BILL JAMIESON: WHEN DEVOLUTION MEANS CONTROL OF EVERYTHING

BILL JAMIESON                 DECEMBER 6 2016

Is power in Scotland really more devolved or has it become more centralised? And do more government oversight bodies improve economic growth – or stymy it?

Back in late October the Scottish government set out plans to reform Scotland’s enterprise and skills agencies. It announced it would be setting up a new Scotland-wide statutory board to co-ordinate the activities of Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

I commented at the time that yet another “over-arching” body would do little to improve performance. As it is, the autonomy of Scottish Enterprise and HIE has been steadily whittled down since 2008.

Grand pronouncements were also made – regularly by former First Minister Alex Salmond – about setting up a Scottish Investment Bank. In fact, we already have one, administered by SE. Clearly Mr Salmond felt he needed one of his own – that would be directly at the beck and call of the SNP administration.

Now comes a powerful critique from another angle – that the new body marks a further extension of centralisation and political control by the Scottish government – quite the opposite of devolution, in fact.

Respected commentator and former Labour energy minister Brian Wilson has taken the administration to task in the wake of a statement made by John Swinney in the Scottish Parliament on 23 November when, in effect, he announced the formation of a vast Scottish super quango under political control.

This has received very little coverage in the Scottish media at the time – swamped as it was by coverage of chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement that day. And it was slipped in by Mr. Swinney in answer to a question.

“Once established,” he announced, “the overarching board will replace individual agency boards while retaining the separate legal status of each of the bodies”.

This “over-arching board” will incorporate Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scottish Development International, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. “For all I know”, Mr Wilson quipped, “a few others might be thrown in to complete the job lot.”

He fired with all guns blazing last week on the inestimable website Scottish Review. This important article is worth quoting at length:

“There has been very little discussion of the wider implication and objective – which is to place an incredible degree of power and influence over crucial areas of Scottish life within the remit of a single organisation which inevitably would come under tight political control. Indeed it is mooted that it would be chaired by a minister.

“On this latter point, Mr Swinney went out of his way to avoid denying the possibility. The Tory education spokeswoman, Liz Smith, said that ‘the real concern is that the new board will potentially be chaired by a minister’. Mr Swinney ignored that question and replied instead that he was ‘happy to rule out government control of the universities’ – an assurance which may be taken with the appropriate measure of salt.

“There is, however, more than one ‘real concern’. My own is that every point of challenge to the centralised power of the Scottish Government is being closed down, on a very systematic basis, with an imperious disrespect for regional variation or the need for independent centres of decision-making, beyond the arm of central government. Scotland’s public sector is to be run from Edinburgh, as close as possible to political control. Full stop.

“The trend is not new. Since 2008, a guiding objective of ministers has been to create as many organisations as possible to which the word ‘Scotland’ could be attached. Some of them, like Police Scotland and Transport Scotland, have given rise to few efficiencies and a string of notable fiascos. All of them have removed decision-making powers from the regions of Scotland and people who know their own areas and subjects. At the same time, local government has been steadily eroded and starved of funding.”

Very well said, if we may say so, Mr Wilson. It is one thing to seek to improve efficiency and eliminate duplication. But this does not excuse a serious loss of regional democratic control and, in the case of Scotland-wide bodies, the discretion to act on the basis of their own research, contacts and expertise.

For one point we can vouch for is the invaluable web of contacts that both SE and HIE have built up with business organisations.

That has not precluded criticisms being made. That is the value of front-line, first hand contacts. It’s nice to be told what you’re doing is right – but invaluable to be alerted to misjudgements and shortcomings.

We know from our own sources that morale within SE has suffered a series of blows from relentless budget reductions and cost-cutting. Having long been regarded by the SNP as a Labour creation it has suffered from the all-to-familiar “Not Invented Here” syndrome.

The creation of “over-arching” boards weakens discretion and response at the front line where it matters, can lead to bureaucratic delays – and opens the door to judgements and decisions being made for political reasons.

As it is, there is sufficient means of accountability through direct meetings with ministers and through Holyrood’s finance and economy committees – when they are not dancing to the tune of perceived ministerial favour (witness the shenanigans over the SNP vote to deny the Scottish OBR power to make independent economic forecasts).

Brian Wilson concludes that Mr Swinney’s super quango should be resisted as a step much too far: “It confirms what some of us have known for a long time – that nationalism is not an extension of devolution but its antithesis.”

And the logical end-game of all this? Perhaps a super “over-arching body” to ensure government control over absolutely everything.

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