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

Summary of Conclusions and Recommendations


1.  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. (Paragraph 13)

2.  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. (Paragraph 16)

The formal structures of inter-governmental relations

3.  We agree that the best relationships strike a balance between formal and informal elements. (Paragraph 41)

4.  It is clear that, while some parts of the JMC structure work better than others, in the eyes of the devolved administrations at least the way the JMC system works at present is not satisfactory. The Domestic sub-committee, in particular, does not appear to serve a useful purpose. (Paragraph 50)

5.  There are areas where formal bilateral mechanisms are appropriate, particularly in the areas of tax and welfare where the proposed devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament significantly increases the complexity of the devolution settlement, as would proposed income tax powers for the National Assembly for Wales. (Paragraph 61)

6.  Formal bilateral forums co-ordinating the operation of the complex fiscal devolution settlements should continue the work of the Joint Exchequer Committees and the new UK-Scotland Ministerial Working Group on Welfare. We recommend that these be brought within the auspices of the JMC structure, to ensure that their work is co-ordinated as part of a wider inter-governmental relations strategy. (Paragraph 62)

7.  We recommend that the Cabinet Office, as part of its current review of inter-governmental structures, consider and report on how a revised Joint Ministerial Committee structure might best be used to facilitate joint policy-making and co-ordination. Provision should be made to ensure that policy initiatives can come from the devolved administrations, as well as from the UK Government. (Paragraph 70)

8.  The Joint Ministerial Committee should be given the flexibility to create additional sub-committees on policy areas where regular four-way discussions are required, or temporary sub-committees on cross-cutting UK-wide issues that are beyond the scope of bilateral co-operation between devolved administrations and individual UK Government departments. (Paragraph 71)

9.  The creation of such sub-committees should not be seen as an end in itself and the continued existence of each sub-committee should be regularly reviewed by the JMC plenary. (Paragraph 72)

10.  The current dispute resolution procedure under the JMC has yet to be fully tested. We note, however, the concerns expressed by the devolved administrations that in the event of a dispute any decision is ultimately made by the UK Government. We do not believe that any form of external arbitration or mediation would be feasible, given that many disputes are likely to be essentially political in nature, but we recommend that the Cabinet Office, in co-operation with the devolved administrations, consider how the process of dispute resolution might be made more independent of the UK Government. (Paragraph 76)

11.  The Government should consider whether the framework of inter-governmental relations should be set out in statute. Such a statute could set out the existence and membership of the Joint Ministerial Committee and its core sub-committees, along with the core principles governing relations between administrations. This legislation could provide a basic framework, within which the Memorandum of Understanding and departmental concordats would continue to detail how inter-governmental interactions would function in practice. (Paragraph 86)

12.  Whether or not it becomes a sub-committee of the Joint Ministerial Committee, the Finance Minsters' Quadrilateral should be included as a permanent fixture in any statute setting out the framework of inter-governmental relations, with the added exposure to scrutiny that this should bring. (Paragraph 89)

13.  We recommend that the Government consider tasking an independent body to provide the statistics and evidence on which to base decisions about the allocation of funding to the devolved administrations. (Paragraph 91)

14.  The UK Government should continue to chair JMC meetings. However, to mitigate the perception of UK Government dominance the hosting of the JMC plenary and sub-committee meetings should be shared on a rotating basis. (Paragraph 101)

15.  Although different administrations may hold different views about the future shape of the UK, all governments share an interest in ensuring that the current system of inter-governmental relations operates as effectively and fairly as possible. (Paragraph 105)

Ministerial responsibilities

16.  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. (Paragraph 125)

17.  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. (Paragraph 127)

18.  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. (Paragraph 133)

19.  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. (Paragraph 134)

The Civil Service and departmental interactions

20.  We welcome examples of formal structures 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. (Paragraph 146)

21.  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. (Paragraph 147)

22.  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. (Paragraph 162)

23.  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. (Paragraph 163)

24.  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. (Paragraph 170)

25.  We would welcome clarification from the Government as to how training on dealing with devolved administrations is now provided, following the closure of the National School of Government in 2012. (Paragraph 171)

Transparency and parliamentary scrutiny

26.  Greater transparency around the Joint Ministerial Committee is vital. A balance needs to be maintained between confidentiality and openness, but the current lack of information is not acceptable. We recommend that the dates, venues and headline agenda items of Joint Ministerial Committee meetings be announced further in advance. (Paragraph 184)

27.  We recommend that the Government consider what additional information could be published following Joint Ministerial Committee meetings and meetings of bilateral forums such as the Joint Exchequer Committee, and in the Joint Ministerial Committee annual report. This information should, at the very least, be published promptly and laid in the libraries of both Houses of Parliament. (Paragraph 185)

28.  Were the Joint Ministerial Committee framework to be placed on a statutory footing, Parliament should ensure that the legislation requires adequate information to be published to enable effective parliamentary scrutiny of inter-governmental relations. (Paragraph 186)

29.  In addition to ensuring that formal guidance notes are regularly updated, we recommend that UK Government departments detail in their annual reports which areas of their work are devolved and which are reserved. They should also set out the forums and bodies through which they engage with the devolved administrations, reporting at a high level on their activity over the past year. This would provide a solid base on which parliamentary scrutiny of bilateral relations between government departments and the devolved administrations might take place. (Paragraph 188)

30.  We hope that common ground can be found on which to base some form of cross-parliamentary scrutiny of inter-governmental relations, although we make no specific recommendations as to how this might best be achieved. That is a matter for each parliament or assembly and its relevant committees. (Paragraph 198)

31.  We repeat the recommendation we made in 2002: the Prime Minister should make an annual statement to the House of Commons after the plenary meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee regarding that meeting and the conduct of inter-governmental relations in the United Kingdom generally over the previous 12 months. (Paragraph 202)

32.  We support proposals for an independent annual audit of inter-governmental relations. (Paragraph 203)

33.  We recognise these administrative difficulties, but in view of the increasing range of policy areas currently devolved and due to be devolved and given the likely expansion of shared or concurrent powers, the prohibition on Parliament debating matters for which responsibility has been devolved may no longer be appropriate. (Paragraph 208)

Inter-governmental relations, devolution and the future of the United Kingdom

34.  As we note in our recent report Proposals for the devolution of further powers to Scotland, we consider that the Government, and the major UK-wide parties, need to devise and articulate a vision for the future of the state and its devolution settlements. An overarching vision for the future shape of the United Kingdom should be a stabilising force in its own right and would also allow for inter-governmental arrangements to be organised on a more stable basis. (Paragraph 211)

35.  In September 2014 the people of Scotland voted for the continuation of a devolved Scotland within the UK; the people of the UK as a whole need now to establish how the Union will work in future. An overarching strategy should reinforce the central position of the Union in our country's constitutional architecture, while recognising the benefits that devolution can bring. A comprehensive, pan-UK strategy is needed to provide a coherent basis for any discussions of further devolution and afford greater constitutional stability to the United Kingdom. (Paragraph 212)

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