IfG calls for overhaul of relationship between Whitehall and devolved administrations

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 9 April 2018 in News
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New mechanisms required to enable all four governments to jointly agree post-Brexit policy, according to think tank

Devolved administrations have been suspicious of plans for London to retain powers returning from the European Union. Credit: PA

Brexit negotiations have caused “serious strain” in the relationship between Whitehall and administrations in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, according to the Institute for Government.

The think tank called for an overhaul of devolution arrangements following strife over the EU Withdrawal Bill: for the sake of continuity, Westminster wants initially to retain some of the UK powers returning from Brussels, but leaders in the devolved administrations have previously branded this a “power grab”.

In a new report, Devolution after Brexit: Managing the environment, agriculture and fisheries, the IfG outlined a series of changes to current arrangements to strengthen relationships and allow for four-nation agreements in policy areas, currently covered by Brussels, that will pertain to all parts of the UK following Britain’s departure from the EU.

It said, for example, that the four countries will need to cooperate on the level of agricultural subsidies to prevent unfair competition in some parts of the UK, and on joint strategies to meet international environmental obligations.

"The devolution arrangements of the late 1990s were designed to function within membership of the EU. Outside of the EU, they are no longer fit for purpose," said the IfG.

Its report comes after a meeting in March of the Joint Ministerial Committee – which brings together representatives of the Westminster government with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved administrations – when it was decided that officials would undertake a review of the structures set up to support communication between the administrations.


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In March the government published a list of 153 areas where EU law intersects with devolved competence, including 41 areas related to the environment, agriculture and fisheries. These include almost the entire policy remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as well as functions of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and others.

According to the UK government, 19 of the policy areas will require some form of legislative framework when Britain leaves the EU. The IfG argued that non-legislative agreements between the four nations will be sufficient elsewhere, and its report explored the mechanisms and institutions required to support new agreements.

“There is a clear need for the four nations to agree how cooperation in these policy areas should be managed after the UK leaves the EU,” said the think tank.

It called for an urgent review of the Joint Ministerial Committee, including new terms of reference, sub-committees and processes for agreeing agendas and settling disputes to be agreed by all four governments. The JMC should open itself up to input from external stakeholders such as civil society and industry, it said.

The IfG also argued that all new public bodies established because of Brexit – former Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore previously told Civil Service World there could be more than 20 – should be designed and jointly owned by all four governments, as should the potential new environmental watchdog proposed by environment secretary Michael Gove. Parliamentary committees in Westminster should hold joint inquiries with committees in the devolved nations, it added.

Among its other recommendations, the think tank said the four nations would need to agree on a policy framework for distributing funding that previously came from the EU.

Jill Rutter, Brexit programme director at the Institute for Government, said: “The past year has shown the strain leaving the EU is placing on devolution arrangements designed on the assumption of UK membership. It is time for an overhaul.

“It is in the interests not only of the UK government, but also the devolved governments, to develop firm foundations for future joint working – to promote collaboration and innovation. Only then will we have the right environment, agriculture and fisheries policies for the whole country after Brexit.”

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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