The Prime Minister must ensure that he gets a chief executive at the centre

peter.riddell-99Peter Riddell argues the idea of appointing a full-time chief executive to lead the Civil Service is correct – provided the responsibilities and authority match the role. There are worrying signs in this month’s announcement that they will not, and we may have the second muddled reorganisation in three years.

There was an inevitability about yesterday’s announcement of Sir Bob Kerslake’s imminent departure as Head of the Civil Service, while remaining as Permanent Secretary at Department for Communities and Local Government until the end of next February. With an activist Civil Service Minister in Francis Maude, the space became too crowded for Sir Bob as the tensions over the pace and scale of reform increased. The political line was about a renewed drive on civil service reform; absolutely right, but it would be wrong to ignore the huge scale of changes since 2010 and the impetus for reform among most senior civil servants themselves.

The real problems in the civil service leadership are structural. It was right in January 2012 to split the functions of Cabinet Secretary and Civil Service Head since no one could perform both roles. However, it was a mistake for Sir Bob to double-hat as Head of the Civil Service and a departmental Permanent Secretary. That created impossible pressures on him, and, in this position, he never had the powers or authority to lead the changes expected of him.

However, yesterday’s announcement confuses as much as it clarifies. Sir Jeremy Heywood will take the title of Head of the Civil Service while maintaining his current responsibilities as Cabinet Secretary. That makes it clear who is in charge and who reports to the Prime Minister, and this we welcome. The problem is that the new chief executive, who will report to the Cabinet Secretary, is not really going to be a CEO of the Civil Service, but, rather, someone who is in charge of civil service transformation, efficiency and reform plus taking over responsibility for running the Cabinet Office. The inclusion of the latter muddles the tasks of running the headquarters operation with oversight of the whole civil service.

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New president, new ‘Constitution’?

Juncker’s election might mark a new phase of European construction. But the Union’s institutional, political and constitutional foundations need renovation, writes Yves Bertoncini.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s election to the post of president of the Commission marks a new stage in the historic process of rebalancing the powers of member states and the European Parliament. Yet it has been accompanied by a fair number of political, institutional and thus also ‘constitutional’ ambiguities which it would be useful to dispel over the coming weeks, and also with a view to the elections in 2019.

1. An election which sets a welcome political precedent, but which is not yet an institutional ‘custom’

Juncker’s election is the result of a gradual evolution set in motion by the Treaty of Maastricht, which countenanced the principle of a compulsory vote of approval for the Commission in the European Parliament. The Treaty of Amsterdam subsequently separated the vote of approval for the Commission president from the vote for his team. It was on that basis that Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa and our European Steering Committee proposed, as long ago as 1998, a new democratic adjustment consisting in pegging the appointment of the Commission president to the result of the European elections by mobilising the European political parties in that sense and, if possible, amending the treaties to reflect that fact.

The Convention on the future of Europe debated this amendment, but its members refused to peg the Commission president to parliament quite so solidly, although they did suggest that the European Council should ‘take the European elections into account’ when appointing the president. Revived in the Treaty of Lisbon, this formula for a ‘constitutional treaty’ was sufficiently ambiguous to fuel conflicting interpretations, borne out by the radical opposition evinced by the British authorities; but at the same time it was sufficiently open-ended to allow the main European political parties to use it to create a balance of forces from which the assembly in Strasbourg has recently emerged the winner.

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Can Scotland trust Westminster to transfer enough powers to seal it for a No result?

Brian Walker explores whether the pro-Union parties can offer enough devolution to persuade voters Scotland will be given priority if they vote No.

On September 18 voters in Scotland will take a momentous decision based on two sets of uncertainty: on independence which is on the ballot paper and on more devolution which is not. A recent survey by the British Election Study suggests 74% of voters want some or a lot more devolution. Only 35% of them are Yes supporters.  57% of No voters actually want more devolution and 50% of all voters believe it will happen if No wins. This is a rising tide the pro-Union parties are desperate to harness.

And so to counter the clearer appeal of independence, the leaders of Scotland’s pro-union parties gathered on Calton Hill in Edinburgh on 16 June to deliver a joint promise of more devolution in the event of a No vote. David Cameron declared:

All the mainstream pro-UK parties believe in further devolution, so whilst we would want to build consensus for a set of measures and legislation, there is no reason why these changes shouldn’t happen early in the next Parliament.

Lib Dem peer Lord Jeremy Purvis, leader of the cross-party Devo Plus group, enthused that all of the major parties were now ‘clearly and unequivocally supporting a stronger Scotland.’

In early July Purvis joined representatives of the other two parties, Anas Sarwar MP, Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour and member of the party’s Devolution Commission and Peter Duncan, a communications consultant and former Scottish Conservative MP,  for an Institute for Government debate:  Scotland in a changing UK: Unionist visions for further devolution after the referendum. Is  the impression of chiming pro-union agreement justified?

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Codifying the UK constitution: an exercise in reform or preservation?

If the UK gets a written constitution, will it seek simply to codify the current constitutional arrangement or will it present an opportunity for more fundamental changes? In light of a recent PCRC report assessing the desirability of a written constitution, Daniel Helen looks at recent codification proposals and considers the reforms they put forward.

A new Magna CartaBehind the title of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report into the desirability of a codified constitution for the UK – published last Thursday as A New Magna Carta?– lies an unintended analogy. While the rebellious English barons in 1215 may have claimed that they demanded nothing more than a return to the good old law of Edward the Confessor and Henry I, in many of its provisions Magna Carta marked a significant break from past practice. Modern-day proponents of a codified, or ‘written’, constitution are not so different. While the act of codifying certainly amounts to a momentous reform in itself, both proponents and opponents realise that it provides an opportunity to make significant changes to the substance (not just the form) of the constitution. The committee’s report is no exception.

There have been numerous attempts at codification over the past few decades, varying considerably in length and scope.The most radical proposal came in the form of Tony Benn’s Commonwealth of Britain Bill, first presented to the House of Commons in 1991. It called for – inter alia – the abolition of the monarchy, a ‘House of the People’ in lieu of the aristocratic Lords, equal parliamentary representation of men and women, and a federal Britain with devolved parliaments in England, Scotland and Wales (British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland would end). Given Benn’s views and history, one should not really be surprised by his proposals. In 1990, the Liberal Democrats published a codified constitution in “We the People…” – Towards a Written Constitution. Its proposed changes embodied party policy which remains largely the same to this day. Notably, it would introduce the single transferable vote and replace the Lords with an elected Senate. Like Benn’s Bill, it is clearly the product of a distinctive political outlook.

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Defining the office of Prime Minister

The British Prime Minister has extensive and growing powers, yet the role is ill-defined in UK constitutional documents. Graham Allen argues in favour of clarifying the role of the Prime Minister. He also suggests it should become a directly elected office, to ensure that it is properly answerable to the UK public.

It is symptomatic of the British constitution that the more important something is, the more vaguely defined it is, and the harder it is to make it democratically accountable.

This principle certainly applies to the office of Prime Minister.

We do not know for certain when it came into existence. Historians tell us that the most important person in this process was Sir Robert Walpole, in the early eighteenth century. His reputation for corruption hardly makes for the most auspicious beginning for any great institution of state. Anyway, he did not actually officially create anything and always denied that he was a ‘Prime Minister’. The fact is that the most important job in British government has come about over a long period of three hundred years without anyone ever knowing precisely what it was; and without Parliament or the public ever having been consulted about it.

The House of Commons select committee of which I am the elected chair, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, has been looking at the office of Prime Minister for a number of years now, and we recently published a report on the subject. One of the surprising things we learned when investigating the subject was how little formal definition there is, even today, of the office of Prime Minister. The most that can be found is a few lines in a document published in 2011, The Cabinet Manual. Yet this text is – as the name suggests – an operational guide for government, aimed mainly at officials and ministers. It is not a full public definition of the prime-ministership, nor does it have proper legal force.

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Debating the influence of Magna Carta 800 years on

In June, UCL hosted a workshop organised by the Political Studies Association exploring to what extent Magna Carta still influences the UK constitution and British politics. Colin Murray reports.

As the 800th anniversary of events at Runnymede draws closer, 18 June saw a one-day workshop on the influence of Magna Carta organised by the Political Studies Association and hosted by University College London. With official pronouncements on the anniversary talking up ‘celebrations’ of the Magna Carta the time is ripe for a reconsideration of its ongoing influence. If, as Robert Hazell said in his introductory remarks, the UK Constitution can be described as a ‘winner takes all’ system, can we really say much at all for the influence of a document which purports to be at the root of ideas of limited government?

As the eleven panel presentations unfolded, the tenor of debate very much suggested that the Magna Carta has long since ceased to have practical implications as a legal instrument. Its terms have for the most part been repealed or superseded. Only the spirit persists, which of course makes it particularly valuable to political actors as a foundation myth (as explored by Natalie Riendeau) or to judges as a rhetorical device (Craig Lerner). These views were reinforced by Vernon Bogdanor, who considered that accounts of Magna Carta were in danger of remembering the future and forgetting the past. With the present very much in mind, Bogdanor drew an analogy between the power struggles which precipitated Magna Carta and the uneasy constitutional compromise it established and the present shifting relationship between parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law within the UK Constitution. Expanding upon this theme, Anthony King posed the question of who the barons were within today’s political system. Nora Williams would later reprise this issue by considering Magna Carta’s lessons for contemporary accounts of judicial supremacy in constitutional arrangements.

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Pressures are growing for Commons bill committee reform

In June 2013 the Constitution Unit published Fitting the Bill: Bringing Commons Legislation Committees into Line with Best Practice, proposing a series of changes to Commons bill committees. Last week the issue was brought back into the headlines, as John Bercow emphasised the need for reform.

Last Monday at a lecture for the Study of Parliament Group, the Commons Speaker John Bercow suggested that reform of Commons public bill committees is overdue. His remarks closely chimed with proposals made in a Constitution Unit report published last year (and summarised here). With the end of the current parliament fast approaching, this topic should be high on the agenda for those planning for the parliament of 2015.

Bercow’s lecture commemorated Michael Ryle, who together with the late Sir Bernard Crick founded the SPG in 1964. One of the key proposals coming from Crick (and the Group in its early years) was the establishment of permanent specialist committees for the Commons. This led to the creation of today’s select committee system. But as we summarised in our report reformers originally wanted the committees to deal with government bills as well as general inquiries. This failed to happen, and legislative scrutiny remained in the hands of temporary non-specialist committees. Since then the reputation of the select committees has steadily grown, while the reputation of bill committees has generally been poor. Especially since the reforms recommended by the Wright committee were implemented in 2010, the gap between the two types of Commons committees has grown.

This gap is graphically illustrated by another event of the past few weeks – the election of Conservative backbencher Sarah Wollaston as chair of the Commons Health Select Committee (commented on here). Wollaston is a former GP, elected to the role by fellow MPs under the system facilitated by the Wright committee. Before this system came into force, select committee members were controversially chosen by party whips (albeit with some oversight by the Commons chamber). This could lead to MPs considered too independent-minded (sometimes including subject experts) being kept off. But the old whip-based system still applies to the public bill committees, and its most controversial use in the 2010 parliament applied to Wollaston herself. She had sought appointment to the committee considering the coalition’s Health and Social Care bill, but was kept off – which attracted significant media attention and criticism of parliament. Her treatment under the two systems could not be more starkly different. The (elected) select committee system valued expertise; the (appointed) public bill committee system did the reverse.

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