Coming together after Brexit: Why devolved public bodies must find ways to work across borders

To successfully handle new post-Brexit powers, public bodies across the UK will need to build on ways they already work together – and manage divergence – across the nations


By Lucy Valsamidis

12 Jul 2019

When the UK leaves the European Union, it is expected to take on new powers which are currently the responsibility of Brussels. Many of these powers affect areas fully devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and civil servants from the different governments have been working hard to identify where UK-wide policy frameworks will be needed. However, ministers are deadlocked – and Northern Ireland still has no ministers to speak for it at all. 

From assessing and managing food-safety risks to enforcing environmental law, UK-wide and devolved public bodies will play a critical role in taking on former EU responsibilities at the frontline. So the governments have a responsibility to ensure that public bodies can work together and effectively manage divergence across the UK nations. 

While this represents a challenge, public bodies have a clear template to follow: themselves. They already have experience of working together, and in the post-Brexit landscape they should look to learn from what they already do well.

When there is policy divergence across the UK, public bodies should still learn from each other 

In some areas – including renewable-energy targets – the governments have decided that no UK-wide policy frameworks are needed. This will the devolved institutions space to pursue different policies. 

But the governments shouldn’t see this as a chance for public bodies to stop talking to each other – instead, it’s an opportunity for them to learn from each other. The UK’s four nature-conservation bodies across the nations, for example, are brought together in the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. This aims to create common standards for monitoring, research and analysis – allowing governments to consistently compare performance if policies diverge and making it easier to see how well policies work. 

Given more resources, jointly-owned public bodies can even carry out their own research and analysis for all the governments to use. For example, the Committee on Climate Change provides impartial expert advice on meeting emissions standards to all four governments. This enables the governments to take different policy decisions backed up by the same pool of evidence.

Where different public bodies work within the same policy framework, they should avoid duplicating work unnecessarily

In other areas – including food standards – different public bodies will work to a single legislative framework, limiting room for policy divergence.

When public bodies operate to a single framework, they will be carrying out their new functions in similar ways. Building up the capacity and expertise to take on new powers separately will be expensive and time-consuming – so public bodies should identify areas where they can avoid duplicating work. 

Under an agreement between the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland, for example, the two bodies can commission scientific services from each other. This gives them a way to avoid doing the same thing twice over – while still being able to diverge on individual policy decisions. 

Public bodies need to make sure they are accountable to the governments and legislatures they work to

In a few areas – such as animal and plant health and chemicals regulation – Brexit could mean public bodies find themselves carrying out more functions on behalf of governments and legislatures to which they are not directly accountable. 

For example, the UK government currently sponsors the Animal and Plant Health Agency and the Health and Safety Executive to implement EU law in those areas across three of the UK nations.

After Brexit, the governments could decide to sponsor these bodies jointly, co-funding them and requiring them to report to all the UK’s legislatures. As the Institute for Government and others have argued, jointly sponsored public bodies can be truly UK-wide rather than beholden to Whitehall. This can make it easier for them to establish legitimacy.

However, if the governments choose not to move towards more joint sponsoring of public bodies, then those bodies will find themselves doing more work on behalf of governments and legislatures that do not sponsor them. The trust this requires is already in evidence in the work of HM Revenue and Customs, a UK public body which collects income tax on behalf of the Scottish Government – and explains itself to the Scottish Parliament when things go wrong. Similarly, the Financial Services Authority’s councils for Wales and Northern Ireland advise the FSA on what it needs to do differently in those nations.

Setting up public bodies that are fit to work across the UK after Brexit will be a big task – but a good start can be made by learning from how public bodies already balance collaborating across the UK with accountability to the different governments and legislatures.

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