Disorganised, Opaque and Unaccountable: Inter-Governmental Relations in the UK

Covert compromises and public shouting matches are the norm in how our governments interact with each other, writes Paul Evans.

The IWA’s report, ‘Missing Links: Past, present and future inter-parliamentary relations in the devolved UK’ is published today. Secure your tickets to the online panel discussion at the launch here.

Last year we marked the twentieth anniversary of devolution in the UK.

The famous comment by Ron Davies the then Secretary of State for Wales – that devolution was a process and not an event – has been proved to be correct, and nowhere more so than in Wales.

From its origins in 1999 as a super-charged county council, sanctioned by a wafer-thin majority in the 1998 referendum, the National Assembly has been transformed. In 2006 its whole statutory basis was altered to make it a recognisable legislature holding a responsible executive to account. It acquired some limited primary legislative powers, drip-fed to it by Westminster. 

In 2011, after a rather more solid affirmation in a referendum, it acquired new and significant law-making powers, although still restricted by what Westminster was willing to allow it. 

In 2018, after another major Act of Parliament, it acquired much wider powers and much greater discretion about how to use them, and in 2020 it decided for itself to become the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru.

The Wales Act 2017 declared it, along with the Welsh Government, to be a permanent part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, which could be abolished only with the consent of the people of Wales in a referendum.

Inter-governmental relations between the four executives have generally been disorganised, opaque and unaccountable.”

But this assertion of permanency and the implication of equality of esteem between the four legislatures of the UK has often appeared more theoretical than real.

Whitehall and Westminster seem never to have really come to terms with devolution in their hearts rather than in their words. Inter-governmental relations between the four executives have generally been disorganised, opaque and unaccountable.

The elected members of the four legislatures have done little better in opening up and sustaining channels of communication – though some good work has been done at the margins. (In fact at Westminster the unelected members of the House of Lords seem to have taken the whole question rather more seriously than the Commons.)

Brexit has delivered a shock to the whole system of devolution, which threatens to destabilise it. The very public rows over the 2017 EU Withdrawal Bill, and now over the UK Internal Market Bill, have highlighted the tensions between the four executives.

The return of wide areas of competence from the EU has meant that the overlap between the powers of Westminster and the devolved legislatures to make laws has massively widened. The potential for conflict has grown proportionately.

Theresa May declared her commitment to strengthening the Union, a cry that was very loudly echoed by Boris Johnson in the run up to last year’s general election. But the Dunlop Review of UK inter-governmental relations which was initiated two years ago, and is believed to have reported last year, languishes unpublished somewhere in Whitehall. 

The chances of progress look slim while the rows over the Internal Market Bill continue. The so-called ‘Sewel Convention’, now embodied in the Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act, by which the UK government has undertaken not to legislate on matters within the competence of the devolved legislatures without their consent, looks to be seriously threatened. The Institute for Government published a report on the stresses on the convention only last week.

“The UK’s inter-governmental relations appear to be so ramshackle and ad hoc and – at the moment – dysfunctional.”

The Institute for Welsh Affairs’ publication ‘Missing Links: Past, Present and Future Inter-Parliamentary Relations in the devolved UK’ looks at the question of holding the Union together from the perspective of the legislatures rather than the executives.

There is not really a “federal” legislature in the UK – Westminster has to double-hat as the UK legislature and the English Parliament, and England has no legislature of its own. 

The inter-governmental negotiations which affect the lives of people in the nations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales receive scant scrutiny.

There is no organised body which would bring together the members of the devolved legislatures and Westminster to examine on behalf of their electorates what the governments were getting up to in these negotiations.

If good scrutiny makes for good government, it is perhaps no surprise that the UK’s inter-governmental relations appear to be so ramshackle and ad hoc and – at the moment – dysfunctional.

Innovative. Informed. Independent.
Your support can help us Make Wales Better.

There is a real problem with coming up with a convincing system of inter-parliamentary accountability in a system as puzzling and asymmetrical as the current UK arrangements for devolution. But that is not an excuse for not trying. It won’t happen just by wishing for it.

There needs to be political will to create a system which is well-designed, well-organised, well-resourced, easy to use, accountable to the public and transparent in its operation. The IWA has looked at some of the seeds of good practice which have been sown and tried to identify why they have not flourished, and how they might be encouraged to do so.

Even for those elected members for whom the continuation of the UK as a union of four nations is not the destination at which they hope the process of devolution will terminate need to make the union work for now.

Having just left one union, the UK is vulnerable to post-traumatic stress. Shock treatment is unlikely to be the best way to ease that stress and limit long-term damage.

The IWA is trying to look for a way forward to replace covert compromises and public shouting matches between the four governments of the UK with a more measured approach to conflict resolution and deeper collaboration.

It would likely be to each of the UK nations’ mutual benefit if we could have a rather more grown-up conversation about how to resolve our differences amicably. Better inter-parliamentary dialogue can only help deliver that goal.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Paul Evans worked in the House of Commons as a Clerk until this year, where he spent a lot of time thinking about devolution and encouraging UK inter-parliamentary relations.

Also within Politics and Policy