Whitehall ‘in reverse’ over devolution, ex-perm sec warns

Government’s capacity to manage devolution has diminished, with relations with devolved nations at a low ebb, MPs told
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By Jonathan Owen

23 Oct 2023

Changes to the machinery of government have resulted in Whitehall’s capability on managing devolution taking “a significant step backwards,” according to ex-DExEU perm sec Philip Rycroft.

He referenced the recommendation of Lord Andrew Dunlop’s Review of UK Union Capability, published in 2021, for “a new great Office of State in the Cabinet”.

Instead of this, “responsibility for handling union issues has been taken out of the centre of government and moved to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities,” Rycroft says.

The change took place in the wake of Michael Gove being appointed levelling up secretary. While the move recognised Gove’s “personal commitment to promoting union issues within government, it has all the hallmarks of a classic short-term Whitehall fix, with little thought given to the long-term impact of downgrading union concerns from a central to a line department,” he says.

The claims are made in written evidence by Rycroft and Professor Michael Kenny, director of Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy, submitted to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s inquiry into devolution capability in Whitehall.

Their response to the committee’s call for evidence, published last week, cites the “dismantling” of the UK Governance Group as a “consequence” of devolution being brought under DLUHC.

“This diminution in the status of devolution matters in a government machine where there are so many competing priorities, and where devolved government and the union more generally are typically viewed as ‘niche’ areas of policy.”

Rycroft and Kenny warn that it illustrates how “short-term political considerations can trump the building of long term capabilities” and is “indicative of a lack of foresight.”

The downgrading of devolution in the wider scheme of things “repeats a pattern of neglect in terms of institutional capacity in this area that has persisted over many years.”

This has “arguably weakened” the UK’s ability “to develop a strategic approach to the handling of devolution issues and the union more generally.”

Rycroft and Kenny claim that relations between Westminster and the devolved governments “have not improved much beyond the nadir they reached in the aftermath of Brexit.”

Prior to Brexit, the government would not normally legislate on a devolved matter without the consent of the devolved legislature – in what is known as the Sewel convention. “The change since Brexit is marked; it is now not unusual for the UK government to proceed with legislation with little regard to the Sewel convention,” they state.

“For Whitehall to invest consistently in devolution capability, civil servants need to know that Ministers take the issue seriously,” Rycroft and Kenny add. “Political signalling is important in setting the wider cultural tone of governance in Whitehall, which in turn shapes the attention paid to devolution concerns.”

However, factors such as using “perceived failings in devolved government policy outcomes as a political tool to divert attention from English policy issues” have created “the impression that the devolved governments are not serious partners in the governance of the UK”. Rycroft and Kenny warn that this “does not send the signal to British civil servants that they should prioritise an understanding of how devolution works.”

At the time of writing, the Cabinet Office had not responded to a request from CSW for comment

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