Discussions on devolution to remain secret after Whitehall blocks publication of files

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  By Martin Kelly
 
Discussions held by former Labour Ministers on planned devolution for Scotland will not be published after a UK Government Department blocked their release at the eleventh hour, according to a Sunday newspaper.
 
The Sunday Herald has revealed that notes taken at the time of Cabinet discussions in the run-up to devolution are to be withheld after the Scotland Office, led by Lib Dem MP Michael Moore, demanded to inspect the documents.

The ‘Devolution Files’ were missing from documents published last week by the National Records of Scotland, they were to be part of a raft of documents made public as part of the 15 year rule.

However the move by Whitehall will now see publication postponed indefinitely and, according to the Sunday Herald, publication can now only take place with Whitehall’s say so.

The UK Government policy on secret files is to wait 30 years before releasing the documents, however this was reduced to 15 in Scotland by the SNP when they came to government.

The 36 Devolution Files are thought to reveal splits amongst Labour Ministers in key areas as they debated what powers to grant the Scottish Parliament, with many believed to have wanted to limit the powers transferred from London.

According to the paper, former Labour Minister Jack Straw was believed to have been sceptical about devolution.  Both Mr Straw and then Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine are believed to have raised the issue of public spending north of the border.

Mr Straw caused fury in 2009, when as Justice Secretary he used special powers to block publication of UK Cabinet devolution discussions from 1997 – despite the UK Freedom of Information (FoI) Commissioner ruling that the documents be published.

Controversy surrounded the decision which saw the Labour MP invoke special powers, not used since the Iraq War, to keep the files secret.

The papers covered the minutes of a cabinet sub-committee on devolution chaired by the then Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Derry Irvine, which met in secret 15 times from May to July 1997, two months before the Referendum that lead to the Scottish Parliament being reconvened.

Speaking at the time, Jack Straw said: “I have concluded that the public interest falls in favour of non-disclosure and that this is an exceptional case where release would be damaging to the convention of collective responsibility and detrimental to the effective operation of cabinet government.  Consequently, this case warrants the exercise of the veto.”

The latest move by a Whitehall department to keep discussions secret will fuel speculation that devolution was not the grand gesture claimed by the Labour party and that other motives were at play when the legislation was being drawn up.

Following the vote in 1997, the parliament was eventually re-established in 1999.  However the system of voting was designed in such a way as to ensure no one party could ever command a majority – which meant that the SNP would always require support from at least one Unionist party.

Some Unionists claimed that devolution would see the eventual demise of the SNP.

However in 2011 the SNP, under Alex Salmond, confounded the architects of the proportional voting system by winning an outright majority.

Responding to the latest decision to block release of devolution documents, SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn said:

“These files must be released.  It has been 15 years since devolution and whatever the UK Government is trying to hide it is time to be open with the people of Scotland.  The Scotland Office will be cheating Scotland of its history if it does not allow these files to be released.

“We know Labour ministers including Blair and Brown were at odds over devolution, but that is no reason to hold that information back.

“It is vital that that in 2013 the year before Scotland’s referendum on independence that the UK government acts honestly and openly with the people of Scotland.  The material in these files is not just an important part of our history it could be of importance to the current debate over independence.

“How are people supposed to believe the UK government over Scotland’s future when it is too busy hiding Scotland’s political past.”

Mr Hepburn revealed he is to write to Alistair Darling, the leader of the No Campaign’s Labour/Tory alliance inviting him to stand by his previous comments on the need for a fair debate.

Mr Hepburn added:

“We’ve had a fair bit of whinging from the No camp about what is and what isn’t fair and in truth that has been nothing more than political posturing – as their acceptance of the Scottish Government’s perfectly fair proposed question shows.

“Now they must raise the bar and demand their task masters at the UK government are transparent and allow the files from 1997 to be seen by the people of Scotland.”

Responding to the moves by the Scotland Office, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “The vast majority of archived files due to be opened in 2013 have been released by the National Records of Scotland. The Scotland Office asked for a number of files to be withheld from release, and it is now up to Scotland Office and UK Government officials to inspect the remaining unopened files. The Scottish Government has no objection to the release of these files.”

A Scotland Office spokesman said: “Pre-devolution files of the Scottish Office are owned by the UK Government but managed on its behalf by the Scottish Government and National Archives of Scotland.

“The Scottish Government operates a 15-year release rule. Prior to release the UK Government departments examine file descriptions and, in some cases, files to ensure that they can be released lawfully and in accordance with UK Government information policy.”