The three devolved first ministers (plus the deputy first ministers from Scotland and Northern Ireland – there isn’t one in Wales) held a trilateral meeting in Edinburgh on Tuesday. There’s a news report from the BBC here, Brian Taylor’s blog post about it is here, one from the Belfast Telegraph here, and the official communiqué is here.
The communiqué may be headed ‘Devolved Governments shared agenda’, but in truth it exposes the limited common interests they have with each other. They could agree that the UK Government should stick to its ‘respect’ commitments – much talked about a year ago, but which seemed to break down under the pressure of the UK Government’s changing priorities, and its decision to press ahead with a wide range of policy initiatives at great speed. At best, this is trying to put the toothpaste back into a tube that was chucked aside nine months ago.
Beyond that, the three governments could agree that ‘progress’ in devolution is a good thing, though each has rather different ideas about what constitutes ‘progress’. They’ve identified matters such as finance, the knock-on effects of the Scotland bill, and constitutional issues such as Lords reform as being of common concern, but their interests in most of these vary so much that it’s hard to see how there’s any common programme here. All that’s really ‘shared’ is a concern about these issues. When it comes to the more routine policy issues raised – welfare reform, energy policy, the Crown Estate and broadcasting – there’s more common ground between them, but still not an awful lot.
The devolved governments are, of course, laying down markers in advance of a meeting of the plenary Joint Ministerial Committee due later in June. Such meetings are effectively ‘domestic summits’, so it’s no wonder that there’s extensive preparation for them. There was also a meeting of the JMC (Official) to ‘sherpa’ the meeting a week or so ago. The key question is how the UK Government chooses to engage with the issues raised by the devolved governments. I’ve already discussed the implications of Lords reform, and the UK Government would certainly be well advised to consider devolved views carefully about such matters. There’s a clear devolved interest in them, and such intergovernmental mechanisms are the most convenient and appropriate way of dealing with them – for the UK as well as the devolved governments. (Labour’s failure to do so was a significant one.) But there’s a striking omission from the list of priorities set out at the Edinburgh meeting: consequentials for the 2012 Olympics (previously discussed HERE). The meeting of the JMC in dispute-resolution mode last October (discussed HERE and HERE) was largely a stand-off; the Treasury refused to give ground, and the outcome was to agree the issue should be further discussed at the next plenary JMC. Perhaps the devolved governments are already confident that it’s on the agenda and that there’s nothing more for them to say to say to each other about it. But this is one area where there’s clear common ground between the devolved governments, and it’s surprising they’ve not made more of it now.