All civil servants in departments that work with the devolved administrations in the UK must be given “comprehensive training” on the details of the devolution settlements in Scotland and Wales before or immediately upon starting work, MPs have said.
In a report looking at the future of the relationship between the UK government and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales in light of tensions over Brexit, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee said that the UK government does not have a common strategy or policy for devolved relationships and is instead leaving it to different Whitehall departments to develop their own strategies and models.
MPs said updated rules on where powers are held are needed to avoid repeating the row which broke out over the Brexit bill - when the UK government was being accused of a “power grab” after passing Brexit legislation without the backing of the Scottish Parliament over devolved elements of the legislation. While agreement was ultimately reached with Wales, parties from across the spectrum at Holyrood refused to back the EU withdrawal bill.
MPs called on ministers to set out a "Devolution Policy for the Union" as part of government's response the their report, and said that an updated version of this policy should be published at the start of every new parliament. The report said that this policy "should outline where the constitutional architecture of devolution needs to be buttressed or amended and should, where necessary, provide justification for asymmetry within the devolution settlement".
The committee also called for the extension of work such as the Cabinet Office's ‘Devolution and You’ programme, which provides resources to civil servants to understand the new devolution settlements.
The report noted that this scheme, which was launched by then Cabinet Office second permanent secretary and head of UK Governance Group and now Department for Exiting the European Union perm sec Philip Rycroft, formed part of “continued work within Whitehall to improve knowledge and understanding of devolution”.
However, they added: “we are concerned that so much work still needs to be done 20 years on from the establishment of devolution in 1998”.
“It is clear from the evidence to this inquiry that Whitehall still operates extensively on the basis of a structure and culture which take little account of the realities of devolution in the UK. This is inimical to the principles of devolution and good governance in UK.”
To address this, the committee called for all relevant civil servants to be given training which would establish a sufficient level of understanding of the devolution settlement. They said officials in departments that have contact with the devolved administrations should receive training “before or immediately upon taking up a such a position”.
The MPs conclude that the current lack of a common framework setting out how the UK government interacts with the devolved administrations “runs the risk of creating a disparate set of frameworks with no consistent or coherent rational or operational logic” at a time when additional powers are being given to the devolved authorities, and Brexit is increasing the need for cooperation.
“The government is adding to this challenge by permitting the creation of multiple different systems by different departments and this appears to us to be deeply unhelpful,” the report stated.
The committee also highlights the need to consider Whitehall’s relationships with local government in England, and identify those areas where power might appropriately be devolved from Whitehall to councils and metropolitan mayors in England.
PACAC chair Sir Bernard Jenkin said that leaving the EU will mean the UK's constitutional arrangements will need a re-think.
“We recommend the government sets out a clear devolution policy for the Union as we leave the EU. Failure to do this just prolongs misunderstandings which are the basis for more conflict,” he said. “The present machinery for developing inter-governmental relations is flimsy, and there is nothing to give the various parts of England a say. Ignoring this risks the future relations within the UK.”
The Cabinet Office has been approached for its response to the report. It was announced in March that civil servants are to undertake a review of the cross-governmental structures set up to support communication between administrations in order to ensure they are “fit for purpose” following Brexit.
The Cabinet Office said they will carefully review the PACAC report and will respond formally in due course.
A spokesman added: “We are committed to securing a deal that works for the entire United Kingdom and have been absolutely clear that when devolved powers are returned from Brussels, the vast majority will go straight to the devolved administrations.
“For the past year, we have been focused on constructively engaging with the devolved administrations and continue to have regular meetings with them, held at all levels, including the joint ministerial committees and ministerial forums. All sides have committed to continuing to work together, including building common frameworks so that UK businesses won’t face a cliff edge on the day we leave the EU.”