Blink and you’d miss it, but the Joint Ministerial Committee met in its ‘Domestic’ (policy) format on 2 February. There’s no communiqué and no mention of it on Cabinet Office, Ministry of Justice, Scotland Office or Wales Office websites. There’s an oblique reference to it on the Scottish and Welsh Assembly Government sites, where they have posted a three-government statement sent to George Osborne after the meeting. The first ministers’ full statement is available here. It would appear that the main issue discussed was finance and the impact of the UK spending cuts, though welfare reform and the implications of the recent DWP white paper Universal Credit: welfare that works, Cm 7957, was also on the agenda. (As the white paper calls for devolution of Council Tax benefit and Housing Benefit, and emphasises the need to work with the devolved administrations on a number of its proposals, that’s no surprise.)
In the statement, the devolved governments collectively object to the extent and speed of the cuts and call for them to be less severe and implemented more slowly. They argue for greater investment in infrastructure, for action to tackle rising fuel and transport costs, and for devolved administrations to have full access to funds allocated in previous years (end year flexibility, or EYF).
This rather resembles the statement of the three first ministers before the spending review (discussed HERE). Like that statement, it’s not at all clear what effect it will have on a UK Government that seems to have made its mind up already.
The extent to which it has done so appeared at the end of the week, with news (reported in the Western Mail, here) that the UK Government had rejected these calls and was going to write off the accumulated EYF balances. A further protest appears to be coming, and maybe it will be referred after that to the JMC’s disputes format – not that that did much good over the 2012 Olympics issue.
The problem with EYF is that the UK Government continues to treat the devolved administrations like Whitehall departments when they’re not. They have their own electoral mandate, their own channels of accountability, and a need to run and plan a wide range of public services. They can’t be expected to stand on their own feet in some ways, but then be hauled back like recalcitrant children when it suits the UK Government to do so. Financial planning is a long-term business. If the devolved administrations are to be able to plan sensibly, it doesn’t help to seize an underspend, either politically or practically, and even if that’s what’s happening to Whitehall departments. It’s telling that Wales, which has consistently been the worst loser from the UK Coalition Government’s various financial measures, is the first to hear of it – and that, unlike last year, the Wales Office hasn’t hurried to make an announcement about it. It just encourages the ‘spend it by 31 March’ mentality that the UK coalition is trying to reverse.