting with a genuinely blank sheet of paper, within the terms of its remit, or that it is to be largely expert-driven, with a veneer of public engagement? We must hope the former, ie not just ‘transparency’ (“look, but don’t touch”) but genuine ‘openness’. That requires a more positive and engaging approach than has been suggested thus far – again the Silk Commission (and earlier devolution inquiries like Calman or Richard) can provide a model to learn from. If the Commission is not in a position yet to issue a consultation or ‘issues & questions’ paper, as a focus for its inquiry, it could state that it intends to do so, as a prelude to formal evidence-taking or public/parliamentary consultation.
That the Commission requests submissions by 13 April is potentially concerning, unless this is just intended to be a preliminary phase, prior to a more formal consultation/evidence-gathering process which includes the public. However, the Commission said on 2 March that its next meeting will be in late March and “it is planned that evidence will be heard by the Commission in April, May and June. Dates and locations of forthcoming meetings will be published through the website over the coming weeks in March.”
There remains the thorny issue of the extent of its remit. Even apart from what ministers say is expected to be excluded (especially devolution funding and Commons representation), the Commission needs, initially, to set out very clearly and openly how wide or narrow it sees its terms of reference. Will they include, for example, ‘Sewel Convention’ aspects, or inter-parliamentary relations? Will they take account (and if so, how?) of the three devolution ‘settlements’ as being dynamic processes, as with the current Scotland Bill, the Silk Commission and the looming Scottish Independence Referendum, so that their proposals are adequately flexible and robust to accommodate conceivable developments in the coming years?
So, two cheers for now, and a hope that the third cheer will be soon deserved.