Monday, April 09, 2018

Devolution choices after Brexit

The Institute for Government has issued a report on relations with the devolved administrations after Brexit which focuses on agriculture as one of the areas in which key decisions will need to be made. Some of the main points are reproduced below. The report as a whole can be accessed at: Devolution after Brexit

In particular, how can funding be distributed? Option one would be to use the Barnett formula, which would give greater flexibility to the devolved administrations, but leave devolved budgets more vulnerable to UK government cuts.

Distributing this funding through the Barnett formula would mean that the future level of agricultural funding available for the devolved administrations would be tied to policy decisions made by the UK government. While the devolved administrations would gain greater day-to-day control over how their budget is spent, they would run the risk of their budgets being squeezed in the event the UK government chose to cut the English agriculture budget.

Option two: The UK could decide to create a ring-fenced agricultural support budget, which would be the least change to the current arrangement An alternative approach would be for the UK to establish a new agricultural support budget, protected and separated from the wider devolution budget settlement and ‘block grant’.

The initial distribution would likely reflect the current split through CAP and these levels would be maintained until 2022; reflecting Michael Gove’s commitment to match-fund agricultural support payments. After that, there would need to be an agreement on how the budget was agreed for future years.

The Barnett formula would be one option, but the creation of a new, separate budget is an opportunity to take a different approach. A new budget could allow the governments to create a new funding mechanism, taking into account some of the criticisms of Barnett. The budget could be negotiated periodically, formally and at a four-nation level, as part of the UK government’s spending review.

A ring-fenced agricultural budget for each nation would offer a greater guarantee to farmers in the devolved nations, with funding levels set for a specific period of time. It would protect them against money being reallocated to other policy priorities. A ring fenced budget would also make the UK rather than the devolved governments responsible for resolving the difficult trade-offs between agriculture and other policy areas. Ultimately, from the devolved administrations’ perspective, agreeing to this type of budget could be a missed opportunity for greater autonomy in spending decisions, preventing them from making their own decisions around policy priorities and funding.

An important first step will be reaching consensus on what the UK ‘internal market’ is, and where divergence becomes market distortion. Just as the EU’s single market contains provisions to ensure a ‘level playing field’, the UK Government and the devolved administrations will need to consider what a UK level playing field should look like.

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