Both the Commons Welsh and Scottish Affairs Committees have got interested in how what happens in Whitehall affects their specific devolution settlements. This follows the report of the Commons Justice Committee last May on Devolution: A Decade On, as well as such matters as the Welsh Affairs Committee’s ongoing interest in legislative competence orders (on which they published a report last week, available here).
Details of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry on Scotland and the UK: cooperation and communication between governments are available here, and of the Welsh Affairs Committee’s inquiry into Wales and Whitehall are available here. (I’m giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee next Tuesday, 2 February.)
Some of the evidence that has been given is very revealing, and taken together these inquiries will certainly put a lot of valuable material into the public domain. Witness have included the Scottish First Minister, Permanent Secretary and Justice Secretary (Alex Salmond MSP, Sir John Elvidge and Kenny McAskill MSP) before the Scottish Affairs Committee, and Jim Gallagher, Whitehall’s most senior official concerned with devolution, as Director-General for Devolution in the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Justice. News reports of the Salmond/Elvidge/McAskill session are available here and here; of Jim Gallagher’s, here. There’s an unapproved transcript of the Salmond/Elvidge/McAskill session here, and of Jim Gallagher’s here.
What strikes me looking at this evidence is the extent to which there is now a great deal of evidence – and from both devolved and UK Governments – that there is much inconsistency in how the devolved administrations are treated by Whitehall. There’s also a consensus that this affects wider relationships. This in itself is not new – I’ve been talking about in my academic writings since 2001, and discussed it detail in chapters published in 2005 and in Devolution and Power in the United Kingdom from 2007. Recognising that there is a problem is of course the first step toward solving it. What, I wonder, will Whitehall now do about its problem?
The sessions with devolved ministers and officials (Andrew Davies AM, formerly Welsh finance minister, gave evidence immediately after Jim Gallagher) show also plenty of evidence of heavy-handedness by the UK Government. These two problems are related: even if Whitehall acts in a heavy-handed way more often by accident than by design, the logical assumption for devolved politicians to apply is that it is ALWAYS intentional, and deprive the UK Government of any benefit of the doubt. Clear procedures, which are manifestly usually followed, is key to engendering the sort of inter-institutional respect that breeds trust to help minimise the impact of such mess-ups. Whitehall has done its utmost since 1999 to avoid such clear rules and procedures, and the mechanisms that are necessary to make them work. A helpful political environment enabled this approach to work for quite a while. It won’t work any more. Ensuring that the basic principles for handling intergovernmental relations are clear, and consistently complied with, will go quite some way to improving trust between governments as well. It’s a pity it’s taken so long for Whitehall to cotton on.