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Devolved administrations must not be an ‘afterthought’ in Brexit talks

Devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are at risk of being excluded from the Brexit process under the current system, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has warned in a new report.

The committee found that the Scottish and Welsh governments have reported different experiences of devolution so far, with Scotland enjoying more influence and a more “effective and responsive” relationship with Whitehall. These claims follow on from separate findings from the Lords Constitution Committee that the UK devolution process has been “piecemeal” and left the Union under thread.

Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of the PACAC, said: “The time pressure of negotiating our withdrawal from the EU now forces the machinery of intergovernmental relations in the UK to be imbued with a sense of purpose.

“We cannot go on with the notion that the devolved administrations are treated as an afterthought by Whitehall, particularly as all the devolved administrations are run by different political parties.

“It is, therefore, vital that the UK government's commitment to engage with the devolved administrations is meaningful and not simply a tool to allay the concerns of the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive.”

Whilst the pace of devolution since the Blair Government has “advanced considerably”, the committee argued, the quality of inter-institutional relations lagged behind these developments – “with a reliance in both intergovernmental and, to an even greater degree, inter-parliamentary relations on informal, and often ad-hoc, arrangements”.

The report comes as MPs in the House of Commons voted last night in support of the government’s decision to trigger Article 50 by 31 March next year, thus beginning the two-year process of exiting the EU.

However, MPs also passed a Labour motion demanding that the government publishes its plans for leaving the EU before that time.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is currently hearing a landmark case on whether the government or Parliament has the right to trigger Article 50.

Time for more purposeful co-operation

Today’s PACAC report also criticised the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC), which oversees the devolution process, arguing it was not set up to cope with “increasingly significant responsibility”.

The JMC Domestic committee, originally intended to meet quarterly, has not held any meetings in some time. This means that the four heads of government only meet at annual JMC plenaries, which have not been held in 15 months and only allow limited time to discuss issues in detail.

At the most recent plenary session, the devolved administrations agreed to defer producing a revised memorandum of understanding because of the uncertainty caused by the EU Referendum.

The report called this an “ideal opportunity” to introduce more purposeful co-operation between the devolved administrations.

The PACAC therefore urged the UK government to “develop a system of effective intergovernmental relations” where all devolved administrations are “treated with respect” and substantive issues are discussed together.

It added that the JMC plenaries should evolve into an annual Heads of Government Summit, analogous to meetings of the Council of the European Union, with time for formal and informal meetings between heads of government.

Its MPs also called for the JMC to be accompanied by sub-committees for areas such as welfare, tax, the devolved financial settlements, agriculture and fisheries.

The report also recommended requiring each Whitehall department to implement procedures for engaging with officials from devolved administrations, and allowing all Parliamentary committees to undertake joint evidence sessions with their counterparts in devolved administrations.

Responding, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The UK government is committed to the strength of the Union and determined to make a success of Brexit. That means striking a deal which works for all parts of the UK.

“We are working closely with the devolved administrations through the JMC process so they’re fully engaged as we form our negotiating position. We will reply to the committee’s specific recommendations in due course.”

(Image: pro and anti-Brexit protesters outside the Supreme Court. C. Victoria Jones from PA Wire and PA Images)

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