The incoming permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union has insisted that devolution is “meat and drink” to civil servants amid an impasse between the UK and devolved governments over where powers will be placed following Brexit.
Rycroft, who also serves as head of the Cabinet Office’s UK Governance Group, told Welsh Assembly members this week that despite the complexities brought about by Brexit and changing constiutional settlements, Whitehall's understanding of devolution had improved – albeit unevenly.
He said civil servants had “come a considerable distance” on improving their knowledge of the devolution settlements since the UK Governance Group, which is responsible for devolution matters, was created in May 2015 under prime minister David Cameron.
His comments come amid rising tensions between the four governments that make up the UK, with recent announcements from the Scottish and Welsh governments that they will oppose the EU Withdrawal Bill, under which all powers currently exercised at EU level will be initially retained by Westminster.
Speaking to the Welsh Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, Rycroft said: “I wouldn’t say that we’ve got there in one bound and that every official in Whitehall is completely fluent in the devolution settlements, but I would hope that we’ve made significant progress over the last couple of years.”
“There is a distance to travel before I am content that all of the Whitehall civil servants who need to understand this have a clear understanding of the way in which power is now held in different parts of the UK.”
He insisted that any reticence was not due to a reluctance to engage on the part of civil servants, but that devolution makes things more complicated, requiring officials to understand the political contexts of devolved parliaments in order to gauge how their policies might land.
“This is not optional now,” he said. “The devolution settlements are a fact of life, have been for 20 years and people need to get on with it.”
But he added: “People do the job of a civil servant because they’re interested in how government works and how power is managed, how policy is made. An increase in complexity, to a lot of civil servants, is sort of meat and drink.”
The role of the UK Governance Group is to advise ministers on constitutional and devolution issues and “make sure all departments understand the nature of their devolution responsibilities”, Rycroft explained.
The new structure gave work on the devolution settlement more visibility in Whitehall – a recognition of the “salience of these issues”, he added.
“These things matter in Whitehall – where people sit, the titles they carry. [My] job was created as a second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office, which gave me the right to attend the regular meetings of permanent secretaries across Whitehall.
“This means that on a very regular basis I can remind them, as they present their various proposals to the collective of permanent secretaries, that they should be taking into account matters pertaining to Wales, Scotland [and] Northern Ireland.”
He insisted that ministers “do not wish to take away existing powers from administrations” and that they “expect to see an increase in powers for devolved legislatures”
Rycroft will be retaining his post at the top of the UK Governance Group despite stepping up in the Department for Exiting the European Union, but the group has appointed a new director general, Lucy Smith, to “take some of the strain”, he said.
He also said civil servants are keen to understand how the current devolution process within England – giving powers to councils through deals with cities and local government combined authorities with metro mayors – relates to existing devolution settlements, and how this impacts on the way they transact their policy responsibilities over time.
“One of the rationales for having the UK Governance Group right at the heart of government is the ability to think through these issues and help guide Whitehall in its response to them,” he said.
It is also working closely with all departments to ensure there is a coherent approach to all the areas of returning power from Brussels, Rycroft added.