On 1 July 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate a motion moved by the Earl of Kinnoull (Crossbench) that:

this House takes note of the Dunlop Review and the March 2021 progress update on the review of intergovernmental relations.

Dunlop Review of UK government union capability

Background and aims

The Dunlop Review was an independent report into the how the machinery of UK government functions in relation to the devolved administrations. It was announced by the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, on 4 July 2019. The review was led by Lord Dunlop (Conservative), a former minister in the Scotland and Northern Ireland offices between 2015 and 2017. The report was concluded in November 2019 and was published on 24 March 2021.

The review stated that its aim was to ensure “the UK Government is working in the most effective way possible to realise fully all the benefits of being a United Kingdom”. It argued that a review of arrangements was necessary because of the repatriation of powers after Brexit and following increases in the powers devolved from the UK Government to other administrations.

Describing the importance of institutional arrangements, the report said:

How the UK Government is structured and operates can make a significant contribution to developing relationships and building trust. It can also improve democratic accountability by encouraging a better understanding of the respective roles of the UK and devolved governments.

Findings and recommendations

Lord Dunlop said that his review had found that the machinery of government at the UK level had “not really changed” in response to devolution. He said the prevailing attitude in Whitehall was “devolve and forget”.

The review found that since the 1998 devolution settlements, responsibility for the union at the UK Government level had moved between ministers a number of times. It said that the effectiveness of arrangements had varied as the posts, and postholders responsible, had changed. It noted that, most recently, the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson had added ‘Minister for the Union’ to his portfolio and established a union unit in Number 10 Downing Street.

Lord Dunlop stated that his recommendations were designed to guarantee that the union was a “mainstream consideration” in policymaking and delivery. Proposals included:

  • A new secretary of state position to represent the union. The post should have comparable status to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home and Foreign secretaries. The existing secretaries of state for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should remain in place.
  • A new cabinet sub-committee to support the new secretary of state in preparing cross-government strategies to enhance the union.
  • A new single permanent secretary position to lead the departments for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and the teams supporting the new senior minister.
  • A new UK intergovernmental council should replace the Joint Ministerial Committee as the overall coordinating body for the relationship between the UK the devolved nations.
  • A shared policy function for the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland departments, based in the Cabinet Office. This would build on what the report saw as the success of the UK Governance Group, a pool of civil service expertise on constitutional reform and devolution.
  • Reforms to the civil service, including devolution teams within government departments located at the “heart” of policy development and more opportunities for loans and secondments between the four administrations.
  • HM Treasury should set up a fund to support UK-wide projects. Part of the fund would be used to incentivise and support projects that strengthen the union. A second part would help to fund projects set up by the UK and devolved governments working in cooperation.

Government’s response

In the Government’s response to the review, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, described Lord Dunlop’s recommendations as “constructive and pragmatic”. He set out the actions the Government was taking to strengthen the union, including:

  • Establishing a cabinet committee, the Union Strategy Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, and a policy implementation sub-committee.
  • Making “significant progress” on the joint review of intergovernmental relations, which seeks to strengthen cooperation between governments. The review is outlined further in the next section of this article.
  • Creating a non-executive board member dedicated to union issues in each government department.
  • Changes to the civil service; for example: giving greater weight to devolution issues in civil service training programmes; doubling participation in the UK government interchange scheme; and introducing a new ‘long-term loans’ scheme to allow civil servants to spend time working in other administrations.
  • Moving civil service jobs out of London and the south east of England.
  • Setting up a ‘union advisory group’, which Mr Gove described as a “forum for high-level strategic discussions between the UK Government and expert stakeholders”.
  • Accelerating funding for city and growth deals in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • Steps to ensure that people from across the UK can apply for important public appointments.

In April 2021, the Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary, Alex Chisholm, also announced the Government had created a new position of Permanent Secretary to the Union, with Sue Gray appointed to the post.

Review of intergovernmental relations

Background

Since the original devolution settlements in 1998, there have been a series of mechanisms to promote and improve relations between the UK and devolved governments. Initially, these were contained in a memorandum of understanding (MoU), first agreed in 1999. The MoU established the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) as the overall coordinating body for the relationship between the UK the devolved nations. There have also been working groups and ministerial forums in separate policy areas, such as transport, welfare, Covid-19, Brexit negotiations and the forthcoming UN conference on climate change (COP26).

At the March 2018 meeting of the JMC, ministers agreed to review the existing intergovernmental structures “to ensure they are fit for purpose in light of the UK’s exit from the EU”. This became the review of intergovernmental relations (IGR), referred to in the UK Government’s response to the Dunlop Review. Its aims are to promote and improve relations between the UK and devolved administrations. Through negotiations between the four governments, the review is seeking to redesign the mechanisms, such as ministerial and other committees, through which they liaise and cooperate.

In July 2019, the review established a set of draft principles for joint working. These included that the governments would maintain positive and constructive relations, share information and resolve disputes according to a clear and agreed process.

March 2021 update

The latest progress report on IGR negotiations, published alongside the Government’s response to the Dunlop Review, set out a detailed list of areas where the governments had agreed on approaches to relations. It also highlighted areas yet to be agreed.

For example, the update stated that new IGR structures need to be established to improve collaboration between governments. It reported agreement that there should be engagement in individual policy areas at official and ministerial level, and that there should be a ministerial-level standing committee on cross-cutting issues. There was also agreement on some of the functions of a top tier of engagement to replace the JMC; for example, that a new body should be established to consider policy issues of strategic importance to the whole of the UK, and act as the final arbiter of any disputes. However, some of the practical arrangements for this top tier were marked as not agreed. These included:

  • the name of the body (envisaged by the UK Government as the ‘UK Government and Devolved Administrations Council’);
  • the proposal for the prime minister or their nominated deputy to host an annual meeting of the group; and
  • that the prime minister or their deputy would chair its meetings.

Other areas yet to be agreed included:

  • the terms of reference for a possible interministerial standing committee on finance;
  • the escalation processes for disputes; and
  • the existence of an interministerial committee on ‘global UK’.

Mr Gove said that, although not all aspects of the IGR had been agreed, it indicated the “direction of travel” and “significant improvements to the system” that he wanted to make. He also stated that the IGR “aligns closely” with the Dunlop Review’s recommendations.

Discussions on the IGR review were due to resume after the Welsh and Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2021.

Responses

On the day of publication of the Dunlop Review and the IGR update, the Welsh Government acknowledged progress in some areas but stated the lack of an overall agreement on the review of IGR was “disappointing”. It listed areas in which the draft did not meet Welsh interests. These included the role of the finance committee and the machinery for international cooperation on matters such as the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU.

The Welsh Government criticised the UK Government’s approach to the IGR negotiations. It said that “the tone of inter-governmental relations has deteriorated due largely to a series of aggressive intrusions by the UK Government into areas of devolved competence”. It also said it was “deeply disappointing and frustrating” that it had not seen the report of the Dunlop Review prior to its publication. Elsewhere, the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford (Labour), has said that the current UK Government is the first since 1998 to show “outright hostility” to devolution, seeking to “bypass” and “marginalise” it.

Commenting on the IGR review proposals, Lord Dunlop said they “very much draw upon my report and align with the recommendations I made in my report”. However, he stated the role for the prime minister “appears quite limited”, and that this was “disappointing”.

Quarterly report on IGR

Alongside the progress report on the review, the UK Government also published the first quarterly report on IGR. It said that such regular reporting would encourage a “culture shift” towards more collaboration.

The report summarised the review of IGR and other government initiatives in the area. For example, it pointed to enhanced transparency arrangements announced in November 2020. These included a new page on the government website, gov.uk, containing all principal documents relating to IGR. The report also detailed engagement at departmental and ministerial level for each UK government department.

The report set out how the pandemic had been a catalyst for increased cooperation between the UK and devolved governments. For example, it said that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, has been in “constant communication” with health ministers in the devolved administrations.

Other reports on IGR

In 2018, a report by the Centre for Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh called for reforms to intergovernmental relations in the UK. Among its recommendations were:

  • Not replacing the JMC with a new ‘heads of government’ forum, but making changes to its function and operation, including a more robust system of dispute resolution.
  • Rotating JMC meetings between London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh, with “consideration giving to rotating the chair accordingly, or operating a co-chair system”.
  • Adding or maintaining additional JMC formats in response to Brexit. These would include committees for discussing EU negotiations, trade, the internal market and international agreements.
  • Adding a decision-making function to JMC but limiting it to decisions that can be made by consensus.
  • Providing an independent dispute resolution mechanism within the JMC.
  • Mechanisms for explicitly English interests to be represented in the JMC.

In February 2015, a report by the Institute for Government said the UK Government’s previous approach of “benign neglect” towards devolution was “no longer sustainable”. Its recommendations included:

  • Bringing together units from across Whitehall into a central “devolution hub”.
  • Ensuring a single senior official in each government department has responsibility for ensuring that the devolved governments are consulted sufficiently in its area of policy.
  • The JMC should be better planned and supported, but also subject to more scrutiny; for example, by a new House of Commons committee.

Read more

A detailed description of UK intergovernmental relations, their history, proposals for reform and international comparisons can be found in the House of Commons Library briefing:

The Commons Library briefing also summarises a number of reports into intergovernmental relations. These include reports by committees of the UK Parliament such as the House of Lords Constitution Committee, in 2014, and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Committee, in 2016. A committee of the Welsh Senedd and a committee of the Scottish Parliament have also reported on the subject, and there have been a number of earlier independent reviews.


Image by Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay.