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 are currently active: 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.
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 objective is to “agree a UK approach to, and objectives for, Article 50 negotiations.”
JMC (EN) meetings are attended by ministers responsible for Brexit preparations in the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments, with the chair rotating among them. Due to the lack of an executive in Northern Ireland, senior officials in the Northern Ireland civil service attend in lieu of ministers.
Despite frustrations from the devolved governments about their ability to influence the Brexit process, the JMC (EN) has brokered some important 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.
More recently, JMC (EN) meetings have included discussions on the preparedness of the UK and devolved governments, in particular for a no-deal Brexit scenario.
The other active JMC 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 Minister of State at the Department for Exiting the EU, Lord Callanan, 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 on EU policy initiatives.
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 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 early November 2019.
The JMC Europe sub-committee has met at least 79 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. Meetings have been inconsistent since then and it has met five times in 2019 so far.
In addition to the JMC, other bodies include the Ministerial Forum on EU Negotiations (involving more junior ministers than the JMC); the Inter Ministerial Group for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and the ‘Finance Quad’, at which economic and fiscal issues are discussed.
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. This has been an ongoing source of frustration in the context of Brexit.
- 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 on key issues.
- 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 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”.
The devolved governments have regularly expressed a desire to strengthen the machinery of the JMC, particularly following the EU referendum. 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.
It is ongoing, though the Scottish and Welsh governments have expressed frustration with the overall rate of progress. In July 2019, draft principles on intergovernmental relations were published. But there has been no other public update on the progress of the review.
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.