Moving Westminster into a multi-parliament world: the Commons takes a fresh look at devolution

The UK’s devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales celebrated their twenty-first anniversary this year. Their powers have changed several times since their creation, but much of this has occurred in an ad hoc way, without deep consideration at UK level of the overall devolution framework. Paul Evans explains how a new Procedure Committee inquiry into how the House of Commons should adapt to the ‘territorial constitution’ presents an opportunity to give some key devolution issues the attention they deserve.

Devolution in the UK turned 21 this year, and watching it grow has been a fascinating study in making up the constitution as you go along. The Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017 (each of them the third major reworkings of the statutory basis of devolution in those nations in less than 20 years) declared the devolved legislatures there, along with their governments, to be a permanent part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, which could be abolished only with the consent of the people in a referendum. 

In both those nations 16- and 17-year olds have been newly enfranchised and will participate in the elections of their parliaments next year. The Northern Ireland Assembly restarted (once more) in January after a three-year absence, and in May the Welsh Assembly renamed itself the Welsh Parliament (or Senedd Cymru if you prefer to use the UK’s – so far – only other official language). 

All in all, the journey towards a pragmatic form of de facto federalism in the UK has been a remarkably peaceful and generally good-natured velvet revolution. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the House of Commons Procedure Committee has not felt the need to have a major review of the implications of devolution for the workings of the Commons since 1999.

Watching its progeny develop their own values and make their own decisions has, nonetheless, been a challenging learning experience for Westminster. The assertions of devolution’s permanency and its implication of equality of esteem between the four legislatures of the UK has often appeared more rhetorical than real. Whitehall seems never to have fully come to terms with the loss of centralised control which devolution necessarily entails. But, collectively, the elected members of the four legislatures have done little better in opening up and sustaining channels of communication – though some good work has been done at the margins. 

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Towards a Devolution Backstop? UK government-devolved government relations after Brexit

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Two years after the invocation of Article 50, Nicola McEwen analyses the state of relations between London and the devolved administrations, warning that if Brexit damages the autonomy of the devolved institutions without increasing their influence, relationships between the UK’s territories may become ever more strained.

The Brexit process has undoubtedly brought about an upswing in engagement between the UK and devolved governments. Leaving aside the Joint Ministerial Committee (Europe) which since 1999 has met ahead of European Council meetings, there have been considerably more formal meetings between Scottish, Welsh and UK ministers in the 32 months since the 2016 referendum than in the 17 years of devolution that preceded it. In 2016, a Joint Ministerial Committee for EU Negotiations — JMC (EN) — was set up to foster intergovernmental collaboration and provide oversight of EU negotiations. Last year, a Ministerial Forum for EU Negotiations was set up to consider more detailed Brexit effects in particular policy spheres.

For most of the time since the referendum, Northern Ireland has not had a governing executive and so it hasn’t had a voice in interministerial meetings. Ministers from the Scottish and Welsh governments, by contrast, have had ample opportunity to make their voices heard. Whether the UK government is listening is another matter.

The devolved governments have had most difficulty in influencing the UK’s negotiating position with the EU. The Scottish government opposes Brexit in all forms – a position reflecting the big Remain vote in Scotland in 2016. The next best thing is continued membership in the EU single market and customs union. While respecting the narrow Leave majority in Wales, the Welsh government, too, has favoured continued membership in the single market and customs union. But, despite the JMC (EN) terms of reference committing the governments to seek ‘a common UK approach’ to Brexit, the devolved governments have had little impact in shifting the Prime Minister’s red lines. The UK approach to Brexit, it seems, is the UK government’s approach alone. Continue reading

Intergovernmental relations: a blueprint for reform

downloadSince the Brexit referendum in 2016, the case for an overhaul of the management of intergovernmental relations has become much stronger. Jack Sheldon explains that in a new report, he and his colleagues have advanced the first detailed proposals for reform of the existing arrangements. These include formalising and restructuring the current ad hoc system, implementing a method of consensus decision-making, and increasing the transparency of the system.

It is widely agreed that the ad hoc and under-developed arrangements for relations between the UK government and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in urgent need of an overhaul. Even before the vote to leave the EU, several parliamentary committees, leading politicians and a number of constitutional experts called for reform. Since 2016 the case has only become stronger. Brexit-related ‘IGR’ has been marked by sharp disagreement over policy and process, against the background of low trust between governments. And it is envisaged that IGR will assume greater importance in the coming years, given the need to implement, govern and review ‘common frameworks’ in devolved areas currently covered by EU law.

In a new report Professor Nicola McEwen, Professor Michael Kenny, Dr Coree Brown Swan and I advance proposals for reform of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) structure – the primary forum within which formal IGR takes place. While the need to renew the JMC has frequently been recognised in recent years, few detailed proposals have been made. We seek to fill this gap, setting out 27 conclusions and recommendations. Our report is also distinctive in drawing heavily on experience of IGR in five broadly comparable multi-level political systems – Australia, Belgium, Canada, Italy and Spain. We were invited to produce the report by officials in the UK and devolved governments who are currently working on a review of IGR commissioned by the JMC itself, and hope that our conclusions will help to shape thinking as the review proceeds.

Principles of IGR

Existing principles underpinning intergovernmental relations, as articulated in the Memorandum of Understanding on devolution, are broadly stated and prone to being interpreted very differently by the various parties involved. For example, what amounts to ‘good’ communication and what is ‘practicable’ with respect to information exchange are matters of (often diverging) judgement. Continue reading

Brexit and the territorial constitution: déjà vu all over again?

wincottd (1)Brexit has led to conflict between Westminster and the devolved administrations, with the UK Attorney General recently going as far as referring the Welsh and Scottish Continuity bills to the UK Supreme Court. Here Daniel Wincott argues that the Brexit process has highlighted the flaws in the UK’s systems of intergovernmental relations and that action is needed to prevent repeating the mistakes of the past.

The territorial constitution is particularly fragile. Pursuing Brexit, Theresa May’s government has stumbled into deep questions about devolution. The territorial politics of Brexit is a bewildering mix of ignorance, apparent disdain, confrontation, cooperation and collaboration. Rarely have the so-called devolution ‘settlements’ appeared more unsettled.

The UK’s system for intergovernmental relations (IGR) between devolved and UK governments has been hidden in obscurity. Arcane processes – Legislative Consent Memoranda (LCMs – also known as Sewel Motions) and Joint Ministerial Committees (JMCs) – are now more widely discussed.

Brexit has revealed limits and weaknesses in existing devolution structures. UK intergovernmental relations is an unappetising spaghetti of abstruse acronyms, but compared to other multi-level states it is also remarkably informal and limited. Opportunities to develop the system may emerge, but it could also collapse under the pressure of leaving the EU. Continue reading

Intergovernmental relations and the English question: options for reform

downloadA week after the state of intergovernmental relations (IGR) in the UK was highlighted by the UK government’s law officers standing in opposition to their devolved counterparts in the UK Supreme Court, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published a report on improving IGR after Brexit. Jack Sheldon discusses the methods by which England could gain distinct representation — something it currently lacks — in a new IGR system.

At the end of July the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published Devolution and Exiting the EU: reconciling differences and building strong relationships. This is an impressive report, containing original recommendations on a range of aspects of the UK’s territorial arrangements.

It is particularly notable that the MPs chose to devote substantial sections of the report to the English question. These focus, in particular, on the often overlooked issue of England’s representation in intergovernmental relations (IGR) forums such as the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC). PACAC’s attention to this reflects a growing appreciation, including in official circles, of the salience of questions about how England is recognised and represented within the UK’s changing systems of governance. It is also timely, with a JMC-commissioned review of IGR machinery currently in progress ahead of the proposed negotiation of post-Brexit frameworks in areas such as agriculture, fisheries and environmental protection.

The issue

Since the JMC was established in 1999, it – and its sub-committees – have been composed of ministers from the UK government and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. PACAC highlights the fact that this leaves the UK government wearing ‘two hats’, as representative of both England and the UK as a whole.

This dual role has caused multiple concerns. Many in the devolved governments fear that the UK government will favour England. In evidence to PACAC Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister, suggested he could not have confidence that fishing quotas would be allocated fairly if DEFRA was the English representative in negotiations, whilst also being ultimately responsible for making the allocation. Meanwhile, regional and local interests in England feel overlooked. Andy Street, the West Midlands ‘metro mayor’, was among those who told the committee that the English regions’ voices were not heard as loudly in Whitehall as those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Finally, some have argued that under current arrangements England is denied a national voice, resulting in the devolved areas securing preferential treatment – especially in relation to finance. Continue reading