Scottish Affairs Committee Meeting – 2015 – Scottish Office – Financial matters – Francesca Osowska OBE, Director, Scotland Office, and Michael Chalmers, Director and Solicitor to the Advocate General were in attendance
Chair: Welcome to the Scottish Affairs Committee; we are very grateful for you both coming along today. If you would like to introduce yourselves and say what you do, and if there are any initial statements that you want to make to the Committee, please feel free to use that time.
Francesca Osowska: Thank you very much. I am Francesca Osowska. I am Director for the Scotland Office and I am also Principal Accounting Officer for the Scotland Office and the Office of the Advocate General. I have no opening statement, other than that I am very pleased to appear before the Committee to answer questions on the Scotland Office and the Office of the Advocate General Annual Report and Accounts for 2014-15.
Michael Chalmers: Thank you. My name is Michael Chalmers. I am the Director of the Office of the Advocate General and the Solicitor to the Advocate General. Similarly, I have no opening statement to make but am happy to answer any questions the Committee may have.
Chair: Thank you very much. Obviously, we are here to talk about the Annual Report, which we have all digested and know inside out and back to forward, and so on. We are grateful that we are able to ask you a few questions about what is included in the Annual Report.
One of the things that struck me, perhaps you could explain to me how this works is that there are 100 staff currently employed within the Scotland Office. Is that correct, roughly 100 staff?
Francesca Osowska: Across the Scotland Office and the Office of the Advocate General, yes.
Chair: Across the estate that is operating the Scotland Office. None of them are permanent. Does that create any difficulties or problems or issues for you? I would imagine it must, and why has the decision been taken that they have no permanent staff in the Scotland Office?
Francesca Osowska: Maybe I will kick off on that and I will ask Michael to comment and give a perspective from the Office of the Advocate General. Since devolution and since the creation of the Scotland Office this has been the case: that the Scotland Office does not itself directly employ staff, but we second or take staff on loan from other Departments.
Part of that is pure economics, efficiency and practicality; to run a full scale HR system for such a small office would be inefficient. By tapping into the resources of other Government Departments for example, in the Scotland Office in London most of our staff are on loan, but we also benefit from arrangements with the Cabinet Office we can access external expertise and indeed access external HR expertise, which is effective and efficient for us.
Members of staff, once they are in post within the Scotland Office, I feel are fully part of the Scotland Office team, so if the question is about allegiance, there are no difficulties there. Michael, do you want to say something?
Chair: Just before Michael comes in, if you don’t mind, it is not about allegiance and I don’t think that is the issue. It is just being able to build up a staff capacity when none of them are permanent and most of them seem part-time.
Are they shared with other Ministry Departments or are they exclusive to the Scotland Office?
Francesca Osowska: They are exclusive to the Scotland Office.
Chair: Seconded from other Departments?
Francesca Osowska: They are seconded or on loan from other Departments. They have direct line management throughout the Scotland Office in the case of my staff, and for Michael in the case of OAG staff and they are answerable to Scotland Office Ministers, so that line of accountability is very direct.
Chair: Are there any plans to get permanent staff in place, given you have significant and substantial pieces of work to consider as we go forward in the session? Are you happy and relaxed about the current arrangements with the….
Francesca Osowska: Yes, I believe the current arrangements work very well, because we are able to bring in staff from other Departments and benefit from their expertise.
Michael Chalmers: Yes. It is similar for the Office of the Advocate General, in that what I require to run my office is staff that have public law expertise and Scots-qualified lawyers. It is a relatively small office. We have about 36 lawyers.
It helps the resilience of my office to able to draw from a larger pool. So, the Office of the Advocate General is part of an association of Government legal offices, together with the Scottish Government Legal Directorate, Scottish Parliament lawyers and Scottish Law Commission lawyers.
All of these offices together draw from the same pool of staff but, yes, as Francesca has outlined for the Scotland Office, we have staff fully dedicated to working in our office. They do not move between offices day to day; they are on a reasonably long-term secondment and that operates as quite a successful model for us because it helps the resilience of not just our office but the other legal offices I mentioned.
It also means that staff interchange and it helps their development of legal skills. In fact, adding the perspective of working for another administration is helpful as well.
Chair: How many staff does the Office of the Advocate General have then?
Michael Chalmers: We have 36 legal staff and I think it is 46 in total.
Chair: The last year, as I think we touched on, has been a particularly trying year, with lots of pieces of significant and substantial work, particularly the referendum and the Smith Commission. What do you see as the main issues and challenges and the main thrust of your work as you go forward over the next year or two years in the parliamentary term?
Francesca Osowska: Thank you for the question. Again, I will speak for the Scotland Office and allow Michael to speak for the Office of the Advocate General.
In terms of the Annual Report, obviously that sets out five objectives for 2014-15. For the Scotland Office, I think our work continues in that vein. We have a strong constitutional role, primarily in relation to the Scotland Bill, which, as you are aware, is passing through these Houses at the moment.
That is a key priority for the Scotland Office. In addition we continue to be the voice of Scotland in Whitehall, so our work with other Government Departments across Whitehall, in terms of ensuring that they appreciate the devolution settlement and that they are conscious of the Scottish context, will continue.
Similarly, we are the voice of the UK Government in Scotland and, again, we work co-operatively with other Government Departments who have reserved responsibilities in Scotland to ensure that the UK government can work effectively in Scotland.
Chair: Just before we go to Mr Chalmers, do you have any sense of the balance? I am quite intrigued by seeing that you are the voice of Scotland and Whitehall and the voice of the UK Government in Scotland.
How would you see that balancing out in terms of the commitment to either of those fine offices?
Francesca Osowska: In terms of numbers of staff?
Chair: No, not in terms of numbers of staff but about how much time or effort. Do you see yourself primarily as the voice of Scotland in Whitehall or do you see more of a role as being the voice of the UK Government in Scotland? How would you characterise the effort that is put on to each of those very laudable aims and objectives?
Francesca Osowska: I think we treat them equally. If I were to take those objectives along with our constitutional objectives which, as I mentioned, include the Scotland Bill, but also include responsibilities in terms of Scotland Act orders and LCMs—then I would say that we give those equal weight.
Chair: Mr Chalmers?
Michael Chalmers: Yes. The role of our office is to provide Scots law advice to the whole of the UK Government. Our objectives reflect that, so that includes litigation for UK Government Departments in Scotland.
It includes giving Scots legal advice to all UK Government Departments, particularly on Westminster Bills, for example but not restricted to that and also supporting the constitutional objectives that the Scotland Office shares.
Obviously that would include the Scotland Bill and legal work on the Scotland Bill but it also includes a lot of the stuff that goes on below the radar.
Francesca mentioned Scotland Act orders; so, lawyers from my office will work closely with lawyers in the Scottish Government to make sure those orders proceed smoothly through each of the Parliaments.
I suppose an example would be the section 30 order that we put through in the early part of this year to change the competence of the Scottish Parliament to allow legislation for 16 and 17 year olds to vote at next year’s Holyrood elections, so there is a lot of that sort of working below the radar that we continue to do and we see ourselves as part of the good operation of devolution and government for Scotland.
Chair: Thank you.
Pete Wishart Chairman Scottish Affairs Committee
Financial matters – The Scottish referendum – Use of the Civil Service in support of the “Better Together” campaign
Margaret Ferrier: Looking at the 2015-16 budget for the Scotland Office it was set at £5.8 million in the 2013 spending round, but the most recent main estimate asked Parliament to approve an additional £3 million for capability enhancement. What are these additional funds for?
Francesca Osowska: In terms of the out turn for 2014-15 the total combined out turn for the Office of the Advocate General and the Scotland Office was £7.7 million. You will appreciate that that did include an uplift from the original budget setting process that occurred in 2010.
At that point, a referendum was not anticipated; a lot of the work in terms of 2014-15 has been the follow through or was related to the referendum, so the work in the run up to the referendum, contributing to the Scotland analysis papers for example, supporting Ministers as they gave public information to inform the debate about the referendum, and that explains the increase in that provision.
Margaret Ferrier: These public Ministers, are you meaning UK Ministers?
Francesca Osowska: Yes.
Margaret Ferrier: Not Scottish Government?
Francesca Osowska: No.
Margaret Ferrier: The Annual Report and Accounts show that general administration costs rose by about 8% from £7.2 million in 2013-14 to £7.7 million in 2014-15. Why do you feel the general administration costs are rising? Is there another reason, other than the referendum debate that was taking place?
Francesca Osowska: No. As I said earlier, the very initial budget was set in 2010 as part of that spending review. The referendum was not anticipated at that point and this increase represents the resources dedicated by the Scotland Office to supporting the work of the UK Government, overall, in informing the referendum debate.
Kirsty Blackman: The Scotland Office had allocated to it and spent an extra £3 million helping UK Government Ministers with information about the referendum, mainly?
Francesca Osowska: In terms of the increase, there are a number of different figures being talked about here. It might be helpful if I wrote to the Committee after this hearing to set out the sequence of events, because there were uplifts granted and changes in the Budget made from the original 2010 provision at different periods, including during the course of 2013-14, so I do not think it is entirely correct to say it was a single jump of £3 million.
In terms of what that money delivered and the outcomes that the Scotland Office delivered, I would refer the Committee to chapter 3 of the report. That sets out quite a detailed analysis of the outcomes and the outputs from the five objectives set by the Scotland Office, and certainly part of that work and a focus of that work in 2014-15 was in relation to the run-up and then the after-events—including the Smith Commission—of the referendum.
Chair: It would be helpful if you write to the Committee to explain properly what that £3.3 million did account for. What we are hearing is that this might have been the figure that was used for the referendum campaign, for the “No” campaign, and used by UK Ministers to take part in the referendum. Would that be roughly a correct characterisation of that spending?
Francesca Osowska: I don’t think it would be, if you don’t mind. What I am saying is that, if we look at page 54 of the Annual Report and Accounts, then you see the trajectory of the Scotland Office and Office of the Advocate General accounts.
You can see, in terms of general administration costs, that they have more or less been around the £7 million. That is why I feel it is important that I write and set out the explanation of the £3 million figure.
Chair: Please do.
Francesca Osowska: However, in answer to your question, Mr Chairman in relation to “Was this a way of the Government funding the ‘No’ campaign?” this was to fund the activities of UK Government civil servants, in line with the civil service code.
All activities undertaken by civil servants in my Department would meet a propriety test, yet I think you would agree that in the run-up to a referendum, obviously when Ministers want to be more visible, when we need to ensure that there is a good flow of public information for example, via the Scotland analysis papers that increases our activity and that is why there was an increase between the 2013-14 out-turn and 2014-15 out-turn.
Margaret Ferrier SNP MP
Damm, Damm and Double Damm – What a con – The civil service and their Janus-faced illegal political behaviour
Francesca Osowska in a number of her evasive statements to the Scottish Affairs Committee represented them misleadingly glossing over the expensive and extensive work of a large group of (supposedly politically neutral) Civil Servants who actively supported the objectives of the “Better Together” campaign. A gross misuse of public finances and Civil Servants presumably authorised by David Cameron and Sir Jeremy Heywood.
The matter of the vastly oversized Scottish Office staffing establishment drew comment but did not address the previously advised 50+ excess staffing of the Scottish Office over the Welsh Office. So the Scottish Office has retained 50+ unjustified posts the costs of which are charged to Scotland’s block grant each year.
The political slush fund created is an ever increasing Tory Party financial nest egg (it is skimmed off Scotland’s block financial grant) and abused by the Scottish Office for questionable purposes, such as the Westminster government anti-devolution leaflet production, printing and distribution. And/or hiring Special Advisors (SpAds), often sons, daughters, other relations, friends of ministers or other MP’s.
Mundell Tory MP
Scotland Office – The Gobble Gobble Monster – Rapidly Increasing Financial Allocations
The cost of maintaining the Scotland Office is extortionately high and is ever increasing year on year without justification or satisfactory explanation.
A House of Commons report submitted in 2005/2006 recorded that the Scotland Office was hopelessly overstaffed and recommended a 50 per cent establishment reduction. In the years that followed salary costs were reduced.
But from the time the Tory Government took up the reins of government salary costs have increased year on year, but it only recently that the method in the apparent madness of the Tory Government has surfaced.
The Scotland Office is no longer a team existing to assist Scotland and it’s devolved government. It is the UK Government of Scotland. Its supremo is David Mundell assisted by the unelected Lord Dunlop. Read the 2014/15 Annual Report, Link attached:
6 February 2011: Scotland Office – a Political Propaganda Unit maintained to retain supremacy over Scotland
Twenty staff are employed at the £6million-a-year Scotland Office to cope with just three letters a day. The astonishing revelation sparked calls for it to be scrapped as an irrelevant waste of cash.
The Scotland Office occupies plush Dover House in Whitehall and is supposed to look after our interests down south. But its role has shrunk dramatically since devolution in 1999.
We can reveal 20 staff employed to deal with mail replied to 1252 letters in 2006-2007 – just over one per member of staff every week. The letter scandal follows a series of damning reports on money-wasting at the department.
Its 50 staff, who work between Edinburgh and Dover House, claimed £75,000 hotel expenses last year and another £8000 on hiring plants. Matthew Elliot, of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: “These figures show how little work the Scotland Office is doing at the same time as it is costing taxpayers an extortionate amount.
It was very evident in the 80s and early 90s how powerless and useless our so called Labour MPs were then as Thatcher raked her spurs along the flanks of Scotland.
The only time the “feeble fifty” Labour MPs did anything of significance in Westminster during that time was when the disbandment of Strathclyde region was announced, the Labour MPs walked out in protest with Dewar assaulting the mace. The present holders of the Labour flag are even worse if that were possible.
Lord Dunlop Unelected member of the upper house at Westminster
Increase in salary costs (2014/15 – 2010/2011) Scotland Office: £6.408 – £1.950 = Total Salary Increase: £5.458K
Dunlop, Cameron, Mundell and? with Nicola & John
2010/2011: Total Establishment 57 WTE
Policy & Briefing: £.950k
Sec of State Private Office: £.300k
Corporate & Constitutional Policy: £.700k
Total Cost Scottish Office: £1.950K
2014/15: Scotland Office – Total Establishment 118
Scotland Office, London: 27.00 WTE
Mundell’s Private Office (London) 8 WTE
Scotland Office, Edinburgh 40 WTE
Mundell’s Private Office (Edinburgh) 1 WTE
Number of staff in the Office of the Advocate General at 31 March 2015
Ministerial Private Office: 3 WTE
Legal Secretariat to the Advocate General: 3 WTE
Office of the Solicitor to the Advocate General: 45 WTE
Overall establishment 118 WTE
Total Salary Costs: 6.326K
add 1 Special Advisor: £.82K (Post funded from vacancy money)
Grand Total Salary costs 2014/15: £6.408K