The inter-institutional relations agreement: scrutinising how governments work together

Published 13/12/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

This week, the Senedd will debate the inter-institutional relations agreement between the Senedd and the Welsh Government. The agreement sets out how the Welsh Government will tell the Senedd when Ministers participate in intergovernmental meetings and when it reaches intergovernmental agreements.

This article looks at how intergovernmental relations are changing and how parliaments can scrutinise them.

Why are intergovernmental relations important?

In multi-level political systems, governments with different responsibilities need to work together to tackle shared challenges. In the UK, the central structure for managing intergovernmental relations is the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC). This is a set of committees bringing together ministers from the four governments.

It’s widely recognised that Brexit has made it more important for the UK and devolved governments to work together, and in particular to:

However, representatives of parliamentary committees from across the UK and devolved governments have raised concerns that the governments aren’t able to work together effectively through the current JMC structures.

In March 2018, the governments agreed to commission a review of intergovernmental structures, to “ensure they are fit for purpose in light of the UK’s exit from the EU”. This review is ongoing. The governments issued an update on progress this March.

Why did the Welsh Government and the Senedd negotiate the agreement?

In February 2018, the Fifth Senedd’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee reported on an inquiry into UK governance after Brexit.

The Committee raised concerns about existing intergovernmental structures and said they needed reform. However, the Committee also recognised it could be difficult for the Senedd to scrutinise intergovernmental working if the Welsh Government didn’t tell it about that work.

It recommended that the Welsh Government enter into an agreement with the Committee to support scrutiny of intergovernmental relations. The Welsh Government accepted this, and agreement was reached in January 2019.

The Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee and the Welsh Government have now re-negotiated the agreement for the new Senedd term. The new agreement was laid before the Senedd on 18 November.

How does the agreement work?

The agreement sets out how the Welsh Government will tell the Senedd about formal engagement with other governments in the UK. The Welsh Government agrees to provide Senedd committees with:

  • written notice at least one month before relevant meetings of intergovernmental structures (as far as practicable);
  • a written summary of the issues discussed at the meeting, within two weeks (as far as possible); and
  • the text of intergovernmental agreements, common frameworks, concordats, and memorandums of understanding or other resolutions within the scope of the agreement, and to publish them on the Welsh Government website.

The Welsh Government also agrees to lay an annual report on the agreement before the Senedd. The most recent annual report was laid in September.

The agreement only covers formal intergovernmental relations at the Joint Ministerial Committee, the British-Irish Council, and other relevant forums “of similar standing”. This means it doesn’t necessarily require the Senedd to be notified about all ministerial meetings. For example, the Welsh Government hasn’t routinely told the Senedd about engagement between ministers on COVID-19 under the agreement.

The UK Government and the Scottish Government also report to their parliaments on intergovernmental relations under similar commitments.

Are changes to intergovernmental structures likely?

The UK and devolved governments are still working on the intergovernmental relations review.

In their progress update in March, the governments proposed setting up a new set of intergovernmental committees to replace the JMC, setting out plans for:

  • interministerial groups at portfolio level;
  • an Interministerial Standing Committee to consider issues that can’t be resolved at portfolio level and provide oversight of common frameworks for managing regulatory divergence outside the EU; and
  • a new forum for the heads of the four governments to oversee the “system of multi-level governance created by devolution”.

However, the governments failed to reach agreement on some issues, including proposals for new committees to consider international and UK-EU relations and finance and what the new forum for heads of governments should be called.

The update also set out plans for some more fundamental changes to intergovernmental structures. Picking up on calls for reform, it proposed:

  • recognising that intergovernmental bodies can make formal decisions;
  • revising the dispute resolution process, to require the governments to take third-party advice on disputes and ensure that dispute resolution meetings are chaired by a person endorsed by all parties;
  • allowing locations and chairs of intergovernmental meetings to be rotated; and
  • increasing transparency and improving accountability to legislatures.

In September, the Counsel General, Mick Antoniw, told Members he was “more optimistic than […] in the past” about the prospects of reaching agreement. Since then, no more progress has been reported.

Article by Lucy Valsamidis, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament