IfG: Brexit will strain relations between UK countries

25 Mar 19

Brexit will have a “huge impact” on devolution with the process of handing down powers to the regions still continuing 20 years on, a think-tank has warned.

Ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all showed dissatisfaction over their relationship with Westminister, in a study from the Institute for Government released today. 

Issues included UK ministers failing to brief devolved ministers on policy changes that primarily affected England but had some impact on devolved nations. 

The report also said that UK minsters often have discretion as to what information to share with the devolved governments, which can be a further source of friction.

“For example, plans to adjust the implementation of universal credit in Scotland had to be delayed due to reliance on Department for Work and Pensions IT systems that had not been designed for policy variation between different parts of the country,” Alex Neil MSP told the IfG. Neil was formely cabinet secretary for social justice, communities and pensioners’ rights. 

Other interviewees claimed some English cabinet ministers were not “greatly enamoured” by the concept of devolution in general, the report said.

Interviewees recalled feeling pressure to replicate policy decisions taken in Westminster, according to the report.

Jim Wallace, who was deputy first minister of Scotland 1999 and 2005 remembered former prime minister Tony Blair expressing concern when the Scottish coalition government decided to scrap tuition fees in 1999.

The IfG report said: “Brexit has already severely strained relations between central and devolved governments, and the process is far from over. Devolved ministers are currently having to negotiate with UK counterparts over the future of the devolution settlements and the constitution as a whole.”

Shona Robison former cabinet secretary for health and sport in Scotland gave a damning assessment of devolved nations’ input into Brexit discussion.

“You felt sometimes you were sitting on the naughty step because we were seen as to only be talked to and informed when need had it,” she told the IfG.

The report added: “Brexit will continue to have a huge impact on devolution and create new requirements for cooperation between central and devolved governments, for instance in areas where new UK ‘common frameworks’ will replace EU law.”

Akash Paun, senior fellow at the IfG and author of the report, said: “These interviews lay bare the extent to which decisions taken at Westminster impose constraints on the Scottish and Welsh Governments. Sometimes deliberately but sometimes just because the UK government is often bad at remembering the devolved nations.

“To be effective, Scottish and Welsh ministers need good relationships with their UK counterparts but must also learn to stand their ground to defend their interests.”

A government spokesperson said: “The UK government is committed to devolution and to working constructively with the devolved administrations. We believe strongly in upholding the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom - our union is strongest when all four nations work together.”

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