The way the UK is run has changed and is changing. Devolution has been with us since 1999, but the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are set to increase substantially over the next couple of years.
The Scotland Bill currently before Parliament will devolve significant further tax powers to the Scottish Parliament, including most of income tax, as well as – for the first time – aspects of the welfare system. A new fiscal framework governing the level of spending available to the Scottish Parliament will be put in place.
Proposals currently out for pre-legislative scrutiny will see major changes to the Welsh devolution settlement. The Welsh Assembly will take up new powers in policy areas such as energy and transport, and over elections in Wales and the make-up of the assembly itself. Powers are already on the statute book for the introduction of a Welsh rate of income tax, subject to a referendum – a condition that the new Bill will lift.
These changes are politically highly charged. At time of writing, the fiscal framework for Scotland is the subject of intense negotiation between the two governments. The devolution proposals for Wales have been, and will continue to be, hotly debated.
The view outside of Whitehall
For those of us sitting in Whitehall, it can be difficult sometimes to see just how intense these debates are. With long-established Scottish and Welsh media, and Scottish editions of the UK titles, what is front-page news in Scotland or Wales does not always match the headlines across the rest of the country. Yet the implications of what is going on around us for the long-term governance of the United Kingdom are profound.
Think for a moment about the way power is distributed. Go back 20 years, and there was one government in the UK, usually run by one party. Now, there are four governments, each run currently by parties with very different political ambitions and different powers.
This poses a deep leadership challenge for the Civil Service. For colleagues in the Unified Civil Service who work for the Scottish and Welsh governments, this is bread and butter business; for Whitehall departments, the challenges of devolution can seem quite distant, sometimes even a distraction. But understanding devolution is now non-optional if we are to deliver the objectives of our ministers.
It's time to 'get' devolution
A basic grasp of how the devolution settlements work is essential. But it goes deeper than that. We need an appreciation of the political dynamic in the different parts of the UK. We need to learn how to manage the political objectives of whichever government we work for, when collaboration might be essential, but the politics hotly contested. We must learn from what is in effect a unique real-time experiment, as different governments apply different policy solutions to populations that share many of the same socio-economic characteristics.
Many colleagues in Civil Service departments are now steeped in this, but there is a long way to go. The need to ‘get’ devolution will intensify, not diminish. That is why all departments now have a devolution capability plan; these are an important statement of ambition as to how each department will meet the devolution challenge.
And there is plenty of support available. The Scotland Office, Wales Office, Northern Ireland Office, and the Office of the Advocate General for Scotland are all departments of the UK Government; it is part of their job to offer advice and support as you undertake devolution relevant business.
From the Cabinet Office we are creating a whole new suite of policy learning on devolution, integrating devolution into the learning available to the policy profession. We are also supporting a big expansion of interchange to give people far more opportunity to experience the work of the different governments of the UK. And I and my colleagues in the UK Governance Group are always ready to come out to departments to brief teams on the new realities of government in the UK.
So, there is plenty of help to navigate a changing world. Take up the offer. To be truly effective in today’s Civil Service in the UK means ‘getting’ devolution.