The joint Intergovernmental Relations Review sets out new structures outlining how the UK Government, Northern Ireland Executive, Scottish Government and Welsh Government will work together going forward. A new three-tier system for ministerial engagement and a set of principles for collaborative working are proposed. But will this enhance the operation of the Union if those involved fail to foster trust and meaningful relations over the long-term? 

By Joanna George
Research Associate, University of Cambridge

According to Lord Hennessey, intergovernmental relations have been the ‘hidden wiring’ of the UK’s territorial constitution since 1998. In other words, such relations provide a vital support system for and give life to the meaning of the Union. Yet only now, in 2022, are we beginning to witness formalised intergovernmental arrangements emerge that promote a more consensus-orientated and strategic Union, with greater consideration for the relationship dynamics between the UK’s four governments. However, are non-statutory understandings about intergovernmental relations capable of strengthening the Union over the long-term? Is there enough goodwill to adhere to the new principles and machinery? Or will ‘muscular Unionism’ reflexively resume? 

The Intergovernmental Relations Review (IRR) comes at a critical time, with diverging views on and approach to Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic proving challenging for the Union. But on a positive note, these issues have given the profile of devolution a much-needed boost since the devolved legislatures became established in 1998. Thoughtful consideration about how the four central governments within the UK are to work together is long overdue, with the Dunlop Review concluding in 2019 that intergovernmental relations machinery ‘is no longer fit for purpose and is in urgent need for reform’. The House of Lords Constitution Committee pointed out in a report published last week that to govern the UK in the 21st century significant cultural change is required in Whitehall, including the end of its top-down mindset.  

The IRR proposes several potentially transformative changes. Firstly, the Joint Ministerial Committee system is replaced by a three-tier system of intergovernmental forums which will take place on a regular and tailored basis, in contrast to irregular and ad-hoc meetings. The top tier will consist of a Council including the Prime Minister and the Heads of Devolved Governments. The middle tier will include the Interministerial Standing Committee (IMSC), the Finance Interministerial Standing Committee (F:ISC) and additional time limited interministerial committees formed to be as necessary. The lowest tier will include a number of interministerial groups (IMG) formed to discuss specific policy areas.  

Secondly, a new set of principles, which include mutual respect, maintaining trust and positive working, will guide intergovernmental relations. Thirdly, a new secretariat will oversee a new dispute resolution procedure where a disagreement can be escalated to a formal dispute. The key element here is that the chair cannot be a representative from the UK or devolved governments. This means that the UK Government has loosened its grip and made space for an outside mediator to ensure that the new principles are adhered to.  

Despite the progress of this review, it fails to elaborate on one key topic for the Union: England. As noted by Professor Daniel Wincott, the UK Government’s current structure ‘makes it difficult to differentiate its English from state-wide roles for other policies and at the system’s higher levels’. The IRR seeks to provide greater transparency, improve accountability and scrutiny from each government’s respective legislatures. But England is arguably undermined in this respect when its responsibly remains under the UK Government where its aspirations cannot fully be voiced.  

The Dunlop Review suggested that the Prime Minister should play an active role and host two meetings a year of what will now be the Council. The IRR changed this to one meeting a year. The House of Lords Constitution Committee points out this disparity. Considering that Boris Johnson has, to date, delegated many of his interactions with the devolved governments to Michael Gove, the Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, it remains to be seen how this will play out in practice. 

Looking beyond short-term political matters, the review is promising and does positively attempt to address the ‘devolve and forget’ mentality that is widely perceived, particularly by the devolved governments and legislature, to have dominated Whitehall in recent years. Moreover, given the present and stark differences in constitutional outlook and political direction across political parties across the UK, agreement on the IRR does show that progress can be made if there is a willingness to do so.