The Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) is a set of committees that comprises ministers from the UK and devolved governments.
The JMC system was created in 1999 at the start of devolution. Its terms of reference are set out in a Memorandum of Understanding agreed between the governments of the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and amended on several occasions since then.
The prime minister chairs the JMC in its plenary form with the devolved first ministers. Additional ministers (mainly from the UK Cabinet) attend plenary meetings, with the attendance determined by the business on the agenda.
There are also several JMC sub-committees which consider specific issues and are attended by ministers holding relevant policy responsibilities in the various governments.
Only two JMC sub-committees have held meetings over the past few years: JMC Europe and JMC EU Negotiations (JMC (EN)).
Former sub-committees of the JMC focused on poverty, health, the knowledge economy and domestic policy in general. These ceased operation several years ago.
The Memorandum of Understanding says the JMC should provide central co-ordination of the overall relationship between the UK and the devolved nations, and:
- consider non-devolved matters which affect devolved responsibilities (and vice versa)
- consider devolved matters if it is beneficial to discuss their respective treatment in the different parts of the UK
- keep the arrangements for liaison between the governments under review
- consider disputes between the governments.
The JMC EU Negotiations sub-committee was created specifically as a forum to discuss the UK’s Brexit strategy. Its original objective was to “agree a UK approach to, and objectives for, Article 50 negotiations.”
Ministers responsible for Brexit preparations in the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments attended JMC (EN) meetings, and the chair rotated among them. Before the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland in January, due to the lack of an executive, senior officials in the Northern Ireland civil service attend in lieu of ministers.
Despite criticism from the devolved governments and others, the JMC (EN) has brokered some agreements. For instance, in October 2017, agreement was reached on the principles for ‘common frameworks’ between the UK and devolved governments in areas currently governed by EU law.
Subsequent meetings facilitated negotiations between the UK and devolved governments over Welsh and Scottish objections to the EU Withdrawal Bill. This led to agreement being reached with the Welsh but not the Scottish government.
JMC (EN) meetings also provided a forum for discussions on the preparedness of the UK and devolved governments for Brexit, in particular for a no-deal Brexit scenario.
Up until the end of 2019, the other active JMC sub-committee was JMC Europe, which met regularly to allow discussion on EU policy matters that affect devolved policy areas.
How does the Joint Ministerial Committee resolve disputes between Westminster and the devolved nations?
In 2010, the UK and devolved governments agreed to create a formal Dispute Resolution Protocol. It sets out an agreed process for avoiding and resolving disputes.
This protocol was invoked four times between 2010 and 2013 by devolved administrations against the UK government. Three of these disputes related to the funding of the devolved governments, and the fourth concerned the allocation of fishing quotas.
In July 2017, the Welsh and Scottish governments sought to open a dispute about the Conservative government's confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which contained additional public spending commitments for Northern Ireland, but not for Scotland and Wales. There was no public response from the UK government on this matter, leading to Scottish and Welsh criticisms about the weakness of the Dispute Resolution Protocol.
The JMC Plenary is supposed to meet at least once every year, but no meetings occurred at all between 2002 and 2008.
In the early years of devolution, Labour was in government in Westminster, Cardiff Bay and Holyrood, while Northern Ireland was under direct rule for much of this period until 2007. This meant that intergovernmental communication was conducted through informal channels and there was little perceived need for formal summits between the four governments.
The JMC Plenary was resurrected after the Scottish National Party (SNP) came to power in Scotland in 2007 and expressed a desire to “be treated with proper respect as the head of an independent government”.
Since then it has met more frequently – though still erratically. It met most recently on 19 December 2018. In July 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson committed to holding a JMC Plenary meeting but this had not yet happened as of the beginning of June 2020.
The JMC Europe sub-committee has met at least 80 times since 1999. For some years it met on a quarterly basis, prior to meetings of the EU Council of Ministers, but this has happened less frequently in recent years.
The JMC (EN) sub-committee was initially expected to meet on a monthly basis. It kept to this schedule until February 2017, then ceased operation for eight months. The schedule of meetings has been irregular since then. It met five times in 2019 and three times so far in 2020.
In addition to the JMC, other intergovernmental bodies that bring together ministers from the UK and devolved governments include the Inter Ministerial Group for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and the ‘Finance Quad’, at which economic and fiscal issues are discussed.
During the early phase of the coronavirus crisis, other forums were used to facilitate dialogue between UK and devolved ministers about how best to respond to the pandemic. These included the COBRA emergency response committee and ministerial implementation groups focused on the response in particular areas such as health and economic policy.
A number of criticisms have been levelled at the JMC:
- Meetings are held only when the UK government decides, leading to an irregular pattern that limits the opportunities for input from the devolved governments.
- As a ‘consultative body’ rather than an executive body, the JMC does not make decisions that "bind any of the participating administrations”. This has led to frustration in the Scottish and Welsh governments, which have criticised the JMC European Negotiations sub-committee for simply providing an opportunity to rehearse well-established public positions rather than to have meaningful discussions aimed at reaching agreement.
- The JMC's lack of transparency limits the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny.
- The Dispute Resolution Protocol has been criticised by the Scottish and Welsh governments and the Scottish Affairs Committee, with particular criticism of the UK government’s dominant role in adjudicating disputes. Michael Russell MSP attributes the small number of complaints lodged to a lack of trust in the procedure, stating “that is why it is not used – because there is no point in using it”.
In March 2018, the UK and devolved governments launched a review of intergovernmental relations.
This review is looking at the principles underpinning the UK–devolved relationship, dispute resolution processes, the future of the JMC system, and the role of the devolved governments in future international negotiations.
In July 2019, draft principles on intergovernmental relations were published. But there has been no other public update on the progress of the review. In June 2020, it was stated by Jeremy Miles, Counsel General for Wales, that the review had resumed working.
Over the years, there have been a wide range of proposals for reform and improvement to the JMC structure, including:
- Transforming the JMC into a ‘UK Council of Ministers’ with formal decision-making powers in some areas.
- Ensuring greater transparency, for instance by requiring publication of the agenda of JMC meetings and a record of what is discussed and agreed.
- The creation of an independent secretariat to support the JMC.
- Placing the JMC, or aspects of it, on a statutory footing.
- Rotating the location and chair of the meetings between the four governments.