On 23 February 2023, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following question for short debate:

Lord Hay of Ballyore (Democratic Unionist Party) to ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards implementing the Dunlop Review into UK Government Union Capability, published on 24 March 2021.

1. What did the Dunlop review recommend?

The Dunlop review examined how the machinery of UK government functions in relation to the union. It was announced by the then prime minister, Theresa May, in 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 considered the following question:

[W]ithin the context of the existing devolution settlements, how the UK government can work to most effectively realise the benefits of being a United Kingdom and how institutional structures can be configured to strengthen the working of the union.

It argued that such a such review was needed to take account of the repatriation of powers after Brexit and the transfer of powers from the UK Parliament and government to the devolved administrations over the previous 20 years.

The Dunlop review set out the case for “a transformation to guarantee that the union is a mainstream consideration embedded in policy development, decision-making and delivery”. It set out a package of measures to support such a change, including the following proposals:

  • A new senior cabinet position, equivalent to the great offices of state, to speak in cabinet for the constitution and “take a holistic view across the UK”. The review added that 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 government and the devolved administrations. This should include a number of subcommittees, a standing independent secretariat and a clear dispute handling process.
  • A shared policy function for the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland Offices, 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, more opportunities for loans and secondments between the four administrations and nominated departmental board members to lead on union strategy and devolution capability.
  • 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.
  • An audit of public bodies should take place to ensure those with a UK-wide remit are representative of the UK as a whole.
  • A government communications strategy should be developed for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, backed up by data about UK government spending and activities in the devolved nations.

2. Government response to the Dunlop review

The government published its response to the Dunlop review on the same day the review was made public. Michael Gove, who was then minister for the Cabinet Office, described Lord Dunlop’s recommendations as “constructive and pragmatic”. He said that the government was taking a range of actions in response to the Dunlop review to strengthen the union, including:

  • Establishing a new 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 the UK and devolved governments.
  • Creating a non-executive board position in each government department dedicated to union issues.
  • Making changes in the civil service to “ensure UK-wide issues are properly considered and sit at the heart of policy-making”. Changes included: 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 thousands of civil service jobs out of London and the south-east of England, including to UK government hubs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • 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 Wales and agreeing heads of terms for deals in Northern Ireland.
  • Taking steps to make it easier for people from across the UK to apply for public roles.

Subsequently, 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. The directors of the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Wales report to Sue Gray. The Northern Ireland Office has its own permanent secretary.

3. Intergovernmental relations review

Alongside its response to the Dunlop review, the government also published a progress report on the joint review of intergovernmental relations. This review looked at the structures for joint decision-making and dispute resolution between the UK’s central government and devolved governments. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) first agreed in 1999 established a Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) as the overall coordinating body for the relationship between the UK and the devolved nations. Ministers agreed at a meeting of the JMC in March 2018 to review the existing intergovernmental structures to ensure they were fit for purpose in light of Brexit.

The March 2021 progress report outlined the areas of cooperation that had been agreed between the UK government and the devolved administrations and those where consensus had yet to be reached. The four administrations agreed that overall accountability for intergovernmental relations would remain with the prime minister, the first ministers of Scotland and Wales and the first minister and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. To meet the objectives of improved collaboration, they concluded a three-tier structure would be most effective, but there was not consensus on all the proposals for the top tier of engagement. It was settled that the new structure would be supported by a standing secretariat consisting of officials seconded from all the governments. It was also agreed that governments would be accountable to their respective legislatures on intergovernmental relations.

The final conclusions of the intergovernmental relations review were published in January 2022. It set out new working arrangements that all four administrations had agreed. The review confirmed that intergovernmental decisions would “continue to work on the basis of agreement by consensus”. It also set out a “clear and agreed” process for resolving disputes. It said the new structures and processes would be kept under review.

The new intergovernmental relations structure is made up of three tiers:

  • Lowest tier: Interministerial groups (IMGs) on specific policy areas.
  • Middle tier: the Interministerial Standing Committee (IMSC) which considers cross-cutting issues; the Finance Interministerial Standing Committee (F:ISC); and additional time-limited committees to be established by consensus if particular issues are identified as needing in-depth and focused consideration by ministers
  • Top tier: the Prime Minister and Heads of Devolved Governments Council (the council)

The council oversees intergovernmental relations, with the two lower tiers accountable to it.

The UK government described the IGR review as a “landmark agreement” that would “create a more equal, transparent and accountable system”. Spokespeople from the devolved governments also welcomed the reforms but cautioned the review’s success would depend on the UK government’s “attitude and behaviour”. The deputy first minister of Scotland, John Swinney, warned that a change in approach from the UK government was needed if there was to be “a genuine improvement in intergovernmental relations”. A spokesperson from the Welsh government said the “test” would be whether the UK government “follows the spirit of the review, based on respect, so that this new approach serves all governments equally”.

4. Constitution Committee report

The House of Lords Constitution Committee examined the government’s response to the Dunlop review as part of its inquiry into the future governance of the UK. The committee published a report, ‘Respect and co-operation: Building a stronger union for the 21st century’, in January 2022. Lord Dunlop was a member of the committee during this inquiry.

The report looked at a wide range of themes affecting the union and relations between its constituent parts, including broad issues that were outside the scope of the Dunlop review, such as the balance of powers within the UK and the approach to devolution within England. It also considered recommendations made by the Dunlop review. The report included a table showing the Dunlop review recommendations on intergovernmental relations and the outcome of the intergovernmental relations review side by side. This showed where there were some differences in approach. For instance, the Dunlop review had recommended the prime minister should hold a summit twice a year, based around meetings of the successor body to the JMC. However, the intergovernmental relations review concluded that the new council would meet at least annually but could meet more frequently.

The committee welcomed the outcome of the intergovernmental relations review, saying it appeared “to have addressed many of the defects in the previous structure”. It recommended that the new Prime Minister and Heads of Devolved Governments Council should meet at least twice a year, “given its importance to the workings of the union”.

The committee endorsed the Dunlop review’s recommendation that a senior cabinet position should have a duty to uphold the integrity of the constitution, including the operation of intergovernmental relations and devolution more generally. It noted that Boris Johnson had “partially fulfilled” this recommendation by appointing Michael Gove as minister for intergovernmental relations. However, the committee was concerned that Mr Gove’s broader responsibilities as secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities risked undermining the role’s focus.

The committee argued that the success of the new arrangements would depend on whether the UK government and the devolved administrations were “committed to using the new structures to cooperate on achieving shared objectives, rather than simply managing—or taking opportunities to accentuate—their differences”.

The committee also welcomed other actions the government had taken in response to the Dunlop review, such as the “continued dispersal” of central government departments across the UK, and increased training for civil servants about devolution.

The committee set out a detailed table showing the actions the government had taken in response to each one of the Dunlop review’s recommendations. It identified the following recommendations where the government had not said what action it was taking in response:

  • creating a shared policy function within the Cabinet Office for the secretaries of state for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • setting outcome-based metrics to assess departmental capability
  • locating devolution teams within each UK government department to have greater visibility and influence
  • creating more Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Department for International Trade posts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • amending senior civil service job specifications to include a requirement to demonstrate significant experience working in/with a devolved administration or on a union-related issue
  • using the new cabinet sub-committee to agree UK government positions in advance of meetings of the JMC replacement bodies
  • ensuring UK government departments consult the secretaries of state for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the new senior cabinet minister before making major policy announcements affecting the devolved nations
  • giving oversight of all ministerial visits to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to the new senior cabinet minister

The Library’s briefing on ‘Building a stronger union: House of Lords Constitution Committee’ covers the committee report more broadly, and the government’s response to it.

The House of Lords debated the committee report on 20 January 2023. The Dunlop review was not a key theme of the debate, but as part of her response for the government, Baroness Scott of Bybrook, a minister in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, (DLHUC), mentioned the government had progressed the review’s recommendations as part of its focus on “ensuring that devolution works effectively across the UK” and “making sure that an understanding of the union is core to all United Kingdom government departments”.

5. Recent developments in intergovernmental relations

5.1 Ministerial and cabinet committee changes

With two changes of prime minister since the Dunlop review was published, there have been changes to ministerial roles and the structure of cabinet committees. The Union Strategy Committee and the Union Policy Implementation Sub-Committee disappeared from the list of cabinet committees under Liz Truss’s premiership in September 2022. Ms Truss appointed Nadhim Zahawi as minister for intergovernmental relations; he also concurrently held the posts of chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and minister for equalities. Responsibility for union and devolution policy moved from the DLUHC to the Cabinet Office under Mr Zahawi on 11 October 2022.

When Rishi Sunak became prime minister on 25 October 2022, he reappointed Michael Gove as secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities and minister for intergovernmental relations. Mr Sunak said this meant day to day responsibility for the union and devolution policy would remain in DLUHC. Mr Sunak also said the Union and Constitution Group would maintain a presence in the Cabinet Office to support him in his role as minister for the union (a title held by Boris Johnson and subsequent prime ministers). Mr Sunak said that “strengthening the union and delivering for all people and communities across the UK” was a priority for all of UK government. Rishi Sunak’s cabinet committee structure includes a Domestic and Economic Affairs (Union) Committee, which he chairs. Its terms of reference are to consider matters relating to the union of the United Kingdom.

Mr Gove said in a letter to the Constitution Committee in January 2023 that he was leading coordination with the devolved administrations and working closely with the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices. He said the post of minister for intergovernmental relations had been created in response to the Dunlop review recommendation for a new cabinet post, and he believed that future prime ministers would “see virtue” in it, as the three most recent prime ministers had done. He also emphasised that implementing the Dunlop recommendations was “just one of the many steps” the government was taking to “ensure its institutions are working effectively to deliver for citizens across the UK and to realise the benefits of working together as one United Kingdom”.

5.2 Prime Minister and Heads of Devolved Governments Council inaugural meeting

The inaugural meeting of the Prime Minister and Heads of Devolved Government Council took place in Blackpool on 10 November 2022. It was attended by Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and the chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, and the first ministers of Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland civil servants attended as observers in the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland executive. The council discussed the economic outlook, how the governments should work together to address the cost of living, the impact of rising inflation and the shared challenges in supporting the NHS.

Michael Gove said the government would “keep under review” the recommendation from the Dunlop review and the Constitution Committee that the council should meet at least twice a year. He said he and the prime minister would continue to ensure that UK ministers engaged “constructively and regularly” with their counterparts in the devolved administrations.

5.3 Intergovernmental relations report—December 2022

The government publishes quarterly transparency reports on intergovernmental relations. The most recent quarterly report came out in December 2022, covering the period July–September 2022. It reported there were 50 intergovernmental meetings during this period (with senior civil servants from Northern Ireland attending in the absence of an executive). The meetings included four inter-ministerial group meetings—the third tier of the new intergovernmental relations structure—covering UK-EU relations, environment food and rural affairs, sport, and trade. The report said “regular and extensive work” between the four governments was essential, particularly on issues such as addressing the cost of living pressures and the response to the war in Ukraine.

5.4 How effective have the new arrangements been?

Observers have drawn attention to several issues in examining the effectiveness of the new arrangements. The Institute for Government (IFG) has suggested that there have been fewer interministerial group meetings than anticipated in the intergovernmental relations review. Not all the groups envisaged in the review have yet been established; for example, there are no groups operating in the health or justice policy areas. Data compiled by the Senedd Cymru research service shows that one year on from the intergovernmental agreement, the council has met once and the IMSC and the F:ISC have both met twice as agreed. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs interministerial group has met six times, but some other planned groups have not met at all.

The IFG also pointed out that there were no meetings of any intergovernmental relations bodies during Liz Truss’s premiership, and she did not speak with the first ministers of Wales and Scotland while she was prime minister. Mark Drakeford, the first minister of Wales, described this period as a “collapse” of the newly agreed intergovernmental arrangements. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, described the lack of contact with the prime minister as “absurd”. The IFG contrasted this with Rishi Sunak’s approach, noting he had spoken with both first ministers and chaired the first council meeting shortly after taking office.

The new dispute resolution mechanism introduced after the intergovernmental relations review is still relatively untested. The Senedd Cymru research service noted that a dispute between the Northern Ireland executive and the Treasury appeared to be the only known use of the new dispute procedure so far.

In its report, the Constitution Committee proposed that the dispute resolution process could be used in “substantive disagreements” where the UK government was proposing to legislate in an area within devolved competence without the consent of the relevant devolved administration, and that this could happen before any bill was introduced to Parliament. Witnesses to the Scottish Parliament’s Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee’s recent inquiry on the impact of Brexit on devolution also made this suggestion. However, it does not appear to have been engaged over recent bills, such the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill where the Scottish and Welsh Governments have recommended withholding legislative consent.

6. Read more

6.1 Devolution, the union, the constitution and intergovernmental relations

6.2 UK government funds in devolved areas

6.3 Scotland

6.4 Wales

6.5 Northern Ireland

Image by Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay.