Ministers should consider axing Scotland Office in wake of devolution, MPs say
Ministers should consider scrapping the Scotland Office and replacing it with a new department that oversees UK constitutional affairs, according to MPs.
The Scottish Affairs Committee said there were question marks over whether the department - which represents the UK Government north of the border - should continue to exist given that the SNP administration at Holyrood mostly works with others, such as the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs.
In a report, they call for a probe into replacing the respective offices for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and their Secretaries of State with a single department responsible for constitutional affairs and inter-governmental relations.
The committee's recommendation comes as part of wider calls for an overhaul of the links between London and Edinburgh, which they say has been characterised by a lack of trust following the Brexit vote.
They say relations between the UK and Scottish governments have become “fractious” since the SNP took power in 2007, when the two governments were led by different parties for the first time.
The committee says the 2014 Scottish independence referendum saw tensions “peak” while the EU referendum result – where Scots voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU while England and Wales voted for Brexit – has prompted “mutual distrust and political stalemate."
They add that both governments need to “fundamentally” change their approaches to devolution in order to cooperate on Brexit, and that a lack of trust risks their ability to achieve any policy reforms.
Committee chair Pete Wishart said: “The Scotland Office is meant to ensure that Scottish interests are fully represented at the heart of the UK Government, but my committee heard that on a day-to-day basis it is Whitehall departments which maintain the relationship with the Scottish Government.
“We are therefore calling for a review of the role of the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland, which we argue should include an exploration of the option to combine the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices into one department responsible for intergovernmental relations and devolution.”
But a UK government source said: "The Scotland Office does a highly effective job strengthening the Union so it's no surprise the SNP want to see it abolished."
'MUST BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY'
Shadow Scottish Secretary Lesley Laird said: “This report has shone a light on the inadequacies of how the UK Government interacts with the devolved administrations and vindicates what Labour has been saying for well over a year - that intergovernmental mechanisms like the Joint Ministerial Committee need overhauled.
"These are recommendations that must be taken seriously; a failure to do so by the Tory Government will play into the hands of the SNP Scottish Government."
A UK Government spokesman said: "With the Scottish Government proposing an unwanted and divisive second independence referendum next year, that role is more important than ever.
"Scotland's two governments enjoy a close working relationship, as the Secretary of State's evidence to the committee showed.
"We are pleased the committee acknowledged our joint efforts to develop common frameworks in areas such as agriculture when we leave the EU, which will strengthen the UK's internal market.
"It is simply untrue to say that relations between the two governments have broken down."