MPs call for Fast Stream reforms to increase devolution awareness

Lack of awareness about devolution issues in Whitehall is “unacceptable”, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee says, as Brexit brings fresh pressure for UK government to improve the way it works with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

By Suzannah Brecknell

08 Dec 2016

The Cabinet Office should consider whether changes to the Fast Stream and Civil Service Learning are needed to help increase officials' understanding of devolution issues, MPs have said.

A new report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) also calls for departments to carry out annual reviews of the way they interact with officials in devolved administrations when developing policy, and share lessons through the Cabinet Office team tasked with increasing awareness about devolution.

The committee argues that institutional relationships between governments and the separate parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must be strengthened, particularly given the need to properly involve devolved administrations in the process of leaving the EU.

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“The UK’s exit from the European Union will require not just diplomacy and effective intergovernmental relations at the EU level, but also within the UK,” says the report.

“It offers both risk and a fresh opportunity, and, therefore, an incentive, to develop more effective intergovernmental relations in the UK."

The committee says the "onus for facilitating constructive dialogue between the devolved administrations" must be with the UK government during the Brexit process, but it is critical of the current arrangements which it says are “driven more by short term political pressures than by a genuine desire for trust and understanding".

The civil service has been more successful at supporting interaction between administrations than have the separate parliaments, the committee says, largely because there is still a shared home civil service serving the UK, Welsh and Scottish governments. 

In 2015 the Cabinet Office established a UK Governance Group which brings together the Scotland Office, Wales Office, the Office of the Advocate General for Scotland and the Cabinet Office Constitution Unit.

This unit has since published a Devolution Toolkit which helps UK civil servants to take account of devolution issues and work with colleagues in other administrations.

The head of the UK Governance Group, Philip Rycroft, told the committee during its inquiry that the toolkit was part of a broader programme aiming to “ensure there is a sufficient capability and understanding of the devolution settlements across Whitehall”.

Although MPs welcomed this work, they criticised the fact it is a relatively recent programme, and said it was “unacceptable that 17 years after the advent of devolution Whitehall departments, when considering the effect of UK policy decisions, are not better at involving and consulting the devolved administrations”.

To build on progress made to date, PACAC recommends that "every Whitehall department should implement procedures" to improve engagement between.

"A senior official should also be appointed within each department to review successful and failed examples of inter-administration engagement at official level," the report says.

"The UK Governance Group should ask departments to report on reviews and lessons learned every year. The UK Governance Group should also undertake an audit of Fast Stream graduate programme and Civil Service Learning to explore how devolution awareness can be enhanced by these programmes."

The committee also wants to see more mechanisms to improve working between the UK’s governments and parliaments.

For example, the MPs suggest that all committees of the House of Commons should be able to meet jointly with their counterparts in devolved administrations, as is currently allowed for the Welsh Affairs Committee which can hold joint evidence sessions with committees of the National Assembly for Wales.

During its inquiry, PACAC heard from both Sir Derek Jones, the outgoing Welsh Government permanent secretary, and Leslie Evans, permanent secretary of the Scottish Government. 

While each perm sec emphasised that working relationships with Whitehall officials were generally good, both said there were times when devolution issues were overlooked, or considered too late in the policy-making process.

“If you were asking me is there a consistent understanding and very front-footed approach to devolution in every part of every department in Whitehall, I would have to say no," said Evans. "But we are working on it." 

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