99.Despite devolution to Scotland and Wales, civil servants working for the devolved administrations remain part of a unified Home Civil Service. According to Richard Parry, an Honorary Fellow at the Centre on Constitutional Change at Edinburgh University, “officials serve exclusively the ministers of the duly-elected administration that they serve. This has been supplemented by a shared understanding that any managerial arrangements consequential on the unified service do not compromise this exclusive loyalty”. In contrast to the other devolved nations, Northern Ireland has, since 1921, had a separate civil service, although the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) closely resembles the Home Civil Service in its organisation and principles. This section of the report is relatively brief as many of these themes will be addressed in more detail as part of PACAC’s inquiry into ‘The work of the Civil Service’.
100.According to Mr Parry, the present system has not only survived 17 years of devolution, but “is widely held to assist inter-institutional relations”. Indeed, there was broad agreement, among our witnesses, that the Home Civil Service had played an important role in helping to bind the UK together post-devolution. For example, Sir Paul Silk suggested that when the Commission on Devolution in Wales began work his initial presumption was in favour of having a separate Welsh Civil Service. However, the Silk Commission eventually concluded that the advantages of retaining a shared civil service outweighed any disadvantages. This change of heart was in part based on the opportunities the Home Civil Service can provide for career development and “cross-fertilisation” between the Devolved Administrations and Whitehall. Citing the case of the Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Government, Sir Derek Jones, Sir Paul noted:
Derek was in the Treasury before he came back to Wales. I think he would say that the advantage of having been an official in the Treasury before he became an official in the Welsh Office and then the Welsh Government was enormous. There are still those who go between Cardiff and London and bring experience back to Cardiff.
101.Certainly the evidence we received from Sir Derek Jones and his counterpart in the Scottish Government, Leslie Evans suggested that not only were they both well-integrated at the heart of the Home Civil Service, but that there was frequent contact between the Devolved Administrations and other Government departments. Both Sir Derek and Ms Evans, for example, routinely attend the meetings of Permanent Secretaries in London, and both dismissed any suggestion that serving a Devolved Administration while remaining part of the shared Home Civil Service had resulted in any conflicts of loyalty. As Ms Evans stressed, her line manager is Sir Jeremy Heywood, but she serves the Scottish Government and is the chief policy adviser to the First Minister of Scotland and to her Cabinet. Sir Derek made it similarly clear that his duty is to support the First Minister of Wales and the Welsh Government.
102.While John Swinney MSP reiterated the Scottish Government’s position in favour of a separate Scottish civil service, there was broad agreement among other witnesses about the advantages of the unified civil service. Sir Derek Jones, for example, claimed that “as things stand, I can do a better job, my civil service can do a better job, supporting the Welsh Government” as part of the Home Civil Service. Philip Rycroft, Head of the UK Governance Group in the Cabinet Office, described the advantages as “relatively straightforward”:
We share the same set of values; we share the same senior leadership structure; we share the same training and leadership development opportunities. Colleagues from Scotland and Wales will join the High Potential Development Scheme for potential Director Generals and the equivalent scheme for potential Permanent Secretaries. That gives us a context in which we are working together in a number of different contexts, which helps us to build the relationships that are so important to manage the good relationships between the various Governments.
103.In terms of the practical consequences that might arise from the break-up of the unified Home Civil Service, Mr Rycroft provided the example of joint learning experiences. At present, Mr Rycroft stated, “it is relatively straightforward to organise joint learning experiences right the way across the Civil Service. Just last week [the week beginning 22 February 2016] we had 50 colleagues from the Welsh and Scottish Governments in Whitehall for a week of shadowing with one of the Departments”. While NICS officials do participate in joint training in Whitehall, Sir Jonathan Stephens, the Permanent Secretary to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) explained that this was the responsibility of the NICS to organise, “there is nothing automatic that underpins it”.
104.Notably, while Sir Jonathan emphasized that the NIO and the NICS manage to make their relationship work, aided by the fact that “in many ways it [the NICS] is, although separate, identical to the UK Civil Service”, he cautioned against applying this model to the other devolved nations:
… a separate Civil Service could be made to work; it has been made to work in Northern Ireland. I think you have to work harder at keeping the professional competence and learning going across the Civil Services, and you have to work harder at enabling lessons to be learned across the two Governments. There are not so many natural interchanges and flows that exist within a unified Civil Service.
Indeed, Sir Jonathan suggested that if one was starting afresh, rather than in the 1920s when the NICS was created, “you would start off with an assumption that you continued with a unified Civil service”. However, as he and Mr Rycroft acknowledged, the NICS is a product of the constitutional history of Northern Ireland and the UK and, as Sir Jonathan reported, there appears to be little appetite in Northern Ireland for any change to the status quo.
105.The continuation of the Home Civil Service has played an important role in facilitating inter-institutional relations post-devolution. The shared Home Civil Service enables interchange between the devolved administrations and Whitehall, facilitates knowledge exchange and, as we heard from Sir Derek Jones and Leslie Evans, it has not resulted in any conflict of obligations and loyalties for those civil servants serving the devolved administrations.
106.In 2015, the Constitution Unit at UCL released a report, , which criticised Whitehall’s attitude towards devolution and claimed that “too many officials and departments tend to treat the devolved governments as an afterthought, or like any other Whitehall department”. During our inquiry, we found some evidence that occasions did arise when the devolved administrations were treated as an afterthought. According to Sir Derek Jones, this “still happens, and it still happens too frequently”, with a considerable degree of variance between different Departments and between different parts of Departments:
Sometimes the experience is very good, so if there is a joint issue or a joint interest it is consulted on in good time, with productive discussion. We will not always agree, but at least it is understood that there is a devolution issue. Sometimes it is overlooked, and that is probably the most frustrating aspect of Cardiff-Whitehall engagement—when a devolution issue is overlooked in Whitehall so that contact starts too late, it is difficult to rescue a good result from a late start.
Leslie Evans also spoke of occasions “when I think we are forgotten about” and when the response from Whitehall “is somewhat sluggish”. While Ms Evans reiterated the positive working relationships Scottish Government officials have with UK Government Departments, she nonetheless stated that “if you were asking me is there a consistent understanding and very front-footed approach to devolution in every party of every department in Whitehall, I would have to say no, but we are working on it”. Both Sir Derek and Ms Evans, however, mentioned recent efforts, led by Philip Rycroft and the UK Governance Group at the Cabinet Office, to bolster devolution awareness and capacity in the civil service across Whitehall.
107.In June 2015, the UK Governance Group was established to lead the UK Government’s work on constitutional and devolution issues. It brings together the Cabinet Office Constitution Group, the Scotland Office, the Office of the Advocate General for Scotland and the Wales Office. Headed by , it brings together under one command the Cabinet Office Constitution Group, the Scotland Office, the Office of the Advocate General for Scotland and the Wales Office. The Group will ensure that the civil service has an improved capability to support ministers in the vital challenge of sustaining the United Kingdom and the constitutional settlement.
108.In the summer of 2015, the Civil Service unveiled a to give advice to civil servants in UK Government departments aimed at helping them to “take devolution issues into consideration in your work” and providing advice on how “you may best work with colleagues in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”
109.According to the toolkit, “whether a matter is devolved or not, making an effort to develop good relationships with colleagues from across the devolved administrations will help you to better understand the impacts of your work. Closer collaboration can lead to reduced burdens, generate savings and enable stronger policymaking.” While primarily designed for Civil Servants working in UK Government departments, “there are aspects of this toolkit that may also be of use to colleagues from the devolved administrations.”
110.In his evidence to PACAC, Mr Rycroft explained that the toolkit was part of a broader programme of work being undertaken to “ensure there is a sufficient capability and understanding of the devolution settlements across Whitehall” and will evolve over time. Nonetheless, the fact that the toolkit was published last year, some 16 years after the advent of devolution to Scotland and Wales, raised questions about whether the progress of embedding devolution in the culture of Whitehall had been a patchy process. Mr Rycroft signified that it was an indication that Whitehall was putting more effort into deepening awareness of devolution and was a recognition “that we have to get better at this” and “that we have to improve our understanding of devolution right the way across Whitehall”. Mr Rycroft also conceded that as an individual who had previously worked for the Scottish Government, there had “clearly” been times when he wished that Whitehall had had a better understanding of devolution.
111.It is unacceptable that 17 years after the advent of devolution Whitehall departments, when considering the effect of UK policy decisions, are not better at involving and consulting the devolved administrations, so that their views and interests are positively engaged at the outset, rather than as an afterthought. While Sir Derek Jones and Ms Evans both emphasized the good collaborative relationships that they have with many Whitehall Departments and with the leadership of the Home Civil Service, it is nonetheless disappointing that it has taken 16 years for sustained efforts to be made at boosting awareness of devolution issues and capabilities across Whitehall. Nonetheless, these efforts are better late than never and PACAC welcomes the work undertaken by the UK Governance Group, including the development of the Devolution Toolkit.
112.To supplement the progress Whitehall departments have made in engaging relevant officials from devolved administrations in UK policy formation, PACAC recommends that every Whitehall department should implement procedures to ensure such engagement takes place. A senior official should also be appointed within each department to review successful and failed examples of inter-administration engagement at official level. The UK Governance Group should ask departments to report on reviews and lessons learned every year. The UK Governance Group should also undertake an audit of Fast Stream graduate programme and Civil Service Learning to explore how devolution awareness can be enhanced by these programmes.
129 [Mr Richard Parry]
130 House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, Inter-governmental relations in the United Kingdom, 11th Report of Session 2014–15, 27 March 2015, para.136.
131 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee,
132 [Mr Richard Parry]
148 UCL Constitution Unit, Devolution and the Future of the Union, 2015, p.72. Following the 2015 General Election, the then Prime Minister, the Rt Hon David Cameron MP, established a Constitutional Reform Cabinet Committee. According to Philip Rycroft, at the time of his appearance before PACAC on 1 March 2016, the Committee met early in the course of the Parliament to discuss English Votes for English Laws, but “has not met since”(Q292). Mr Rycroft explained that “a lot of the business that might go through that Committee is [instead] transacted through the Home Affairs Committee” (Q287). The most recent list of Cabinet Committees, published after the appointment of the Rt Hon Theresa May MP as Prime Minister, makes no reference to either a Constitutional Reform Committee, while Home Affairs is now a sub-committee of the Social Reform Cabinet Committee (HM Government, ).
6 December 2016