Common frameworks can strengthen the union
While the relationships between the UK and devolved administrations have deteriorated, the collaborative process of common frameworks can be held up as a model to build a stronger and cooperative union.
As elections approach, it is increasingly clear that the bonds holding the United Kingdom together have become strained. The Scottish government is continuing to push for independence, the Welsh government is taking the UK government to court over the UK Internal Market Act, and there are challenges related to the implementation the Northern Ireland Protocol.
However, beneath the radar, there is a UK-wide programme of work that is helping to stitch the Union more closely together. This is one of the key findings of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, in a report published today entitled ‘Common frameworks: building a cooperative Union’.
The common frameworks programme was created to secure cooperation between the different parts of the UK in areas of devolved policy previously held and regulated by the EU. It covers issues that affect everyday life across the UK.
In the context of the UK Internal Market Act, we argue that common frameworks can and should do more to bring the Union together
Frameworks include measures that protect the environment, such as the UK emissions trading scheme, and facilitate the UK internal market by creating UK-wide processes in areas such as the food safety. They also cover essential areas such as the safe treatment of blood and organ, and controls on hazardous substances. The common frameworks programme is a set of voluntary agreements that respect the autonomy of the devolved administrations in their areas of competence, allowing for both cooperation and divergence.
In the context of the UK Internal Market Act, we argue that common frameworks can and should do more to bring the Union together. While the Welsh government is justifiably arguing that the UK Internal Market Act limits its ability to meaningfully regulate, common frameworks provide the opportunity to agree exemptions from the Act and allow the devolved administrations to diverge effectively in specific areas.
Common frameworks can also play an important role with respect to Northern Ireland, by providing a forum for information sharing and for discussing specific policy issues. While divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – due to the changes introduced through the Northern Ireland Protocol – is likely to have some negative impacts on businesses, we argue that common frameworks can be used to highlight where such divergence is taking place and help minimise it.
We also argue that common frameworks provide a clear opportunity for closer cooperation between the four legislatures of the UK, and that the House of Lords could play a valuable role in this regard. Gillian Martin MSP, chair of the environment committee in the Scottish Parliament, told us that investing and nurturing such parliamentary connections is absolutely vital and that our Committee is playing an important role.
However, the programme still faces significant challenges. Only seven out of 32 frameworks have been published, despite needing to be operational since the beginning of the year. We are concerned about these delays and underline the need for effective parliamentary scrutiny. The fact that this is an important area of focus and that our work is far from done was recently recognised by the House of Lords Liaison Committee, which recommended that our Committee should be reappointed in the next parliamentary session until the end of 2021.
During the course of our inquiry we spoke to ministers in the Scottish and Welsh Governments, members of each devolved legislature, and academics and stakeholders from across the UK. We found widespread support for common frameworks, and what they can achieve, across sectors and in every part of the UK.
While the relationships between the UK and devolved administrations are acknowledged to have deteriorated, we believe that the collaborative process of common frameworks can be held up as a model to reset UK intergovernmental relations and build a stronger and cooperative union.
Baroness Andrews is a Labour member of the House of Lords and chair of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee.