Inter-governmental relations in the United Kingdom - Constitution Committee Contents

Inter-governmental relations in the United Kingdom


1.  Inter-governmental relations are necessary in a multi-level political system. As this Committee stated in our 2002 report Devolution: Inter-institutional relations in the United Kingdom, devolution "makes inter-governmental relations inevitable, and integral to the UK's system of government."[1] The governance of the United Kingdom requires relationships to be built and maintained between the UK Government, the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive at all levels: between leaders, ministers and officials.

2.  Since our previous report there have been significant changes both in the UK's devolution settlements and in the political parties involved in government, with a shift away from the one party dominance that characterised the early years of devolution. In 1999 the Labour Party were in office either alone or in coalition across Great Britain's four administrations. By 2010 five parties were in power, none of them in more than one administration: Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Westminster; Scottish National Party in Edinburgh; Labour and—until 2011—Plaid Cymru in Cardiff. Meanwhile the four parties in Northern Ireland's power-sharing Executive between 1998 and 2002 have increased to five since the resumption of devolved power in 2007.

3.  The administrations that will be formed following the 2015 UK general election and the 2016 elections to the devolved legislatures will have increasingly complex relationships with one another, whichever parties are in power. The coming years will see the further devolution of powers through the ongoing implementation of the Scotland Act 2012 and the Wales Act 2014, the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland,[2] the new Scotland Bill embodying the Smith Commission's recommendations for further devolution to Scotland promised by the main three UK parties,[3] and potentially the further devolution of powers to Wales proposed in the UK Government's February 2015 Command Paper.[4]

4.  We were told by one witness that, in the case of Scotland in particular, "the new settlement … increases the extent to which both parliaments will be working in concurrent jurisdictions, especially in tax and welfare, necessitating cooperation, coordination and joint decision-making."[5] This poses a challenge for the administrations to ensure that their relationships facilitate effective co-operation, and for Parliament and the devolved legislatures to ensure their executives are held to account as inter-governmental interactions increase. It is in the context of this extension of devolution and the additional complexities that it brings that we undertook this inquiry.

Box 1: Why inter-governmental relations are important
Inter-governmental relations are needed in any nation with a multi-level system of government, such as devolved or federal states. No matter how well-defined the distinctions between the powers of governments at different levels, there will always be some overlap or inter-dependency between them.

Interactions with EU institutions are a prime example: when the UK Government discusses policies with other European Union states relating to fisheries and agriculture, for example, they are talking about devolved matters and the views and concerns of devolved administrations must be taken into consideration.

Some issues cross borders between different jurisdictions and so need a co-ordinated response. This includes devolved domestic matters like railway lines between England and Wales or Scotland, as well as international treaties that affect devolved policy areas. Emergencies can also require a co-ordinated response across borders, as in the response to the foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001.

The funding of the devolved administrations is another area where communication between the devolved administrations and the UK Government is vital. None of the devolved administrations raise all of the money they spend—this means that much of their funding comes from funds collected on a UK-wide basis and allocated by the UK Government. After the 2010 general election, the UK and devolved administrations worked together to agree a Statement of Funding Policy (the sixth since 1999), setting out "the arrangements which apply in setting devolved budgets in the 2010 Spending Review".

The ways in which the different governments in the UK interact in these areas of common interest or dependency are the inter-governmental relations we cover in this report.

5.  The structures and practices underlying inter-governmental relations have been scrutinised and commented on in numerous reports by select committees and independent commissions in recent years. After this Committee's 2002 report, most of the formal structures underpinning inter-governmental relations fell into abeyance—partly as a result of the dominance of the Labour party in administrations across the UK. Formal relations were resumed in 2008, following the election of a Scottish National Party minority government in 2007. In 2009 the Calman Commission on Scottish devolution and the House of Commons Justice Committee made recommendations aimed at improving inter-governmental relations,[6] followed in 2010 by the House of Commons Scottish Affairs and Welsh Affairs Committees.[7] In the current Parliament, the Silk Commission's second report, on legislative powers for Wales, and the Smith Commission's report on further powers for the Scottish Parliament, each assessed and suggested improvements to inter-governmental relations.[8]

6.  In December 2014, the UK Government and devolved administrations acknowledged the need for change and committed to reviewing how relations between the different administrations operated. The Cabinet Office are currently leading the UK Government's part of this review.[9] We hope that this report will help them ensure that inter-governmental relations adapt to the current devolution settlements and are robust enough to accommodate the further transfers of power currently envisaged or likely to take place.

The purpose of inter-governmental relations

7.  Before considering how inter-governmental relations should operate in the UK, we first looked to clarify what they were intended to achieve. Professor Nicola McEwen, Professor of Territorial Politics at the University of Edinburgh, told us that:

    "[In] any system, no matter how much you try to separate the powers of one level and the powers of another level, there will always be the need to co­ordinate and interact. There will always be overlaps and interdependence. That is the main purpose of inter­governmental relations: managing that interface and managing that inter­dependence. In our case, there is an inevitable interdependence between some of those areas that are devolved, such as social policy, and those areas that are reserved, like social security".[10]

8.  Professor Michael Keating, Chair in Scottish Politics at the University of Aberdeen, told us that inter-governmental relations were required for two purposes: for conflict resolution; and for joint decision-making where two or more administrations shared competences, where their separate competences were clearly inter-dependent or where there was an obvious "spillover effect from one jurisdiction to another".[11]

9.  Other witnesses described the purpose of inter-governmental relations in less technical terms: as a means of working towards common goals. The Rt Hon Carwyn Jones AM, the First Minister of Wales, told us that, "The purpose of inter-governmental relations is, in an ideal world, to work together on common issues and see whether there can be common conclusions as a result of that work."[12] Similarly, Professor Alan Page, Professor of Public Law at the University of Dundee, told us that their purpose was "to foster good working relations between the different Governments who make up the United Kingdom, with a view to the identification, discussion and resolution of matters of common concern."[13]

10.  The Secretary of State for Scotland, the Rt Hon Alistair Carmichael MP, told us that the fundamental aim was "better government". Inter-governmental relations should, he said, enable participants "to share experiences [and] to thrash out any difficulties".[14]

11.  Fiona Hyslop MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs in the Scottish Government, gave a further nuance: that the purpose was both building "relationships of trust and understanding to ensure that there is continuity and co-operation in areas of mutual interest" and ensuring issues were "dealt with at official level, where at all possible, and to leave ministerial discussion for strategic interests and purposes".[15]

12.  Professor Keating noted that not everything needed to be "joined up";[16] indeed, part of the purpose of devolution is to allow different administrations to pursue different policies.[17] Good inter-governmental relations should mean that differences in policy or major implementation decisions are made because of the active decisions of each administration, rather than through a lack of consultation and communication.

13.  In a practical sense, inter-governmental relations should enable administrations to work together in areas of mutual concern and interest, both where there are overlapping or inter-dependent competencies and on cross-border issues. When functioning properly they should also allow issues to be dealt with in a timely manner at the most appropriate level of government, reserving ministerial involvement to strategic decisions and resolving serious disagreements.

14.  Beyond this functional "plumbing" of government, Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Professor of Welsh Politics at Cardiff University, suggested that inter-governmental relations had a broader purpose: "Amongst academic observers, and more generally in the devolved territories, there is a view of [inter-governmental relations] as relating more to the nature of the union—the post devolution UK. It goes beyond the relationship on a day to day basis … It is about what the union is for and how it is organised."[18] Professor Jim Gallagher of Nuffield College, University of Oxford, told us that the UK Government should develop a clear strategy for the Union and conduct inter-governmental relations in light of that strategy.[19]

15.  David Melding AM, Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee of the National Assembly for Wales, warned that the role of the UK state risked being lost in discussions of devolution,[20] and argued that "We need a vision for a reformed, decentralised UK constitution for a multinational union."[21] Similarly, the First Minister of Wales referred to the potential for inter-governmental structures to provide a catalyst for establishing stable constitutional arrangements: rather than "constitutional conversations … [taking] place in different rooms … Much more thought needs to be given to all four administrations being part of a process that leads to greater constitutional stability."[22]

16.  Good inter-governmental relations are vital to the effective governance of the United Kingdom. The structures and practices of inter-governmental relations should serve to strengthen, and provide constitutional stability to, the Union.

Carrying out the inquiry

17.  The Committee decided to undertake this short, focused inquiry on inter-governmental relations alongside another strand of work scrutinising the UK Government's response to the Smith Commission's proposals for the devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament. Our recent report Proposals for the devolution of further powers to Scotland reflects that scrutiny work.[23]

18.  While several of our evidence sessions covered both subjects, most were focused on the inter-governmental relations strand of the Committee's work. We heard from academics, chairs and convenors of select committees in the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, officials from Cabinet Office and three other UK Government departments, the First Ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland, the Scottish Government, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Advocate General for Scotland. We also received 11 written submissions in response to our call for evidence (see Appendix 3). We are grateful to all our witnesses.

1   Constitution Committee, Devolution: Inter-institutional relations in the United Kingdom (2nd Report, Session 2002-03, HL Paper 28), para 12. Back

2   Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Bill [Bill 170 (2014-15)] Back

3   The Smith Commission, Report of the Smith Commission for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, 27 November 2014: The_Smith_Commission_Report-1.pdf; HM Government, Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, Cm 8890, 22 January 2015: uploads/attachment_data/file/397079/Scotland_EnduringSettlement_acc.pdf [both accessed 17 March 2015] Back

4   See HM Government, Powers for a purpose: Towards a lasting devolution settlement for Wales, Cm 9020, February 2015: 47683_CM9020_ENGLISH.pdf [accessed 17 March 2015]. Back

5   Written evidence from Professor Nicola McEwen (IGR0010) Back

6   Calman Commission, Serving Scotland Better: Scotland and the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, 2009; Justice Committee, Devolution: A Decade on, (Fifth Report, Session 2008-09, HC 529)  Back

7   Scottish Affairs Committee, Scotland and the UK: cooperation and communication between governments, (Fourth Report, Session 2009-10, HC 256); Welsh Affairs Committee, Wales and Whitehall, (Eleventh Report, Session 2009-10, HC 246) Back

8   Silk Commission, Empowerment and Responsibility: Legislative Powers to Strengthen Wales, 2014: [accessed 17 March 2015]; Smith Commission, ReportBack

9   Joint Ministerial Committee communiqué: December 2014, 15 December 2015: [accessed 25 February 2015];  Q17 (Dr Philip Rycroft) Back

10    Q8 Back

11   Written evidence from Professor Michael Keating (IGR0003) Back

12    Q43 Back

13    Q8 Back

14    Q76 Back

15    Q64 Back

16   Written evidence from Professor Michael Keating (IGR0003) Back

17    Q89 (Peter Robinson MLA) Back

18    Q1 Back

19   Written evidence from Professor Jim Gallagher (IGR0007) Back

20    Q37 Back

21    Q39 Back

22    Q45 Back

23   Constitution Committee, Proposals for the devolution of further powers to Scotland (10th Report, Session 2014-15, HL Paper 145) Back

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