Is David Cameron actually seeking to destroy the Lords?

Meg-Russell

Yesterday’s new peerage appointments attracted almost universal criticism for further adding to the inexorable growth in size of the House of Lords under David Cameron. But could the gradual erosion of the Lords’ reputation actually benefit the government by weakening parliament? Might it even be a deliberate plan? And – given that the Prime Minister holds all the cards – what can be done about it? Meg Russell comments.

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This post has an eye-catching title, but it isn’t a joke – my question is deadly serious. David Cameron’s list of 45 new appointments to the Lords, announced this week, has attracted predictable wails of outrage – from the media, from opposition parties , and indeed from myself. His Lords appointments in the last five years have been completely disproportionate. As I demonstrated in a report earlier this year, he has created new peers at a faster rate than any other Prime Minister since life peerages began in 1958. Although growth in the size of the chamber has always been a problem, since 2010 it has escalated to new proportions. As is clear from my well-rehearsed graph, updated for this week’s appointments, the upward trajectory increased sharply from 2010. In the 11 years of Labour government from 1999-2010 the chamber grew by 40-70 members (depending how you measure it); in the five short years since Cameron took office, it has grown by two to three times as much.

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Note: ‘Actual eligible membership’ includes those on leave of absence and otherwise temporarily excluded from the chamber, all of whom could potentially return. Source: House of Lords Information Office figures from January each year, updated with 2015 appointments.

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Elections, referendums, political parties and the Constitution Unit

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In the third of our series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, Alan Renwick documents on how the UK’s electoral framework has evolved since 1995 and illustrates how the Unit has shaped the implementation of changes. Looking forward, he identifies the franchise and the current gulf between citizens and politicians as key areas for future research.

Respondent Ben Seyd adds that the TV leader debates during the election would also benefit from clear guidelines and Jenny Watson reflects on how the Electoral Commission is building on the foundations that the Unit helped to establish.

Electoral law in the UK is sometimes described as unchanging. Speaking in 2011, for example, David Cameron declared that, ‘Throughout history, it [the electoral system] has risen to the demands of the time’. But this is inaccurate. In fact, if we contrast the electoral framework in place today with that in place in 1995, we find many changes.

Transformation of elections and referendums in 1995

Regarding the core of the electoral system, in 1995, all elections in Great Britain used First Past the Post (FPTP); other systems were used only in Northern Ireland. Today, by contrast, voters in Northern Ireland are unique in having to deal with only one system other than FPTP. Three different forms of proportional representation are used: for European Parliament elections in Great Britain; for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and London Assemblies; and for Scottish local elections and most elections in Northern Ireland. The supplementary vote is used for mayors and/or Police and Crime Commissioners throughout England and Wales. Even the Alternative Vote system – rejected by voters for Westminster elections in the 2011 referendum – is used for local council by-elections in Scotland.

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The Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee: A valuable tool for enhancing scrutiny

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To mark the launch of the second edition of The Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, Jack Simson Caird considers the role that a set of constitutional standards could play in the current government. Drawing on the example of English votes for English laws, he argues that such a code would increase the quality of scrutiny of proposed changes to parliamentary procedure.

The Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Constitution Committee: Second Edition is available to read and download here.

Today the Constitution Unit, with the support of the Constitution Society, is publishing the second edition of The Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Constitution Committee. The report, by Robert Hazell, Dawn Oliver and myself, contains a code of 140 constitutional standards, covering five areas: the rule of law, delegated powers, the separation of powers, individual rights and parliamentary procedure. The second edition extracts and codifies standards from all 168 reports of the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee published from its inception in 2001 to the end of the 2010-2015 Parliament.

When the first edition of the code was published in January 2014, I made the basic case for the use of a code of constitutional standards within Parliament. In this post, I focus on the role that a code of constitutional standards could play in the specific circumstances facing Parliament today: that of the first parliamentary session of a newly elected government intent on making major constitutional changes. In particular, I will examine the introduction of English votes for English laws (EVEL) as an example of constitutional change, and explore how the use of this code in both Houses of Parliament and in government could enhance the scrutiny of those proposed changes to parliamentary procedure.

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Too many cooks? An analysis of the Thai Draft Constitution

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Last summer, this blog carried an analysis of the Thai interim constitution that was introduced following the coup d’etat in May. One year on, Jam Kraprayoon assesses the proposed permanent constitution that is due to be put to a referendum in January. He writes that the current draft suggests a shift away from elected officials to political appointees, ordinary citizens and local authorities and questions whether it will promote a more equitable political outcome.

Thailand’s ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) are currently engaged with a number of immediate challenges including restoring confidence in the economy and maintaining political quiet in the midst of protests from students and farmers. However, their longer-term plan appears to be progressing on schedule as the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) and the National Reform Council (NRC) press on with their mandate to promulgate a new constitution. The NRC is set to give a final vote on the draft in early September and a referendum on the constitution is planned for January.

David Streckfuss argues that the constitution, if passed, will glue into place an undemocratic political system and philosophy. In his view, terms like “participation” and “sustainable fairness” are simply buzzwords masking a straightforward attempt to promote the NCPO’s interests. While it is likely that this constitution will weaken the power of elected officials, this view understates the intricacies surrounding the drafting process, the ambiguous content of the charter and the corresponding uncertainty of its political impact.

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Human rights, the judiciary and the constitution: Past and future challenges

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At the Constitution Unit’s 20th anniversary conference Dawn Oliver, Stephen Sedley and Richard Cornes assessed the Unit’s contribution to debates around human rights and the judges in the UK, and how it can feed into the challenges that lie ahead. Juliet Wells offers an overview of the session.

This is the second of a series of posts based on presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, held on 23 June 2015.

Professor Dawn Oliver took the lead in the session reflecting on the Unit’s wide-ranging contribution to political and legal discourses on human rights and the judiciary, while the respondents were Sir Stephen Sedley and Richard Cornes (who was unfortunately unable to attend on the day, but sent a statement read by the session chair James Melton). The panel therefore reflected rich expertise across public law and offered a thoroughly engaging range of perspectives on the Unit’s impact, and on the possible future direction of these vitally important areas.

Human rights figured particularly prominently in the discussion, and much was coloured by the existential threat now posed to the Human Rights Act 1998. Looking back, Dawn Oliver emphasised the prescience of Nicole Smith’s 1996 report, Human Rights Legislation, in anticipating not only that the Human Rights Act would need a ‘champion’ in future years if it was to survive in the long-term, but also that the legal implications of repealing the Act and replacing it with a ‘home-grown’ bill of rights would be profoundly complicated by the effects of having incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. In particular, it was identified that the long-term consequences of the relationship between Strasbourg and the domestic courts that the Act set up would generate real controversy, even as it would affirm and entrench the importance of Strasbourg jurisprudence in cases before the UK courts. Looking forward, she reflected on the possible consequences of repeal, as well as on the causes of the apparent ‘tidal wave’ of hostility towards the Act. In considering both of these issues, she suggested that a lack of respect for the rule of law, manifested most conspicuously in the shift towards the view that the courts should not be accorded any responsibility for the UK’s compliance with its international treaty obligations, was at work. This, she thought, could be traced back to the 9/11 attacks, which did much to ‘shake people into hostility’ towards the Human Rights Act. Richard Cornes built upon this by suggesting that enacting a British Bill of Rights, which would in many ways be essentially similar to the Human Rights Act, will serve only to refocus the attention of rights-sceptics onto the UK courts, and thus to intensify claims that judges are ‘self-aggrandising’.

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A ‘reserved powers’ model of devolution for Wales: what should be ‘reserved’?

Proposals for a reserved powers model in Wales raise major questions about the division of powers between the UK and devolved Welsh tiers of government. Alan Trench argues that Welsh reservations should not simply be an adaptation of the Scottish model. What is needed is a carefully-thought through approach by the UK Government followed by a public debate, engaging the Welsh Government, the political parties and Welsh civil society.

Since at least 2004, when the Richard Commission proposed one, there has been significant support in Wales for adoption of a ‘reserved powers’ model – as Scotland and (in a different way) Northern Ireland have.  The call was strongly endorsed by the Silk Commission in its Part 2 report and became UK Government policy with support from all four main parties following the St David’s Day process. There seems to be an assumption now that a reserved powers model is essentially a technical matter and that the Scottish model can and will be taken off the shelf and applied, with appropriate modifications, to Wales.  That might not be a bad way forward – there’s a good deal to be said for the Scottish legislation, though it’s not a magical way to solve all problems.  But real devils also lurk in the detail of what ‘appropriate modifications’ might be.

What appears to be underway is a process by which Whitehall departments are consulted about what functions they want to see retained, and what they are happy to let go.  The Welsh Government is a marginal player in this process, if it is a player at all, and the Wales Office does not appear to have a strategy to go with its consultation list.  The first fruit of that trawl appeared in the Powers for a Purpose Command paper published in February at the end of the St David’s Day process, as Annex B.

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The Constitution Unit and 20 years of British constitutional reform

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Vernon Bogdanor reflects on how the UK’s constitutional landscape has evolved since Robert Hazell established the Constitution Unit in 1995 and considers whether the time has come to draw up a codified constitution.

This is the first of a series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, held on 23 June 2015.

I was asked many years ago by OUP to be a referee for the book proposed called Constitutional Futures. I said:

‘This is a book that seeks to outline the issues of constitutional reform. It is being sponsored by The Constitution Unit, an authoritative and highly regarded organisation. The head of the Unit is a well-known writer in this field, Robert Hazell, who has studied the field for years and writes with authority. He is thoroughly familiar with recent scholarship but he also writes clearly and he does not employ the political science jargon which so often disfigures such works. There is no real competitor in the market.’

The book was published at the beginning of the period of constitutional reform. At the time Bagehot’s famous statement about the British constitution was true (in a way I do not think it is any more):

‘There is a great difficulty in the way of a writer who attempts to sketch a living constitution – a constitution that is in actual work and power. The difficulty is that the object is in constant change’. (p.5).

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