It has long been assumed that UK devolution was structured around a clear separation of powers that are reserved to the UK parliament and those that are devolved. Both Brexit and the Covid-19 crisis have highlighted the interdependence between devolved and reserved powers and responsibilities. They have also exposed the weakness of intergovernmental relations in the UK as overly informal, ad hoc, hierarchical, and ill-equipped for dealing with contemporary policy challenges. In short, intergovernmental relations (IGR) in the UK are widely regarded as ‘not fit for purpose’.
Yet, agreeing reforms has been difficult. In this article, we develop a set of ideas that might offer some guidance and inspiration to those tasked with reforming and scrutinising IGR in the UK.
IGR processes are commonly underpinned by shared principles. We recommend revised principles for UK IGR including: mutual respect for the authority of each administration; recognition that interdependence between reserved and devolved powers requires communication, cooperation and, where appropriate, coordination and co-decision; and a commitment to transparency.
Lack of transparency around UK IGR has been a common complaint of parliamentary committees. This can be easily addressed with a commitment to more detailed post‐meeting communiqués, an annual report worthy of the name, and ongoing engagement between governments and their respective parliaments.
Strengthening the JMC
The Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) is the main intergovernmental forum in which the four administrations meet. JMC meetings are currently arranged on an ad hoc basis. As such, there have been long periods of unexplained inactivity.
This could be avoided by agreeing a schedule of dates for future meetings in advance, as happens in Australia, Belgium and Italy. Although the JMC is supposed to be co-owned and has a joint secretariat, the UK government is the dominant player. We welcome moves that have seen each government host meetings, and recommend routinely rotating the chair and location of meetings between the governments, supported by an independent secretariat.
In most federal and quasi‐federal systems, IGR forums play a key role in concluding intergovernmental agreements in areas where central and sub‐state competences intersect. In Belgium, where entrenched tensions between linguistic groups make intergovernmental politics particularly sensitive, consultation takes place from the early stages of policy development at official level, and also between ministers and heads of government. This helps to ensure that, even during periods of general political instability, agreement can be reached.
The domestic preparations for Brexit, including developing common UK frameworks and debating the internal market, have underlined the value of adding a co-decision function to UK IGR forums. As is common practice elsewhere, we recommend decision making by consensus, with an opt-out option where necessary. Alternative procedures that see policies or regulations imposed on administrations without their consent are likely to generate new grievances and lead to further erosion of trust.
A glaring gap in the UK’s current system is the absence of a satisfactory procedure for resolving disputes. In the current system, it has been usual for one or more devolved governments to raise an issue of contention with the UK government, with disputes panels are chaired by a UK government minister. As a result, the devolved governments have little confidence in the system’s ability to give them of a fair hearing.
A resolution process chaired by one of the parties to the dispute is out of step with the practices of other countries that have a multilevel system of government. For example, the recent Canadian federal–provincial agreement on internal trade includes provisions for an independent arbitration panel. In Belgium there is a standing dispute resolution procedure involving an ad hoc tribunal presided over by a magistrate. These are regarded as a last resort and are not often used, but they provide the governments with some reassurance that they have recourse to a fair process in the event that negotiation fails.
A revised process for the UK may benefit from independent intervention from a suitably qualified mediator, where requested by the disputing parties.
In the UK’s highly asymmetrical devolution arrangements, the UK government claims to speak for the entirety of the UK while simultaneously representing England as a territorial entity. This ‘dual‐hatted’ role risks crowding out devolved concerns, and at the same time denies England a distinctive national voice on important policy issues.
A possible resolution would be the appointment of a Minister for England to represent its interests in IGR processes. Alternatively, a relevant sectoral minister could be tasked with representing English interests when appropriate, while another government minister would focus on seeking the best outcome for the UK as a whole. We also recommend creating institutionalised opportunities for regional leaders in England to feed into IGR discussions.
IGR and the future of the UK
Both Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have thrown into sharp relief the importance of productive working relationships between all levels of government. Whatever the constitutional future holds, geography and the continued policy interdependence across these islands will necessitate productive co-operation between governments.
A revised and enhanced model of IGR could contribute to rebuilding trust, and to supporting the development of a more satisfactory and legitimate system of cooperation, coordination and co-decision making between governments in the future.
Nicola McEwen, Jack Sheldon, Coree Brown Swann, Michael Kenny