Alan Trench calls for a more systematic approach to intergovernmental relations between the devolved and UK governments. He argues that leaving matters to be handled in ad hoc, reactive, unstructured way is no longer an option.
Intergovernmental relations are key to making devolution work effectively. The Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly all operate in a wider context of governance across the UK, and how their functions overlap with those of the UK government (and each other) is vital for all four governments and all UK citizens. The Smith Commission’s recent report pays a good deal of attention to the need to ‘beef up’ intergovernmental co-ordination as part of the package of further devolution.
The UK government is not very interested in managing intergovernmental relations, however. It put in place an attenuated under-institutionalised set of mechanisms in 1999, and has allowed these to weaken or fall further into disuse since then. The key institution is the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC). Plenary meetings of this body ceased altogether between 2002 and 2008; they have been more or less annual since then, but are characterised by grandstanding rather than productive work. The JMC’s ‘Domestic’ format has nearly ceased to function, as so few policy issues concern more than one devolved government. The only established format of the JMC which does meet regularly, and does more or less what it was expected to, is the EU format which helps formulate the UK ‘line’ for major EU Council meetings, though there are problems even there. In reality, most intergovernmental issues are bilateral, and with few exceptions they are dealt with in an ad hoc, casual way, out of sight of public or legislatures. As a result many important issues slip through the net.
The argument for a more systematic approach to intergovernmental relations is unanswerable. Such conduct is simply not consistent with ensuring that devolved governments are treated fairly, feel they have been treated fairly, and citizens from across the UK can see they have been treated fairly. The UK government needs to recognise that procedures to date are not appropriate for the changed constitutional landscape following the Scottish referendum – if they ever were appropriate at all. Different approaches have been repeatedly urged on the UK government, through Parliamentary committee such as those in 2002 by the Lords Constitution Committee, in 2009 by the Commons Justice Committee or in 2010 by the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee. No change has resulted despite this, and despite the potential advantages for the UK government – whether better policy co-ordination, an indirect way of achieving its policy goals, or simply symbolically showing the UK’s ability to incorporate its various parts into a single multinational union.
The difficult question is what to do, given where we are now. Is it still appropriate to call for the sort of regular, multilateral meetings that are used in more symmetrical systems? Multi-lateral intergovernmental co-ordination has had little impact because it does not relate to the practical nature of government in a profoundly asymmetric UK where most issues are bilateral not multilateral. The plenary JMC is dominated by high politics driven by party concerns –a theatrical exercise which contributes little to efficient government.
The JMC (Domestic) was meant to be a way of dealing with practical policy issues, but it has proved to be of limited and declining value. In practice, lower-level co-ordination relating to specific policy issues is done bilaterally, but it works inconsistently, and out of sight of the public and beyond legislative scrutiny. This makes for bad governance. It also creates a process from which Wales, structurally and regularly, is the loser, lacking the political clout and outside interest that shape how Scotland and Northern Ireland play the game.
So perhaps the way forward would be to stop talking of multilateral ministerial committees, and instead embrace the logic of bilateral relations in more co-ordinated way. The Part 2 report of the Silk Commission suggested a ‘Welsh Intergovernmental Committee to manage this, a recommendation supported by the Welsh government in its response to Silk. Whether the UK government would be willing to commit the senior ministerial time this would need is doubtful. A more appropriate way of working, building on existing arrangements and enhancing them, would be for the Secretary of State for Wales or the junior Wales Office Minister to take on an active role here. The Wales Office would take on the task of assessing the impact of UK government business on devolved Welsh functions, and Welsh policy on non-devolved ones, on the basis of each respecting the other’s role, so that both governments are able to take an overview of the welter of business of each government that affects the other.
The second area that calls for change is how disputes and disagreements between governments are handled. When these are legal in character, they go to the UK Supreme Court, via various ‘leapfrog’ procedures. However, when the issue is not whether a government or legislature has the power to act, but whether they behaved properly toward each other when they did, the situation is quite different. Since 2010, there has been an agreed ‘disputes avoidance and resolution mechanism’ in the Memorandum of Understanding, but it has proved to be particularly flawed in both its design and working. It has only met once, to consider the row arising from the way the UK government stopped devolved governments from receiving consequential payments under the Barnett formula for the regeneration spending on the area around Olympic Park in Stratford, before the 2012 London Olympics. On that occasion, an hour-long meeting was shoe-horned into Francis Maude’s diary at 8.30 in the morning. Maude was involved as a UK government minister who had not been involved in the matter previously – but putting another UK minister in charge of the process, one bound by collective responsibility to one side of the dispute but not the other, is a potent source of apparent (if not actual) bias.
Possible bias is only one problem. The other major problem is that the disputes resolution ‘panel’ has no power to do anything other than mediate the dispute – to seek to find an agreement between the UK department and devolved governments involves. If they cannot agree there will be no resolution, but the absence of any resolution is going to favour the UK department in almost all possible cases. The fact that a ‘do-nothing’ outcome will always advantage the UK government is a grave problem. And in issues about the working of the Barnett formula, there will be a third: the control the Treasury has over the Statement of Funding Policy. In this case, the Treasury was not merely judge in its own cause, with a jury from its side of the fence, but it wrote the rules as well!
Such an approach fails to meet even the most basic idea of fairness. At the very least, there needs to be an impartial mediator, perhaps a panel not an individual, and the possibility of causing some embarrassment for a recalcitrant government that refuses to give ground – at least by a public finding against it. This will fall some way short of the Smith Commission’s recommendation of ‘well functioning arbitration processes’, but again is more likely to be workable in practice.
Leaving matters to be handled in ad hoc, reactive, unstructured way is no longer an option for the UK government. The question is how it wants to shape the way forward.
About the Author
Alan Trench is an honorary senior research fellow at the Constitution Unit. He is an academic, non-practising solicitor and close watcher of devolution in the United Kingdom and similar systems around the world.