Even when severe political disagreements come between the UK’s four governments – as during the Scottish independence referendum campaign – civil servants can and do communicate and co-operate in good faith. But our new report finds evidence of weaknesses in the systems by which these governments co-operate, negotiate and compete. There have been disputes over legislation, money, welfare and energy policy, and failures to consult or share information. And constitutional thinking remains fragmented – Westminster and Whitehall deal separately with each part of the UK, insufficiently reflecting on how the different settlements relate to one another.
This is the final report of a major, 10-month study of devolution in the UK, carried out in partnership with the Centre for Constitutional Change in Edinburgh, and focusing on how to provide effective government in the context of an increasingly complex and fluid constitutional settlement. Our conclusion is that systems for managing relations between the different parts of the country are coming under strain as a result of political divergence between the governments, financial pressures in the context of austerity, and the growing complexity of the country’s ‘territorial constitution’.
Government needs to adapt its systems and approaches for dealing with devolution in this changing context. If it does not, the risk is that disputes will increase, trust between governments will decline and the quality of public services will suffer.
We argue that reform is needed in six main areas.
First, there is a need for a more joined-up and coherent approach to managing the constitution as a whole. The UK government should look at merging into a single department the various teams and departments that have responsibility for aspects of devolution. But separate policy teams and ministers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be retained nonetheless, to reflect the differences between the three settlements.
Second, Whitehall should raise its game in terms of devolution awareness and consultation with the devolved governments during the policy process. When policy is developed or announced it should also be made clear which part of the country the department is acting for. This will become particularly important if ‘English votes for English laws’ is implemented.
Third, the four governments should strengthen and take more seriously the formal intergovernmental machinery at which ministers from across the UK meet, and use it to improve mutual understanding, to share lessons and solve disputes. There should also be more transparency and scrutiny of how disputes are resolved and how devolved budgets are set.
Fourth, bilateral relations between the UK and individual devolved governments must be strengthened to ensure effective policy co-operation. There is a strong case for a new Welsh Intergovernmental Committee to co-ordinate activity across ‘jagged edges’ where devolved and non-devolved powers are closely related (for instance employment and skills). There is also a growing need for partnership working between the UK and Scottish governments to ensure effective joint management of the welfare and tax systems. The recent near collapse of devolution in Northern Ireland leads to the similar conclusion that more formalised intergovernmental contact across the Irish Sea is needed too.
Fifth, while all governments benefit from the existence of a unified Home Civil Service, interchange of staff and other activities that strengthen relationships appear to have declined. To prevent a drift towards fragmentation, there should be more active management of the Civil Service as a whole by civil service leaders and ministers. This should include encouragement of secondments between the governments, and an expansion of joint training and development initiatives.
Sixth, when further devolution is on the table, joint teams answering to the UK and devolved governments should be created to work through options, consider implementation challenges, and generate a single evidence base. Future changes to the devolution settlements should also be designed to avoid messy divisions of competence between levels of government. We support the proposal to move Welsh devolution from a ‘conferred powers’ to a ‘reserved powers’ model, as it seems likely to reduce the likelihood of disputes.
Encouragingly, it appears that progress is already being made in some of these areas. In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, for instance, it was announced that senior Scottish and UK officials would jointly explore how to encourage interchange and other shared activities. But with the general election now at the forefront of most people’s minds, the risk is that Whitehall and Westminster go back to business as usual – with devolution and territorial issues taken into account too little and too late. After 7 May, the Institute for Government will be reminding the Government that this could come at the expense of good and co-operative relations between the four nations of the UK.