CHAPTER 3: MINISTERIAL RESPONSIBILITIES |
106. The UK Government's structures for dealing
with the devolved administrations evolved from pre-1998 inter-departmental
have been, and continue to be, calls for a merger of departmental
and ministerial responsibilities for devolution.
107. Professor Richard Wyn Jones told us that,
while institutions had evolved in the devolved regions, "if
you look at the central institutions of the state, almost nothing,
frankly, has changed. We still have the territorial offices. We
the territorial Select Committees. There has
been very little change at the centre, and you have had this fundamental
change in the devolved territories."
Territorial Offices and Secretaries
RECOMMENDATIONS AND CHANGES, 2002-10
108. In our 2002 report, this Committee noted
the dispersal of responsibilities across many departments. We
recommended that the Government should consider merging the Scotland
and Wales Offices and the Devolution and English Regions team
into a single department, with a single Cabinet Minister with
responsibility for inter-governmental relations overall and with
the possibility of appointing Ministers of State to deal with
particular policy issues or devolved areas.
109. The Government responded that they felt
that the existing machinery worked well, but that it would be
kept under review.
In 2003 the machinery changed, with the Scotland and Wales Offices
being subsumed into the new Department for Constitutional Affairs
(and in 2007 its successor, the Ministry of Justice), along with
responsibility for devolution strategy. By 2003, devolution to
Northern Ireland had been suspended; the Northern Ireland Office
kept its position as an independent department, taking over the
powers of the Northern Ireland Assembly during the period of suspension,
110. The new arrangements retained some autonomy
for the Scotland and Wales Offices, however, as well as their
Cabinet posts, as the Commons Justice Committee found in 2009.
That Committee also noted that, even with that set-up, "responsibility
for different aspects of what could be considered as devolution
issues is currently located in five separate government departments:
the Ministry of Justice, the Scotland and Wales Offices, the Cabinet
Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government."
They concluded that:
"What is lacking is any one department which
is clearly charged with taking a holistic view of the infrastructure
of government across the United Kingdom and the constitutional
and policy issues involved. This role basically belongs to the
department with lead responsibility for the constitution, which
is the Ministry of Justice, and we recommend that the lead responsibility
should be clearly recognised and developed."
111. In 2003-08, the Secretaries of State for
Wales and Scotland also held other positions in Governmentthe
Scotland Secretary also having responsibility for Transport and
later Defence, for example. The Justice Committee concluded in
2009 that "the direction of travel" was towards having
a single Secretary of State for the constitution.
CURRENT MINISTERIAL AND DEPARTMENTAL
112. The formation of the current Government
in 2010 saw the restoration of stand-alone Scotland and Wales
Offices; the Secretaries of State have also been free of other
ministerial responsibilities during the current Parliament. Meanwhile,
more departments have become more directly involved in dealing
with the devolved administrations as a result of the legislated-for
and planned devolution of tax and welfare powers.
113. The Deputy Prime Minister is responsible
for inter-governmental relations
and has "overall policy responsibility for devolution",
although this did not appear in a list of his responsibilities
that was supplied to this Committee in July 2010 (other than responsibility
for "considering the 'West Lothian question.'").
The Deputy Prime Minister is supported by the Cabinet Office's
Constitution Group; this inherited many of the Ministry of Justice's
constitutional responsibilities and includes the Devolution Strategy
Team, which "maintains an overview of the position of the
devolved administrations within the constitution and works to
sustain good relations between the devolved administrations, the
Scotland Office, Wales Office and Northern Ireland Office, and
Whitehall more widely."
Towards a merged department?
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOUR
114. As was reflected in the recommendations
of this Committee in 2002 and the Justice Committee in 2009, there
is a strong case for greater co-ordination of inter-governmental
relations and the devolution settlements within Government. Several
of our witnesses advocated such a change.
Professor Alan Page felt that the case for a single department
"would seem overwhelming": it would provide a focus
for inter-governmental relations, remove duplication across Whitehall
and could monitor compliance with the Memorandum of Understanding
115. The Institute for Government told us they
"favour the creation of a stronger and more
joined-up single centre for devolution policy and strategy in
Whitehallperhaps along the lines of past proposals for
a single 'Department for Devolution' or 'Department for the Nations
and Regions'. This could bring together the different units with
responsibility for devolution issues across the Cabinet Office
and Treasury along with the three territorial offices."
It could, they said, improve joined-up working across
Government and potentially save money.
116. Professor Jim Gallagher argued that the
small size of the Scotland and Wales Offices and low status of
their Secretaries of State indicated the lack of priority accorded
to devolved matters in Whitehall: "Instead of three Secretaries
of State, and three tiny departments, the United Kingdom should
have one substantial department, and one powerful Secretary of
State whose job it is to manage the territorial constitution."
He suggested that a Secretary of State for the Union could be
supported by Ministers of State for each devolved region, recognising
the need for separate voices and departmental expertise relating
to each region.
117. There was very little support amongst politicians
for merging the Territorial Offices.
The most common argument was that each devolved region needed
its own voice at the Cabinet table.
More junior territorial ministers could retain a position attending
Cabinet, but Professor Wyn Jones was sceptical that having four
ministers responsible for elements of devolution at Cabinet, in
place of the present three, was likely to happen.
118. David T.C. Davies MP, Chairman of the House
of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, was concerned that there would
be challenging conflicts of interests in such a merged role given
the different concerns of the devolved regions.
This difficulty was also stressed by the First Ministers of Northern
Ireland and Wales, the latter of whom cited the differing attitudes
towards the Barnett Formula in Wales and Scotland as an example.
119. Carwyn Jones AM was also concerned that
Wales would be a low priority for a joint Secretary of State:
"My fear would be that if you had a Secretary of State who
was responsible for the three devolved administrations, the emphasis
would be very strongly on Scotland and issues that arise now and
again on Northern Ireland, and Wales would just go off the agenda."
120. The First Minister of Northern Ireland stressed
the differences between the administrative case and the political:
"I think there is an unanswerable case [for
a merged role] if the determining factor is that this is the most
cost-effective way of dealing with the devolved institutions
For me the key issue is the benefit that it has for the devolved
regions. I think there is a very strong case for that direct connection
between a devolved administration and the Cabinet. If we are talking
about inter-governmental relations, that is one of the conduits
that is used to connect the two. I am strongly in favour of it.
If one wants to look at a spreadsheet, it might not be the best
option, but I think that politically it is the best option."
121. Similarly, Bruce Crawford MSP, convenor
of the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee of the Scottish Parliament,
felt that the creation of a single Territorial Office and Cabinet
position might be an impediment to the bilateral relations that
predominate in inter-governmental relations in the UK.
This was echoed by the Scottish Government, who feared the dilution
of knowledge of devolution across Whitehall and the creation of
a new "bottleneck" in their relations with UK Government
122. There is also a political and presentational
risk in that the removal of their dedicated Secretaries of State
could be seen as the Government downgrading or diminishing the
importance of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Mr Davies felt
that there would be a "very strong" political reaction;
David Melding AM stressed that a consensus would be needed for
such a move.
123. The Secretary of State for Scotland felt
that any such change to the structure of Whitehall departments
would need to follow a thorough look at the constitutional settlement
across the UK: "For the moment, talk of a department for
the nations and regions is inappropriate until you have a constitutional
settlement, when we know that so much other change is coming."
124. Alan Trench, former Professor of Politics
at the University of Ulster, in his paper 'Intergovernmental relations
and better devolution', wrote that:
"Whatever merits [merging the Secretaries
of State into one post] might offer, the best time to implement
it was during the period of relatively easy relations in the early
2000s. The Scottish independence referendum and its likely after-effects
mean it will be hard to implement it for the foreseeable future
even if there were the political will to do so."
125. We heard arguments from an administrative
perspective in favour of creating a single Department and Secretary
of State for Devolution, or for the Union. However, there are
political reasons for retaining separate Secretaries of State
and so long as the devolution settlements in the UK are asymmetrical
there will need to be strong bilateral relationships between the
UK Government and the devolved administrations, with a Secretary
of State as a key conduit and voice for each relationship.
Central co-ordination and responsibility
126. If the separate Territorial Offices are
to be retained, there needs to be greater clarity within Government
about the central co-ordination of inter-governmental relations
and oversight of devolution.
127. As noted above, the minister responsible
for both inter-governmental relations and "overall policy
responsibility for devolution" is the Deputy Prime Minister.
He chairs the JMC Domestic sub-committee; however, he is not on
Cabinet's Devolution Committee, the purpose of which is to "consider
matters relating to the devolution of powers within the United
It is extraordinary that the Cabinet Minister stated to be
responsible for devolution is not a member of the Cabinet Committee
on that very subject.
128. This chimes with what appears to be a lack
of effective co-ordination and oversight of devolution in general.
The Secretary of State for Scotland told a committee in the Scottish
Parliament that Cabinet had not discussed the wider implications
for the rest of the UK of the Smith Commission's recommendations
for further devolution to Scotland, other than the West Lothian
Question. Mr Carmichael
told us that this monitoring of wider constitutional implications
was "part of the assessment that we make all the time".
He did not, however, seem to recognise a need to have a UK-wide
perspective when considering devolution: rather it was up to each
part of the UK to call for and receive further devolved powers.
129. This piecemeal approach, with conversations
taking place separately about each devolved region, was severely
criticised by the First Minister of Wales. He told us that "the
view that is taken by some in the UK Government is that [the Smith
Commission and Draft Clauses] is a wholly separate process with
no effect at all on the other devolved administrations. That is
naive. There is inevitably an effect".
130. Similarly, the Institute for Government
"devolution is at present proceeding on
separate tracks for each part of the UK, with important decisions
being taken in response to political pressures in each territory,
without much consideration of the implications for the rest of
the country. This may lead to what Professor Charlie Jeffery has
termed a 'constitutional chain reaction', as developments relating
to one territory then spill over in unexpected ways into debates
elsewhere in the country."
131. This has continued since the Smith Commission's
report was published. In February 2015 the Prime Minister and
Deputy Prime Minister announced a "new devolution package"
for Wales, outlining
further fiscal devolution and funding in Wales and "building
on the Wales Act 2014".
The Command Paper published by the Secretary of State for Wales
setting out this package addresses a range of the proposals made
by the Smith Commission and those conclusions of the Silk Commission
that are not reflected in the Wales Act 2014 and considers whether
there is a political consensus for making those changes in Wales.
This appears to have been done without reflection on the wider
132. Professor Jim Gallagher told us that "Governments,
and Parliaments, have tended to treat the territorial nature of
the UK as an afterthought or odditynot core to its nature,
even though it is there in lights in the name."
133. The UK's devolution settlements are of
the highest constitutional significance. We are deeply concerned
by the lack of central co-ordination and oversight of the devolution
settlements and of the minimal consideration given to the effect
of devolution in one area of the UK on other areas, and on the
Union as a whole.
134. Without a single Devolution or Union department,
it is important that ministerial responsibilities for the devolution
settlements and inter-governmental relations are clearly set out.
This is not the case at present. We noted a similar lack of oversight
of the UK's constitution as a whole in our report on the office
of Lord Chancellor.
We note that the Government insisted that the Deputy Prime Minister
plays this role, but were unable to articulate it beyond a list
of constitutional reforms.
We repeat our recommendation that there should be a clear focus
within Government for oversight of the constitution as a whole,
beyond individual constitutional reform proposals, with a senior
Cabinet minister identified as responsible for that work.
146 Justice Committee, Devolution, para 104;
written evidence from Professor Alan Page (IGR0002) and from Professor
Jim Gallagher (IGR0007) Back
Deputy Prime Minister, Government Response, paras 10-13 Back
Justice Committee, Devolution, para 29 Back
Justice Committee, Devolution, paras 31 and 63 Back
Justice Committee, Devolution, para 66 Back
Q22 (Dr Philip Rycroft) Back
Cabinet Office, List of Ministerial Responsibilities, (January
[accessed 13 February 2015] Back
Memorandum by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Political
and Constitutional Reform, published in Constitution Committee,
The Government's Constitutional Reform Programme (5th Report,
Session 2010-12, HL Paper 43) Back
National Audit Office, Cabinet Office Constitution Group,
April 2012, p. 5: http://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/NAO_briefing_Constitution_Group.pdf
[8 January 2015] Back
See Q5 (Professor Richard Wyn Jones) Back
Written evidence from Professor Alan Page (IGR0002) and Q12
(Professor Alan Page) Back
Written evidence from the Institute for Government (IGR0011);
Professor Richard Wyn Jones also commented on the junior rank
of the territorial Secretaries of State ( Q3). Back
Written from Professor Jim Gallagher (IGR0007) Back
Written from Professor Jim Gallagher (IGR0007); see also written
evidence from the Institute for Government (IGR0011) and Q37
(David Melding AM) Back
The only politician in favour was Mr Melding, who told us that
he could see such a merger working ( Q37). Back
Q53 (Carwyn Jones AM), QQ37-38 (David TC Davies MP),
and Q60 (Ian Davidson MP, Laurence Robertson MP, Bruce Crawford
Q94 (Peter Robinson MLA) and Q53 (Carwyn Jones AM) Back
Written evidence from the Scottish Government (IGR0015) Back
Trench, 'Intergovernmental relations and better devolution', p.
Cabinet Office, List of Cabinet Committees and their members
as at 2 December 2014: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/391889/CabinetCommitteeMembershipLists_Tables.pdf
[accessed 13 February 2015] Back
Oral evidence taken before the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee
of the Scottish Parliament, 4December 2014 Back
Q84; see also Constitution Committee, Proposals for the devolution of further powers to Scotland Back
also Q45 Back
Written evidence from the Institution for Government (IGR0011) Back
'"No barriers" to income tax referendum says Cameron',
BBC News, (27 February 2015): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-31646407
[accessed on 2 March 2015] Back
Powers for a Purpose, p 6. Back
Written evidence from Professor Jim Gallagher (IGR0007) Back
Constitution Committee, The Office of Lord Chancellor, (6th
Report, Session 2014-15, HL Paper 75), para 101. Back
Ministry of Justice, Government Response to the Report of the
Lords Constitution Committee on The Office of Lord Chancellor,
26 February 2015: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/constitution/
[accessed 17 March 2015] Back