The 2011 plenary meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee

Alan Trench reports on the latest gathering of the leaders of the UK and devolved governments

The plenary Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) on Wednesday this week must have been squeezed into the diaries.  Both Carwyn Jones and David Cameron had their question times in the National Assembly and UK Parliament respectively earlier in the day, as well as other public functions.

The meeting has produced two genuine and welcome steps forward. One is its communiqué (available here), which is a good deal fuller and more informative than previous such communiqués have been. It gives us a reasonable idea of what was discussed – mutual co-operation and the state of the economy and public finances. ‘Mutual co-operation’ no doubt included discussion of ‘respect’ as well as the general principles of intergovernmental liaison, as well as amending the disputes avoidance and resolution procedure.  (It will be interesting to see what changes exactly that involves.)  Economic and financial issues clearly included each government’s pleas regarding UK economic policy as well as their own more direct financial concerns.  While it’s hardly explicit about what was said by whom, it’s a great step forward to get something that’s as clear and useful as this is.

The second step forward is an annual report for the whole JMC process, which is available here.  This appeared last year as well, but it’s a novelty for the UK Coalition Government and a very welcome one. (The 2009-10 report can be found on the Scottish Government website here). The report summarises all activity within the JMC framework over the last year, including dates of meetings of the JMC in its Domestic and Europe formats, the Finance Ministers’ Quadrilateral (JMC Finance in all but name, now), and what was discussed at those.  It records four meetings of the JMC (Europe), two of the JMC (Domestic) and two of the Finance Ministers’ Quadrilateral. Again, it’s not hugely detailed or revealing, and except when it comes to the issue of disputes there aren’t any great surprises here. Indeed, it carefully dances around some questions concerning the JMC (Europe), which stopped meeting for a while after the UK declined to share information with the Scottish Government through it, during Gordon Brown’s premiership. After the Coalition came in, it changed its mind and JMC (Europe) resumed – not that one would know this from either JMC annual report.

There are also some notable omissions from the report. It doesn’t tell us anything about meetings of the JMC (Officials), though after many years out of action this now meets to sherpa plenary JMC meetings. We don’t know if it meets otherwise, or what wider functions it might serve.  The report also doesn’t mention the meetings of agricultural ministers, which used to be held about 10 times a year.

If readers want to compare this sort of transparency with the level of detail given about similar meetings in Canada, look at what’s available from the Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat here. While that says nothing about meetings of officials (deputy ministers), it records when these happened as well as a good deal of detail about ministerial meetings. There’s even more information available from Australia about Ministerial Councils and the Council of Australian Governments there; see links here and here.

Most revealing in the Annual Report is the note about the use of the disputes resolution procedure, which it now emerges has been triggered four times. One concerned the Barnett consequentials for the 2012 London Olympics (which we knew about, and which involves all three devolved governments; discussed Here, Here and Here). The other uses were not publicly known.  They relate to consequentials from the Building Britain’s Future capital investment programme (Wales/UK), the allocation of North Sea whiting quotas (Scotland/UK), and a £18 billion capital funding commitment to Northern Ireland.  The ones concerning BBF and the whiting quotas are recorded as ‘resolved’, and the others as ongoing. It’s regrettable that more information couldn’t be supplied about these issues sooner.

The Olympics consequentials issue is, in fact, one of the curiosities of the JMC meeting. Although the disputes resolution meeting last October regarding the Olympics consequentials referred the issue to the plenary JMC, there’s no indication that it was in fact discussed on Wednesday. It was also not raised at the devolved first ministers’ preparatory meeting in Edinburgh last week.  Another more recent but equally serious devolved concern – the Treasury’s arbitrary withdrawal of devolved reserves which it held, under the old End Year Flexibility rules – doesn’t appear to have been raised either. Perhaps this is just missing from the communiqué – Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was among those attending, and this is something that falls within his purview rather than that of the Chancellor.

What we do have is a discussion of the overall framework for intergovernmental relations, at which there were assurances of ‘proper’ behaviour from the UK end, and attempts by Scotland to hold the UK Government to its earlier commitments of ‘respect’, which have rather fallen into abeyance in the last few months. Time will show whether ‘respect’ really does emerge, but there’s not much sign of real commitment to this at the London end and harsh words about the UK Coalition from Scotland and Wales won’t have helped much either.

We also had each devolved government pressing its own financial wish-list: corporation tax from Northern Ireland, that and a number of other fiscal measures from Scotland, and ‘fair funding’ from Wales (see press statement here, and BBC News story here). The Scottish Government also used the opportunity to flag up its alternative economic policy (see its press statement here), though that was given pretty short shrift by Michael Moore (see BBC News story here). There’s not much sign of devolved unity in those arguments, but most isolated was Carwyn Jones, in the literal sense as well as the metaphorical. The UK Government turned up mob-handed: the Prime Minister and Deputy PM, the three territorial Secretaries of State and Danny Alexander (though no George Osborne). While Alex Salmond was accompanied by two Scottish Cabinet Secretaries and the Northern Ireland First Minister and Deputy First Minister attended together, Jones had no ministerial colleague with him – not even Jane Hutt, despite financial issues being so prominent on the agenda.

In a setting like this, it appears the Scottish Government is raising issues with an eye as much to the domestic audience as with a view to changing UK positions, and that it hopes to pursue most of the big issues bilaterally.  It gets sufficient UK attention to do so.  Northern Ireland is clearly chafing at the bit of having to deal principally with the Secretary of State, and not having the sort of direct recourse to the Prime Minister it once had.

A good deal was made there before the meeting of this chance for the First Minister and Deputy First Minitser to raise matters with David Cameron as a result.  But there aren’t that many issues outstanding between Northern Ireland and UK, and the main one – corporation tax – is the one where the Secretary of State is making more of the running than devolved ministers.  It’s Wales that does look rather marginalised here, and in need of allies (as I discussed Here some months ago). Saying ‘unfair funding for Wales cannot be allowed to continue’ is all very well, but it’s unlikely to produce much by way of results unless he can find more ways of exercising leverage.

Alan Trench is a solicitor and an academic, associated with the University of Edinburgh and the Constitution Unit at University College London. He writes regularly on his blog Devolution Matters where this article originally appeared.

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