Relations between UK and devolved governments ‘not fit for purpose’

By Laura Paterson, Political Reporter, Press Association Scotland
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Relations between UK and devolved governments ‘not fit for purpose’

MPs on Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee were told the present system needs to be reformed.

The current system of intergovernmental relations between the devolved administrations and the UK is “not fit for purpose” and should be changed, MPs have heard.

Experts were split on whether or not the joint ministerial committees between the UK Government and the devolved administrations should be given decision-making powers.

Those in favour said they were particularly needed regarding UK-wide common frameworks being brought in on devolved matters following Brexit.

Professor Nicola McEwen, of Edinburgh University, told Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee there is a problem with the current intergovernmental relationship.

She said: “The system is not fit for purpose, particularly in the context of Brexit.

“However, I also think it is not completely broken and there are things that can be done to make it more effective, more accountable.”

She said “significant changes” are required, adding: “There is a case for introducing a decision-making function, particularly around common frameworks, particularly around areas that may have an impact on both retained and devolved matters simultaneously, like trade or international agreements or governing the internal market.”

Ms McEwen said the role of the committees in dispute resolution should also be changed since the UK Government becomes “the accused and the judge and the jury” at the end of the current process, causing dissatisfaction for the devolved administrations.

She said trust between the Scottish and UK Governments was affected in the run up to the independence referendum in 2014, causing a fear in sharing information.

Akash Paun from the Institute for Government agreed the joint ministerial committee system should be reformed not replaced and that it needs a clearer decision-making function.

The two other experts giving evidence – the Law Society of Scotland’s Michael Clancy and Jim Gallagher from the Centre on Constitutional Change – disagreed, saying these powers are not needed.

“It is not and cannot be an authoritative decision-making body because each of the governments has their own democratic mandate,” Mr Gallagher said, adding there is “nothing wrong with talking shops”.

He said: “I think it would be an error to say we can set up an intergovernmental machinery that can force one or other of the administrations to do something that it does not want to do.”

The Glasgow University professor said “things aren’t as bad as you might think” in terms of intergovernmental relations, saying the joint ministerial committee system has been “surprisingly robust”.

He warned the current state of the Brexit preparations would stretch the system “beyond breaking point”.

Mr Gallagher added: “This process has been one of the least well ordered pieces of public policy that I have ever seen and that has been reflected on its effect on intergovernmental relations.”