One of the many problems exposed by the ongoing scandal engulfing the Scottish Government is the extent to which the SNP appear to have politicised the Civil Service north of the border.
The role of Leslie Evans, Scotland’s seniormost civil servant, has come under particular scrutiny. Indeed she has been urged to “reflect on her position” by MSPs over her role in the decision to keep fighting Alex Salmond’s judicial review despite dire warnings from the Scottish Government’s own lawyers – a decision which ended up costing the taxpayer over £500,000.
It appears as if the official inquiry into the affair will heavily criticise the Permanent Secretary, and it may be that Nicola Sturgeon sacrifices her to try and draw a line under the scandal. But whilst MSPs have been frustrated by the Scottish Government’s ceaseless efforts to hinder the Holyrood investigation, there may yet be a way to ensure that the role of the Civil Service, at least, receives greater scrutiny.
This is because the bureaucracies supporting both the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government (but not currently, for historical reasons, the Northern Ireland Executive) are part of the same Home Civil Service that supports HM Government. And this means that Westminster has a legitimate role in their oversight, and that there must be a Minister who is answerable for their conduct to the House of Commons.
Liam Fox has been pressing this point this week. On Wednesday, he asked Boris Johnson for assurances that civil servants who felt under pressure from Scottish ministers could appeal farther up the UK (properly ‘GB’) hierarchy for redress. On Thursday, he asked the Speaker to which Department questions pertaining to the Scottish civil service should be addressed.
The upshot of all this is that Scottish civil servants could also, in principle, be called before MPs as part of parliamentary inquiries. This is perhaps unlikely in the case of the Scottish Affairs Committee, chaired as it is by Pete Wishart, a veteran Nationalist. But allegations of improper conduct on the part of any section of the Civil Service would seem a proper subject for an inquiry by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), chaired by William Wragg.
Crucially, such investigations could offer a means for Westminster to offer important and perhaps much-needed additional scrutiny in this area without the initiative being led by the Government or the Prime Minister. It is thus harder to fit into the ‘power grab’ narrative.
It may be unwise to rock the boat ahead of the Holyrood elections in May, as the SNP will be desperate for anything they can spin as an attack on Scotland to arrest their current slide in the polls. But once that’s done it is time for Parliament, as well as the Government, to demonstrate that it remains an institution for the whole United Kingdom.