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


106.  The UK Government's structures for dealing with the devolved administrations evolved from pre-1998 inter-departmental relations.[146] There 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 still have … the territorial Select Committees. There has been very little change at the centre, and you have had this fundamental change in the devolved territories."[147]

Territorial Offices and Secretaries of State


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.[148] 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, from 2002-07.

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.[149] 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."[150]

111.  In 2003-08, the Secretaries of State for Wales and Scotland also held other positions in Government—the 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.[151]


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[152] and has "overall policy responsibility for devolution",[153] 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.'").[154] 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."[155]

Towards a merged department?


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.[156] 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 across government.[157]

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 Whitehall—perhaps 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.[158]

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."[159] 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.[160]


117.  There was very little support amongst politicians for merging the Territorial Offices.[161] The most common argument was that each devolved region needed its own voice at the Cabinet table.[162] 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.[163]

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.[164] 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.[165]

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."[166]

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."[167]

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.[168] 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 departments.[169]

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.[170]

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."[171]

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."[172]

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 Kingdom."[173] 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.[174] Mr Carmichael told us that this monitoring of wider constitutional implications was "part of the assessment that we make all the time".[175] 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.[176]

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".[177]

130.  Similarly, the Institute for Government noted that:

    "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."[178]

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,[179] outlining further fiscal devolution and funding in Wales and "building on the Wales Act 2014".[180] 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 constitutional settlement.

132.  Professor Jim Gallagher told us that "Governments, and Parliaments, have tended to treat the territorial nature of the UK as an afterthought or oddity—not core to its nature, even though it is there in lights in the name."[181]

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.[182] 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.[183] 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

147    Q1 Back

148   Deputy Prime Minister, Government Response, paras 10-13 Back

149   Justice Committee, Devolution, para 29 Back

150   Justice Committee, Devolution, paras 31 and 63 Back

151   Justice Committee, Devolution, para 66 Back

152    Q22 (Dr Philip Rycroft) Back

153   Cabinet Office, List of Ministerial Responsibilities, (January 2015): system/uploads/attachment_data/file/396578/Final_LMR_JAN_2015.pdf [accessed 13 February 2015] Back

154   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

155   National Audit Office, Cabinet Office Constitution Group, April 2012, p. 5: [8 January 2015] Back

156   See  Q5 (Professor Richard Wyn Jones) Back

157   Written evidence from Professor Alan Page (IGR0002) and  Q12 (Professor Alan Page) Back

158   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

159   Written from Professor Jim Gallagher (IGR0007) Back

160   Written from Professor Jim Gallagher (IGR0007); see also written evidence from the Institute for Government (IGR0011) and  Q37 (David Melding AM) Back

161   The only politician in favour was Mr Melding, who told us that he could see such a merger working ( Q37). Back

162    Q53 (Carwyn Jones AM),  QQ37-38 (David TC Davies MP), and  Q60 (Ian Davidson MP, Laurence Robertson MP, Bruce Crawford MSP)  Back

163    Q5 Back

164    Q37 Back

165    Q94 (Peter Robinson MLA) and  Q53 (Carwyn Jones AM) Back

166    Q53 Back

167    Q95 Back

168    Q60 Back

169   Written evidence from the Scottish Government (IGR0015) Back

170    Q37 Back

171    Q81 Back

172   Trench, 'Intergovernmental relations and better devolution', p. 16 Back

173   Cabinet Office, List of Cabinet Committees and their members as at 2 December 2014: [accessed 13 February 2015] Back

174   Oral evidence taken before the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee of the Scottish Parliament,  4December 2014 Back

175    Q84 Back

176    Q84; see also Constitution Committee, Proposals for the devolution of further powers to Scotland Back

177    Q53. See also  Q45 Back

178   Written evidence from the Institution for Government (IGR0011) Back

179   '"No barriers" to income tax referendum says Cameron', BBC News, (27 February 2015): [accessed on 2 March 2015] Back

180   Powers for a Purpose, p 6. Back

181   Written evidence from Professor Jim Gallagher (IGR0007) Back

182   Constitution Committee, The Office of Lord Chancellor, (6th Report, Session 2014-15, HL Paper 75), para 101. Back

183   Ministry of Justice, Government Response to the Report of the Lords Constitution Committee on The Office of Lord Chancellor, 26 February 2015: GovernmentResponse/CC56GovtresponseOLC260215.pdf [accessed 17 March 2015] Back

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