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Since 1998, intergovernmental relations (IGR) have been an important yet understudied part of the United Kingdom’s new machinery of government. To borrow a phrase from Lord Hennessey, they are “the hidden wiring” of the UK’s territorial constitution.

Although IGR in the UK has a deeper provenance than is widely assumed, most of the present arrangements evolved following the Northern Ireland Act 1998, Scotland Act 1998 and Government of Wales Act 1998. These established three devolved legislatures and executives in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff respectively.

What had previously been discussions within a single UK government became a new set of relationships between four different governments.

Since then, IGR have been necessary for two main reasons: resolving disputes between the UK Government and the three devolved administrations, and for joint decision-making where two or more administrations share competences or responsibilities. In the case of Northern Ireland, IGR also operates internationally.

The political and institutional structures that underpin those relations, however, have been criticised, particularly from the perspective of the devolved governments. Concerns include the lack of a statutory framework, the process for resolving disputes, and too much decision-making power resting with the UK Government in London.

Since 1998, there have been three broad phases of intergovernmental relations in the UK: an initial period of stability (1999-2007) widely attributed to the dominant position of the Labour Party in Scotland, Wales and England. There followed a more uncertain period (2007-2016) in which several different parties led the UK’s four governments. Finally, the present phase (post-2016) has put IGR in the spotlight as the UK withdraws from the European Union.

With a Cabinet Office-led review of IGR ongoing, this briefing paper describes the UK’s existing intergovernmental machinery before analysing developments after 2007 and the impact of Brexit. It then summarises proposals for reform, provides historical context and, finally, looks at international comparisons.

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