What role will the Parliament play in ensuring the effectiveness of inter-governmental arrangements?

The main provisions of the Scotland Act 2016

The Scotland Act 2016 received Royal Assent on 23 March 2016. The Act was the UK Government’s response to the report of the Smith Commission (Smith Commission 2014), a cross party group established after the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum.

The Commission’s remit was to produce Heads of Agreement on further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament.

The main powers which were transferred to the Scottish Parliament relate to taxes and welfare benefits, both of which are covered later in this briefing.

Other powers which will be transferred to the Scottish Parliament include legislative power over:

  • Scottish Parliament and local government elections
  • Management of the Crown Estate in Scotland
  • Equal opportunities
  • Roads
  • Granting and regulation of licences to search, bore for and extract petroleum within the Scottish onshore area.

Some executive powers will also be transferred from the Secretary of State for Scotland to Scottish Ministers, including:

  • Approval of appointments to Board of MG Alba
  • Appointment of a member of Ofcom Board. 

Commencement

Some of the Act will come into force two months after Royal Assent on 23 March 2016. However, most parts of the Act require secondary legislation to be made, by either the Secretary of State for Scotland or Her Majesty’s Treasury, before the powers are transferred, including those relating to:

  • Elections
  • Income tax
  • Borrowing
  • Welfare benefits and employment support
  • Onshore petroleum. 

Scrutiny of new powers and Inter-governmental relations

Scottish Parliament committees are expected to be established to oversee the introduction of the new powers.  The new tax and welfare powers have a high degree of interaction with powers which remain with the UK Parliament.  One key issue for the Parliament is how it will deal with scrutiny of inter-governmental relations (IGR).

The IGR structures, which will exist after the passing of the 2016 Act, include:

  • Joint Ministerial Committee (in all its functioning formats)
  • Finance Ministers’ Quadrilaterals
  • Joint Exchequer Committee
  • Joint Ministerial Group on Welfare
  • Other standing or ad hoc multilateral and bilateral inter-ministerial forums of similar standing as may be established.

The issue of lack of transparency on IGR had been highlighted as a problem in the Smith Commission report with a call for both Governments to:“…work together to create a more productive, robust, visible and transparent relationship” (Smith Commission 2014).

Scotland act

In Session 4, the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee – as part of its scrutiny during the passage of the Scotland Act 2016 – put forward a proposal for a Written Agreement on Parliamentary Oversight of Intergovernmental Relations (Scottish Parliament 2016).

The Written Agreement represented the agreed position of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government on the information that the Government would, where appropriate, provide the Scottish Parliament with regard to its own participation in formal, ministerial-level inter-governmental meetings, concordats, agreements and memorandums of understanding.

Three principles will govern the relationship between the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government on IGR matters:

  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Respect for the confidentiality of discussions between governments.

The proposal was agreed by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament on 10 March 2016. In future, the Government will provide information to the relevant committee of the Scottish Parliament including:

  • Advance written notice of meetings:
    • At least one month prior to scheduled relevant meetings
    • As soon as possible after meetings are scheduled for meetings with less than one month‘s notice
  • A written summary of the issues discussed at each inter-governmental ministerial meeting (within the scope of the Agreement) within two weeks, if possible
  • An annual report on IGR summarising the key outputs.

The Scottish Government has also agreed to attend relevant Committee meetings, when invited, to provide oral evidence on IGR.

Francesca McGrath

Sources:

Scottish Parliament (2016) Devolution (Further Powers) Committee. Available at – http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/PreviousCommittees/96777.aspx [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Smith Commission (2014) Report of the Smith Commission for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. Available at – http://www.smith-commission.scot/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The_Smith_Commission_Report-1.pdf [Accessed 27 April 2016]