Coronavirus crisis exposes flaws in devolution in the UK, says report
Coronavirus has exposed serious shortcomings in the current devolution settlement in the UK, according to a new report.
An interim report by the Scottish Affairs Committee has expressed concerns around communication and transparency as well as wider issues over the long-term working pattern between the UK Government and devolved administrations.
The report, which focuses on intergovernmental working during the pandemic, also draws attention to how there was “unprecedented coordination” between the UK nations through the four-nations approach. It says there was a collaborative approach in the early stages of the crisis, citing the UK-wide Joint Action Plan, the Coronavirus Act, and UK-wide procurement of PPE as high watermarks.
However the committee has heard how mixed messaging and policy divergence happened "almost by accident" after key intergovernmental forums coordinating the Covid response ended as lockdown measures were eased, beginning with Boris Johnson’s address on May 10. The speech, announcing an easing of measures and a change of message from “Stay at Home” to “Stay Alert”, was broadcast UK-wide without stating the changes that only applied to England.
The First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford was an early and vocal proponent of the collaborative four-nation approach but is understood to have had no direct contact with Boris Johnson since May 28.
The committee has said that it is “concerned” by the recent disuse of the bodies that had made the four-nations approach effective, namely Cobra meetings featuring devolved ministers and ministerial implementation groups. It has recommended that the Government outline how the priorities of the devolved nations will be incorporated into the proposed new coronavirus response bodies.
The report also describes structures not keeping up with the pace of devolution and changes in ministerial communications. The Joint Ministerial Committee, unused throughout the pandemic, was “not fit for purpose” for the crisis, the report says. This calls into question how the devolved nations’ priorities will be represented and over the resilience and suitability of these structures the event of a second wave of Covid-19, the report said.
Though Mr Drakeford has diverged from England in lifting the lockdown Wales is limited in how much it can separate itself from Westminster because of its dependency on the furlough scheme. No part of the UK has a higher proportion of workers on furlough than Wales, in part because of the large reliance on manufacturing roles.
The Welsh Government has already indicated that it does not have the “financial firepower” to maintain the scheme alone and will therefore need to be fairly well aligned to England when the scheme is withdrawn by chancellor Rishi Sunak at the end of October.
The chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee who composed the report, Pete Wishart MP, said intergovernmental communication was “absolutely critical in effectively controlling the spread of the virus” and that it was “the cornerstone of the four-nation approach that served so effectively at the start of the crisis”.
He added: “But as the focus has shifted from containment to opening-up the economy we are concerned that the structures that made this possible have stopped. We heard that there is a ‘void’ in ministerial-level communication and which appears to have occurred around the time that some divergence and confusion in messaging began to emerge. Simple mistakes of not making clear which nations in which new policies apply must not be made again.
“The early stages of the ‘four-nation approach’ demonstrate how effective engagement can be. So we need more of it, not less. And it needs to be a permanent feature of the future of devolution.
“That voice at the table is essential in reaching effective clarity and coordination that can save lives, limit the suffering caused economically, and to provide a well-rounded recovery, leaving a more resilient devolution.”
The home nations being perceived as an afterthought is pointed to as one of the key reasons for a recent increase in support for both Welsh and Scottish independence. In response to this The Times reported that Prime Minister Mr Johnson has ordered his cabinet to visit Scotland regularly to make the UK Government more visible.
A UK Government spokesman said: “We have confronted this virus as one United Kingdom and we continue to work closely with the devolved administrations to ensure our response works in the interests of the whole of the UK.
“Throughout this crisis there has been consistent and co-operative work, even though we may travel at slightly different speeds based on the scientific evidence. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove has regular engagement with the First Ministers and has chaired over 40 committee meetings with the devolved administrations. Consistent contact has also taken place between officials throughout the pandemic. Where necessary we have made it clear to the public that different measures apply to different parts of the UK.
“The unprecedented package of support from the UK government also demonstrates how the strength of the union has helped us through this crisis. In Wales, the UK Treasury has given £2.8 billion to the Welsh Government to help tackle the virus, supported almost 490,000 Welsh jobs, granted thousands of businesses loans and procured millions of pieces of PPE to protect frontline workers in Wales.