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Last Updated: Friday, 13 June, 2003, 12:47 GMT 13:47 UK
Confusion reigns over cabinet shake-up

By Mark Davies
BBC News Online political reporter

Baffling, shambolic and utterly confusing....

They are some of the kinder descriptions of Tony Blair's undeniably historic reshuffle as the dust starts to settle on the plans.

One MP said it was a "Heath Robinson fix". For another, it was simply a botch job.

Even Downing Street admits it's all a "little hazy".

For a government which has prided itself on its communications skills, the affair is threatening to turn into a full scale fiasco.

There is confusion and not a little controversy over some of the changes. And it's not in the least bit surprising.

Get this, for instance. Alistair Darling will speak on Scotland in the Commons and represent the country at the Cabinet table. But the Scotland Office will be incorporated into the new constitutional affairs department under Lord Falconer.

One phrase doing the rounds at Westminster on Friday was "dogs breakfast"

Mr Darling will take the title of Scottish Secretary, apparently (that's what Downing Street says, though even some civil servants at the Scotland office don't seem entirely sure).

But he's also the transport secretary, which, as regular users of the UK's railway system will know, is a job and a half.

Questions: How can the transport secretary also be the Scottish secretary? Does he do Scotland one day a week and fill the rest of his time with roads, railways and the rest?

Does a Scottish MP seeking to take a concern to the government go to Mr Darling or to Lord Falconer?

Has Mr Darling been officially appointed as Scottish Secretary? Downing Street says he has.

So do current Scotland office civil servants join the constitutional affairs department or continue where they are?

Who do they report to? Lord Falconer or Mr Darling?

Downing Street says they would be under Lord Falconer.....but report to Mr Darling.

So to Wales. The Welsh office is incorporated into the new constitutional affairs department under Lord Falconer.

Peter Hain says he remains as Welsh secretary, as does Downing Street. But he's also promoted to be Leader of the Commons.

Mr Hain also insists that the Welsh Office lives on. And he's said Downing Street didn't communicate the changes as well as it could have done.

Split

Questions: How does Mr Hain - who just to add to the confusion is winding up his role on the European convention on Friday - represent Wales and lead the Commons?

What happens when Welsh legislation is going through the Commons?

Mr Blair's changes were historic....but confusing

Does the Welsh Office still exist or not?

Does Mr Hain split the roles down the middle?

What happens to Welsh Office officials? Who do they report to? (Again, Downing Street says they are under Lord Falconer, but report to Mr Hain)

Do Welsh MPs look to Mr Hain or Lord Falconer with queries about their constituency?

Then there is the creation of a new department. Questions are being asked about how it is that such a major constitutional change can be announced at teatime one Thursday afternoon with, it has to be said, little flesh on the bones.

The department of constitutional affairs will be headed by Lord Falconer, Mr Blair's former flatmate.

Questions: If the new department includes responsibility for Wales and Scotland, does Lord Falconer speak for them in the cabinet? Clearly not, it would seem, as Mr Darling and Mr Hain have been given those jobs.

So if that's the case, why has Scotland and Wales become part of Lord Falconer's department?

'West Lothian question'

Then there is the question of the ancient post of Lord Chancellor. It's being abolished....well it's being abolished in a while.

And in the meantime Lord Falconer will be lord chancellor.

As if that wasn't all, there is also controversy about Dr John Reid's appointment as health secretary.

Dr Reid is a Scottish MP. Health issues were devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This raises the "West Lothian Question" so beloved of political anoraks.

The original question was posed by Labour MP Tam Dalyell, whose constituency used to be called West Lothian.

He asked how it could be right that a Scottish MP at Westminster could vote on an issue relating solely to England that did not affect his constituents when an English MP had no say in similar matters across the border.

In the case of Dr Reid, it goes further even than that.

Scotland has turned its back on controversial proposals to create foundation hospitals and Dr Reid as health secretary will carry forth the plans in England.

As an MP for a Scottish seat, no-one affected by foundation hospitals will be able to express a view on his performance at the ballot box.

So there you go. Crystal clear?

One phrase doing the rounds at Westminster on Friday was "dog's breakfast".

You could say that, but I couldn't possibly comment.


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