The Scotland Bill so far: Major constitutional legislation proceeding at the speed of an express train

Jim-Gallagher

Plans for expanding the powers of the Scottish Parliament have developed rapidly since the Scottish referendum. Jim Gallagher takes advantage of the pause afforded by Parliament’s summer recess to take stock of the Scotland Bill’s progress, and consider the stability of increased decentralisation in the longer term.

Parliament’s summer recess is a good time to catch breath and reflect on the breakneck process of the Scotland Bill. This is constitutional legislation, but proceeding at the speed of an express train.

Express delivery of new powers for the Scottish Parliament was promised during the referendum campaign. The pro-union parties promised – in what was to become the Smith commission – to agree plans in very short order; then they made ‘The Vow’ about what those plans would contain (in, of all places, the Daily Record). The timetable demanded draft legislation before the general election, and a bill introduced immediately thereafter. All of this has duly happened.

The Scotland Bill is very similar to the pre-election draft, with changes to address points of criticism. It is faithful to the Smith recommendations: Virtually complete devolution of income tax – Check. Assignment of half of VAT – Check. Declaration of constitutional permanence for the Scottish Parliament, and legislative basis for (what we must still call) the Sewel Convention – Check. Devolving £2.5 billion of benefits – Check. So from any perspective this is major stuff.

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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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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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