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Coronavirus having ‘profound impact on devolution’, say MPs

23 July 2020

The Scottish Affairs Committee publishes an interim report on intergovernmental working during the coronavirus pandemic. The report focuses on the effectiveness of the four nations approach, the intergovernmental machinery and the issues around policy divergence.

An interim report by the Scottish Affairs Committee has expressed concerns over the long-term future of intergovernmental working between the UK and Scottish governments as the coronavirus pandemic has cast doubt on the suitability of existing intergovernmental structures.

The report, which focusses on intergovernmental working during the pandemic, describes the 'unprecedented coordination' between the UK nations through the 'four-nations approach'. It paints a picture of 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 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 a Boris Johnson's address on 10 May. 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 Committee called on the UK Government to outline how it will address this.

The Committee was 'concerned' by the recent disuse of the bodies that had made the 'four-nations approach' effective, namely COBRA meetings featuring Scottish and devolved ministers and ministerial implementation groups. It recommended that the Government outline how the priorities of the devolved nations will be incorporated into the proposed new coronavirus response bodies. 

The report 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 pandemic, the Committee heard. This calls into question how Scotland's and the devolved nations' priorities will be represented, and over the resilience and suitability of these structures in a crisis and for the future of intergovernmental relations, the report said. The Committee recommends that the Government explain how it will incorporate these concerns into the ongoing review of Intergovernmental Relations.

Chair's comments 

The Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Pete Wishart MP said:

"The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on both Scotland's health and economy. It is also profoundly affecting devolution as the response to the crisis reveals the pre-existing creaking mechanisms of intergovernmental.

The overlapping responsibilities of policy areas operated by Westminster and Holyrood in the pandemic response make intergovernmental communication absolutely critical in effectively controlling the spread of the virus. This was the cornerstone of the 'four-nation' approach that served so effectively at the start of the crisis.

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.

Meanwhile The lack of clarity over what role, if any, Scottish and devolved decision-makers will play in new structures is a source of major concern.

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."

Further information

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