The UK reshuffle and the territorial offices

The UK Government’s ministerial reshuffle may lead to further tensions within the Westminster Coalition, but it has been one of pretty limited change, as far as the territorial offices are concerned.  Full details of all the new ministers can be found on the No 10 website, here.

There has been no change at the Scotland Office at all, with Michael Moore and David Mundell remaining in place.  Lord Wallace does so too, as Advocate General for Scotland.  The opportunity of putting a more ‘campaigning’ politician in charge has not been taken, even with the independence referendum looming, and although the heavy legislative work of getting what is now the Scotland Act 2012 drafted and onto the statute book is now done.  The only major item of legislative business on the immediate agenda is the section 30 order regarding the referendum (which Severin Carrell suggests here is close to agreement between the two governments).

The Wales Office has seen the departure of Cheryl Gillan as Secretary of State, and the promotion of David Jones, the former junior minister, to replace her.  That follows a determined lobbying campaign from Welsh Conservative MPs for the new Secretary of State to have a Welsh seat, and suggests minimal change in the UK Government’s approach.  Jones has already emphasised his desire for a ‘very good business-like relationship’ with the Welsh Government.  The interesting shifts of role and personnel are at the junior level.  Stephen Crabb has been promoted within the Whip’s office (though he was never the ‘Welsh whip’), and also made parliamentary under-secretary of state.  Baroness (Jenny) Randerson, former AM and Welsh Lib Dem Minister, has also become an (unpaid) parliamentary under-secretary, for which the Lib Dems are said to have fought hard.  Given her company among colleagues who have been regarded as ‘devo-sceptics’ (though they now emphasise their support for devolution), it’s interesting that she emphasises that she is a ‘committed devolutionist’ in the Welsh Lib Dem press notice announcing her appointment.

Since 1999, a government whip in the Lords has dealt with Wales Office business when needed.  These announcements suggest an inversion of that approach, with a whip helping with Commons business but a dedicated minister in the Lords.

The big question for the new Wales Office team will be how to respond to the Silk Commission report when part 1 of that appears in the autumn, of course.  There may, of course, be serious issues about making the current legislative arrangements work as well.  And if the occasional rumours of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition in Cardiff Bay should come to pass, things could get very interesting at Gwydyr House.

The Northern Ireland Office has seen something of a clear-out, with the departure of both Owen Paterson (to DEFRA) and Hugo Swire (to the Foreign Office).  Their replacements are Theresa Villiers and Mike Penning.  The most likely implication of that change will probably be the demise of plans for devolving corporation tax.  The strongest advocate for that in government (whether in London or Belfast) has been Owen Paterson, and without him to push this problematic idea, it’s hard to see how it will withstand Treasury opposition and the practical and financial difficulties of devolving it.  The ministerial working group considering it was supposed to have resolved matters at its meeting in June, but it just agreed to further consideration of matters over the summer and a further meeting in September.

Perhaps the most important point about what has happened is that yet again the UK Government has retained the three separate territorial offices, even though in many ways that is now an anachronism.  The looming Scottish independence referendum means that it is hard to change that in the foreseeable future, but even so the attachment to three separate offices with decreasing amounts to do is quite an anomaly.  That is nonetheless a reflection of how conservative, or more accurately path-dependent, the machinery of government can be.

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4 Comments

Filed under Conservatives, Intergovernmental relations, Legislation, Lib Dems, N Ireland corporation tax devolution, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Whitehall

4 responses to “The UK reshuffle and the territorial offices

  1. Oldnat

    I’m a fan of your writing – but why do you refer to the SoS’s for the countries with devolved administrations as “territorial” offices?

    Surely any minister serving only that bit of the territory of the UK known as England, also fills a “territorial” office?

    • If there were any ministers ‘just’ for England, that might be true – though there aren’t. The closest is probably Communities & Local Government, and even that department has considerable overlap with devolved functions. That’s true even more for Education (English schools – but look at the problems for Wales and Northern Ireland with remodelling GCSEs), Health (responsible for the NHS in England – but includes UK-wide functions such as organ transplantation or medicines regulation), or Justice (courts in England and Wales, but ECHR and tribunals, among others, across UK).

      The reason to talk of ‘territorial’ offices is to do with Northern Ireland. Whatever Northern Ireland is, it’s not a nation, and that means that one can’t talk of the ‘national’ offices if one’s bracketing the Scotland and Wales Offices together with NIO. I don’t like the ‘territorial’ term much either, but I’ve never found a better short way of putting it than that.

  2. Oldnat

    Thanks for that. I’d have thought that (other than international issues which need to be applied throughout the UK), these residual functions lying in essentially “English” ministries is rather likely to lead to the relevant civil servants having little or no knowledge of how their decisions impact outwith England. Sounds like a recipe for potential maladministration. Are their examples of such ocurring in practice?

  3. Pingback: Wales’s new fiscal package: the UK Government response to Silk | DEVOLUTION MATTERS

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