31 August 2008

Speaking Out

It would appear that as of now, the Scottish Government is to adopt stated policy positions on, well, everything, even matters that it can't act over. This has perturbed some in Whitehall.

But why should it?

When I was at Uni, the Students' Association, and more specifically the SRC, adopted policy on the War in Iraq, Top-Up Fees in England, Civil Partnerships and the Make Povert History Campaign to name a few.

Local Councils have, of course, been willing to pass official policy that has had little or nothing to do with their remit.

And the Scottish Parliament has itself debated and passed motions on reserved matters (even though it can't legislate on them).

So on that basis, when the elected government of Scotland has a role to play in representing its citizens, it should be able to put forward a stated policy. Remember how frustrated people were with Jack McConnell's silence on Dungavel, or on Trident? That frustration ends, and Ministers are now able to put the Government's point of view across. Just like any other body in civic Scotland. And rightly so.

13 comments:

Richard Thomson said...

Indeed. There was a great cartoon in The Herald a while back with the 3 monkeys variously seeing, hearing and speaking no evil. Tagged on at the end was Jack McConnell doing all 3, on the basis that evil wasn't a devolved matter.

Summed things up quite nicely, I felt!

Bill said...

If those folks at Holyrood want to go around passing resolutions on all sorts of topics over which they can have no possible legislative influence then I suppose, at one level, it doesn't do any actual harm (but see below) and I suppose it has the virtue of keeping these dangerous folks off our streets, beating their wives/husbands, etc., or whatever they get up to when they are not safely 'locked away' in the semi-secure unit that is Holyrood. The same might be said for local councils passing similar resolutions way beyond their remits.

However, we pay MSPs and local councillors to do a job, not to muck around wasting their time passing 'makey-workey' resolutions on matter over which they have no legislative competence. If a students' union wants to debate all sorts of grandiose matters it could be argued that this is all part of their intellectual development for later life and such events generally take place in the evenings, out of normal study time so they are free to do what they want.

I don't think the same considerations apply to Holyrood or a local council; they should stick to what is within their competence and not waste their time, and our money, debating extraneous issues.

The sub-text of this is quite obviously that Holyrood, under its present SNP minority administration, wishes to act as if it is a sovereign parliament. Until and unless a referendum iswon on this issue by the SNP, then Holyrood should stick to matters which it is empowered to deal with under the Terms of the Scotland Act.

Bill said...

Oh, and by the by, the so-called 'Scottish Government' is in fact the 'Scottish Executive' under the terms of the Scotland Act; I might call myself the Duke of Nairn, or the Viceory of Murcia and it might even be tolerated as a sort of harmless eccentricity. Alex Salmond's Scottish Executive only makes itself look silly by having adopted the moniker 'Scottish Government' - I expect it is tolerated because, well, it is vaguely amusing and eccentric, relatively harmless and it seems to make a certain type of Scot happy.

Richard Thomson said...

Well, it sounds like someone got out the wrong side of bed this morning....

We're talking about the Scottish Government here (if its an 'Executive', does that mean it has a Blackberry in one hand and a Priority Pass in the other?), rather than the Parliament. If someone asks what the view of the Scottish Government is on a reserved matter, then I'm sure what they'll now do is give a view before stating that it remains a reserved matter.

Hardly controversial I'd have thought, especially given the recent propensity of Ministers in the Westminster Government to opine on matters supposedly outwith their competence.

But then, maybe I hadn't taken into account the infinite capacity of a 'certain type' of Unionist to see conspiracy and subterfuge where none exists :-)

Will said...

Bill, I think you have a point on MSPs and Councillors debating issues that they can't do anything about (in my SRC days I was one waste-of-time debate away from running amok around the Teviot Dining Room and frankly, there was no sign of any intellectual development taking place on anyone's part during the meetings) - it's exasperating for all concerned.

But I think the difference here in this case is that contrary to the way it appears to be reported, my understanding is that when a member of the Government is asked the SG's opinion on a reserved issue, they'll actually give it, or at most someone from the SG will weigh in when it's being debated more widely, rather than circling the wagons as was done by the last Executive. It seems like less of a waste of time and energy than debates in Council Chambers and Holyrood, but dispays a broader willingness to engage with the public than Jack McConnell's tendency to shut up shop.

Re the terms, the "Scottish Government" is a fairly logical nomenclature: after all, it governs the country on certain policy areas, even the previous Executive described itself as the "Devloved Government for Scotland"; Councillors are referred to as "local government"; and even the Welsh Assembly has a Government. The de facto term, far from being eccentric, describes what the body is and what it does, without the need for a supplementary explanation.

And let's face it, the word "Executive" was used only to make the devolved government distinct from Westminster and, like the term "Government", is designed primarily to keep a certain (albeit different) type of Scot happy.

I suppose this is a "you say 'tom-ay-to', and I say 'tom-ah-to' " moment...

David Hume said...

The thing is Will, as you realise ( I guess that from your final point, para 1) that the further items are from your jurisdiction, the easier it is to 'soap box' about them. And the SNP are excellent at that.
It doesn't impress anyone.

Will said...

David (you either have a lot to live up to or Scotland has developed a zombie problem!), as you notice in the comments, I draw a distinction between the example of the Student Union and this new approach by the SG.

An SRC can have quite heated debates full of hand-wringing about the situation in the Gaza Strip, but the SRC's job is to deal with issues like the state of the libraries, the quality of tutorial provision, relations with the local community - things that they can sort out. No one outside (and indeed, few people inside) the Uni will care what the President of the Students' Association thinks about Hamas, and if SRC members want to spend their evenings debating the finer points of the Middle East crisis, then they should consider joining (or establishing) a Debating Society.

By contrast, people may wish to ask (and, indeed, have asked) Scottish Ministers what their opinion is of reserved issues - Dungavel is the classic example. Now you can take the Jack McConnell approach of pretending not to have an opinion and/or ignoring a debate that is taking place in the country, or you can take the new and apparently radical approach of having an opinion and stating it. I think the latter is far more reasonable.

Bill said...

Hardly controversial I'd have thought, especially given the recent propensity of Ministers in the Westminster Government to opine on matters supposedly outwith their competence.

Oh yes? To what do you refer? One sample case will do.

But then, maybe I hadn't taken into account the infinite capacity of a 'certain type' of Unionist to see conspiracy and subterfuge where none exists :-)

Frankly, this does not really merit any comment, except to say that it is all a matter of opinion; agreed you may not think the Scotland Act goes far enough, but I'd rather its terms were observed, for example in the number of MSPs, which the previous Parliament (i.e. the previous Labour/LibDem coalition) acquiesced in ignoring. Seems like Scotland is governed very loosely, with the constitutional basis on which the executive (aka 'government') operates being ignored when convenient.

David Hume said...

"By contrast, people may wish to ask (and, indeed, have asked) Scottish Ministers what their opinion is of reserved issues - Dungavel is the classic example."
And how is this OPINION formed, Will? The student union guys talk out their jackseys or whatever, dependent on their knowledge. A Scottish Minister... what is the story here? Is it just some party line on Dungavel (for example) - there is clearly no advice from civil servants. So - what is this opinion? Hot air at taxpayers expense which makes the SNP ministers feel like good guys? Easy money.

Will said...

Bill, you may have been aiming this at Richard but HMG Ministers haven't been shy in declaring their opposition to the introduction of LIT in Scotland, and the Scotland Act was amended by the UK Parliament to end the Westminster-Holyrood Constituency link, so I'm not sure how that relates.

David, the story is this: devolved ministers actually being willing to stick their head above the parapet and speak on an issue when they're asked what their opinion is, as opposed the head-sand interface manoeuvre practised by Jack McConnell. In doing so, they are exercising the same rights that the Parliament itself has exercised, that local Councils and yes, even student hacks exercise. If they can issue an opinion on any matter when asked, I don't see why people should be overly perturbed when a Scottish Minister does so.

And in bringing in the idea of taxpayers' money, let me ask you this: if a journalist asks, say, Nicola Sturegon about pensions, what cost to the taxpayer is there in her reply?

If a member of the public writes to, say, Richard Lochhead about Trident, what increased cost to the taxpayer is there in sending a letter back stating what he thinks, when his predecessor would have sent a letter back explaining that it's nothing to do with him?

Or are you saying that opinions aren't valid unles they're backed up by civil servants?

In which case, why blog?

Richard Thomson said...

Oh yes? To what do you refer? One sample case will do.

As Will says, Bill, look no further than LIT. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/apr/11/localinterference

Seems like Scotland is governed very loosely, with the constitutional basis on which the executive (aka 'government') operates being ignored when convenient.

I'm not convinced that's the case, but if it were, it would be a pragmatic approach entirely in keeping with the spirit of the unwritten British constitution, surely?

David Hume said...

With all respect etc, I'm not sure you've thought this through. You've stated that the elected government of Scotland has a role to play in representing its citizens by putting forward a "stated policy", even on reserved matters.

Ministers may indeed have opinions (like bloggers - wow, never thought of that!) but are you saying that they can issue opinions which become "stated policy" and carry validity within Government?
How can that work - many reserved matters have no corresponding portfolio at Holyrood - can any Minister pipe up with an equally valid opinion (sorry, "stated policy"). And what of the last executive which you are so keen to denigrate - should Lab and Lib Dems meet and thrash out the stated policy even although it was clearly outside their partnership agreement?

I hope your stated policies are all cleared by the Greens and Margo!

Will said...

DH, what I am saying is that a representative of the Government has a right to answer questions that he or she is asked, and to enter debates that are taking place in the country. That is not 'soapboxing'. That is not issuing a quasi-manifesto on everything under the Sun. It is responding to questions put to it by the press and the public.

"can any Minister pipe up with an equally valid opinion?"

If Jack Straw can answer questions on the economy, then I don't see why not.

From the theme of your comments, it strikes me that what you'd prefer is for Ministers either to temporarily stop being Ministers while they answer questions on X, Y and Z, or pretend that they don't think about things which officially at least, are none of their business. Neither option is even remotely sensible.

And that was precisely the issue with the last FM: his constant insistence that he only had an opinion on things he was in charge of. Even his Welsh colleague Rhodri Morgan, who has fewer powers at his disposal, has been unafraid to step outside his remit and engage with the public on the issues they're talking about - what was stopping Jack McConnell?

Whichever way you look at it, there is a precedent for the approach being taken by the Scottish Government - from public bodies setting out where they stand on issues they can't control, Ministers discussing something outwith their portfolio in an interview, members of a devolved administration commenting on reserved matters and vice versa. It already happens - but for some reason, the idea that the 16 Ministers and Junior Ministers of the Scottish Government should dare answer a question when they can't control the answer fills people with dread.

The argument I'm making is simply this: it needn't fill anyone with dread. It's perfectly normal. It's correcting an aberration, not creating one.