England is largely invisible to Whitehall after devolution

02/16/05

England is largely invisible to Whitehall civil servants, despite the big changes that have been brought about by devolution. But its concerns may become more important if parts of England become more vociferous in their demand for changes to the Barnett formula, which decides how much money goes from the Treasury to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

These are among the key findings in a new study by researchers from the University of Strathclyde and the Constitution Unit at University College London. Their research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council through its Devolution and Constitutional Change Programme.

The researchers found that Whitehall believed it had adapted well to devolution, despite tensions over issues such as tuition fees and free care for the elderly, where Scotland went its own way. But the fact that different Whitehall departments have responsibility for different parts of the United Kingdom means that England and its regions are not treated with the same territorial integrity as the devolved nations by civil servants.

"There have been remarkably few problems introducing the new arrangements, as far as Whitehall is concerned," says James Mitchell, Professor of Government at the University of Strathclyde. "The civil service treated devolution as an event, with a particular start date, rather than a process. And they believe it has all been much smoother than the changes needed with Britain joined the European Community, or when Mrs Thatcher started creating 'next steps' agencies to take over civil service functions.

"There are, however, occasions where both Whitehall and the devolved administrations minimise the extent of their differences over policy areas. This reflects a centralising tendency which reflects a pre-devolution mindset. It suggests that the devolved institutions were formed without introducing the cultural changes which would have made territorial conflict seem normal and manageable. "

Moreover, the nature of the powers given to the devolved institutions means that some departments such as the Treasury or the Foreign Office still have responsibilities that extend across the UK, whereas others, such as the Department for Education and Skills or the Department of Health largely focus on England (and, sometimes, Wales).

"Because departments have multiple territorial remits, and those remits do not always conform even to departmental responsibilities, England remains largely invisible in Whitehall," explains Professor Robert Hazell, director of the Constitution Unit. "Departmental press offices are very good at telling the media which areas their releases cover, but there was no sense that Whitehall departments had thought through, for example, the implications if the North East or another region had established its own assembly. They may not face that challenge for the foreseeable future, but many departments have yet to come to terms with specifically English territorial concerns."

One particularly controversial area is the continued use of the 1978 Barnett formula to decide what money goes to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The formula was designed to allocate fixed proportionate increases to the territories after the defeat of devolution proposals in the 1970s, but several Northern English regions believe it gives them an unfair disadvantage in funding.

"Barnett was an anomaly tolerated before devolution, but its continuation since 1998 has become increasingly controversial," adds Prof Hazell. "Particularly in Northern English regions, despite the recent North East referendum results, there is a strong sense that

Scotland gets an unfair share of the national cake. Those protests have been muted somewhat by the large increases in public spending that the Chancellor has managed in recent spending reviews. But once the belt tightens again, the protestors are likely to make their voices heard much more loudly."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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