Carwyn Jones: top-level contact between Whitehall and Wales “non-existent”

Welsh first minister says there is “no real machinery for a regular heads of government meeting” – as Silk Commission chair reveals he considered calling for separate civil service.

By Matt Foster

07 Dec 2015

Wales’s first minister Carwyn Jones has lamented a lack of coordination between Whitehall and the Welsh government, accusing David Cameron of failing to devote enough time to the country.

The Draft Wales Bill was published earlier this year, setting out plans to give Wales more say over energy and transport policy, as well as greater control over the way its Assembly is run.

But the country’s first minister, Carwyn Jones, told MPs on Monday that the quality of intergovernmental relations between Westminster and the UK’s devolved governments had “declined in the last two years”, with a joint ministerial committee (JMC) designed to bring together the prime minister with the leaders of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland not having met “for some time”.

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“In terms of bilateral machinery, that’s fairly non-existent,” he said. “The Silk Commission [devolution report] recommendation with regard to setting up an intergovernmental committee between the Welsh government and the UK government has not been taken forward. 

“And it’s probably fair to say that we do not have regular contact with the prime minister, to the extent that letters are not always answered, so the contact there is very minimal.”

While Jones said he had frequent meetings with the UK government’s Welsh secretary, Stephen Crabb, he bemoaned the fact that there was now “no real machinery for a regular heads of government meeting”, and warned lack of clout from the top of government could undermine support in central government departments for measures included in the Wales Bill.

“It’s not possible to discuss issues of importance… The Wales Bill, which is on the table at the moment, has been discussed many of times with the secretary of state for Wales. But we’ve not had a response from the prime minister in terms of discussing the Wales Bill, which is of fundamental importance to the constitution of Wales, and indeed the wider UK.”

He added: “The problem with the Wales Bill is the involvement of every Whitehall department. The Wales Office only has a certain amount of influence across government at UK-level. There needs to be interest shown by the prime minister as the head of government. 

“With such a wide-ranging piece of legislation as the Wales Bill, while the contact with the Wales Office is welcome, actually there does need to be contact on a head of government basis in order to ensure that the Wales Bill is fit for purpose.”

"Too introspective"

Jones was speaking as part of an evidence session held by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (Pacac), whose members have travelled from Westminster to Cardiff to hear from senior figures in the devolved Welsh administration. 

The committee also took evidence from Sir Paul Silk, whose 2012 report for the UK government recommended handing new fiscal powers to Wales. Silk told MPs that he had considered recommending the creation of a separate civil service to support the Welsh government, but ultimately come down against such a move in favour of a focus on building knowledge within Whitehall.

“I personally started my journey on this in rather in favour of a separating the civil service in Cardiff from the civil service in the United Kingdom,” he said. 

The Commission’s final report opted to back the continuation of a unified civil service staffed by officials serving the whole of the UK, but called for a “more structured system of staff interchange” to ensure that civil servants were better briefed on the different roles and responsibilities of Cardiff and Whitehall. Earlier this year, the Cabinet Office launched a new formal interchange programme to offer civil servants the chance to work with devolved administrations.

Silk explained what he saw as the advantage of maintaining a unified civil service.

“There are still those who go between Cardiff and London and bring experience back to Cardiff... We have a danger of being too introspective in the way we look at these things and the more exchanges we can have with London, and indeed with Brussels, the better,” he said.

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