Governing in an ever-looser Union

Published: 24 February 2015

Based on ten months of meetings and interviews, the Institute for Government has unveiled its findings in to the state of relations between the administrations in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London. Robyn Munro, co-author of the report, outlines their findings.

The UK’s constitutional settlement is in a state of flux. The Scottish Government is set to get further fiscal and welfare-related powers, the Wales Act 2014 is likely to be followed by further devolution, and fiscal devolution to Northern Ireland is also expected. These changes will be negotiated at ministerial level, but the details of implementation will be worked out between officials at departmental level. These departmental-level relationships – already where the majority of intergovernmental communication takes place - will remain important even after powers have been transferred. Indeed in many areas, they will become more important as devolution creates a more complex division of powers between UK and devolved levels. Last week, the Institute for Government published the final report of a 10-month study of devolution and how the four governments of the UK work together, a project carried out in partnership with the Centre on Constitutional Change. The report discusses the role of formal intergovernmental machinery such as the territorial offices and Joint Ministerial Committee, but we also looked at relationships at departmental level, identifying a number of strengths and weaknesses of how Whitehall departments deal with the devolved administrations, and suggest how current practice could be improved. 

One common problem from the devolved administrations’ perspective is a lack of clear lines of communication. Particularly when dealing with large departments, it can be difficult to find the right person to contact – some devolved administrations may have one or two people responsible for a policy area, while Whitehall may have a hundred.

High rates of staff turnover in UK departments can also make communication difficult:

Sometimes you’ll work hard to build up a relationship with a particular person, who will then understand the issues well. But they’ll then move on and you have to start from scratch.

We were also told that a falling away in rates of staff interchange and secondment has damaged the networks and communication links between administrations – one interviewee told us that ‘Practical consequences [of this decline] include worse understanding on both sides’.

Poor lines of communication can cause tension and disputes. We were given the example of a Defra policy initiative which revised flood insurance by basing premiums on council tax bandings. Welsh Government officials told us that Defra had failed to take into account Welsh council tax bandings, with the result that under the new scheme Welsh council tax payers would contribute more than their English counterparts. Defra officials told us that they had consulted colleagues in Cardiff early on, but that concerns were not raised until late in the process. In October 2014 the issue had still not been resolved, and had escalated to the political level with a Welsh Minister publicly calling on the UK Government to amend the issue. Regardless of the real chain of events, what this episode shows is that a lack of communication can turn a misunderstanding into a political dispute.

Variation in devolution awareness was another issue we encountered. In some instances, we were told that Whitehall policy teams only consider the devolved implications of policies as the last minute: instead of being a ‘collaborative process’, consultation with the devolved administrations ‘is often just ticking a box’. From the devolved perspective, it sometimes appears that Whitehall simply omits to consider the impact a policy will have on the devolved administration:

Often in Whitehall… it just won’t occur to them that there will be a devolved element… and there will be a natural assumption that they are responsible for that area and will progress in that way until they come up against something.

However, we also found examples of good practice, where departments have co-operated effectively with their devolved colleagues. Broadly speaking, anything which encourages co-operation and face-to-face meetings with officials from different administrations is seen as useful by our interviewees:

Even with all the technology, I don’t think there’s any substitute for being in a room with somebody, being able to read their body language, being able to talk outside of the formality of a meeting and be able to take somebody to one side and say ‘I’ve heard this’ or ‘What do you think about this?’ That’s all invaluable.

Structures can help nurture these relationships. Intergovernmental working groups – such as those set up to oversee the implementation of the Scottish Rate of Income Tax – are effective, provided they have a clear remit and set of timelines. In other policy areas such as transport and policing, permanent working groups are seen as a useful way to build relationships and mutual understanding in cross-border policy areas. We were also told of the benefits of working together to develop a shared evidence base, so that even if ministers take different positions for political reasons, any negotiations can proceed on the basis of shared and agreed facts.

In our report, we recommend a number of actions to improve intergovernmental relations including encouragement of staff interchange, secondments and joint training; clear accountability within each department for oversight of devolution awareness and consultation with the devolved administrations; and greater clarity and transparency about which parts of the UK any new policy will apply to.

On the whole, we heard a positive story of working level relations at the departmental level. Even during the Scottish Referendum campaign, civil servants from the different governments were able to communicate and co-operate effectively and in good faith. But forthcoming changes to the devolution settlements will put more pressure on intergovernmental relationships. Notably, devolution of tax, borrowing and welfare powers in recent years are increasing the need for HMRC, the Treasury and DWP to engage with the devolved governments, not only to implement the transfer of powers but also to continue to cooperate to ensure that these systems operate effectively in this new multi-level context.

The report, Governing in an Ever Looser Union, is co-authored by Robyn Munro and Akash Paun.

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