A bit more detail has emerged about how the new UK coalition is meant to work – but only a bit. First, there is a new ‘Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform’ which deals with process issues – which I noted earlier as a significant omission from the Programme for Government. That’s available here. However, this is still pretty skimpy on detail, particularly for dispute resolution if that should arise. The emphasis rather is on avoiding disputes, so there are clear provisions about involvement of both parties in machinery of government issues. These include provisions that:
- no Lib Dem minister will be removed without consultation with the Deputy PM;
- the PM and Deputy PM will have full access to papers from the Cabinet Secretariat; and that
- each Cabinet committee or sub-committee will be chaired by one party and have a deputy chairman from the other, either of whom can refer an area of disagreement to a ‘coalition committee’ for resolution.
But that is about the limit of the dispute resolution mechanism. Time will tell if it is adequate.
This emphasis on dispute avoidance is no surprise in itself; its importance was emphasised, for example, at a seminar on Friday about coalition government at the Institute for Government, drawing on experiences from Scotland, Wales, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland.
Second, the list of the Cabinet committees has been published (available here). There is an important omission, though; the full list of Cabinet sub-committees is missing, as it has not yet been finalised. However, there are many fewer full committees than there were under Labour. The Brown government had 11 full committees and 21 sub-committees. The new government has 8 full committees, with 4 sub-committees announced so far. Unlike under Labour, there is no Constitutional Affairs committee – despite the priority given to this in the Programme for Government. Presumably such matters will be dealt with by the new Home Affairs committee, or perhaps a sub-committee of that.
Looking at the list of members of the Committees, some interesting points emerge. One is the significance of Danny Alexander as a player on the Lib Dem side. This means that Scotland has a presence on pretty much all the most important committees, including the Coalition Committee, the National Security Council (NSC), European Affairs, Economic Affairs and Banking Reform committees. This is chiefly because of his role advising Nick Clegg on political reform rather than his territorial role, but nonetheless it means that a Scottish perspective will be incorporated into the work of those committee when Welsh or Northern Ireland ones cannot be.
It’s also telling that that the territorial offices have scant representation on committees where one might expect them to be present. The only committee on which the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all sit is the Home Affairs Committee. The Northern Ireland Secretary is on the Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingencies sub-committee of the NSC, but not those for Wales or Scotland. Only the Scottish Secretary has a proper seat on the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee; the Wales and Northern Ireland Secretaries are to receive the papers and be invited to attend, but are not full members. This suggests that there is not expected to be a great deal of Westminster legislation for any of the devolved parts of the UK. This raises issues about the real seriousness of the West Lothian question, and also about Wales: what about framework powers, or timetabling LCOs? The ability of Cheryl Gillan to affect this area looks limited by her exclusion here.
There’s also the question of the role of the new European Affairs Committee, and how it relates to the Joint Ministerial Committee (Europe). As the Northern Ireland and Welsh Secretaries do not sit on this at all, and the Scottish Secretary is only present in his ‘ministerial support’ capacity, this suggests a wholesale exclusion of devolved concerns from European policy at UK level. European policy is an area where intergovernmental co-ordination has so far worked reasonably well, thanks to UK openness and helpfulness (and deteriorated somewhat since 2007 as that has become a scarcer commodity). Indeed, under Labour the JMC (Europe) largely replaced the various Ministerial Sub-committees on Europe, chiefly to save time. If the new full Committee becomes active, how will it relate to the JMC (Europe), and to devolved engagement in UK policy-making? If the ‘respect agenda’ is to have real meaning, it needs to apply to European policy-making as much as anything else.