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, and its terms of reference are set out in a Memorandum of Understanding agreed between the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister chairs the JMC in its plenary form with the devolved First Ministers. Additional ministers attend this plenary, according to the business on the agenda.
There are also a number of sub-committees that meet to consider specific issues. The two that are currently active - JMC Europe and JMC Europe Negotiations - both focus on our relations with the European Union.
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.
How does the Joint Ministerial Committee resolve disputes between Westminster and the devolved nations?
Intergovernmental disagreements used to be resolved on an ad hoc basis, but agreement was reached between the governments to create a formal Dispute Resolution Protocol in 2010. This protocol sets out an agreed process for avoiding and resolving disputes.
This has been 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.
Most recently, the Welsh and Scottish governments sought to open a dispute about the Conservative 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 has been no public response from the UK Government on this matter.
The JMC Plenary is supposed to meet at least once every year, but this did not happen 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 need for formal summits between the four governments.
The JMC Plenary was resurrected after the Scottish National Party (SNP) came to power in Scotland, who 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 14 March 2018, as the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments sought to resolve their disagreement on the EU Withdrawal Bill.
The JMC Europe Sub-committee has met at least 68 times since 1999, but has met less often in recent years.
The JMC European Negotiations Sub-committee was expected to meet on a monthly basis. It kept to this schedule until February 2017, then ceased operation for eight months until October 2017, after which it has met a further three times.
Former sub-committees of the JMC focused on poverty, health, the knowledge economy and other domestic issues.
Currently, the most important sub-committee is JMC European Negotiations established in 2016 to facilitate discussion between Westminster and the devolved governments over the UK’s Brexit strategy.
Its meetings are chaired by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, and its stated objective is to “agree a UK approach to, and objectives for, Article 50 negotiations”.
When it met in October 2017, agreement was reached on principles for ‘common frameworks’ between the UK and devolved governments in areas currently governed by EU law. Subsequent meetings have facilitated negotiations between the UK and devolved governments over Welsh and Scottish objections to the EU Withdrawal Bill. At the meeting on the 22 February, the UK and devolved governments noted that although “progress had been made”, agreement had still not been reached on “the form of an amendment” to Clause 11 of the bill.
The other sub-committee, JMC Europe, has met regularly since 1999 to allow discussion on EU policy matters that affect devolved policy areas.
JMC Europe is chaired by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and operates as one of the principal mechanisms for consultation on UK positions on EU issues "which affect devolved matters”. It offers devolved ministers the opportunity to provide input into the UK negotiating position.
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 by devolved governments. This has been a source of frustration in the context of Brexit with an eight-month gap between meetings of the JMC European Negotiations Sub-committee.
- As a “consultative body" rather than an executive body, the JMC does not take decisions that "bind any of the participating administrations”. This has led to frustration in the Scottish and Welsh governments, who criticised the JMC European Negotiations Sub-committee for simply providing an opportunity to rehearse well-established public positions rather than meaningful discussions of the key issues that are aimed at reaching an agreement.
- Various inquiries and studies have shown that the JMC's lack of transparency limits the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny. In Scotland, this has led to the Written Agreement on Parliamentary Oversight of Intergovernmental Relations which requires Scottish ministers to provide greater information to the Scottish Parliament about negotiations with the UK Government. No such agreement exists in Westminster.
The devolved governments have expressed a desire to strengthen the machinery of the JMC, particularly in the aftermath of the EU referendum.
In their post-Brexit white paper, Securing Wales’ Future, the Welsh Government said the JMC should be transformed into a ‘UK Council of Ministers’ to make joint decisions, and be held to account by robust and independent dispute resolution mechanism.
Recent commissions on the devolution settlements from 2014 have recommended reforms to the way the JMC works. The Smith Commission for Scotland said that the JMC must be reformed as “a matter of urgency and scaled up significantly”, while the Wales’ Silk Commission called for a more “formal mechanism for bilateral engagement between the Welsh Government and the UK Government”, dubbed the ‘Welsh Intergovernmental Committee’.
With Brexit, the Welsh Government argues that reforms are more pressing than ever.
The Institute for Government has called for more time and resources to support the JMC Plenary meetings, with more forthright discussions on sensitive topics and greater transparency and scrutiny than currently exists.