Devolution and Exiting the EU: reconciling differences and building strong relationships Contents

7Whitehall’s attitude towards devolution

107.A persistent theme in the evidence to the inquiry has been that Whitehall has a tendency to hold on to power and resists devolving or passing powers to other institutions and levels of government within the UK political system. Professor Rawlings and Professor Page told us for example that the devolved institutions’ experience of interacting with Whitehall added to their concerns over the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (see Chapter 4).163 Professor Page worried that if Whitehall were to take even temporary control of powers flowing back from the EU that “Whitehall departments will find it convenient to hang on to these powers rather than to pass them on”.164 Professor Rawlings recounted the history of what he described as “innate capacities of individual Whitehall departments for power-hoarding through hard-edged legal expressions of institutional self-interest”.165 He also told us that some Whitehall departments have developed particular ways of working which has subconsciously led to some parts of the country being given preferential treatment over others.166

108.This view of Whitehall was not exclusive to the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales. Councillor Kevin Bentley, Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA) Brexit Task and Finish Group, said that the LGA’s experience was that Whitehall “absolutely” holds on to power and this has been the experience regardless of the party in power. In general, he argued, there had been a tendency towards centralisation in the UK, and it is time for this to be reversed. He brought to our attention the number of services that are directly delivered by local authorities but which are actually controlled by central government from Whitehall.167

109.Dr Sarah Ayres, Reader in Public Policy and Governance at Bristol University, said that there is considerable variation and inconsistency across Whitehall departments about whether, what and how to devolve power.168 She noted parallel findings in two of her studies: a 2002 study of Whitehall’s response to devolution and her current research.169 In 2002, she found some departments had embraced devolution, some were starting to warm to the idea, and some were digging in their heels. Similarly, her recent study has shown that some departments have embraced devolution within England, but the big departments such as Health, Education, and Work and Pensions, are still reluctant to cede power.170

110.Three of the English metropolitan mayors - Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, Rt Hon Andy Burnham, Mayor of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, and Rt Hon Sadiq Kahn, Mayor of London - all agreed that, in their experience, there was that a tendency for Whitehall to hold on to power and control.171 However, they also noted that their experiences were variable, with a constructive approach to devolution of power being taken by some departments on some issues, but a reluctance to engage by other departments on other issues.172 The area that was identified most clearly by all three mayors, as well as the LGA, was the tendency of Whitehall to retain control in relation to skills. These witnesses all emphasised skills and training as a key area in which power, authority and funding needed to be devolved to the local areas.173

111.Our predecessor Committee’s Report, Future of the Union part two: interinstitutional relations in the UK, noted a lack of understanding of devolution in Whitehall, finding that the views and interests of devolved administrations were often considered as an afterthought.174 Our predecessor Committee welcomed the fact that this problem was beginning to be recognised, and that some steps were being taken to address the issue.175 In evidence to this Committee, Ken Thomson, Scottish Government Director General for Constitution and External Affairs, told us that the lack of understanding and knowledge of devolution was still an issue encountered by officials from the Scottish Government when working with colleagues in Whitehall. However, he was also quick to acknowledge that this had been identified as a problem by Whitehall and steps to improve this understanding through initiatives like the Cabinet Office’s “Devolution and You” programme, were making a difference.176

112.Ken Thomson added that, given the size of Whitehall, he thought “expecting everybody in it to be fully conversant with all the detail of the devolution settlement or the issues that arise between Governments would be unrealistic”.177 However, he did emphasise

it is important for the system as a whole to have the capacity and the understanding within it to be able to focus on these issues where they do arise and make sure that we do not start from the wrong place, because that makes it harder to get to the right place.178

113.The Committee heard from the UK, Scottish and Welsh administrations that the planning around Common Frameworks (see further Chapter 6) and the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill had resulted in closer working between officials in the different administrations. Shan Morgan, Permanent Secretary and Head of the Welsh Government Civil Service, told us that the Welsh Government were engaging with the UK and other devolved government officials in four different ways:

Shan Morgan did, however, consider that the quality of engagement had been severely constrained at times by a lack of transparency from the UK Government.

114.The Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) meetings seem to have enabled good communication to take place, Ken Thomson said that there has been fairly constant contact between Scottish government officials and officials from the other administrations, especially in these meetings. Lucy Smith, Director General of the UK Governance Group in the Cabinet Office, told us that “the political contact through the JMC meetings and the bilaterals that the Minister has is all underpinned by a really significant programme of work now at official level”.180 She considered that, from her point of view, the work of the last 12 to 25 months had deepened the relationships between devolved administrations and various Whitehall departments.181

115.Whilst the process of exiting the EU has appeared to stimulate greater contact between officials, we heard evidence that, while these initiatives to improve understanding of devolution in Whitehall are effective to a certain extent, there are more systemic problems with the culture and structure of Whitehall in the era of devolution. Professor Tomkins MSP thought that it was important to change the culture in Whitehall and develop an understanding that the UK is not a unitary state but it is a multi-government state and a multi-national state. Professor Gormley-Heenan, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Ulster University, was concerned about the lack of understanding of the nuances of the Northern Ireland question within Whitehall. In particular, she worried about the lack of understanding of the Belfast Agreement which she warned could cause real problems in the long term.182

116.Professor Wyn Jones argued that Whitehall and Westminster had not yet adapted to the changes to the UK’s constitutional architecture brought about by devolution in 1997.183 Studies of Whitehall had shown the territorial offices - the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Office of the Secretary of State for Wales and the Northern Ireland Office - to be relatively weak; and that devolved governments tried as far as possible to deal directly with the corresponding Whitehall department.184 Professor Wyn Jones thought that Whitehall needed fundamental reorganisation to address its relationships with the devolved administrations.185 Professor Page also considered that the separate territorial offices and Secretaries of State may now be outdated and argued that a single department and cabinet minister should be responsible for relations between the UK Government and the devolved administrations.186 Professor Rawlings generally agreed with this proposal, but warned that there would need to be contingency arrangements for situations like that in Northern Ireland where there is currently no Executive or Assembly.187

117.The Committee welcomes the continued work within Whitehall to improve knowledge and understanding of devolution. However, we are concerned that so much work still needs to be done 20 years on from the establishment of devolution in 1998. It is clear from the evidence to this inquiry that Whitehall still operates extensively on the basis of a structure and culture which take little account of the realities of devolution in the UK. This is inimical to the principles of devolution and good governance in UK.

118.Programmes such as the Cabinet Office ‘Devolution and You’ programme should be extended across Whitehall. All relevant civil servants should have training to establish a sufficient level of understanding of the devolution settlement. Officials in departments that have contact with the devolved administrations should have comprehensive training on the detail of the devolution settlements before or immediately upon taking up a such a position.

119.We welcome the fact that work on the Common Frameworks by officials from different administrations has enabled Whitehall, Holyrood and Cardiff bay to build successful relationships and has led to officials working closely together. This model of working together should be adopted more widely across Whitehall and the devolved administrations in order to establish and entrench relationships and ways of working together towards a common purpose.

120.In line with the recognition that devolution is an established and fundamental feature of the UK’s constitutional architecture, the Government should commit to a systematic review, in the year following the UK’s exit from the EU, of how Whitehall is structured and how it relates to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This review should also consider whether the role of the territorial offices in Whitehall and corresponding Secretaries of State are still necessary and, if they are, whether they might be reformed to promote better relations across Whitehall with the devolved administrations.

121.We note the evidence we have heard about the tendency in Whitehall to hold onto power and control in areas which might more effectively be administered at lower levels of government in England. We further recommend that the review called for above should also consider Whitehall’s relationships with local government and the metropolitan administrations in England. The review should aim to identify those areas where power might appropriately be devolved from Whitehall to local authorities and metropolitan mayors in England.


163 Q13[Page]

164 Q13 [Page]

166 Q16 [Rawlings]

168 Q442 [Ayres]

169 Q465 [Ayres]

170 Q465 [Ayres]

174 Sixth Report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of Session 2016–17, The Future of the Union, part two: Inter-institutional relations in the UK, HC 839, 8 December 2016. Paras 106–10

175 Sixth Report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of Session 2016–17, The Future of the Union, part two: Inter-institutional relations in the UK, HC 839, 8 December 2016. Paras 111–2

180 Q774 [Smith]

181 Q775 [Smith]

183 Q160 [Wyn Jones]

184 Q160 [Wyn Jones]

185 Q160, Q168 [Wyn Jones]




Published: 31 July 2018