In the 20th anniversary year of devolution, the Scottish Affairs Committee found Whitehall still had a poor understanding of how Holyrood and devolved government worked and warned of a need to “rebuild trust” between the nations of the UK as Brexit puts strain on the constitution.
The cross-party group of MPs said UK ministers should launch a review of the three ‘territorial’ departments covering Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, examining whether to consolidate their functions into a single ‘Department for the Union’.
It is the latest sign the Scotland Office’s days could be numbered, with Tory leadership contenders, including Rory Stewart, backing calls from some of the party’s Scottish MPs to do away with the department. Ruth Davidson has also called for a ‘Union unit’ to be created in Downing Street to ensure the concerns of the three devolved nations are at the heart of government.
Relations between the UK Government and devolved administrations reached a low point over the future of powers in devolved areas held by the EU, which will be returned after Brexit.
The Scottish and Welsh governments claimed that plans for Whitehall to keep control of a handful of powers in key areas like agriculture, fisheries and the environment represented a “power grab” that undermined the devolution settlement.
Cardiff eventually reached an agreement over how the disputed responsibilities would be divided, but the SNP administration in Edinburgh was taken to the Supreme Court after it attempted to push through legislation asserting its own authority over the powers.
The rival Scottish legislation has been dropped after judges in London ruled it couldn’t become law because the EU Withdrawal Act had already been passed at Westminster.
All three governments are now in negotiations about ‘common frameworks’ to manage the sharing of devolved powers, but these have yet to reach a conclusion.
The committee said it was “alarmed” by evidence only a third of Whitehall civil servants report having a good knowledge of devolution and called for better training.
All Whitehall departments should have to publish impact assessments for policies affecting the devolved nations.
MPs also called for “urgent” reform of the Joint Ministerial Committee, the forum that brings together devolved and UK ministers, saying it was “predominantly controlled by the UK Government”.
Meetings should be hosted on a rotating basis, their report says, with a new system for resolving disputes between governments.
And on the Scotland Office, the committee found most interactions between the devolved and UK governments went through individual Whitehall departments.
“We have not heard any evidence to suggest that the Scotland Office’s representative role, or its handling of devolution matters, could not be dealt with by an altogether different model of devolved representation in Whitehall such as a single department responsible for devolution and constitutional affairs,” the report states.
Pete Wishart, the Scottish Affairs Committee’s SNP chairman, said the state of relations between the devolved administrations and the UK Government was “far from ideal”, but “not beyond repair”.
“It’s been 20 years since devolution and the political landscape of the UK is now totally unrecognisable; the Scottish independence referendum, Brexit and the diverging political views of the UK’s four governments have all placed strain on a delicate devolution system,” Mr Wishart said. “The relationship between the UK and Scottish governments has broken down and there is a palpable lack of trust between the two governments.” He added: “The Scotland Office is meant to ensure that Scottish interests are fully represented at the heart of the UK Government, but my committee heard that on a day-to-day basis it is Whitehall departments which maintain the relationship with the Scottish Government.
“We are therefore calling for a review of the role of the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland, which we argue should include an exploration of the option to combine the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices into one department responsible for intergovernmental relations and devolution.”
A source in Scottish secretary David Mundell’s department hit back, claiming the report was the product of nationalist partisanship.
“The Scotland Office does a highly effective job strengthening the Union, so it’s no surprise the SNP want to see it abolished,” the source said.
The UK Government insisted it had no plans to get rid of the Scotland Office.