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


CHAPTER 4: THE CIVIL SERVICE AND DEPARTMENTAL INTERACTIONS


135.  The majority of inter-governmental interactions take place between ministers and officials in UK Government departments and devolved administrations, outside the formal structures of the JMC and other bodies addressed above. Relations between officials and ministers in UK Government departments and in the devolved administrations are thus a vital part of the inter-governmental relations in the UK.

136.  The UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments are all supported by a unified Home Civil Service. The Northern Ireland Civil Service has been separate since 1921 but closely resembles the Home Civil Service in its organisation and principles. Concerns have been expressed over the impartiality of civil servants during the Scottish independence referendum, which is currently the subject of an inquiry by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee.[184] We did not address the issue of the structure of the Civil Service for this inquiry, but note that the Silk and Calman Commissions echoed our 2002 conclusion that the unified Home Civil Service should be retained.[185]

137.  Professor McEwen, from the University of Edinburgh, told us that, "a crucial component of intergovernmental relations takes place informally, in regular ad hoc communication between ministers and officials at all levels of responsibility."[186] Dr Philip Rycroft, Director General in the Deputy Prime Minister's Office and the UK Government's lead official on inter-governmental relations, stressed the importance of "the quality of the relationships" between officials and ministers, a sentiment echoed by the Institute for Government.[187] It is worth noting that these relationships and the day-to-day interactions were maintained through the Scottish independence referendum campaign and the political tensions that it aroused.[188]

138.  The experience of inter-governmental relations for officials varies considerably between and within departments, depending on whether a policy area is entirely devolved, entirely reserved or somewhere between the two.[189] With the implementation of Smith Commission's recommendations, there will be an increasing number of policy areas where the boundary between devolved and reserved matters will become harder to define.

139.  Dr Rycroft described a "hierarchy" of communication with the devolved administrations. The "vast majority of communication and interaction between the UK Government departments and the devolved administrations takes place without direct Cabinet Office or territorial office oversight or involvement".[190] The advantages of the majority of inter-governmental interactions being conducted at this level were stressed by the Scottish Government and by former Scottish Minister Bruce Crawford MSP.[191] Professor Richard Wyn Jones, from the University of Cardiff, told us that, at some points, the Welsh Government had sought to by-pass the Wales Office in order to get things done.[192]

140.  These direct interactions between departments and devolved administrations are predominantly between policy teams at a working level: Graham Pendlebury told us that, speaking as the head of a devolution unit in the Department for Transport (DfT), he "would very much expect the individual policy and modal teams within the department to have their own bilateral relations with their counterparts in the different devolved administrations. Indeed, I would see it as a failure if everything came through me, because that would suggest that the bilateral relationship was not really working".[193]

141.  Dr Rycroft told us that, above the individual departments, the territorial offices are involved on specific issues—such as on the industrial dispute at Grangemouth oil refinery or over the electrification of the Welsh Valley railways—particularly if they were cross-cutting or involved legislation. Finally, the Cabinet Office "would usually only get involved if there was a particular need to do so—for example, if an issue was proving particularly difficult to resolve and get a common position on in Whitehall, or if it had implications for the wider constitutional settlement."[194]

Formal and informal arrangements

142.  As with the higher-level, more political structures of the JMC, a balance needs to be found between informal interactions and formal structures at the level of the civil service. Lindsey Whyte, Deputy Director in charge of Devolution at HM Treasury, said that: "I would characterise the current situation by saying that the vast majority of our interaction is informal, and also bilateral with individual devolved administrations."[195]

143.  This echoes what we found in our 2002 report: that inter-governmental interactions at all levels were frequent, bilateral and "highly informal", and that they relied on goodwill between administrations.[196]

144.  As with ministerial and head-of-government relationships, contact between civil servants through formal forums can help to foster and maintain good inter-personal relationships. The Institute for Government told us that:

    "while good relationships are vital, our research also found that the existence of regular forums for discussion of particular policy issues can be a useful way to build such relationships. … So our conclusion is that well-designed formal mechanisms in areas where there is a clear need for intergovernmental cooperation or consultation can help to build the informal relationships and networks that bring wider benefits."[197]

145.  Mr Pendlebury gave an example of the form such formal structures could take, and the extent to which the UK Government and devolved administrations also work with regional and local authorities for effective delivery:

    "I chair the UK Roads Liaison Group, which sounds a bit boring but it sets common standards of best practice for maintaining bridges, dealing with winter resilience and so forth. That has a series of structures and involves not just the devolved administrations but Scottish, Welsh and English local government, Transport for London, the Highways Agency et cetera. Two of the four boards are chaired by devolved administration personnel. Our delegate to the World Road Association is from Transport Scotland, and we meet about quarterly. That is a very fertile exchange. We say, 'This is what we are doing in our different areas'."[198]

146.  We welcome this and other examples of formal structures[199] which lead to regular and defined engagement between UK government departments and the devolved administrations. These are useful means by which to build relationships between departments which are not dependent on individuals who may move jobs or retire.

147.  As we have previously noted, the changing devolution settlements will result in a more complex arrangement of devolved and reserved policy areas, particularly in areas such as welfare and tax policy. In the light of these changes, we recommend that the Government consider whether more formal structures are needed at a civil service level to manage these increasingly complex inter-governmental relations—particularly in the context of those departments which are most affected by the changes.

An inconsistent approach

148.  One of the common concerns we heard was that UK Government departments were inconsistent in their knowledge of, and interactions with, the devolved administrations.[200] Professor Alan Page told us that:

    "The essential weakness of the current arrangements lies not so much in the framework within which intergovernmental relations are conducted, although that stands in need of revision, as in the fact intergovernmental relations are for the most part left to the uncoordinated efforts of Whitehall departments."[201]

149.  The Institute for Government told us that "There is also a wider frustration at the devolved level about the variable performance of Whitehall in consulting and engaging the devolved governments when developing policy that affects devolved areas."[202] Professor Nicola McEwen described the variation between departments as "probably the biggest hindrance to positive working relations".[203]

150.  The First Minister of Wales told us that his experience of UK government departments was "variable". He explained:

    "With some departments the relationship is very good and we are able to have open communications without difficulty. With others, we are not. The Department of Health is the biggest problem from our point of view. We have been the subject of leaks from that department on more than one occasion. I think it is fair to say that there is no level of trust at all with it at the moment. It would not be fair to say that about other Whitehall departments at all. They take an entirely different and professional view on this."[204]

151.  He added that UK departments sometimes failed to recognise the differences between the devolved administrations:

    "There is also a difference in the perception of devolution in Scotland and in Northern Ireland as compared to Wales. It is not always case—and the Home Office … is an example of this—that there are different devolved structures in Wales. Again, it is not a Whitehall failing collectively; it is an issue with some departments, not so much with others. Their awareness of Scottish devolution and its structures tends to be far better than their awareness of Wales."[205]

152.  This inconsistency was recognised by Dr Rycroft, who noted that "The referendum campaign shone a very harsh light, if you like, on the understanding of devolution and the relationship between different parts of the UK and Whitehall."[206] He said:

    "For a lot of departments, doing devolved business is absolutely essential and mainstream for operations, and you will find there is a very good, deep understanding across those departments of how to manage that business with the devolved administrations. For other departments and for bits of other departments, their interaction with the devolved administrations may be more ad hoc and more infrequent."[207]

153.  Amongst the general inconsistency of knowledge and behaviour of UK departments, the First Ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland both highlighted the lack of consultation around reforms to secondary-school qualifications. The First Minister of Northern Ireland also told us that his administration had first heard about the changes to GCSEs when they were reported in the press;[208] while Mr Jones referred to it as one example of "where we have had to adapt our policies as a result of a sudden announcement that is made in England."[209]

154.  There are a number of factors that may influence the spread of knowledge and experience across Whitehall. We take these in turn.

GUIDANCE

155.  The day-to-day relationships between individual government departments and agencies and the devolved administrations are governed by the Memorandum of Understanding, an array of concordats and a series of UK Government 'devolution guidance notes'.[210] As described above, the MOU is the key inter-governmental relationship agreement between the UK Government and the three devolved administrations and has been updated several times since the resumption of JMC plenary meetings in 2008.

156.  At a departmental level, the concordats serve a similar purpose, setting out in a non-legally-binding way how the signatory UK Government department and devolved administration will interact. This Committee, in our 2002 report, recommended that "concordats be made for a fixed term only" and should be renegotiated at the end of that term.[211] The then Government stated that the concordats were "already reviewed on a regular basis".[212] This assertion has not been borne out in the long term.

157.  Many of the concordats with the Scottish Government date from the early years of devolution, despite departmental restructuring and the passage of the Scotland Act 2012.[213] The Welsh Government's concordats, by contrast, have been updated since the passage of the Government of Wales Act 2006.[214]

158.  Professor Page, from the University of Dundee, was concerned about how the lack of attention to the Scottish concordats reflected on inter-governmental relations more generally:

    "The revision of the framework needs to extend to bilateral concordats between individual Whitehall departments and the devolved administrations, which in the Scottish case are seriously out of date, many of them not having been revised since they were first entered into. … The fact that they have not been 'regularly reviewed' … speaks to a more general neglect of intergovernmental relations since the current arrangements were first put in place."[215]

159.  Mr Pendlebury told us that:

    "the DfT concordats are a bit long in the tooth … we ought to engage with our colleagues around the UK, particularly in the light of the changes that are happening, and refresh them a little. The fact that they have not been refreshed probably signifies that there is quite a bit of dust gathering on them."[216]

160.  Concordats should be kept up to date in case they are needed to facilitate good relations.[217] Moreover, the act of reviewing them can be constructive in itself. As Defra official John Robbs told us,

    "The process of clarifying areas of different interpretation can be very useful, and every now and again they need to be reviewed to make sure that they are working. Once you have written them and got that in your head, the vital thing, of course, is the working relationships and practice, not constantly referring to what is written down on paper."[218]

161.  The same principle applies to the UK Government's devolution guidance notes. These have been referred to as "rather important parts of the knitting that make the devolved UK work".[219] Mr Pendlebury told us that, for an official looking to understand his or her department's relationships with devolved administrations:

    "the Cabinet Office devolution guidance is better [than the concordats]. It is written in plain English and has handy hints on how to do some fairly common-sense things, so I would guide people towards that. In DfT, we have on our own departmental intranet guidance on relations with the devolved administrations".[220]

Mr Robbs also told us that Defra have their own guidance available to staff.[221]

162.  We recommend that the concordats setting out relations between UK government departments and the devolved administrations be reviewed at least once during each Parliament and, in particular, each time there is a change in the devolution settlements. Devolution guidance notes should also be reviewed and updated regularly.[222]

163.  As noted above (paragraph 153), the devolved administrations have expressed concerns about occasions on which there was no previous consultation or advance warning of UK Government policy changes which had an impact on the devolved administrations. Departmental concordats should set out clearly how the devolved administrations should be consulted on, and alerted to, forthcoming changes to UK Government policy that might have an effect on the devolved administrations.

EXPERIENCE AND EXPERTISE AMONG CIVIL SERVANTS

164.  While experience and expertise is liable to vary among civil servants depending on whether their policy or delivery areas are devolved or reserved, we also heard from Professor Wyn Jones that there was a "quite striking lack of expertise at a senior level in Whitehall in terms of the devolved territories."[223] The First Minister of Wales agreed that this was a problem: the situation was not as bad as it once was, he said, but was "still far from perfect". He also felt that awareness in Whitehall of Scottish devolution was better than of the Welsh settlement and institutions.[224] This expertise may come from day-to-day working with devolved administrations, but direct experience of working in those administrations can be invaluable.

165.  We heard that direct experience of working in devolved administrations is rare among Whitehall civil servants: Dr Rycroft (who previously worked in the then Scottish Executive) told us that it had decreased in the years since 1999.[225] The First Minister of Wales agreed,[226] while the First Minister of Northern Ireland noted that "it is true that there will be relatively few of those in officialdom who have sojourned in Northern Ireland or other devolved regions, so their knowledge comes from reading a brief, which can never pick up the nuances of issues in the same way."[227]

166.  Officials from other UK Government departments described a varied picture. Mr Pendlebury said that none of his director-level colleagues at the Department for Transport had worked in the devolved administrations, but there were secondments for specific projects. Similarly Mr Robbs told us that there were a "relatively small number" of secondments in Defra and its arm's length bodies, primarily at a working level. Lindsey Whyte told us that secondments out of HM Treasury to devolved administrations, as well as to other departments, the private sector and international institutions, were encouraged.[228]

167.  Dr Rycroft told that the benefits of this kind of experience went beyond an understanding of the interactions of devolved and central government:

    "there is enormous value in people understanding how work is transacted in those different environments [the devolved administrations]. … Whitehall has a huge amount to learn from how the devolved administrations operate. It is a different sort of challenge. Par for par, officials in devolved administrations are dealing with a far wider span of policy than their counterparts in Whitehall, and that has enormous benefits for the way they think and deal with policy and relate to the world out there. Whitehall has a huge amount to learn about that."[229]

168.  Given the importance of building up good relationships, Dr Rycroft also stressed the benefits of "finding opportunities for officials [from UK departments and devolved administrations] to learn together", such as on training courses.[230]

169.  Each government department has a senior official responsible for devolution. Dr Rycroft chairs a monthly meeting of these director-level officials to share best practice in day-to-day engagement with devolved administrations.[231]

170.  It is already the case that a lack of experience of the devolved administrations is affecting inter-governmental relations in the UK. This problem will only grow as further powers are devolved. Over time, the level and breadth of engagement between government departments and the devolved administrations will continue to expand. To prepare for this, we recommend that the Government sets out a strategy for ensuring that senior civil servants have either experience of, or training in, working with devolved administrations. Any work to improve exchanges of officials should include the Northern Ireland Civil Service, as well as taking place within the Home Civil Service that supports the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments.

171.  It is important that effective training on dealing with devolved administrations is available for civil servants. The National School of Government ran courses for officials on 'Devolution in action' and 'Working with devolved administrations',[232] but closed in 2012. We would welcome clarification from the Government as to how this training is now provided.


184   Civil Service impartiality and referendums inquiry: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/ committees-a-z/commons-select/public-administration-select-committee/inquiries/parliament-2010/civil-service-impartiality-and-referendums [accessed 11 March 2015] Back

185   Constitution Committee, Devolution, para 169; see Silk Commission, Empowerment and Responsibility, recommendation R.57 and Calman Commission, Serving Scotland Better, para 4.91. Back

186   Written evidence from Professor McEwan (IGR0010) Back

187    QQ21, 23 and 27; written evidence from the Institution for Government (IGR0011) Back

188   Written evidence from Lord Empey (IGR0012);  Q11 (Professor Nicola McEwen) and  Q17 (Dr Philip Rycroft) Back

189    Q68 (John Robbs and Lindsey Whyte) Back

190    Q20 (Dr Philip Rycroft) Back

191   Written evidence from the Scottish Government (IGR0015);  Q60 Back

192   Q2 and  Q4 Back

193    Q68 Back

194    Q20 Back

195    Q70 Back

196   Constitution Committee, Devolution, para 23 Back

197   Written evidence from the Institute for Government (IGR0011); see also  Q57 (Bruce Crawford MSP). Back

198    Q69 Back

199    Q68 (John Robbs) Back

200   See  Q1 (Professor Richard Wyn Jones) Back

201   Written evidence from Professor Alan Page (IGR0002) Back

202   Written evidence from the Institute for Government (IGR0011) Back

203    Q11 Back

204    Q51 Back

205    Q51 Back

206    Q24 Back

207    Q20 Back

208    Q88 Back

209    Q43 Back

210   The latter are available on the UK Government website: Devolution guidance notes, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/devolution-guidance-notes [accessed 12 March 2015] Back

211   Constitution Committee, Devolution, para 43 Back

212   Deputy Prime Minister, Government Response, para 8 Back

213   Concordats between Scottish Ministers, United Kingdom Government and the Cabinet of the National Assembly of Wales: http://www.gov.scot/About/Government/concordats [accessed 23 February 2015] Back

214   Concordats: http://wales.gov.uk/about/organisationexplained/intergovernmental/concordats/?lang=en [accessed 23 February 2015] Back

215   Written evidence from Professor Alan Page (IGR0002) Back

216    Q74 Back

217   See Constitution Committee, Devolution, para 39. Back

218    Q74 Back

219   Alan Trench, 'New Welsh Devolution Guidance Notes', Devolution Matters blog, 11 June 2012: https://devolutionmatters.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/new-welsh-devolution-guidance-notes/ [accessed 23 February 2015] Back

220    Q74 Back

221    Q74 Back

222   See written evidence from the Institute for Government (IGR0011) Back

223    Q3 Back

224    Q51 Back

225    Q25 Back

226    Q51 Back

227    Q93 Back

228    Q75 Back

229    Q25 Back

230    Q25 Back

231    Q24; see also  Q74 (Graham Pendlebury) Back

232   Letter from Principal and Chief Executive, National School of Government, to Lord Norton of Louth, 30 January 2007: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200607/ldlwa/070129wa1.pdf [accessed 24 February 2015] Back


 
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