The functional collapse of the Joint Ministerial Committee signals a deeper malaise in the state of the Unionby David McAllister / September 26, 2020 / Leave a comment
In the wake of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the Smith Commission was established to not only assess what further powers could be devolved to the Scottish parliament, but also the ways in which central government worked with the devolved administrations. In the intense media commentary that followed the publication of the commission’s recommendations in November that same year, however, one crucial proposal went largely unnoticed. Amid the outlines for powers over welfare and the Crown Estate was the much less glamorous suggestion that the Joint Ministerial Committee (JCM), the platform by which the UK and devolved administrations meet to discuss policy and issues of mutual interest, be strengthened and given a more prominent role within intergovernmental relations. A subsequent paper delivered in January 2015 by then secretary of state for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, agreed that reforms of the JMC were needed “as a matter of urgency.” Yet by the time the recommendations of the commission gave way to its surrogate bill, the Scotland Act 2016, all proposals of reforming the JMC had disappeared.
Perhaps reform was dropped because Westminster had come to regard the JMC as an ineffective venture. Ever since its conception with devolution in 1999, scheduling of the committee has been largely ad hoc. Meetings in its plenary form, a rare opportunity in which all devolved first ministers can meet with the prime minister at the same time, are especially non-committal—despite commitments to hold at least one such session every year. And although originally used to discuss a variety of issues like poverty, the Barnett formula and public health, in the past four years it has been dominated by a single topic—Brexit—that has given it a reputation for grievance rather than consensus-building. Some of the most public disagreements from the devolved administrations over the UK’s exit strategy have stemmed from meetings of the JMC sub-committee on EU Negotiations. The experience has been such that ministers from Wales and Scotland have come to characterise the JMC as a means for the British government to announce its foregone conclusions rather than appeal for input and ideas. “The reality,” said the Scottish government’s Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution Mike Russell back in 2019, “is that UK ministers have paid lip-service to any respect agenda towards the devolved governments,” before adding: “there is a distinction between holding…