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Government must prioritise common frameworks to maintain effectiveness of the Union, says Lords committee

15 July 2022

Today, the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee published its second report, Common frameworks: an unfulfilled opportunity?

The report

The report finds that common frameworks are at risk of becoming a missed opportunity to strengthen cooperation within the Union. A result of Brexit, they were designed as an innovative and creative mechanism for strengthening cooperation and to allow the coordination ofpolicies in the UK previously harmonised under the EU, such as environmental health, carbon emissions, building standards and transport.

The committee regrets that common frameworks mainly contain processes to agree ways of working between the administrations, and that the creative opportunity for agreeing policy direction across the four administrations has not been fully appreciated. The Committee also highlights that the Government’s own post-Brexit legislation has damaged relations between the four administrations of the UK and challenges the success of common frameworks, and that the programme could become a serious casualty of political fall-out in Northern Ireland. It also raises significant concern in relation to the delivery of the programme within Government, highlighting ineffective central coordination, focus, and poor attention to detail.

Key conclusions

Key conclusions of the report include:

  • The report notes that post-Brexit legislation, including the UK Internal Market Act 2020 and the Subsidy Control Act 2022, has damaged relations between the four administrations and has challenged the consensus approach taken in common frameworks.
  • The Committee is calling for the UK Internal Market Act exclusions process, which is essential for mitigating the damaging effects of the Act, to be made explicit in all relevant frameworks.
  • The Committee also highlights the impact of the Subsidy Control Act 2022 on the devolution settlements and relevant common frameworks. The report recommends that the UK Government considers how legislation it brings forward might conflict with relevant common frameworks, impede their successful operation, and affect the health of the Union.
  • Common frameworks are intended to facilitate the cooperation of all four administrations, and the lack of an Executive in Northern Ireland has meant this has not always been possible.
  • Furthermore, it is essential that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly are kept updated on legislation that will apply there - and that all frameworks that have cross-border implications on the island of Ireland should acknowledge that the Irish Government is a stakeholder that should be consulted.
  • Ministerial oversight of the programme has been moved away from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), which threatens to undermine the profile, credibility and central purpose of the programme. The Committee has recommended that the programme should be centrally coordinated solely from the Cabinet Office.
  • When conducting scrutiny, the Committee was also concerned about delays to the common framework programme’s timetable, the lack of quality of frameworks, and the efficacy of delivery. It identified that a lack of central coordination, focus, and attention to detail has led to inconsistency between frameworks and poor drafting. In addition, there has been a lack of transparency in relation to the development of frameworks and their future operation, and stakeholder consultation has been insufficient.
  • The Committee outline its concern that there is no commitment in frameworks to ongoing reporting to Parliament about their operation, placing them at risk of operating without future accountability.

Chair's comments

The Chair of the Committe, Baroness Andrews said:

“Common frameworks, as consensus-based agreements principled by an acknowledgement of mutual respect, offer a unique opportunity to set the model for strengthening the Union and they must be taken seriously.

“What is alarming is that many of the frameworks that we have scrutinised have failed to reach an acceptable standard which reflects, we believe, a lack of focus, commitment and will in Government to give them priority. In addition, we regret that the failure of the Government to meet its own timetable has meant that our scrutiny of common frameworks is incomplete. We also have deep concerns that the Government’s own post-Brexit legislation threatens to diminish the potential of the common frameworks and their purpose.

“There will be a continuing need for Parliament to be informed about the progress of the frameworks, their quality, efficacy and role in relation to the Union. Accountability to Parliament is of key and fundamental importance and we recommend that the process for ongoing reporting to the legislatures on the operation of common frameworks be developed as a matter of urgency.

“Importantly, cooperation will be undermined without Northern Ireland's full participation. It is our hope that all political institutions will be restored in Northern Ireland imminently.

“The continued failure of the Government to meet its own timetable reflects the reality that it underestimated the collaboration and coordination required to agree effective common frameworks. We urge that a solution be found to publish and finalise the six outstanding frameworks while there is no properly functioning Northern Ireland Executive – and to make this a priority so that common frameworks can do the job for which they were intended: to enable the Union to function in harmony with the appropriate divergence reflected in the devolution settlement.”

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