Since 1999 and the devolution of power to different regions, it has been important for the four UK administrations to work together and coordinate policies. The main political forum for this is the Joint Ministerial Committee. In this article, Robyn Munro and Akash Paun set out some of the issues with the JMC and suggest how it can be reformed.
Effective government depends on the ability of the UK and the three devolved governments to work together. Good relations between the four UK administrations allow disputes to be settled, policies coordinated and implemented, and lessons shared. Much intergovernmental cooperation in the UK happens at an official level. But ministerial relationships also matter, particularly at a time when each of the four governments has a different political composition and tensions are common across a range of areas.
The main forum for intergovernmental relations at a political level is the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC), which brings together ministers from all four UK administrations. In recognition of the fact that ‘the constitutional landscape has changed fundamentally’ since 1999, in December 2014 the UK Government announced a review of intergovernmental working arrangements, including the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC). In our recently published report, the Institute for Government sets out some of the challenges facing the JMC, and suggests how it might be reformed.
The JMC currently meets in three different formats. JMC Plenary, an annual meeting of leaders from each administration; JMC Domestic, where ministers with similar policy responsibilities discuss issues that straddle both devolved and non-devolved policy areas, and JMC Europe, at which the devolved administrations seek to feed into the UK negotiating position ahead of European Council meetings. We found that the JMC fulfils a number of important roles. One is purely symbolic: an interviewee argued that it is ‘constitutionally important’ for leaders of all UK administrations to meet in a formal summit setting. But meetings also have a practical value in that they allow issues to be raised at a political level that cannot be resolved by officials alone: we were told that the agreement that the Scottish Government could offset the bedroom tax using Discretionary Housing Payments was begun by discussions at JMC. The meetings also help to develop networks between officials in different administrations, and facilitate lesson-learning and best practice sharing.
The JMC also has a dispute resolution protocol, introduced in 2010. This allows officials and, if necessary, ministers from all administrations to adjudicate on a dispute raised by one administration against another. The protocol has only been invoked a handful of times, on disputes over how spending is allocated to the devolved administrations. Nevertheless, the protocol is seen as useful. A Welsh Government official told us that the threat of escalating the issue to the JMC was useful in encouraging administrations to come to a compromise:
“There have been letters from the Welsh Government which have indicated that ministers would take an issue through the machinery if it cannot be resolved. That has sometimes resulted in a satisfactory response from Whitehall.”
We also uncovered a number of challenges facing the JMC. One is that meetings may not be a high priority for the UK Government. The JMC Domestic seems to have fallen by the wayside: it used to meet several times a year, but met just once in 2013 and again in 2014. Another challenge is political grandstanding. Ministers from the devolved administrations have in the past used JMC meetings to score political points by criticising Westminster policies or making their own policy announcements, in lieu of holding constructive discussions. This in turn can make agreeing a suitable agenda for the meetings difficult:
“The public nature of JMC meetings makes it harder for us to accept having difficult agenda items, as that is just inviting a public fight.”
As a result, JMC agendas can be sanitized and avoid issues that, while controversial, may be most in need of discussion.
A final challenge facing the JMC is that it has not adapted to changes since 1999. The political landscape has changed significantly since the early days of Labour dominance, with the election of governments of different colours in all nations of the UK. In several policy areas – such as energy, welfare, and the environment – devolved policies have begun to diverge from Westminster.. In this changing political context, intergovernmental machinery must provide a space to raise differences and negotiate compromises. The JMC has not adapted to meet changing needs. As one interviewee pointed out:
“The problem with the JMC structures… is that they aren’t really about resolving differences; they’re about the ability for the devolved authorities to put their views forward and for the UK to respond to them. It’s an answer-response mechanism. It’s not a negotiation.”
Finance is another area in which the JMC has failed to adapt. Financial issues are at the heart of many recent intergovernmental disputes, for instance over funding for the 2012 Olympics and the costs of cross-border NHS treatment between England and Wales. With the devolution of tax and borrowing powers to all three devolved administrations now on the agenda, and austerity set to continue, finance will loom ever larger on the inter-governmental agenda. There will be a greater need than ever for a space where intergovernmental discussions can happen in a transparent manner, but at present much is decided through private negotiations, which does not allow for parliamentary or wider public scrutiny.
In our report we make a number of recommendations that would improve the existing JMC machinery. We found that while there’s a clear need for a ministerial-level forum at which issues can be raised and discussed, the current JMC machinery does not provide a space for constructive discussion. We recommend that the leaders of all administrations invest time and resources into JMC meetings. There should be greater willingness to allow controversial issues onto the agenda and to use the meetings to reach agreement, rather than scoring political points. There should be a new set of sub-committees on areas of overlapping competence (such as welfare and the environment). We also recommend the creation of a JMC Finance Committee to discuss macro-economic issues that affect all parts of the UK, as well as providing a space for discussions over spending allocations. Finally, there should be more transparency in general about how the Barnett Formula operates and how block grants and other financial decisions are determined. These changes will refresh and reinvigorate the JMC machinery and leave it better placed to manage the challenges posed by a more complex devolution settlement.
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