Devolution ‘should return to centre of government’, MPs told

Ex-minister also calls for Northern Ireland Civil Service to be put on same footing as Scottish and Welsh counterparts
Sir David Lidington appears before PACAC yesterday. Lord Andrew Dunlop is in the background Photo: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

17 Jan 2024

Responsibility for devolution capability in Whitehall should be moved back to the centre of government to ensure the agenda gets the prominence it needs, a parliamentary inquiry has been told.

The devolution brief was moved out of the Cabinet Office in a September 2021 reshuffle, which saw Michael Gove move from Cabinet Office to head up the rebranded Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

But yesterday, two senior figures from recent Conservative administrations told members of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that devolution should now go back to the Cabinet Office.

Former Cabinet Office minister Sir David Lidington described Gove’s commitment to devolution and preparedness to prioritise the agenda as laudable. But he said DLUHC is not able to give the same “institutional commitment” to devolution that the centre of government could.

“My personal view is that the devolution function – the devolution oversight – is best left at the Cabinet Office or at a reformed centre of government entity,” he said.

“I think that for the devolution settlement to work as well as it needs to, it is important that there is a senior minister at the centre of government who has cross-departmental responsibilities – who’s probably chairing a number of cabinet committees, COBRs and ministerial working groups. And who can take that ministerial overview.

“If you hive it off to any single department, then however committed and well-intended a particular minister might be, it seems to me that you lose something. And, of course, that minister’s not going to be there forever.

“You don’t get that same institutional commitment from housing and local government any more than you would from putting in devolution with Defra or the Home Office.”

Lidington said he did not believe that returning devolution to the centre of government would be difficult, if a future prime minister chose to do so.

“You still have a team of officials in the Cabinet Office who are responsible for constitutional matters, including devolution,” he said.

“Not all the officials have moved to housing, communities and local government.”

Lord Andrew Dunlop, who wrote 2021’s Dunlop Review into UK Government Union Capability, said cross-government change needs to be driven from the centre of government.

Dunlop, who was then-prime minister David Cameron’s principal adviser on devolved constitutional issues from 2012-2015 before becoming a junior minister in the Scottish Office and the Northern Ireland Office, said civil service leadership in the Union and Devolution Directorate within DLUHC also needs to be looked at.

“It was disappointing that we had a second permanent secretary responsible for this area but it was downgraded to director general,” he said in a reference to former Cabinet Office second perm sec Sue Gray.

“That is not to question the effectiveness of the individual who does the job at the moment, Brendan Threlfall, who I think is a very effective official. But I think signals within government matter. If Whitehall gets the message that this is an area that is a priority for the prime minister, then it will become a priority for the whole of Whitehall.”

Dunlop said having civil service leadership at permanent-secretary level is also important to ensure there is a “voice” in the cabinet secretary’s weekly colleagues meeting that is “really focusing” on devolution.

“It sends a message to all the permanent secretaries in Whitehall that this is important,” Dunlop said.

NICS should be ‘brought closer’ to the rest of the civil service

Tuesday’s PACAC session also heard Lidington call for much closer relations between the Northern Ireland Civil Service and counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales.

“There are some very good officials in Northern Ireland, I’m not knocking them at all. But there is inevitably an insularity to the Northern Ireland Civil Service because there are not many secondments,” Lidington said.

"Sue Gray’s appointment to Northern Ireland from Whitehall at senior level was exceptional. That almost never happens and you don’t get many Northern Ireland civil servants who come and spend a few years broadening their experience in Whitehall, or for that matter in the Scottish or Welsh governments.”

Lidington said he was in favour of bringing the organisationally separate NICS “onto the same basis” as officials working for devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.

“That would open up new opportunities for civil servants in Northern Ireland. It would broaden the experience of officials there if they could come and serve in Edinburgh, Cardiff, London, Darlington for a bit,” he said.

“Also, to have more people who had established careers in one of the other parts of the civil service going to Northern Ireland would be good for Northern Ireland governance. But also, it would add to understanding of particularities in Northern Ireland.

“Too often, Northern Ireland is seen by politicians, as well as officials, as something that’s just different and distinct and we don’t want to think about it more than we have to. And I think that does an injustice to the people of Northern Ireland.”

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