Intergovernmental relations: 25 years since the Scotland Act 1998
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), Scotland’s National Academy, welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry into intergovernmental relations. The working group who prepared this paper comprised Fellows of the RSE with significant knowledge of the UK’s constitutional arrangements and who occupy various roles across academia, policy, and other sectors.
The RSE has previously published policy advice in this area, including:
The RSE has highlighted in previous advice papers that the system for intergovernmental relations (IGR) in the UK was not effective and urgently needed to be reviewed and reformed. The RSE, therefore, welcomed the conclusion of the review of intergovernmental relations in 2022, leading to the creation of a new framework and set of structures for managing IGR, superseding the Joint Ministerial Committee system that had been established in 1999. These reforms have been positive, with meetings taking place at all levels of the three-tier committee structure for formal multilateral engagement, including a meeting of the newly formed Prime Minister and Heads of Devolved Government Council. However, by looking at the outcomes for IGR more broadly, there is little evidence to suggest that relations have improved at the political level. In assessing the effectiveness of the new framework, it is important to tease out the differences between process and machinery, wider constitutional developments, and politics, all of which can impact IGR.
Despite devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the UK remains one of the most centralised advanced democracies because England is still substantially run from London. This asymmetry makes IGR between the UK Government and the devolved administrations challenging, and since 1999, relations have tended to be ad hoc. Further devolution of powers over taxation and welfare, and the establishment of common frameworks for the UK post-Brexit, mean that decision-making has become increasingly interdependent across the UK, and the need for effective IGR has increased. Ironically, the post-Brexit UK, as a union of nations, has adopted key features of the EU model of IGR, including interministerial committees, frameworks seeking to resolve issues at a technical level, and an internal market provision. Yet it lacks key elements of the EU model and the safeguards built into that system, notably the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Consequently, the UK system operates in the ‘shadow of hierarchy’ with the UK Government always able to prevail, even though it does not in practice always impose its will unilaterally.
The new IGR framework is a work in progress that has improved IGR at the technical administrative level, leading to an increase in intergovernmental and interministerial engagements and forums for discussion, alongside small improvements to transparency and setting out a basic structure for dispute resolution. However, the reality since January 2022 demonstrates that IGR remains a core issue at the heart of governing the UK. The return of the UK union to the frontline of political life is one of the most important repercussions of the political developments that have followed British politics since 1999. As governing the UK has become increasingly complex, accelerated by the UK’s exit from the EU and the devolution of further powers, the need for effective IGR has buttressed. The new framework lacks the statutory basis to embed cooperation and collaboration in an increasingly interdependent union and enable effective dispute resolution. The RSE refers back to previous submissions advocating for the creation on these structures.