Diminishing trust and a questionable role for the Scotland Office
To mark 20 years since devolution, the Scottish Affairs Committee has been taking a fresh look at how effectively the UK and Scottish Governments work together. In its final report, the Committee notes that the relationship between the two governments has deteriorated at a time when goodwill and cooperation are needed most.
The Committee has also heard mixed evidence as to whether the Scotland Office adds value to the relationship, beyond its role in major devolution events such as the Scottish Independence referendum and passage of the Scotland Acts. The Committee concludes most intergovernmental relations are now conducted directly between the Scottish Government and the relevant Whitehall departments, which brings into question whether there is still a meaningful role for the Scotland Office to play.
Conclusions and recommendations
The Committee recommends a review of the role of the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland, as well as a series of further reforms to strengthen intergovernmental relations. The Committee recommends:
- That the role of the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland is reviewed, including exploring the option of replacing territorial offices of state with single department responsible for managing constitutional affairs and intergovernmental relations;
- That the UK and Scottish Governments should summon the political will to rebuilt trust and recognise the need for a constructive relationship underpinned by the principle of parity of esteem;
- Urgent reform of the Joint Ministerial Council to provide a forum which is robust enough to cope with different governments with divergent policy objectives;
- That the UK Government explore the use of third-party mediation as part of the process for resolving disputes between the two Governments;
- The establishment of a JMC sub-committee on Common Frameworks to facilitate agreement between the two governments in policy areas being returned to the devolved administrations after the UK leaves the EU;
- That UK Government departments should publish devolution impact assessments outlining how policies could affect the devolved governments;
- The UK Civil Service should provide more effective devolution training.
Commenting on the report, Chair of the Committee Pete Wishart MP said:
“It’s been 20 years since devolution and the political landscape of the UK is now totally unrecognisable; the Scottish Independence Referendum, Brexit and the diverging political views of the UK’s four governments have all placed strain on a delicate devolution system. The relationship between the UK and Scottish governments has broken down and there is a palpable lack of trust between the two governments.
My Committee’s inquiry has found that although the relationship is far from ideal, it is not beyond repair. We are calling on the Scottish and UK Governments to make fundamental changes in their approach to devolution to restore trust. We’ve also heard evidence questioning the effectiveness of the Scotland Office in Whitehall, so we are pressing for a review of the role of the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland to ensure intergovernmental processes adapt to the changing nature of devolution.”
The role of the Scotland Office
The report outlines the mixed evidence the Committee has received as to whether the Scotland Office adds value to the relationship between the two governments, beyond its key role during in high-profile events such as the Scottish independence referendum and the Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016. The Committee found that day-to-day, most intergovernmental relations are conducted directly between the Scottish Government and the Whitehall department responsible for the relevant policy area.
The Committee concludes it did not hear any evidence to suggest that the Scotland Office's representative role, or its handling of devolution matters, could not be dealt with by an altogether different model of devolved representation in Whitehall. The Committee recommends that the UK Government reviews the role of the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland, and as part of this review, explores options including replacing the territorial offices of state with a single department responsible for managing constitutional affairs and intergovernmental relations. The review must ensure that any changes do not reduce the quality of how Scotland is represented in the UK Government nor reduce the ability of the UK and Scottish Governments to work together.
Chair, Pete Wishart MP said:
“The Scotland Office is meant to ensure that Scottish interests are fully represented at the heart of the UK Government, but my Committee heard that on a day-to-day basis it is Whitehall departments which maintain the relationship with the Scottish Government. We are therefore calling for a review of the role of the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland, which we argue should include an exploration of the option to combine the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices into one department responsible for intergovernmental relations and devolution.”
In the early days of devolution, intergovernmental cooperation relied heavily on the close personal relationships and consensual political views of politicians in Edinburgh and London. The report notes that since then, the challenges of Brexit and the diverging political views of the SNP Scottish Government and the Conservative UK Government have meant that intergovernmental relations have come under renewed strain at a time when cooperation and trust is needed most. The Committee urges both governments to fundamentally change their approaches to devolution to restore the trust needed for handling Brexit. The Committee recognises that none of the more practical and technical recommendations will be successful unless trust is restored.
Urgent reform of the Joint Ministerial Council
The Committee also recommends urgent reform of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) – the UK’s highest intergovernmental forum. The Committee recommends that JMC meetings should be held more frequently and should be chaired by each of UK’s administrations on rotating basis. The Committee also calls for improved transparency of the JMC to allow for proper parliamentary and public scrutiny, with agenda and meeting outcomes being published.
Currently, the UK Government is not obliged to engage in disputes raised by the devolved administrations, as illustrated when the Welsh and Scottish Governments sought to initiate dispute resolution proceedings in relation to the Conservative-DUP confidence and supply deal. The Committee calls for reforms to the dispute resolution process to ensure all governments can unilaterally initiate dispute relation proceedings. The Committee also calls on the UK Government to explore the potential to introduce a form of third-party mediation into the process.
Common frameworks after Brexit
After Brexit there will be a need to agree new high-level rules and standards in areas like agriculture and the environment to replace those current set by the EU – called common frameworks. The Committee is pleased that the two governments have cooperated well on identifying areas where common frameworks are needed but calls for clarity on how the details of these frameworks will be agreed. The Committee says common frameworks must be agreed by consensus between the Governments and recommends the establishment of a new joint committee to promote co-ownership of the issues and stake and allow for a joint-decision on all common frameworks to be taken.
Deficit of devolution understanding in Whitehall
The report outlines concerning evidence about the extent to which Whitehall is equipped to manage devolution. The Committee was alarmed to hear that only a third of civil servants feel they have a good knowledge of devolution, and therefore calls for a continuous review of the content of training to ensure it keeps pace with the rapidly changing devolution landscape. The Committee also recommends that the UK Government expands secondment opportunities for policy officials to the devolved administrations to improve devolution knowledge and understanding.