The truth about House of Lords appointments

Meg-Russell

Yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron, seemingly undeterred by the already negative media coverage about the Lord Sewel affair, gave strong indications that he intends to make yet more appointments to the Lords. In doing so, he appeared to invoke a convention that does not exist: that of bringing Lords membership into line with Commons seats. In this post Meg Russell sets out some of the basic facts about Lords appointments, and some options for what might be done.

In recent days the media has been dominated by stories about the conduct of Lord Sewel. On the back of this, there have been numerous calls for Lords reform, or even abolition. Various outlets have linked this to rumours that Prime Minister David Cameron plans imminently to appoint more peers – which have been circulating for weeks. But despite media coverage of the Lords having reached a nadir, and the fact that his previous appointments have attracted howls of media outrage, Cameron seemed to signal yesterday that he intends to press ahead with new appointments. In doing so he implied a convention that prime ministers always behave in this way, saying:

‘It is important the House of Lords in some way reflects the situation in the House of Commons. At the moment it is well away from that. I’m not proposing to get there in one go. [But] it is important to make sure the House of Lords more accurately reflects the situation in the House of Commons. That’s been the position with prime ministers for a very, very long time and for very good and fair reason.’

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The Government’s Freedom of Information commission tilts the political discussion towards damage and cost

Ben Worthy

On Friday of last week, the Government announced a new commission on Freedom of Information. Here, Ben Worthy offers his response to the announcement, arguing that the objections to the scope and usage of FOI that have been raised are nothing new, and furthermore aren’t unique to the UK. Further, he argues that the commission’s remit tilts discussion naturally towards the two issues of damage and costs, rather than a more balanced cost/benefit analysis. 

What’s Wrong?

The questions in the remit of the commission boil down to asking ‘is FOI undermining decision-making’ and ‘is it too expensive’? The remit itself is, of course, priming discussion in a particular way, framing it  towards two issues of (1) whether FOI is hampering decision-making and (2) whether it ‘costs too much’ . So what does the evidence say?

Is FOI Hampering Decision-making?

Just to put this discussion into context:

  • Our 2010 study of FOI in the UK found very few requests for Cabinet documents and also found a broader lack of interest in the decision-making process. Leaks are a far more important cause of openness for these citadels of government decision-making than FOI.
  • UK governments since 2005 have used the veto seven (or technically eight) times, compared with 48 times in Australia in the first five years of its own FOI Act. This seems to indicate that ‘dangerous’ requests trying to prise open the very centre of government are relatively few in number, though their psychological effect may be disproportionate.

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Changing the Commons: How many MPs? How equal their electorates? Part 2

Yesterday, in part one of this blog, Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie outlined the challenges that are likely to make the 2016 boundary review as (if not more) disruptive than the aborted 2012 review. Here the authors consider how issues around the accuracy and completeness of the electoral rolls will impact the review process and make the case for amending the Bill in line with PCRC recommendations made in March.

Can any of the potential disruption of the 2016 boundary review be avoided? Is it possible to maintain the general principle of greater equality of constituency electorates but modify the rules and Boundary Commission practices, so that a new constituency map can be created that differs less from the current one than in the 2012 recommendations? In research that we did in 2014, published by the McDougall Trust, we showed that there would probably be much less disruption if: (1) the tolerance was increased from +/-5% to at least +/-8%; and (2) the Boundary Commissions, especially the Boundary Commission for England, were more prepared to split wards when creating constituencies.

That research also showed that the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 did not exacerbate the disruption. Even if the number had been retained at 650, substantial changes would have been needed across the four countries within the UK, and then within them, because of the adoption of a single quota and the +/-5% tolerance.

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The table illustrates this, comparing the current allocation of 650 seats to that which would result from use of the 2014 and 2015 (general election) electorates. Wales would lose eight seats and, with an electoral quota of either 69,909 (2014) or 71,381 (2015) and a +/-5% tolerance, undoubtedly need its entire constituency map redrawn. Scotland and Northern Ireland could also lose seats, whereas England would gain an extra 6-8. A new map, even with 650 MPs retained, will be very different in much of the UK from the current one. (The quota, using the 2014 electorate figures, would be 69,909, and all constituencies would have to have electorates between 66,414 and 73,401. In Northern Ireland, seven of the current 18 constituencies had electorates then with fewer than 66,414 voters and four had more than 73,401. Even though the seven others were within the tolerance, it is almost certain that all 18 would have to be changed to meet the requirements).

There is, however, a major unresolved issue regarding the accuracy and completeness of the electoral rolls that could have a substantial impact on the number of registered electors in December 2015, and hence the determination of the electoral quota and the allocation of seats when the Boundary Commissions start work in March 2015. We are currently in a transition period in the switchover to Individual Electoral Registration, which is due to end by December 2016 but could – if the government so determines between June and August 2015 inclusive – be ended in December 2015. The crux of the issue is the number of people currently on the electoral roll but who have not registered individually. The Electoral Commission’s recently-published report Assessment of progress with the transition to Individual Electoral Registration estimates that the number is c.1.9million, and if the transition is ended this year, then they will all be removed from the electoral rolls assembled at the end of the year (unless they re-register in the short remaining period).

The Electoral Commission has recommended that the transition period continue into 2016. If the government does decide to end the transition period early, however, then the number of registered electors used in the Boundary Commissions’ exercise starting in March 2016 could be more than 1.5million fewer, with very clear implications for the outcome of that exercise at all scales: the determination of the electoral quota; the allocation of constituencies across the four countries and the nine regions within England; and the detailed boundaries of most of the individual constituencies. The number of constituencies allocated to London could vary by as many as five depending on whether the 1.9million are removed from the roll and, in general, urban areas would be under-represented with a reduced electorate.

This would be undesirable. Analyses of the revised proposals in the review aborted in 2013 indicates that in the reduction of seats from 650 to 600 Labour would have lost 35 MPs if the 2010 election had been fought in the new constituencies and the Conservatives only four. The collapse of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 and the rise of the SNP would change that slightly, but there is no doubt that the Conservatives would be the main beneficiaries of a review starting in 2016 with only 600 seats to be determined. If the transition to IER were to be ended this year, the Conservative gain would undoubtedly be greater, because the English shires would gain seats relative to the UK’s large cities.

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Apart from that crucial issue regarding the electoral register, can anything be done to modify what the Boundary Commissions do? Can the rules be changed before they start work in February 2016?

In March 2015 the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee published a report What next on the redrawing of parliamentary constituency boundaries?, having taken evidence from a range of interested parties, including the secretariats of the four Boundary Commissions. It made two firm, unanimous, recommendations: that the tolerance be changed from +/-5% to +/-10%; and that the number of MPs not be reduced to 600. The government did not respond formally before Parliament was prorogued, but the evidence given to the Committee by the then Minister – Sam Gyimah – and the statement in the Conservative 2015 election manifesto indicate that the Conservative party, and hence the current government, is unlikely to agree to any change, or to facilitate the passage of an amending Bill through Parliament during the next six months, unless they are under considerable pressure to do so. David Cameron clarified that position on 1 July at Prime Minister’s Questions saying that we should get on and create more equal constituencies and reduce the number of MPs to reduce the cost of politics. The need for pressure is thus even greater.

Where might that pressure come from? Individual members (who, as the report in the Independent on July 10 indicated, are concerned) could press the case on the newly-constituted Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which includes constitutional matters in its remit. It could undertake a quick review of the evidence and reiterate its predecessor committee’s recommendations, which might stimulate a response, perhaps through the Backbench Business Committee. Any change it proposed would almost certainly be supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats (the latter are important in the Lords) and probably by a number of Conservatives concerned about the potential disruption – what new MPs wants to see their constituencies disappear within 2-3 years of being elected?!

The case for the relaxed tolerance is that it will reduce disruption and allow the Boundary Commissions to recommend new constituencies that differ less from their predecessors, which are more likely to fit within the local government map, and which will be more in line with communities of interest.

A short amending Bill could ensure that those changes are made, changes that would be widely (if not universally) welcomed. And it could also change two administrative provisions of the 2011 Act which most – including the Boundary Commission secretariats – would welcome.

  • The current Act requires Public Hearings to be held during the 12-week period: it would be much more efficient if they were held immediately after that period (although in the original Bill the government – i.e. the Conservatives – wanted there to be no Public Hearings/Local Inquiries);
  • The current Act indicates that if the Boundary Commissions take ward boundaries into account (as they certainly will do) then they should use those deployed at the latest local government election before a review begins. In some places a new set of wards has been in place for a year or more but has not been used because there has been no local election (in many areas they are held quadrennially only). It would be better if wards in place at the time when a review commences – even if not yet used – were deployed, reducing the potential for confusion at future general and local elections, especially if the two are held on the same date.

Such changes would not be controversial and would make for a more efficient review procedure.

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Political parties, nationally and local, and MPs are facing a major disruption to the UK’s map of Parliamentary constituencies over the next three years. Some disruption is desirable – to remove the over-representation of Wales and some other parts of the United Kingdom in the House of Commons and to limit the variation around the average constituency electorate. It should be possible to reduce that disruption while maintaining the general principle of equality of representation – a change that would be widely welcomed within the political community. But is there a political will to make the changes in time?

Unless the next review of constituencies is to be delayed (again) – which would probably mean the 2020 general election being held in the current 650 constituencies which were defined in England using electoral data for the year 2000 – then an amended Act has to pass through all of its Parliamentary stages by February 2016. The timetable thereafter is extremely tight, especially for England, whose Commission is responsible for 85 per cent of the UK’s constituencies. Parliament must act quickly, if it believes that there should be more than 600 MPs and that constituencies should vary a little more in their electorates than the current legislation allows so as better to represent the country’s communities.

Click here to read part one of this two-part blog, which considers the review that was aborted in 2012 and outlines the challenges currently lie ahead for the 2016 review

About the Authors

Ron Johnston is a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol; David Rossiter is a retired Research Fellow who formerly worked at the Universities of Bristol, Leeds, Oxford and Sheffield; and Charles Pattie is a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield. They have written together on the Boundary Commissions and constituency definition in the UK since the early 1980s and co-authored The Boundary Commissions: Redrawing the UK’s Map of Parliamentary Constituencies (University of Manchester Press, 1999).

Changing the Commons: How many MPs? How equal their electorates? Part 1

How much disruption do we want to the UK’s electoral map? We want constituencies to be equal in size – but how equal? And do we want fewer MPs? An article in The Independent on 11 July 2015 suggested that some Conservative MPs are already concerned about the impact on their constituencies if the number of MPs is reduced but unless these questions are addressed quickly another very disruptive exercise in redrawing constituency boundaries will start early next year. In part one of this two-part blog, Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie consider the review that was aborted in 2012 and outline the challenges currently lie ahead for the 2016 review.

The Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election included a statement that:

‘We will also continue to reform our political system: make votes of more equal value through long overdue boundary reforms, reducing the number of MPs…’

This was not a commitment to do something new; legislation is already in place to achieve those goals and the manifesto commitment was thus simply one to ensure that they were achieved. But what do the Conservatives want to achieve, and what will it mean for the next election?

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011 introduced a number of fundamental changes to the way in which Parliamentary constituency boundaries are defined. Under the previous legislation they were reviewed every 8-12 years; each of the four nations of the UK had a guaranteed minimum number of MPs – which meant that some parts, notably Wales, were significantly over-represented relative to others (at the 2015 election, the average Welsh constituency had 57,057 registered electors whereas the English average was 72,853, the Northern Irish 68,705 and the Scottish 69,403); and the Boundary Commissions were only required to try and make constituency electorates as equal as practicable when they had taken account of local government boundaries and communities of interest and, as far as possible, kept change to a minimum.

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Elections – onwards and upwards

Peter-Wardle

Outgoing Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission Peter Wardle reflects on the delivery of this year’s general election and considers what further improvements can be made.

This blog coincides with the launch of the Electoral Commission’s report on the administration of the May 7 elections.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the General Election under the headline ‘Expect the unexpected’. It wasn’t really the outcome I was talking about – but if readers want to credit me with clairvoyance on that front, that’s fine!

This was my third General Election as Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission – and after each one, we reflect on what happened, and what further improvements can be made.

We ask voters how it was for them – and we can take a good deal of satisfaction and pride in the fact that trust and confidence in our electoral system is so high. This year, nine in ten people told us they thought the elections in May were well-run. This is a real tribute to the team effort that is put in by Returning Officers and their staff, local police forces, and of course campaigners, to make sure the elections run as smoothly as possible for voters.

But the election world never stands still – there are major polls across the UK in May 2016, and a UK-wide referendum due before the end of 2017. In our report on the administration of the 7 May elections, we’ve made a number of recommendations that would further improve voters’ experience and sustain trust in our democracy.

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Imagining a British Bill of Rights

Begum-Icellier-225x300juliet-wells-photo

On 30 June 2015, Martin Howe QC gave a talk at the Constitution Unit on what human rights protection in the UK might look like in the event that the Human Rights Act 1998 is repealed. It was a topic that sought to stand apart from mainstream discussions on human rights reform, by engaging directly with the possible content of a British Bill of Rights rather than concentrating on the intellectual and political legitimacy of the case for repeal. Begum Icelliler and Juliet Wells report on the event.

Much of the debate over the future of human rights legislation in the UK has been preoccupied with the merits of the cases for and against repeal – hardly surprising, given the political, constitutional and legal significance of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). Nevertheless, the subject of Martin Howe’s lecture represented a welcome reorientation of that debate: by focusing on the possible content of a British Bill of Rights, it provided an opportunity to begin to examine and question the coherency of the government’s proposals.

The focal point of Howe’s proposals consisted in recasting the relationship between the UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. He suggested that the UK courts show ‘excessive deference’ towards the judgements of the Strasbourg court, and that this is to be attributed to Section 2 of the HRA, which requires UK courts to ‘take into account’ the judgements of the Strasbourg court. In his view, this produces a situation in which, de facto, UK case law is ‘overwhelmed’ by an incoming tide of European jurisprudence. This is problematic because it is not sufficiently attuned to domestic concerns. As such, his contention was that a British Bill of Rights must aim, first and foremost, to ‘sever the links’ between the UK courts and Strasbourg, by removing the Section 2 requirement.

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English votes for English taxes? The EVEL proposals’ implications for tax and spending

Jim-Gallagher

Responding to Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny’s analysis of last week’s English votes for English laws proposals, Jim Gallagher argues that the really challenging issue that EVEL raises relates to taxes and public spending.

The analysis by Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny of the government’s proposals for English votes is helpful in setting out what these plans might mean for legislation. I agree with much of their analysis. These are plans at the aggressive, though perhaps not the most aggressive, end of the spectrum. But the really challenging issue they raise is not about laws, but about taxes and public spending.

Not the Barnett formula

This isn’t about the Barnett formula. The idea that Scottish MPs should vote on purely English legislation because it will affect Scottish spending through the Barnett formula is simply wrong. The government has made this even clearer than it already was by explicitly exempting the legislation which determines spending from the new process in its proposals. A lot of nonsense is being talked about this. Even though they might have spending consequences, Acts of Parliament do not of themselves affect budgets. Spending plans will still be voted on in legislative processes in which all MPs – Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, as well as English – will have a vote. So the discovery by the SNP that they are now entitled to vote on English measures suggests they haven’t read the government’s plans.

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