The long-awaited conclusions of the Review of Intergovernmental Relations – launched jointly in March 2018 by all four governments of the UK – have now been published. It will establish new structures through which ministers from the four governments of the UK will meet, including a new ‘Prime Minister and Heads of Devolved Government Council’ to ensure regular contact between the leaders of each part of the UK.
After a period of increasingly strained relationships over Brexit and poor coordination on aspects of the covid response, these reforms are desperately needed. Existing intergovernmental machinery – the Joint Ministerial Committee – has not met at all under Boris Johnson’s leadership, contributing to the worsening relationships between the leaders of the different parts of the UK. But while new structures are welcome, political will is essential to mend the damaged relationships between the four governments.
The structures are designed to be more jointly owned. Rather than the Cabinet Office controlling the scheduling and the agenda, a new joint secretariat will be established with officials for all four governments, and a new Interministerial Standing Committee (ISC) will meet monthly with a rotating chairing and locations. These logistical considerations, which may seem minor, are crucial to allowing ministers to meet based on a parity of esteem – something that the devolved administrations argue have long been missing from their interactions with the UK government.
Another key element is the new disputes resolution procedure. A key criticism of the old machinery was that when it came to a disagreement, for example over the money each part of the UK received, the UK government was judge, jury, and executioner, deciding if there was a dispute, and what, if any resolution was necessary. Under the new arrangements, the joint secretariat will decide whether to escalate issues, which will be considered through a robust process with opportunities for third party input and advice. These arrangements are a solid basis for a fairer approach, more collaboration and joint working, but they are yet to be tested in practice.
The next year will bring a range of political challenges for devolution and the Union. The fate of the Northern Ireland Executive remains uncertain as the Northern Ireland protocol continues to divide the political parties, and electoral shifts could see power-sharing collapse. A second Scottish independence referendum could well be back on the agenda, if and when the first minister requests the power to hold one once the pandemic has subsided.
There is potential for further high-profile disputes between the UK government and the devolved administrations when the UK government begins to implement the post-Brexit policies that have already faced vocal opposition from local ministers. The UK Internal Market Act, which the Scottish and Welsh governments argue could allow English goods to undercut Scottish and Welsh regulatory standards, will start to bite when the UK moves to take advantage of its post-Brexit freedoms. The Shared Prosperity Fund, which could allow the UK government to spend money in devolved areas and potentially bypass the devolved administrations, will start to be allocated. And trade deals, which will have implications for key industries such as the agricultural sector will be signed.
While there always be some degree of political posturing in public, the new intergovernmental structure could help the four governments to navigate these challenges, to discuss policies, find solutions, and settle issues behind closed doors. But a change in structures is not sufficient. There will need to be a change in attitudes too.
The UK government will need to more away from its competitive approach to the Union – asserting its place as the government of the whole of the UK at the expense of devolution – and seek to cooperate with the devolved administrations by working with them to make a success of its flagship policies like net zero and levelling up. The devolved administrations too must accept that only by working with, not against, the UK government to have the opportunity to shape and influence key programmes.
The last few years have seen the devolved nations blame the arrangements for working with Westminster, and they were right to complain. But the new structures give the four governments the tools to work together in a more collaborative way, and in doing so deliver for citizens across the UK. They now have to show that they are committed to making the new arrangements work and will need to shoulder the blame themselves if they fail to do so.