Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture 2003: David Steel

David Steel

Lord Steel (now Baron Steel) of Aikwood gave the 2003 Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday 18 August 2003. David Steel had just retired as Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. He had held the post since the the Parliament was re-established in 1999.

Lessons learned from the first four years

I count it both an honour and a pleasure to be asked to deliver the National Library of Scotland Donald Dewar Lecture. It is meet and right that it should take place at the Edinburgh international Book Festival, given Donald's well-known love of collecting books. My friendship with him goes back to student debating days, but of course we worked closely together in our respective roles in establishing the Scottish Parliament. This lecture is entitled 'Lessons learned from the first four years', and being the son of a preacher I take as my text words of Donald himself: 'Devolution is a process, not an event'. I want to look ahead in that process learning from events so far. Since I shall be making some constructive criticisms en route, which I hope will not be quoted out of context, I want to begin with a brief reaffirmation of my confidence in what has been achieved so far.

Major achievements

It is quite difficult to recall the true state of Scottish politics and public life before 1999. A major achievement of the Scottish Parliament is the bringing of the whole process of governance closer to the people. You can see that not only in the numbers of individuals and organisations who have come and given formal evidence to the committees, and in the number of petitions received and dealt with, but in the surprisingly heavy occupation of the public galleries, the amount of coverage on radio and television, and indeed the acreage of coverage - not all of course favourable - in our newspapers. Contrast all that with the distant operation of Scottish political life only five years ago. I am therefore cheered by opinion surveys which show that if the referendum were re-run fewer people than in 1997 would vote against devolution. It is here to stay.

The second achievement has been in the scale and scope of legislation. As Malcolm Rifkind memorably put it in the days of his enlightenment, Scotland had the only legal system in the world without a legislature to amend adapt and improve it. The result was a log jam of reform waiting hopelessly in the Westminster timetable queue. I leave it to the Executive to trumpet the number of bills passed (because quantity is not of itself a virtue), but I note major reforms on topics such as mental health and land tenure, as well as Committee and Private Members' bills, many of which were the subject of past unimplemented reports. It is my hope that future Parliaments, having caught up the backlog, will spend less time legislating and more examining and scrutinising the government of the people.

Let me now turn to the future. I want today to consider five topics.

The Barnett formula

First, the funding of the Parliament. As you know, all expenditure in Scotland is still determined - as it was before - by the Barnett formula, named after the Chief Secretary to the Treasury at the time, Joel Barnett. On my occasional forays to the House of Lords during these last four years, he would greet me warmly with the words: 'Ah, David, how is my formula getting on?' I assured him it was alive and well. But of course we have been promised a review of the formula in the next few years. There is a prevailing view in London that the Scots get too much out of it, to which the Scots regularly respond that London forgets the massive public expenditure on their doorstep, such as the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The debate is never ending.

Since the Barnett formula and the Scotland Act itself are both likely to be reviewed in the lifetime of the next Westminster Parliament, my proposition is that the two should go together. Frankly no self respecting parliament should expect to exist permanently on 100% handouts determined by another parliament, nor should it be responsible for massive public expenditure without any responsibility for raising revenue in a manner accountable to its electorate. That is why I argue for at least a measure of fiscal autonomy. After all even the smallest local council in the land whilst deriving the bulk of its income from central government still has to settle its annual council tax and answer for its decisions to the public it serves. The Parliament should do no less.

New methods of raising money

I am not qualified to go into detail as to how this should be achieved — I long ago admitted to belonging to the Alec Douglas-Home school of economics — but wiser heads than mine have applied themselves to this topic, Professor Alan Peacock and Professor David King among others. They tend to focus on transferring the responsibility for income tax, and I do not quarrel with that, but the Parliament could take the initiative by devising new methods of raising money. Local government finance is devolved, so either local income tax or site value rating could be considered as alternatives to the council tax. A new nationwide income could be derived, for example, from the restoration of dog licences at a realistic level, accompanied by a socially beneficial dog registration scheme. The income would be minor, but the principle significant. Examples abound of divided responsibility for taxation — Canada and the USA, or, nearer home, Belgium and Switzerland. The wheel does not require to be reinvented.

One of the less glorious episodes during the last Parliament was the refusal of the then Department of Social Security to pass over to the Scottish Executive the substantial saving it made on the introduction in Scotland of free care for the elderly, paid for by the Executive through local authorities. I was not privy to the political arguments which went on behind the scenes, but I suspect the Treasury did not like the Scottish policy because of pressure to follow suit in England and Wales.

But as Donald Dewar pointed out away back in 1970, in a context to which I shall refer later: 'A Scottish administration would on occasions differ politically from that in London. There would be little point in the exercise if it did not.' Quite. But the freedom to develop different policies is limited so long as the purse strings are wholly controlled from London. So my first lesson is that fiscal autonomy should come firmly on to the political agenda.

Secretary of State for Scotland

My second lesson concerns the role and indeed existence of the Secretary of State for Scotland. In my view — expressed at the time — it was a mistake not to include abolition of that office in the Scotland Act. The subsequent expensive growth of the 'Scotland Office' with premises in both London and Edinburgh is indefensible and has led to confusion and delays at both civil service and ministerial levels. I have also been at occasions when both the First Minister and the Secretary of State were present, and nobody was quite sure which was top dog — though I guess both assumed it was them!

Moreover, it is difficult to see how three seats in the UK Cabinet could be justified following devolution, though it may be that the continuing political impasse in Northern Ireland prevented a tidy resolution of the problem. In spite of the somewhat ham-fisted way it was done a couple of months ago, the creation of a Minister for Constitutional Affairs, with a junior minister for each of the devolved territories, was the correct solution. We should not forget that there is still another Scottish minister in the Westminster Government, namely the Advocate General.

I felt quite sorry for the last unfortunate holder of the post of Secretary of State, Helen Liddell. She could do no right. If she took any initiatives she was accused of interfering or upstaging the Scottish Executive, and if she did nothing she was dubbed the 'minister for receptions'. Unhappily, we now have that distinguished office attached part-time to another Cabinet post.

The sooner it disappears altogether the better. I pray in aid of my argument an unimpeachable authority. Back in 1969, Neil MacCormick edited a remarkably prescient series of essays in a book on Scotland's future timed for the 1970 General Election. Titled The Scottish Debate it was published by Oxford University Press and contained two chapters written by young and callow Scottish MPs, one called Donald Dewar and the other called David Steel. In his essay, after considering a reduced role for future Scottish MPs at Westminster following devolution, Donald wrote: 'Another casualty would almost inevitably be the office of Secretary of State, if only because the bulk of his responsibilities would be transferred to the Scottish Parliament and its ministers.'

Note two things about that statement: 'his responsibilities', no 'or her' — typical Donald! But more seriously, 30 years ago he foresaw the inevitable logic of change. So my second proposition is that the abolition is overdue.

Regional list system

My third reflection is about the election system, and I begin with a confession. During my Liberal lifetime, including my period as leader, I never agreed with the party policy of the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies. I admit I was wholly prejudiced against it. Why? Because I was the only MP at Westminster to represent three counties and within them eight burghs. I got immense satisfaction out of being their Member and could not envisage the submerging of my already widespread constituency into an enormous multi-member seat shared with others. Of course I did support the principle of proportional representation and thought the 1930's Speaker's Conference solution of multi-member seats with STV in the cities and the alternative vote in single seats in the countryside a more sensible solution.

So when it came to the Constitutional Convention, it was to the credit of the Labour Party that they recognised the need for electoral reform following the failure of the l970s devolution proposals. The Liberals wanted STV, and the compromise (which I preferred anyway and warmly welcomed) was first past the post in the existing constituencies, plus a regional list system to ensure electoral fairness between the parties. The Labour Government took the convention's findings as its blueprint, and so that is what we have.

I now think the system was a mistake, for three reasons:

First, the selection process for the lists leads to 56 members of the parliament being created by less than truly democratic means. It was left to each of the parties to make up their own selection rules, and they are all different. The Tories simply insist that each regional list is composed of their candidates standing in the constituencies. Since they did not win any seats in the first election, that for them was eminently sensible. (I love teasing David McLetchie by pointing out that, following their l997 wipeout in Scotland in the Westminster General Election, the Scottish Conservative revival is solely due to the Scottish Parliament and proportional representation, both of which they opposed. He has some suitably caustic response which I forget.) But how the Conservatives order the lists in each region, thus determining who gets elected is a purely internal matter.

For the Labour Party the same criticism which occurred over their closed lists for the European Parliament applies. The procedure is wrapped in impenetrable mystery. In their case it is not so important since nearly all their members are from the constituencies.

For the SNP the opposite is true. Most of theirs are from the regional lists. One MSP told me that in their region only 24 people decided the composition of the list, thus determining the election of two or three Members of the Scottish Parliament. Irrespective of party politics, it is undeniable that Michael Russell and Andrew Wilson were two outstanding MSPs — both defeated not by the electorate but by closed-door skulduggery and easy manipulation. John Swinney deserves credit for calling for a change in their rules, but I think we need to ponder on the system itself. The Liberal Democrats had the best rules — one member one vote by postal ballot after hustings meetings, but even that has its imperfections, for I have seen able, but busy, people rejected in favour of those who have given more of their time to serving the local party. People ask themselves the wrong question, not: 'Who would make the best MSP?', but: 'Who has delivered the most party leaflets or been the most assiduous councillor and deserves the reward of my vote?'

Democratic deficit

Here I want to make an observation about Parliament generally, both Holyrood and Westminster. Politics is becoming a dangerously closed shop in all parties. When I first entered the Commons, it was full of people with different experiences of life, having worked as miners or steelworkers, bankers, owners of landed estates. We even had a rear-admiral. Now the most common route to a seat in either Parliament is to have been a party researcher, local official or councillor. It is a chicken-and egg question. When I hear officials of business organisations complain about the lack of experienced business people in Parliament I am tempted to ask how many of their organisation bother to take part in or even join a political party. The remedy lies in the hands of the electorate. I am simply saying that the list system exacerbates a wider problem and creates in my view an unacceptable democratic deficit.

My second reason for having second thoughts about the list system is that it led to unnecessary tension between some list Members and constituency Members and others. Quite the most distasteful and irritating part of my job as Presiding Officer was dealing with complaints against list Members' behaviour from constituency MSPs, Westminster MPs and local authorities. Most did their best to obey the code of conduct, but there were a few serial offenders whose behaviour was referred to the Standards Committee. I could not understand at first why we had such problems, until it dawned on me that what some were determined to do was misuse their position to run a permanent four-year campaign as candidate for a particular constituency. In most Parliaments you do not have Members sitting in the same chamber or in committees who are going to be election opponents, and it does not make for a good working atmosphere.

My third objection to the system as operated is that it has led to a confusing and expensive proliferation of 'parliamentary' offices throughout the country. In at least one town there are four. This arose because of an agreement between the parties that regional list Members as well as constituency ones should have publicly funded offices. I registered my objection at the time because they have become a thinly disguised subsidy from the taxpayer for the local party machines and added to the tendency I have just described. In my view they are a serious waste of public money, and I do not exclude my own former regional office from that stricture.

Changing the electoral system

So how would I change the electoral system? Fortunately the present one cannot stay unaltered because of the forthcoming (and rather dilatory) reduction in the number of Westminster constituencies in Scotland. There would be unthinkable mayhem to have some 56 new constituencies while attempting to retain a different set of 73 constituency boundaries for Holyrood. Some have suggested that we simply reduce the number of constituency MSPs and increase the regional list ones — who would then be the major component — but this would simply worsen the problems to which I have just drawn attention.

The answer lies in creating a parliament with an election system wholly different from that at Westminster and one which would result in all MSPs being elected on the same basis.

That brings us back to STV in multi-member constituencies, the system which has proved both effective and popular in Ireland. Every citizen would then have a constituency MP and a choice of three or four MSPs to look after them. They should share the same offices locally to serve the public. Yes, there are drawbacks to that system, but no electoral method anywhere in the world is perfect.

My fourth observation is that we could do with some 'revising' mechanism for legislation. I have mentioned this in passing before and been caricatured for my pains as proposing to establish a Scottish House of Lords, which I emphatically do not. Some have argued that our unicameral Parliament is flawed and that it ought to be bicameral to provide a check and balance as the House of Lords does at Westminster. I have never agreed with that proposition, and I do not detect a thirst among the population for yet more politicians and elections. But I do recognise that the total absence of any check could present problems.

One of the merits of Scottish as against Westminster procedure is that we timetable all bills by agreement. In the House of Commons, guillotines are often imposed on the later stages of bills, and quite often amendments are voted on without time for any debate at all on them. That is not too serious because they are usually picked up in the House of Lords. Their general power to ask the elected House to think again is, if sparingly and sensitively used, also useful.

Obviously we have no such mechanism. I can tell you that there were a couple of occasions when I had doubts about the tightness of a bill's timetable and I made it clear that I regarded it as wholly unacceptable that we should vote on any amendments to legislation without discussion. I decided that if that were about to happen I would suspend the sitting and seek the introduction of a fresh timetable. Fortunately I never had to carry out my threat, though we came within seconds of it on a couple of occasions.

Referring bills for examination

There is already one limited failsafe check. After a bill is passed by the Parliament we have to wait for a month while the UK law officers certify that it has not fallen foul of either the Scotland Act or the European Convention on Human Rights. (None did and needed to be referred back to the Parliament.) Only then does the Presiding Officer write to the Queen asking her to give her royal assent, at which point it becomes an Act and passes into the law of the land. All I am suggesting is that, during that same month, bills could be referred to an appointed committee of a couple of dozen people.

Their task should be to pick up any perceived defects or widespread objections. They should have the capacity neither to oppose nor alter what the elected Parliament has done, but merely to refer a bill or part of it back for a further examination by the Parliament. A case in point could have been the anti-hunting bill passed by the urban-majority Parliament in spite of the report of its Rural Affairs Committee advising against it.

They could meet in one of the of the committee rooms at minimal public expense. Whether they are called the Revising Committee or constitute a revival of the Scottish Privy Council, abolished at the time of the Union, is unimportant. They should be men and women independent of the political parties (though some could perhaps be suggested by them) and represent a broad spectrum of Scottish civic life, perhaps replacing the now rather aimless Civic Forum. The Prime Minister's proposed Appointments Commission could make the necessary selection.

The saga of the new building

Since this lecture is entitled 'lessons learned' you will expect me to deal with the saga of the new building. This I do fifth and last, because in the whole scheme of things this is actually the least important. But I admit straight away that the Holyrood building project has sadly somewhat soured the opening years of the Scottish Parliament. This is the first opportunity I have had free of the responsibility of office to give my views on what happened, and I want to put several points firmly on the record:

It is simply untrue that the cost of the building has increased 10 times, as I keep reading. The 1997 Blair Government white paper on devolution suggested a parliament could be built for £40 million. But that was not this building. Lord Fraser will no doubt enquire into how that figure was arrived at and why it was later abandoned. My guess is that they were contemplating a much smaller building of a standard supermarket style on land already cleared and owned by the government next to the new Scottish Executive office on Leith waterfront, but that is only my guess.

The Calton Hill site incorporating the old Royal High School and possibly St Andrew's House and the GPO was not opposed by Donald Dewar on grounds — again widely reported — of being a 'Nationalist shibboleth'. I know, because during the debates on the Scotland Bill in the House of Lords that was the solution I favoured. So at one of our regular dinners when we met alone without officials I asked him why he had ruled that out. His explanation was quite simple: 'Don't you think, David, that a new Scottish Parliament after an absence of 300 years merits a new building and not just a jumble of old ones?' He had a point.

Doubling of costs

And so, after the choice of a new and complicated site and an international competition among selected architectural practices, the project was handed over to the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body under my chairmanship at an estimated cost of £109 million, plus landscaping on land in the park which did not belong to us. We soon discovered that there was a difference between the notional parliament on which Enric Miralles and his colleagues had been working and our actual parliament because it lacked some of the facilities we already had.

No allowances had been made, for example, for the actual number of committees we had, nor for the research staff of the parliamentary parties. To have failed to build an adequate building would have been to saddle future taxpayers with the cost of a second building, and we already know the inefficiencies of operating in our existing seven temporary buildings. So, to get it right, Parliament approved a 50% larger redesign at a cost of £195 million.

The actual cost has almost doubled from that estimate for a variety of reasons which doubtless Lord Fraser's enquiry will explore. Suffice to say meantime that the 'Construction Management' approach which we inherited meant every item went out separately to tender, and to some extent we have been victims of our own success. During the last five years Edinburgh has become boom city, especially in building and property costs.

Just before this year's election, the Corporate Body and the Holyrood Progress group twice met with and cross-examined the architects, the contractors and the cost consultants to establish a final timetable and cost figure. They told us they were 95% confident as they neared the end that the actual cost including landscaping would be £338 million. It is absolutely untrue that any other cost was politically hidden until after the election, and it came as a genuine shock to my successor George Reid that the cost had risen after only four months by another £37 million, making the total cost nearly twice Parliament's intended figure of £195.

Queensberry House

It is not widely known that at the time of that approved estimate I was so concerned at the cost of a building due to last 200 years that I thought it unfair that we should have to pay for it over only five years. Without officials knowing I went to see senior figures in the Bank of Scotland to ask whether they could devise a method of paying off the costs over the lifetime of several Parliaments as with a house mortgage. They applied their able minds seriously to the problem but concluded that 'treasury rules' prevented such a desirable course. I reported to my colleagues on the Corporate Body what I had done and they shared my disappointment.

I want, however, to give you a more detailed insight into the kind of problems we faced. I refer to the renovation as part of the new parliamentary complex of Queensberry House. Another untruth which has been peddled is that Enric Miralles was opposed to retaining it. Not so, as anyone who has visited his own remarkable office in old Barcelona would understand.

Donald had commissioned a distinguished firm of conservation architects to give him a survey report before taking that decision. Much later, appalled by what I had seen of the building, I asked to read that survey. (Dealing with bringing a 16th-century building back to life was after all something of which I do have first-hand experience — and, yes, we spent more than double what we intended at Aikwood Tower.) Donald's survey advised that the building was structurally sound, but that turned out not to be the case, for when the plaster was removed it was found that floors had to be reconstructed to connect them to the walls. Moreover there was need for extensive 'tanking' of the basement to prevent water ingress from an underground stream.

The original estimate for the renovation of Queensberry House was £7 million. When Parliament requested the former President of the Royal Incorporation of Scottish Architects, John Spencely, to give us an independent report on the whole Holyrood project, he concluded that the Queensberry House part was poor value for money and that the cost would be over £10 million. He actually told me to would be cheaper and provide more space to pull it down and build a breeze-block replica. I am sure he was right, but the plans had already been approved, and of course it is an historic house, even though little remains of interest in the interior. Edinburgh rightly abounds in learned societies and conservation bodies who would certainly have lodged objections to any such idea, which in turn would imperil the whole timetable. So we pressed ahead.

Then the Corporate Body was told that the stone remains of a belvedere or outlook tower had been found in the roof space (again not mentioned in Donald's survey). Did we want it restored? Certainly not. We already had an excellent renovation plan which we proposed to stick to. At this point both Historic Scotland and the City planning department insisted it be restored, altering the plan and adding to the design and construction costs. I recall two meetings with the Lord Provost, Council leader and Convener of Planning in my office when they had given me solemn and genuine promises of full and speedy co-operation on the whole project. I also recall an exasperating meeting with Donald when I protested: 'But Donald, you are Historic Scotland', to which he replied: 'I suppose I am, but ...' Inspectors in both Historic Scotland and City Planning have to be independent of political pressure.

Decisions made by anonymous officials

A second dispute arose later. Queensberry House has been a private house, a tavern, a barracks and a geriatric hospital. It has been mucked about over the centuries. It was discovered (also not noted in Donald's survey) that at some point in its history the wallhead on which the roof rested had been raised some two feet. Again Historic Scotland and the City Planning department wanted to alter the plan and lower it, thus incidentally reducing the useful floor space and making it even less good value for money. Again we as clients objected, but, faced with the cost and delay of an inevitable public enquiry once objections were lodged, we had to give in. The final blow was the Ministry of Defence security advisers' insistence post-9/11 on placing bomb blast steel and glass screens in front of all the fine window recesses, thus ruining in my opinion what little was left of the original gracious interior. At every stage, decisions made by anonymous officials seriously upped the cost, so that instead of £7 million, this part of the project is costing £14m. The politicians, of course, get the blame.

I should just ask you to note that almost every unique public building has suffered similar problems over estimates against outturn: the Palace of Westminster itself in the late 19th century, as well as its newly completed extension, Portcullis House; the British National Library; famously, the Sydney Opera House. Recently I met the ex-Lord Mayor of London, who in his time chaired the committee producing the Barbican Concert Hall. He expressed total sympathy, because that original estimate was in the £20 million bracket and it ended up at £200 million. What we will have, admittedly at great expense, is a building of international renown which the people of Scotland will enjoy for very many generations to come.

From strength to strength

I want to end as I began and conclude with a favourite quotation from Sir Walter Scott's great novel of 18th-century Scotland, 'Heart of Midlothian', where a character complains after 1707: 'When we had a king and a parliament — men o' oor ain — we could aye peeble them wi' stanes when they werena guid bairns, but naebody's nails can reach the length o' Lunnon.' We have certainly been 'peebled wi' stanes' more regularly than Scottish politicians in faraway London used to be. That is as it should be, even if sometimes the 'peebling' has been a bit excessive and unfair. The restoration of Scotland's Parliament has been a momentous and historic event in which I feel greatly privileged to have played a part. It will go from strength to strength. The event has occurred. The process continues.


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