A review of intergovernmental relations conducted jointly by the UK government and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales was published last week. Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon argue that the most important question facing the proposed new model for intergovernmental relations will be whether an enhanced system for bringing these governments into partnership will be endowed with real respect, and be allowed to take root, by the politicians at the helm.
The territorial chasm that opened beneath the Conservative Party’s feet following the demand made by Douglas Ross, its Scottish leader, that Boris Johnson resign, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s retaliatory dismissal of him as ‘not a big figure’, shone an unflattering spotlight on some of the sharp tensions that devolution has created within the UK’s political parties.
A much deeper divide has opened up in recent years between the UK government and the devolved governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Tensions that have been simmering since the election of administrations headed by different parties across the UK over a decade ago were exacerbated during the extended Brexit crisis, and since then more salt has been rubbed on these wounds during the COVID-19 pandemic. First Ministers Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon have been incentivised to make much of often minor differences in their approach from that adopted by the Johnson government. And yet there has been an abiding need for them and Whitehall to work together in the face of an airborne virus that does not respect the authority of internal borders.
While addressing the sharp differences that have emerged within the Conservative party looks difficult so long as Johnson remains in power, there is at least some cause for optimism that more functional arrangements for co-operation and engagement between the four governments within the UK are being put in place.
This arises specifically from the publication of the report of a long-running joint review which has been conducted by government officials from all parts of the UK. Landing amid the ‘partygate’ crisis engulfing Boris Johnson’s government, it has been largely ignored by the media and politicians at Westminster. But its content, and the thinking animating it, could prove to be an important factor in the future evolution and viability of the UK Union.
It has been widely accepted for many years that the UK’s machinery for intergovernmental relations (IGR) is in urgent need of an overhaul. Even before tensions between the UK’s governments deepened in recent years there had been numerous calls for reform, including from senior figures in the devolved governments, parliamentary committees and external experts.
The conclusions of this review represent a pretty major overhaul of the UK’s system of IGR. The direction of travel reflects some of the constitutional thinking that has been developing in the Welsh government in Cardiff – the most avowedly enthusiastic administration for deepening ‘shared governance’ within the UK. And some of the specific changes that have been agreed can be traced to the input of outside experts. A number of the proposals that we advanced in a 2018 report on this subject – written with colleagues from Edinburgh University’s Centre on Constitutional Change – are included here.
Most strikingly, a substantial increase in the volume of IGR activities is envisaged. The new arrangements also significantly reduce the UK government’s control of intergovernmental meetings and processes – an important precondition for a system that will enjoy legitimacy in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Whereas the previous iteration of the UK’s model of IGR was explicitly ‘not a decision-making body’, it is stated in the review’s conclusions that intergovernmental decisions can be made by consensus – an aspiration that may sometimes be impossible to meet, but which is important nonetheless. The report also signals that IGR processes will be used for more substantive purposes than previously. Major policy challenges that cut across devolved and reserved competences such as pandemic recovery, tackling the climate crisis and delivering sustainable growth are highlighted as suitable for these new processes for joint working.
The Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC), the main intergovernmental forum since the dawn of devolution, has been replaced by a more extensive system of ‘Councils’ within which ministers from the four governments will engage. A pyramid structure of levels of engagement is set out.
At the highest level there will be a ‘Prime Minister and Heads of Government Council’, which effectively replaces the previous JMC (Plenary), and is expected to meet annually.
Below that there is a new ‘middle layer’ – the ‘Interministerial Standing Committee’, which will be attended by ministers with responsibility for intergovernmental relationships, and will meet every two months. This innovation was, in all likelihood, inspired by the largely positive experience of regular meetings of these ministers at points during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the bottom of the pyramid, numerous sectoral forums have been established to regularise meetings of ministers from each government with equivalent policy responsibilities. These range across areas that are primarily devolved, such as education, and those that are reserved to the UK level, such as trade and the UK-EU relationship. These reflect a growing recognition of the need to address one of the major weaknesses of the devolution arrangements introduced at the turn of the millennium – the tendency to devolve policy responsibilities wholesale and overlook the many different ways in which decisions taken in one part of the UK impact on others. These ideas also speak to a growing acceptance in the heart of the British state that regular, constructive engagement with the devolved governments needs to be more deeply embedded into the machinery for reasons of good governance.
It is envisaged that the chairs of most of these meetings, and their venues, will rotate – a symbolic departure from meetings always chaired and hosted by the UK. The notable exception to this will be the set-piece meetings of the Prime Minister and Heads of Government Council – presumably because the loss of status implied by Boris Johnson attending a meeting chaired by Nicola Sturgeon or Mark Drakeford was too much for key figures at the top of UK government.
The procedure for handling disputes between governments has been revised, addressing criticism that the earlier model created a clear conflict of interests by having a UK government minister chair disputes panels, even where the UK government was party to the dispute. Any such panels will now be independently chaired. There are also provisions that allow for a suitably-qualified external individual to be appointed to provide advice or conduct mediation during a dispute, where the parties agree to this. Arrangements such as these will not resolve fundamental political differences between governments, but they could help to take the heat out of more technical disputes over the operation of the devolution arrangements that might arise.
A standing secretariat of officials has been established for the first time, which will provide support to all of the governments, and have a remit to promote the effective operation of these new arrangements. The implication is that this will be small, perhaps consisting of no more than a handful of civil servants, but it should help to relieve senior officials from each government of the administrative burden associated with the increased volume of IGR that is anticipated.
There are undoubtedly aspects of this new system that remain a source of unease, and may well be challenged down the line.
Most notably, in a system which is implicitly moving towards greater recognition of the standing of devolved governments, the absence of any explicit recognition of England and its interests will strike many as problematic. The UK administration will still wear its increasingly awkward ‘dual hat’ as representative of England and central government for the whole polity. It remains unclear, for instance, whether UK government attendees at the interministerial council on education will be expected to promote English interests or whether they are there primarily to discuss those regulations and policies determined at UK level that have knock-on implications for the devolved territories. If the latter, who exactly is speaking for non-devolved England in this model?
It is perhaps not surprising that the governments have dodged an issue that cannot be fully addressed without opening up fundamental questions about the UK’s asymmetrical devolution arrangements. Nevertheless, an opportunity to explain how UK government ministers interpret their territorial remits when participating in IGR forums has been missed here.
From an admittedly low base, there have recently been some improvements in the transparency of IGR. The report commits to transparency and enhanced reporting of information about meetings to the respective legislatures. One of the benefits of doing this is that it helps address one of the most difficult aspects of IGR processes in democratic systems – the problem of how to ensure parliamentary scrutiny for deals done between heads of government and their ministers. The onus is on the legislatures to establish appropriate arrangements for this, and just as importantly to consider the viability of developing an interparliamentary dimension to this system, involving joint work between members of Westminster and the devolved legislatures.
Given obvious differences of political interest and constitutional outlook between the political parties in power across the UK right now, getting agreement on a proposal of this kind is an achievement in itself. The Scottish government, under the SNP, is inherently ambivalent about deepening its own involvement in a system designed to make the governance of the Union operate more effectively. Meanwhile, at the top of the Conservative Party there has been a growing inclination to reassert the importance of central state authority, which in some respects sits awkwardly alongside the move to deepen intergovernmental cooperation contained in this report.
Given this challenging political context, the most important question facing this new model will be whether an enhanced system for bringing these governments into partnership will be endowed with real respect, and be allowed to take root, by the politicians at the helm. The relatively short history of IGR in the UK suggests that establishing new institutional machinery is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for ensuring its effective and meaningful operation in practice.
About the author
Professor Michael Kenny is a Constitution Unit Fellow and Co-Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. He was a co-investigator on the ‘Between Two Unions’ project, which was funded by the ESRC.
Jack Sheldon is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. He was previously a researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and Centre on Constitutional Change, working on the ‘Between Two Unions’ project.