The Conservatives entered government in 2010 on a manifesto pledge to reduce government bureaucracy and restore decision-making power to the people. Indeed the word they used was ‘localism’ which was evidently a repackaged way of calling for more decentralised government. And I’m here to say that I actually agree. I think that power should be returned to the people and a good thing to do would be to massively decentralise power away from Westminster. A good place to start would be the government departments who oversee devolved administrations.
Yesterday SNP MP Margaret Ferrier publicly asked why the Scotland Office’s has increased by 20% over the past five years despite more decision-making powers being devolved to Holyrood. She said: “With more powers transferring to the Scottish government, as (Scottish Secretary) David Mundell so enjoys telling us, it would be interesting to hear his explanation for why his department requires such an enormous increase in its budget”. This prompted an office response from the government: “It is right we are resourced for the challenges in 2017 as we continue to deliver the remaining powers as well as making sure we get the best deal for Scotland and the whole of the UK as we leave the EU”. I find this deeply unsatisfying.
Although the Scotland Office budget has been cut in recent years, the net increase since 2012/13 is 19.9%. Given that in 2012/13 the Scotland Office’s budget was £8 million, a 19.9% rise amounts to a net increase of around £1.6 million. I argue that this is completely unjustified and the solution is less funding. Scotland has a devolved administration and because the Scottish government is capable of doing all the jobs the Whitehall-based Scotland Office, I suggest that this government department be axed and all its responsibilities be transferred to Holyrood.
By abolishing the Scotland Office the UK taxpayer would save around £9.6 million per year, thus reducing the cost of government and pushing power back towards the people. There would probably be new costs in Holyrood because the running costs of the Scottish government would increase but I don’t believe this would equate to more than the £9.6 million saved by axing the Scotland Office.
The Tories should love this idea, but they don’t because they use the Scotland Office to pump out propaganda to anger English people. If Scotland was essentially autonomous the Tories wouldn’t have a dedicated government department to portray Scotland as constantly kicking up a fuss or being undeserving of state funding.
However I would go even further. By the Tories own announcement, they love localism and hate bureaucracy. This being the case I suggest doing exactly the same for Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Wales Office’s budget is currently £4 million rising to £5 million in 2018/19. By devolving all the responsibilities of the Welsh Office to the Welsh Assembly, the taxpayer would save money. Even if some of this money was reallocated to hire staff in Cardiff, government buildings in London could be sold off and the taxpayer would still be better off. The remaining money saved could be invested in Welsh capital projects or used to increase things like energy efficiency, which would save more money for the government in future.
Northern Ireland is more difficult both legally, because of the implications of devolution in relation to the Good Friday Agreement, and politically, as the DUP would probably seek to veto such a move. For Northern Ireland I would do a two step process. Firstly, I would seek to transfer as many powers to Stormont as possible whilst retaining the Northern Ireland Office to oversee the progress of such a move. The second step would be to establish a governmental organisation in Belfast under control of the Northern Irish Civil Service to take on the remaining responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).
This process would be slower than for Wales or Scotland, but I don’t think that should mean that the idea should be abandoned. According to the 2015 Spending Review, the NIO budget is £19 million but this shall rise to £21 million in 2019/20. Imagine if this money was reallocated to invest in job creation in Northern Ireland. Huge parts Northern Ireland would be transformed and the resultant tax revenues would make the Exchequer in London would be much richer.
The devolved administrations allow for the UK government to cut back and reallocate funding away from London. The money saved from axing these departments could be used to make the government more financially efficient and to stimulate the economies of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The Tories, however, will not agree with their own buzzwords because doing so would no longer put them in control. If the Tories did enact this policy they would no longer be as important to people’s everyday lives and left-wing parties like Labour and the SNP would have more political influence. Despite all the talk from the Tories they will not abolish these departments, even though it would have a positive impact on the areas the departments are supposed to consider.