Devolution, Independence Referendum 2014, Politics, UK Constitution

West Lothian, EVEL and fudge

The ‘West Lothian Question’ continues to rage on following the Independence Referendum last year, and it has been exacerbated by the Smith Commission.  What is the solution?  A clear majority of Scots voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, whatever you believe about why people voted in that way is irrelevant; that is the situation we are in.

The Conservative Party has outlined a policy to deal with the West Lothian question which is, quite frankly, entirely unworkable.  Trying to police exactly when Scottish MPs can and cannot vote on particular laws will be almost impossible.  Even in devolved areas, legislation passing through Westminster can have a direct impact on Scotland (and not just via the Barnet Formula).  Often, there will be parts – or even just a few sections – in a Bill passing through Westminster that extend to Scotland.  It is entirely ridiculous to suggest that Scottish MPs should not be able to vote on legislation directly affecting their constituents, simply because the bulk of it deals with a devolved area.  It would be a nightmare if you started removing those sections from Bills and putting them in separate Bills – you’d effectively be doubling the work of the UK Parliament.

It gets even more complicated when it comes to Cabinet positions.  Will a Scottish MP be prevented from being Prime Minister because that would have them setting the agenda in devolved areas for England?  What about Home Secretary?  Policing is devolved to Scotland, but that is only part of the Home Secretary’s responsibilities: immigration and national security remain two of most significant elements of that role which are not devolved.  What about Secretary of State for Health: the NHS is devolved, but the regulation of the health professionals (for example) is not.  When it comes to Transport, much of that is devolved; however, there are areas (particularly around regulation) which are not.  The list could go on.  If it is not to apply to Cabinet positions, then why not?  Is there any real difference between setting the policy that the legislation seeks to enact.  What does this do for Collective responsibility in the Cabinet?

Then there is the Committees proposal:  how will that actually work in practice?  Will Scottish MPs be prevented from sitting on certain committees?  Simply excluding them for the committee stages for certain Bills would be a nightmare situation.  The make-up of committees is determined according to the make-up of the House of Commons.  It could mean that Committees no longer represent the make-up of the Commons when you start excluding certain members from the Committees. Committees could become completely farcical; especially when it comes to Bills that include bits applicable to Scotland – would those MPs be allowed to participate in the Committee then?  If not, why not?  Will it mean that Committee sessions will have to stop and start frequently?

Moreover, this could not possibly apply only to Scottish MPs: what about MPs elected to represent Northern Irish constituencies or Welsh constituencies?  The West Lothian question, as it is known, also applies to those situations.  It certainly does appear as though the proposal put forward by William Hague would exclude those MPs as well as Scottish ones, but undoubtedly the reporting focusses on Scottish MPs.  However, if you do extend this rule to Northern Irish and Welsh MPs as well things would become even more complicated and much more messy – the devolution settlements for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are all very different.  There are things which Scotland has (and will soon have responsibility for) which Northern Ireland and Wales do not, equally Northern Ireland has responsibility for matters that Wales and Scotland do not.  As for Wales, from memory, it currently has the poorest devolution settlement; but it has responsibility for issues that its MPs vote on in the Commons for England.  The same issues then arise with the Cabinet as discussed above.  Keeping track  it all will become nothing short of a nightmare!

In short, the proposal by the Conservative Party is a fudge (and an utterly terrible one at that!).

So, what is the answer?  There is no going back to the pre-1999 situation; that much is certain.  The legislative bodies for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are here to stay.  The only real answer is to move towards a more federal structure.  There needs to be an entirely separate English legislative body and the powers of the national legislative bodies (those being the Welsh Assembly, Northern Irish Assembly, Scottish Parliament and the newly created English one) would have to be aligned so as not to have the ridiculous situation we currently have of different national legislative bodies having different areas of competence.

Whenever the question of an English Parliament is raised there are often cries of “we don’t need more MPs”; that’s probably true.  However, if you were creating a separate legislative body for England with its own members, the number of MPs required in the UK Parliament would be significantly less: there would be absolutely no need for there to be 650 people elected to the House of Commons.  They could easily represent much larger constituencies because they would be dealing with far fewer matters than is currently the case.  Overall, there might be a slight increase in the number of elected representatives to ensure fairness, but that shouldn’t stop us from moving in that direction.  It’s certainly not a quick fix, but it is a far fairer and much better solution that the fudge announced by William Hague today.  Yes, it will take time and yes there will be a financial cost to it in the short term (a separate English legislative assembly would likely need its own place to meet – unless you abolish the Lords and have it sitting in there), but really this should have happened in 1998!

What exactly this would look like is a conversation that would have to be had.  All parts of the UK would have to work together to work out what should be handled by the National legislative bodies and what should remain handled by Westminster.  There are obvious things that would need to be handled at a UK level such as Foreign Affairs, Defence, National Security, Immigration and the currency.  There may well be other areas where it would be beneficial to be handled at a UK level, but unless we have the conversation we will never know.

It was clear that whatever the result of the independence referendum in Scotland that there would be significant constitutional change in the UK; that remains the case and it is both a conversation and a process that we cannot walk away from; we certainly cannot try and fudge it!

Data Protection, Independence Referendum 2014, Politics, Random

Devolving Data Protection

The Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) applies across the whole of the United Kingdom and is enforced centrally by the Information Commissioner’s Office in Wilmslow (which also has offices in Belfast, Cardiff and  Edinburgh).  Anyone who has been following Scottish politics recently will be aware that a Commission has been established to make proposals on further devolution to Scotland following the Scottish Independence Referendum in September.  It has been suggested by the Law Society of Scotland in their written evidence [pdf] to the Smith Commission that consideration should be given to devolving data protection to Scotland.

This was a proposal that caught my eye when I read the Law Society of Scotland’s evidence, and it is an interesting one. Is there any real reason as to why Data Protection ought not to be devolved?

The Law Society of Scotland narrate within their evidence the confusion that can arise with the Scottish Information Commissioner being approached in respect of enforcement action relating to Data Protection, a function that she does not presently undertake.  The Scottish Information Commissioner enforces the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 and the INSPIRE (Scotland) Regulations 2009.  In their evidence, the Society makes reference to the way in which Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and the DPA interact.  They rightly point out that the Scottish Information Commissioner is required to make decisions in respect of whether it would breach the DPA to release personal data in response to a FOI request.

The interaction between DPA and FOI is a well known difficulty and there has been litigation surrounding it, such as in South Lanarkshire Council v the Scottish Information Commissioner (on which I have previously written here and here).  Understandably it must be difficult for the Scottish Information Commissioner to take decisions on disclosure in respect of personal data when her office is not also responsible for enforcing the DPA – it risks her taking a decision with which the Information Commissioner in Wilmslow might well disagree with (and consequently result in a Scottish public Authority breaching its obligations under the DPA).

The law relating to Data Protection comes from the EU, but that on its own would not prohibit its devolution. The INSPIRE (Scotland) Regulations 2009 and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 both give effect to EU Directives in Scotland.  Ultimately, it is the UK Government that is accountable to the EU for the implementation of EU law within the United Kingdom.  That fact though doesn’t appear to have stopped the UK Government from devolving to Scotland the power to implement EU law into Scots law in some areas already.

There is a difference between the DPA and the legislation that the Scottish Information Commissioner currently enforces. The DPA applies to the private sector to the same extent as the public sector.  The legislation currently enforced by the Scottish Information Commissioner applies to public sector and bodies falling within certain definitions that provide functions of a public nature only.  There is a degree of difference between them; for example, the bodies caught by the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations is wider than the bodies caught by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.  What has this got to do with devolving Data Protection?  It might not be of an immediately obvious nature; however, the bodies covered by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 and the INSPIRE (Scotland) Regulations 2009 are all largely based entirely within Scotland; there are almost no examples of where the Scottish law here applies to bodies carrying out functions elsewhere in the UK.  Is this difference (i.e. the cross jurisdictional aspect of Data Protection) a sufficient reason not to devolve Data Protection to Scotland?

In terms of FOI, public bodies which have functions across the whole of the UK, or are part of the UK Central Government, are covered by the UK equivalent and not the Scottish law. Some examples include: the BBC, the British Transport Police, the Scotland Office, the Office of the Advocate General for Scotland, the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC.  In these cases the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and the INSPIRE Regulations 2009 apply and it is the UK Information Commissioner in Wilmslow who enforces their compliance.

In terms of devolution, it is logical why the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and the INSPIRE Regulations 2009 apply to UK wide bodies. It would undoubtedly present difficulties for those organisations if they had to comply with different requirements in different parts of the UK.  However, in terms of FOI, some bodies already have that difficulty.

It does not appear to be widely known, but some of the UKs biggest businesses are covered by FOI law to a very limited extent. The likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Boots are all subject to FOI law in respect of their NHS Pharmaceutical and Optometry services.  These are the bodies that have the difficulty of complying with two separate FOI regimes.  In respect of their services contracted by the NHS in Scotland it is the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 that apply (and the Scottish Information Commissioner is responsible for enforcement) while in respect of their services contracted by the NHS in England it is the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 that apply (and the UK Information Commissioner is responsible for enforcement).  A request to one of those bodies for information on a UK wide scale would require them to deal with the request under two separate access to information schemes (potentially four if the information was environmental in nature).  Outside of the world of access to information legislation there is a great deal of differences between the legal frameworks in which UK wide businesses operate across the UK.  A contemporary example might be statutory charges for carrier bags.  Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all have them while England does not.  As a consequence businesses operating across the UK have to adopt difference practices on carrier bags to ensure legal compliance in those parts of the UK that do require charges to be made for carrier bags.  This is a fairly minor example, but there are some which are much more substantial in nature.

In terms of devolving data protection to Scotland, if it were to be devolved at all, there are two options. The first would be to devolve it only in respect of data controllers domiciled in Scotland.  This would mean Scottish domiciled data controllers would have to comply with a Scottish Data Protection Act while data controllers domiciled elsewhere in the UK would have to comply with a UK Data Protection Act.  This is probably not a good option from the point of view of Data Subjects; some UK wide companies would be domiciled in Scotland and some would be domiciled elsewhere in the UK.  This could cause confusion as to which Information Commissioner they ought to be dealing with in relation to a data protection concern.  For example, in that situation customers of RBS might find themselves dealing with the Scottish Commissioner as RBS is a company registered in Scotland.  This is the sort of confusion that the Law Society of Scotland mentioned within their response as to why consideration ought to be given to devolving data protection to Scotland.  The other option is to simply devolve Data Protection and that would mean any UK-wide organisation operating in Scotland would have to comply with both the UK and the Scottish Data Protection Acts – it would be no different to multi-nationals who have to comply with the different Data Protection regimes across the world or the multitude of other areas where UK-wide businesses already have to comply with different laws north and south of the border.

Devolving Data Protection to Scotland wouldn’t end the UK Information Commissioner’s responsibilities in Scotland. He would still be responsible for dealing with Freedom of Information in respect of the many bodies covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 which operate in Scotland.  His office would also still be responsible for enforcing the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (which overlap considerably with data protection) unless responsibility for implementing the E-Privacy Directive upon which they are based was similarly devolved to Scotland.

So, should Data Protection be devolved? Well, there is no good reason against it that I can see.  There would be a good opportunity for devolution in the form of the Data Protection Regulation currently working its way through the EU legislative process.  At that stage Data Protection law in the UK will have to change and if this were to be an area for devolution to Scotland that would seem like a sensible time to do it.  However, given the nature of EU Regulations as opposed to EU Directives, the practical effect of devolving Data Protection to the Scottish Parliament would be limited.  The question would become “what is the point?”.  The arguments in favour of further devolution to Scotland centre around the Scottish Parliament taking decisions on matters for Scotland which do not need to be reserved; however, the practical effect of the new Data Protection Regulation would be that there would be almost no scope for the Scottish Parliament to take decisions on data protection; there would be an EU Regulation which has direct effect in all EU member states, without the need to pass domestic legislation.  Any legislation, UK or Scottish, would simply be regurgitating the Regulation alongside some minor consequential and transitional matters.

The Law Society of Scotland argues that the new regulation means that there is less of a need for data protection to be a reserved matter; that would be true because from an EU compliance point of view there would be no risk to the UK Government. They also seem to place a lot of weight on the issue of confusion between the responsibilities of the two information commissioners; however, I’m not sure that would be resolved by devolving data protection – in fact there is real potential for it to be compounded rather than resolved.  The only real argument is the one concerning FOI decisions involving third party personal data, but so far that doesn’t appear to have been an issue.  Indeed, in the South Lanarkshire Council case mentioned above, the Supreme Court agreed with the approach of the Scottish Information Commissioner; although there is always scope for the Scottish Information Commissioner to get things wrong.  That said, the UK Information Commissioner could equally get things wrong and wrongly order the disclosure of personal data under FOI.

Should data protection be devolved?  There doesn’t seem to be strong case one way or the other.  In the grand scheme of things there are far more important issues in the devolution debate than whether the Scottish Parliament should get power devolved over an issue that won’t actually amount to much power at all.

Independence Referendum 2014, Politics

Scotland Decides: What Now?

Yesterday Scotland voted and today we woke up to knowing what Scotland had decided.  Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom 55% to 45%.  While the world had been following over the last few weeks and months, this has been a process which has gone on in Scotland for at least the last 7 years; certainly in earnest over the past 2 years.  The Country has talked, it has debated and it has argued and it culminated in yesterday’s “no” vote to independence.

The referendum campaign has engaged people who have long been disillusioned with politics.  Yesterday people turned out to the polling stations around the country in a remarkable number: a turnout of 86% with 97% of the population being registered to vote.  Many of those who turned out to vote yesterday were doing so for the first time: whether they be young people who had never been entitled to vote before or older people who had never decided to vote before.  The engagement that has come from the Referendum campaign is fantastic to see and should be celebrated by everyone, regardless of which side of the debate you were on.  One of the important things that must be done in Scotland now is to ensure that this engagement does not subside.  People have shown that they are interested and engaged and that is fantastic to see.

The campaign has been a largely friendly and pleasurable experience.  There have been elements from both sides of the campaign which have not shown themselves in a great light.  Whether that be ‘no’ campaigners abusing Andy Murray horrendously over his decision to vote yes or ‘yes’ campaigner engaging in bullying and harassment, it has shown some individuals up to be immature and incapable of engaging sensibly in an adult discussion; however, it certainly shouldn’t be the thing that defines the campaign.

We also awoke today of allegations of electoral fraud in Glasgow.  It would be entirely wrong to suggest that it was a supporter or supporters from a particular side of the campaign.  If someone (or some people) committed electoral fraue yesterday they could have come from either side of the campaign, or indeed from both sides of the campaign.  It’s right and proper that the affected ballots are identified and that the police investigate the matter thoroughly.  It’s unacceptable in a democracy for people to engage in conduct like that; however, it is by far a very small (almost unnoticeable) minority.

What the referendum campaign has shown is that in Scotland, and indeed in other parts of the UK, there is a real appetite for change.  It’s far from the case that yesterday’s vote has put an end to discussions about constitutional change.  What it should hopefully mean is that the discussions are not confined to a few ‘political geeks or nerds’ inhabiting certain corners of the internet.  Hopefully, it will mean that people from right across the UK engage in a real discussion about how to change the political system in this country.

There will be people across the UK who are exteremely disappointed with the result of the referendum.  Part of living in a democracy is about dusting yourself down and moving onto the next fight when one ends – irrespective of what side you were on in that fight.  Our attention should now be focussed on changing the UK, not just constitutionally, to make it better, fairer and more equal for everyone.  It is more than possible.