What are intergovernmental relations?

Intergovernmental relations are the processes through which governments interact. Intergovernmental relations is an umbrella term for both the formal and informal interactions and exchanges between governments.

Intergovernmental relations should allow administrations to work together in areas of joint interest or concern. In the UK, intergovernmental relations refer to the interactions between the UK Government and the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Communication, collaboration, information sharing and the early resolution of disputes are all important aspects of effective intergovernmental relations.

Why are intergovernmental relations important?

In any system of multi-level government there will be some inter-dependence and overlap of powers and responsibility. In a country like Scotland, where some matters are the responsibility of the Scottish Government and others are the responsibility of the UK Government, intergovernmental relations are vital to effective governance.

There will also be areas of mutual interest and concern where working together, or sharing knowledge and resources, is beneficial. It is important that there are established processes by which to address and manage these areas of inter-dependence, interest and sometimes conflict.

In what areas do intergovernmental relations already exist in the UK?

Some issues which intergovernmental relations can address are fundamental, for example, the way in which devolved administrations in the UK are funded.

Intergovernmental relations also deal with long-standing areas of policy. The UK’s interactions with EU institutions is a good example of this. In discussing fishing or agriculture policy at EU level, the UK government is talking about matters which are devolved to Scotland. The Brexit process has also led to the creation of a number of new Joint Ministerial sub-committees.

On other occasions, intergovernmental relations may be helpful in reacting to an emergency in order to coordinate a response – an example being the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001.

What groups exist to facilitate intergovernmental relations in the UK?

The Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) was established in 1999. When the JMC meets in plenary the Prime Minister is the Chair and the First Ministers of the devolved administrations attend. The Devolution: Memorandum of Understanding and Supplementary Agreements sets out the role and remit of the JMC noting that the JMC provides “some central co-ordination of the overall relationship”.

to consider non-devolved matters which impinge on devolved responsibilities, and devolved matters which impinge on non-devolved responsibilities;
where the UK Government and the devolved administrations so agree, to consider devolved matters if it is beneficial to discuss their respective treatment in the different parts of the United Kingdom;
to keep the arrangements for liaison between the UK Government and the devolved administrations under review; and
to consider disputes between the administrations.

The JMC has a set of sub-committees which are made up of Ministers from the UK Government and devolved administrations.

The JMC Europe and JMC EU Negotiations are the two sub-committees through which the UK and devolved administrations engage formally on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The JMC EU Negotiations was set up specifically as a forum to involve the devolved administrations in discussion around the UK’s approach to EU Exit. 

The Scottish Government has committed to sharing information about these committees with the Scottish Parliament.

What is the state of intergovernmental relations in the UK?

The UK Government and the devolved governments in the UK have acknowledged that intergovernmental relations are not working as well as they could.

In March 2018, a review of intergovernmental relations was announced. The review was commissioned by the Joint Ministerial Committee (Plenary) and sought to appraise existing structures between the governments of the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to ensure they were fit for purpose ahead of the UK leaving the EU.

In a statement on 3 July 2019, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, David Lidington announced a draft set of principles for intergovernmental relations which had been ‘developed jointly by a working group of representatives of all four administrations. The principles are intended to establish a solid foundation for the ways in which all four administrations will work together in the future.’

Both the Welsh and Scottish Governments have expressed disappointment at the lack of progress made by the review and in a joint letter issued on 3 July 2019 called on the UK Government to make firm commitments towards further reform in the relationship between Governments.

Is the Scottish Parliament involved in inter-governmental relations?

The Smith Commission agreement considered intergovernmental relations and recommended that arrangements for intergovernmental relations be “underpinned by much stronger and more transparent Parliamentary scrutiny.”

Given the Commission’s recommendation, there is a written agreement between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament on intergovernmental relations.

This Agreement applies to the participation of Scottish Ministers in formal,
intergovernmental structures. This means, in practice, discussions and
agreements of, or linked to, the Joint Ministerial Committee (in all its
functioning formats); the Finance Ministers’ Quadrilaterals; the Joint
Exchequer Committee; the Joint Ministerial Group on Welfare; and other
standing or ad hoc multilateral and bilateral inter-ministerial forums of similar
standing as may be established.

Written agreement on intergovernmental relations

The Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee takes the lead on scrutiny of intergovernmental relations. The Scottish Government submitted its annual report on intergovernmental relations for the period April 2017 to June 2018 to the Committee on 17 May 2019.

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