Borders MP David Mundell’s role as Scottish secretary is being called into question by a committee including the region’s other representative at Westminster, fellow Conservative John Lamont.
The purpose of the Scotland Office and the UK Government cabinet minister heading it need to be investigated further now that many of their previous responsibilities have been taken over by the Scottish Parliament, according to the House of Commons’s Scottish affairs committee.
Following an inquiry ongoing since September, the committee, chaired by Pete Wishart, MP for Perth and North Perthshire, has issued a report saying: “We have not heard any evidence to suggest that the Scotland Office’s representative role, or its handling of devolution matters, could not be dealt with by an altogether different model of devolved representation in Whitehall, such as a single department responsible for devolution and constitutional affairs.
“We recommend that the UK Government reviews the role of the Scotland Office and the secretary of state for Scotland.
“As part of this review, the UK Government should explore options including replacing the territorial offices of state with a single department responsible for managing constitutional affairs and intergovernmental relations.
“The review must ensure that any changes do not reduce the quality of how Scotland is represented in the UK Government nor reduce the ability of the UK and Scottish governments to work together.
“The Scotland Office needs to adapt to the reality of how devolution is working on the ground.
“We do, however, recognise that there is a legitimate role to be played in terms of the office representing the work of the UK Government in Edinburgh.”
The Scotland Office’s post-devolution responsibilities extend little further than reserved matters such as foreign policy and employment, as well as acting as an intermediary between Scotland’s Holyrood and Westminster governments, prompting questions to be asked about whether it is still necessary.
Mr Wishart said afterwards: “It’s been 20 years since devolution and the political landscape of the UK is now totally unrecognisable.
“The relationship between the UK and Scottish governments has broken down, and there is a palpable lack of trust between the two governments.
“Although the relationship is far from ideal, it is not beyond repair.
“We are calling on the Scottish and UK governments to make fundamental changes in their approach to devolution to restore trust.
“We’ve also heard evidence questioning the effectiveness of the Scotland Office in Whitehall, so we are pressing for a review of the role of the Scotland Office and the secretary of state for Scotland to ensure intergovernmental processes adapt to the changing nature of devolution.”
Mr Mundell, Scottish secretary since 2015, and his predecessor Michael Moore, holder of that job from 2010 to 2013, believe it still has a function to perform, however.
“During this inquiry, we heard mixed evidence about whether the Scotland Office adds value to the relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments,” the committee’s report notes.
“Some witnesses felt the Scotland Office still serves a useful purpose.
“Michael Moore argued that the Scotland Office was also a key player during the Scottish independence referendum and further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament in the 2012 and 2016 Scotland acts.
“Mr Mundell did not give oral evidence to our inquiry, instead writing to us to set out the UK Government’s position.
“Using the Scottish city and growth deals programme as an example of effective collaboration, the secretary of state noted that the Scotland Office plays an important role in engaging and representing]Scottish stakeholders in the work of the UK Government and communicating the work of the UK Government in Scotland.”
Other witnesses begged to differ, though.
Former Scottish Government deputy first minister Baron Wallace of Tankerness contended that the Scotland Office had served little purpose during his time in government, from 1999 to 2005, as most dealings between Holyrood and Westminster were handled by the relevant officials on either side of the border, he said.
Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, Scottish first minister from 2001 to 2007, agreed, recommending that the Scotland Office be replaced by a department for constitutional affairs or for devolved nations and regions.
In his letter to the committee, Mr Mundell said: “Our policy and constitutional expertise, and extensive stakeholder networks, mean that we are uniquely placed to be at the heart of strengthening devolution and demonstrating the vital role of the UK Government as one of two governments serving people in Scotland.
“I firmly believe that as we leave the European Union and embark on a new and more complex era of inter-governmental relations, the role that the office of secretary of state for Scotland plays in promoting Scottish interests within a stronger United Kingdom and giving voice to Scottish interests around the cabinet table will be more critical than ever.”
“I believe that Scotland’s interests are best served by having its own separate representation in the cabinet, rather than being represented by a collective secretary of state for the nations.
“This is not in the least part due to Scotland’s economy having a very different composition to Wales or Northern Ireland.”