The Committee investigated how the UK Government and the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland interact. The main forum for these relations is the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC). The report labels the communiqués published after plenary JMC meetings between the leadership of each administration “bland and uninformative”. The Committee states that the dates, venues and agenda items of JMC meetings should be announced further in advance and additional information should be published after the meetings.
The Committee makes recommendations to enable greater parliamentary scrutiny of inter-governmental relations, including stating that government departments should detail in their annual reports their engagement with the devolved administrations.
Reforming the Joint Ministerial Committee
The Committee calls for reforms to the Joint Ministerial Committee structure. The Committee says that it is clear that, in the eyes of the devolved administrations at least, the operation of the JMC structure is not well regarded. The Committee states that the JMC structure should be used to facilitate joint policy-making and co-operation with the devolved administrations, and argues that, as the devolution settlements become both more complex and asymmetrical, more formal bilateral mechanisms will be needed to manage those relationships.
The report says that the Government should consider setting out the framework of inter-governmental relations in legislation. This need not be overly prescriptive, but could set out the existence and membership of the JMC and its sub-committees and the core principles governing relations between the administrations.
A coherent strategy
The report repeats the Committee’s calls for the UK-wide political parties to formulate a coherent vision for the future shape of the UK as a whole, without which there cannot be constitutional stability. The Committee states that an overarching vision for the future of the Union and its devolution settlements should be a stabilising force in its own right and would allow for inter-governmental relations to be organised on a more stable basis.
The Committee says that it is “extraordinary” that the Deputy Prime Minister, as the Cabinet minister responsible for devolution, is not a member of the Cabinet Committee on that very subject. The Committee expresses “deep concern” at the lack of central co-ordination and oversight of the devolution settlements. Reiterating a recommendation made in a previous report, the Committee calls for a senior Cabinet minister to be identified as being responsible for oversight of the constitution as a whole.
Commenting, Lord Lang of Monkton, Chairman of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, said:
"It is clear that there will be significant changes to the devolution settlements with Scotland and the other parts of the UK in the coming months and years. With that being the case, it is now more important than ever that the right mechanisms are in place to govern relations between the different governments of the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“We feel it is time to reform the Joint Ministerial Committee structure, with an increased emphasis on joint policy-making and co-operation. The Government should also consider whether it would be appropriate to set out the framework of inter-governmental relations in legislation.
“Increased transparency will be vital. The Government should consider what additional information could be published following meetings of the JMC and its sub-committees, while government departments should report more fully on their interactions with the devolved administrations. This will enable more effective parliamentary scrutiny of inter-governmental relations.
“We also call on the UK-wide political parties to set out a vision for the constitutional future of the UK. Devolution so far has been piecemeal and asymmetric, with new powers being devolved in an ad hoc way. Until the current process of devolution reaches a more settled state, the system of inter-governmental relations will need to keep on adapting to changes in the devolution settlements.”