The Holyrood Inquiry
Briefing for Incoming Ministers
The Inquiry had it confirmed that it has been the long-standing practice of the Civil Service to anticipate the various potential outcomes of General Elections and to undertake a detailed scrutiny of political manifestos with a view to identifying how parties’ policies could be implemented. The Permanent Under Secretary of the Scottish Office at the time, Sir Russell Hillhouse, spoke of the tasks and pressures facing officials in evidence to the Inquiry:
“What always happens when an election is declared is that, throughout the government machine, senior civil servants get together and prepare briefing for incoming Ministers of both main parties. In fact, usually these days, work is done for other parties as well. This normally takes the form of a fairly lengthy incoming brief, divided into subjects, which picks up all the main points in the manifesto, and which also briefs them on all the running issues which they will encounter as soon as they step in the door, or which may turn up in the first two or three weeks.
In the case of Labour in 1997… we did have this very, very major commitment which would affect the Scottish Office, and which had very acute time constraints. Therefore, for devolution in 1997, we made rather special efforts and we did identify, in good time, small teams of capable officials whom we could put together as soon as the election campaign began in earnest, and who would have to work up quite detailed papers in order to get early decisions from our Ministers, which they could then try to work through the Cabinet process, since it was clear to us that one would have to produce a White Paper, fully cleared, explaining the Government’s plans for a Scottish Parliament, well in advance of a referendum date. The referendum, in turn, would have to take place in time to clear the way for the introduction of a Bill — assuming the referendum was won — and all that meant a very tight timetable indeed.”8
On taking office on 2 May 1997 the incoming Labour Ministers were presented with such a briefing which had been prepared under the direction of Mr Robert Gordon, who was then Head of Constitution Group. One part of that briefing addressed the accommodation needs of the Scottish Parliament and stated:
“New Parliament House (the former Old Royal High School) is available under the City of Edinburgh Council’s ownership and we assume that Ministers will want that to be the Parliament building. While the Debating Chamber appears to be suitable the condition of the structure is unknown and the building’s interior is very inflexible. However, use of the building would avoid a potentially difficult debate about alternative sites and it is likely, in the short term at least, to be cheaper than purpose built new accommodation.” 9
Evidence of Sir Russell Hillhouse on 30 October 2003, Para 236-237 SE/2/169-180 – Briefing from Mr Robert Gordon for Incoming Ministers, May 1997