There was an interesting development in Wales last week, when the National Assembly voted against giving its legislative consent under the Sewel convention to the Westminster legislation creating Police and Crime Panels. These are part of the proposals for elected police commissioners that are the centrepiece of the Coalition government’s Police Reform and Social Responsibility bill.
This is the first time a Westminster bill has been denied legislative consent under the Sewel convention – this has never happened to any bill affecting Scotland. The reason is partly to do with party politics – while Conservative and Lib Dem AMs supported the UK bill, it was opposed by Labour and Plaid Cymru. It’s also to do with what looks like legislative laziness, as the Police and Crime Panels are constituted as local authority committees (the bulk of their members will be councillors, but they’re not constitutionally part of any local authority).
Having got into this jam, the initial indications are that Home Office intends simply to insist that Westminster, as the sovereign parliament, has power to enact the legislation despite the National Assembly’s views. As I’ve explained in a detailed post on Devolution Matters available HERE, that would be a grave mistake. It would seriously upset the constitutional relationship between the devolved legislatures and UK Parliament, and risk a very messy legislative situation. Moreover, with the Scotland bill under consideration at both Westminster and Holyrood, it would raise the stakes relating to that as well.
This post also appears on Alan Trench’s blog, Devolution Matters, where it can be found here.
The Scottish Government has clearly, in its last few weeks, decided to stop playing nicely when it comes to intergovernmental relations. Hitherto, it’s scrupulously observed the convention that relations are, for the most part, to be conducted behind closed doors. After taking considerable amounts of criticism, it’s decided to place large quantities of correspondence and other records of its dealings with the UK Government (and other parties) into the public domain.
The documents they’ve released relate to two controversial issues. One is the debate about devolution finance: the UK Government’s proposals to implement the Calman recommendations, and its alternative of full fiscal autonomy. These cover the period from May 2010 to January this year. The other is the release of Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, following the publication of Sir Gus O’Donnell’s review of the papers. These cover the period from August 2009 to October 2010, though some relate to earlier events. These records are going to be a treasure trove for researchers and others interested in how intergovernmental relations in the UK work, especially as they’re exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000; our own version of the Wikileaks disclosures of US diplomatic cables, perhaps.
The finance papers can be found here. The Lockerbie papers are here.
In releasing these papers, the Scottish Government appears to be sending two clear warnings to the UK Government. First, that the UK Government should assume that everything said or done in the course of those relations may be put into the public domain, so it shouldn’t assume that it can pursue one line in public and another in private. Second, the UK Government shouldn’t seek to use selective disclosure of documents and questionable précis of them as a way of trying to win the public end of that debate. The use of that tactic by UK Government, for example over the Scottish variable rate, has significantly undermined the sort of co-operation and mutual respect for confidentiality that are much emphasised in the Memorandum of Understanding and have been regarded as underpinning intergovernmental relations up to now. It would be an exaggeration to call this a ‘crisis’ in intergovernmental relations, but it is a serious blow to the established way of doing things, based on the UK’s assumption that there’s a broad consensus behind what it does and if not that it can out-muscle devolved governments. It strongly suggests that the UK Government will need to take a much more coherent and strategic approach to intergovernmental relations than it has done, particularly recently.