Elspeth Nicholson, Account Manager, analyses the Dunlop Review and relations with the devolved administrations. 

The UK Government is frequently accused of failing to work effectively with the devolved governments – for example in July the Scottish Government claimed it had just 30 minutes to review a new air corridor policy. The recently published Review of UK Government Union Capability – better known as the Dunlop Review – aims to change this by ensuring the UK Government is working to “fully realise all the benefits of being a United Kingdom”. The review was initially commissioned by Theresa May in 2019; despite being finished in the autumn of that year, a change at the top and the pandemic delayed its publication until March this year.

This review came weeks before a UK Government commitment to publishing a Levelling Up white paper, which would set out how the government will invest money in disadvantaged areas across the UK. It was also published in the midst of the biggest set of elections the UK has ever seen, in which governance was a hot topic. The future of devolution, governance of the UK, and investment across all four nations are key parts of the UK Government’s current challenge as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and the Dunlop Review forms part of that.

Dunlop’s main recommendations fall into six categories, all of which point to a need to better embed knowledge of devolution across UK departments and foster better relations between the four administrations of the UK.

Machinery of Government

Responsibility for the union is held by the minister for the Cabinet Office (currently Michael Gove) but Dunlop recommends the Prime Minister appoint a Secretary of State for Intergovernmental & Constitutional Affairs who would have the same standing as any of the great offices of state. This would provide greater clarity within government of where responsibility lies.

The UK Government has been criticised for not considering the impact of policy on the devolved nations and for this reason Dunlop also suggests creating a “shared policy function” for the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices. This would improve civil service support for the three territorial offices and increase the provision of policy advice about the devolved nations.

Civil Service Capability

There has been a tendency to “devolve and forget” within the UK Government – where a policy area gets devolved and the relevant UK department subsequently ceases to engage with or in the devolved nation.

Dunlop argues that, even in areas which are significantly devolved, knowledged should be more deeply embedded across all levels of government departments. The implication here is that outwith the core devolution teams, officials often do not give devolution sufficient thought. To counter this Dunlop recommends each UK department should have a senior civil servant with responsibility for devolution issues, to ensure devolution is represented at the highest levels of government.

On an individual level, to support improved understanding of devolution among UK civil servants, Dunlop recommends greater incentives to learn about and work on devolution issues: for example, by ensuring leadership programmes include a devolution angle, and encouraging the secondment of staff between the UK, Welsh and Scottish governments. The Northern Ireland Civil Service is separate, so instead of direct secondment of staff, Dunlop recommends the UK Government should “work jointly with NICS to increase interchanges”.

Spending

Dunlop recommends the Treasury should “set aside a fund for UK-wide projects”. This would further incentivise Whitehall departments to better embed the Union as “a central part of their policy”. For devolved areas, he claims there should be a portion of funding from which UK departments and devolved governments can bid, to foster cross-border working.

The UK Government is committed to increasing what it spends in the devolved nations. Sections 50 and 51 of the UK Internal Market Act allow it to spend unilaterally in devolved areas, devolved administrations have criticised it for. They argue allowing UK ministers to spend money in this way undermines devolution. Although it is yet to be seen exactly how these powers will be used, they might support the role out of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and they are likely to increase the presence of the UK Government in the devolved nations, as Dunlop recommends.

Intergovernmental Relations

The past year of the pandemic, and the years of Brexit negotiations beforehand, have highlighted the poor state of relations between the four governments of the UK. The Joint Ministerial Committee Plenary has not met since December 2018. Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, has been explicit in his disappointment at the level of communication between his government and the UK Government.

It makes sense then that Dunlop highlights the importance of mutual trust and respect for effective intergovernmental relations (IGR). Lord Dunlop recommends overhauling the Joint Ministerial Committee and replacing it with a UK Intergovernmental Council, supported by an independent secretariat and reformed dispute handling process.

The four governments of the UK are currently undergoing an IGR review, which is due to be published after elections in May. Many of Dunlop’s IGR-related suggestions are likely to be repeated in this review.

Communications

The Dunlop Review points out that it is important for the health of democracy that citizens understand where responsibility lies. The UK Government should be transparent about its activities in the devolved nations to ensure this. This requires more effective collection of disaggregated data about the impact of policies in each part of the UK. Dunlop gives the example of updating the information produced before the Scottish independence referendum about the benefits of the Union to Scotland.

The Times reported in August that 50% of Scottish voters said the Scottish Government had done a good job in protecting the economy during the pandemic, even though most measures to protect the economy were introduced UK-wide. This suggests that perhaps Dunlop is right that the UK Government should be clearer about what exactly it does in the devolved nations.

In their response to the Dunlop Review, the UK Government highlighted many changes they had already made in these areas. What happens next for relations between the four administrations of the UK, and in the UK Government’s approach to issues of the Union, depends on the outcome of the devolved elections next week and the IGR review which will follow.