It isn’t normally the role of Devolution Matters to break news, but readers will probably be interested to know that the Joint Ministerial Committee met for the first time in its ‘dispute resolution mode’ on Wednesday morning. This form of it was only created in March, as a result of the new protocol on dispute resolution and avoidance (discussed HERE; see also HERE). The issue that was chosen was that of consequentials for spending on the 2012 London Olympics (itself discussed HERE), and the fact that this issue was to be referred to the disputes resolution procedure was announced following the first plenary JMC of the new government in June (the Scottish Government news release on that is here, and my post about that is HERE).
No government has yet issued a press release on the outcome, so we don’t know what happened. This may simply reflect a degree of sensitivity about the issue and a need to agree the wording of such a news release. But this is sufficiently interesting and important that governments shouldn’t be concealing from the wider public the fact that it has happened. In most other systems, the news would publicly announced as soon as the meeting concluded.
It is, of course, no wonder that this issue has been referred to the new disputes resolution procedure. It’s one where the behaviour of HM Treasury was particularly arbitrary and high-handed, and offended pretty much any sense of fairness. It’s also one where all three devolved governments have exactly the same interest (which can’t be said of some other devolved grievances). As a first issue with which to test the new procedure, it’s a strong case to use. However, its very strength will have put Francis Maude (who was chairing the hearing) in a difficult position. If he agrees with the devolved governments, he will cost the Treasury several hundreds of millions of pounds in the run-up to the comprehensive spending review. He’s also inviting further use of the procedure (and apparently there are a number of other issues that are likely to be referred to it). The only political salve will be the opportunity to blame the former Labour UK Government for the whole mess. If he doesn’t agree with the devolved administrations, given the strength of the devolved position, it will taint the new procedure seriously, and make it much harder for the UK Government to use the new procedure to contain disputes and avoid them turning into bitter political disagreements raised at every turn. It will be fascinating to see the outcome, and how it is presented, when the governments do decide to share that with us.