Devolution: A Decade on - Justice Committee Contents


Devolution was a major component of the Government's package of proposed constitutional reform for the United Kingdom post 1997. The central purpose of devolution was to bring government closer to the people than had previously been the case under the centralised UK state. In doing so, not only has devolution fundamentally transformed politics within the devolved territories, but, alongside the other components in the programme of constitutional reform, it has also had a significant impact on the make-up and the constitution of the United Kingdom. Fundamental changes in the way Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are governed have not been followed by major changes in the way England is governed, except for the creation of the London Mayor and Assembly. Matters which are the responsibility of devolved Parliaments in the rest of the UK, are, in England, determined by the United Kingdom Government and Parliament.

Ten years on from the official opening of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, we thought it necessary to undertake a review of devolution in order to consider its impact on the United Kingdom and the development of devolution policy since 1999. This report identifies several changes required to improve the current infrastructure and the procedures and practices of governance in the UK after devolution, in order to facilitate the effective and efficient functioning of the asymmetric system of devolution.

Departmental responsibility for overseeing the working of the UK's system of government has been divided and unsettled, and we recommend that a lead department responsible for devolution strategy be identified. Whitehall was not ready for devolution, and, while we welcome the positive steps that have been taken in order to establish and disseminate knowledge, understanding of devolution issues and best practice in dealing with the devolved institutions, performance is still patchy. Identifying a lead department in this way will in no way reduce the need for each Department of State to understand each of the different devolution settlements and to work with the grain of the new arrangements. This will take leadership from the Permanent Secretary in each Department and, while we welcome recent evidence that the Secretary to the Cabinet has taken a lead in developing a more joined-up approach across Whitehall, there are Departments (or silos within Departments) in which devolved issues appear to be completely overlooked.

The political and economic context has changed significantly during the past decade, and we welcome the re-convening of the Joint Ministerial Committee as the most appropriate mechanism for inter-governmental relations. However, there is still more to be done in order to achieve a robust framework for inter-governmental relations. We conclude that this framework, supported by a streamlined centre responsible for devolution policy and strategy across Whitehall, would equip the United Kingdom with a more efficient and effective system for territorial management in the UK post-devolution.

In the second half of the report we identify two significant constitutional and political issues which have been brought into sharp focus since the onset of devolution in 1999: first, the fact that England remains highly centralised under the authority of the UK Government and Parliament, resulting in the "English Question", a phrase which encapsulates a range of different questions in relation to the governance of England, and, secondly, the increasing concern about the efficacy and application of the Barnett Formula as the means for the allocation of increases and decreases in public funds.

Just as there are many different English questions, there are many potential solutions, each addressing a different dimension of the question, and each has its own problems and limitations. We review these solutions, and conclude that these are major political as well as constitutional questions which are for Parliament as a whole to consider. It is our judgment that Parliament will come under pressure to consider these questions as devolved government develops in profile and substance.

Finally, we conclude that the Barnett Formula is no longer fit for purpose and that reform is overdue. We urge the Government to publish its position as a matter of some urgency and to proceed to devise a new formula which is needs based, takes into account regional disparities in England as well as in Scotland and Wales, is transparent and is sufficiently robust to enable long-term planning.

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