Inter-governmental relations are integral to how the United Kingdom functions. The governance of the UK requires relationships to be built and maintained between the UK Government, the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive. The complexity of these relationships will increase significantly as more powers are devolved, particularly in the light of the package of powers recommended by the Smith Commission and set out in the Command Paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement. Recent proposals for further devolution to Wales, and the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland, will add to this complexity. Beyond managing this complex web of devolved and reserved powers and areas of shared or overlapping competence, good inter-governmental structures and practices should also serve to strengthen, and provide constitutional stability to, the Union.
Most inter-governmental relations are conducted informally and bilaterally, at both official and ministerial level. An effective formal underpinning is, however, essential. The operation of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) structure is not well regardedat least in the eyes of the devolved administrations. The plenary JMC meeting of heads of government is seen as ineffective while its Domestic sub-committee does not appear to serve a useful purpose. The JMC's European sub-committee is more highly thought of, as are the Finance Ministers' Quadrilateral (FMQ) and the bilateral Joint Exchequer Committees formed to implement recent proposals for the devolution of tax powers.
The JMC structure should be used to facilitate joint policy-making and co-ordination. Meanwhile, the increasingly complex, and asymmetrical, devolution settlements will require more formal bilateral mechanismsparticularly where proposals to devolve powers over tax and welfare will create increasing areas of shared competence and overlapping responsibility. These mechanisms should, however, be brought under the auspices of a revitalised JMC to create a more coherent structure and to improve accountability.
The Government should consider setting the broad framework of inter-governmental relations on a statutory basis. This need not be too prescriptive, but could set out the existence and membership of the JMC, its core sub-committees and the FMQ, along with the core principles governing relations between administrations.
The transparency and parliamentary scrutiny of inter-governmental relations requires a great deal of improvement. The current reporting of JMC meetings is bland and unilluminating; much more information could be made public in advance of and after meetings. Likewise there is a need for Government departments to detail more thoroughly their interactions with the devolved administrations. This would provide the information base necessary for effective parliamentary scrutiny.
We hope that the increasing complexity of the devolution settlements will spur greater parliamentary scrutiny of inter-governmental relations, aided by a more transparent JMC and improved departmental reporting. It may be that departmental select committees in the House of Commons are best placed to ensure regular scrutiny of relations between Government departments and the devolved administrations, but there is also scope for improved scrutiny on the floor of the House of Lordssupported by the annual independent audits of inter-governmental relations that we recommend.
As most of the interactions between the UK Government and devolved administrations occur between civil servants, it is important that knowledge and understanding of the devolution settlements is widespread. We heard concerns about the inconsistency of performance between and within Whitehall departments. We recommend that the Government address this issue by training officials, regularly reviewing departmental concordats and guidance on dealing with devolved administrations, and increasing interactions and exchange of personnel between administrations. The welcome fact that the Home Civil Service (supporting the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments) remains a single entity should help to facilitate such exchanges.
In order to ensure that devolution is treated as a single cohesive issue, rather than a series of issues specific to the devolved regions, ministerial responsibility for the constitution as a whole needs to be clearer. The political arguments against merging the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices into one department (potentially with one Secretary of State) currently outweigh the potential benefits, but there is room to improve central co-ordination and oversight of the devolution settlements. We recommend that there should be a clear focus within Government for oversight of the constitution as a whole, and that a senior Cabinet minister be identified as responsible for that work.
Finally, we reiterate our view, expressed in our report Proposals for the further devolution of powers to Scotland, that the major UK-wide political parties need to formulate a coherent vision for the future shape of the UK as a whole, without which there cannot be constitutional stability.