Graham Gee: The Lord Chief Justice and Section 5 of the Constitutional Reform Act

This is posted on behalf of Graham Gee and originally appeared on the UK Constitutional Law Association Blog.

The Constitutional Reform Act redrew relationships between the senior judiciary and Parliament in a number of ways. Amongst the most significant was removing the right of the LCJ to speak in the Lords. Earlier this month, the new LCJ Lord Thomas repeated the lament of his immediate predecessors that it was a mistake to deprive the LCJ of the right to address Parliament on the floor of the House on important matters relating to the administration of justice. In this context, some have read the LCJ’s suggestion of a new approach to s5 of the CRA as significant. Drawing on interviews conducted between 2011-13 as part of an AHRC-funded project on The Politics of Judicial Independence, I want to shed some light on tensions that have arisen about the use of s5.

Section 5

Under s5, each of the LCJ, the LCJ for Northern Ireland and the Lord President “may lay before Parliament written representations on matters that appear to [the officeholder] to be matters of importance relating to the judiciary, or otherwise to the administration of justice”. In debates ten years ago on the bill that became the CRA, the then LCJ and Lord Chancellor—Lord Woolf and Lord Falconer—both suggested that s5 would be used rarely and only for high profile matters of serious concern to the judiciary. Subsequently, both Lords Phillips and Judge appeared to confirm this by describing s5 as a “nuclear option” to be used only in the face of a serious threat to judicial independence or the rule of law. (See here and here). But, in practice, neither used s5 in this way, invoking it instead for the more humdrum matter of laying before Parliament periodic reports on the management of the judiciary. Behind this lies a surprising and even at times rather silly disagreement between senior judges and parliamentary authorities; or what an interviewee called “a storm in a teacup”.

“A Storm in a Teacup”

In late 2007 and early 2008, there were lengthy discussions between the LCJ, the Procedure Committee, the Journal Offices in the Commons and Lords and others about the most appropriate way of getting the LCJ’s reports before Parliament. At issue were rival interpretations of the proper scope and purpose of s5. Reversing his previous position, Lord Phillips now argued that s5 was not only to be used in “a crunch situation” to raise pressing issues of concern, but that it also supplied a statutory mechanism whereby the LCJ can lay periodic reports before Parliament. The clerks did not dispute that a report can be laid under s5, provided it contained “written representations”. Rather, they relied on statements by ministers and Lord Phillips himself to argue that s5 was only for raising serious concerns.

Driving the clerk’s arguments were rules regulating who has authority to formally “lay” papers in the Commons. Under these rules, ministers are effectively the only officeholders authorized to do so. (See this guidance from the Journal Office from April 2009). The clerks suggested instead that the Speaker and the Lords Speaker should place the report in the libraries of the Commons and Lords as a deposited paper on behalf of the LCJ. Lord Phillips initially agreed to this, only to change his mind shortly before publication of his first report, insisting that he should be able to lay his report independently, without relying on the Speaker, the Lords Speaker or anyone else. Lord Phillips’s eleventh-hour reversal surprised the clerks. As one interviewee observed, “it was frankly all a bit of shambles, and there was a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of crossed wires”. In the end, Lord Phillips invoked s5 to lay his report before Parliament, with this fact noted on the face of the report itself—although, as one interviewee told us, in reality what actually happened was that the report was laid before the House on his behalf by the Clerk of the House.

In 2009 Lord Judge’s officials approached clerks in the Commons to discuss using s5 to lay the then new LCJ’s report before Parliament, but they were “sent away with a flea in their ear”, leading to what an interviewee labelled “a bit of a tiff”. In 2010, Lord Judge issued his report, but without using s5. Subsequently he initiated negotiations with the House of Lords authorities, agreeing with them that in the future the Lords would accept reports issued under s5. Two years later, a similar agreement was reached with the Commons, and in both 2012 and 2013 the LCJ’s reports were laid before both Houses under s5.

This back-and-forth, together with all of the tensions and frustration it generated, is aptly described as “a storm in a teacup”. But like many a storm in a teacup, it reveals something about the actors involved as they fumbled to redefine working relationships following the 2005 changes. These relations have been redefined less in a systematic fashion, and more by touch-and-feel, with missteps along the way. These missteps resulted largely from a failure to understand the other’s concerns and anxieties. The judges underestimated the cautiousness of the clerks and their concern to protect Parliament’s privileges and customs. The clerks in turn did not adequately grasp the importance that senior judges placed on finding new ways of communicating with politicians, especially in light of changes to the role of Lord Chancellor. Matters were not aided by successive LCJs sending mixed messages on s5. Similar patterns can be seen in other aspects of judicial-legislative relations: some parliamentary officials feel that senior judges have sent mixed signals on the appropriate scope of questioning of judicial witnesses by select committees.

Relations are improving, with the agreement that was eventually reached over s5 evidence of this. And careful coordination is taking place on both sides to nurture mutual understanding of and respect for each other’s concerns. The previous LCJ, Lord Judge, and the current Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir Robert Rogers, are both more outward looking than their predecessors and have developed more frequent informal contacts. To aid a better mutual understanding, the Clerk of the House has begun holding regular informal meetings with the LCJ and President of the UK Supreme Court, where topics discussed have included sub judice, the use of parliamentary materials in court and parliamentary privilege. The new guidance from the Judicial Executive Board in 2012 on judicial appearances before select committees is in part a product of these contacts.

When should s5 be used?

The tone of his evidence before the Justice Committee earlier this month suggests that Lord Thomas wants to build on this more outward-looking approach. In his evidence, he referred to the enduring respect that exists between Parliament and the judiciary, but hinted at concern about a lack of understanding between them. It was in this context that the LCJ suggested that he took a different view on s5 than his predecessors, eschewing the description of it as a nuclear option. He did not elaborate on the circumstances in which he envisaged using s5, although it is safe to assume that he will continue to invoke s5 to lay reports before Parliament. Although it is sensible for the senior judiciary to search out new and fruitful ways of communicating with Parliament, s5 is best retained as a measure of last resort.

The reason can be simply stated: the LCJ already has a suite of tools available for articulating concerns to ministers, parliamentarians, lawyers or the public at large. These include monthly meetings with the Lord Chancellor and, in a fairly recent innovation, twice yearly meetings with the Prime Minister. As and when serious concerns arise, the LCJ can request an extraordinary meeting with the PM. This happened in 2001, when the LCJ and a team of senior judges went to 10 Downing Street and persuaded Tony Blair to abandon a planned reorganization in Whitehall under which responsibility for the courts would have shifted to the Home Office. Other tools include speeches, press conferences and appearances before select committees. Where bills concern the administration of the courts or constitutional matters pertaining to the judiciary, judges already routinely provide evidence—oral and written—to committees. The chairs of both the Commons Justice and the Lord Constitution Committees have indicated that the LCJ can approach them to request an urgent session to hear from the LJC on topics of serious concern to the judiciary. Under HMCTS’s Framework Document, special processes are now also available to the LCJ to raise concerns about court funding.

These tools will usually be sufficient for voicing judicial concerns. They will alert stakeholders, generate coverage in the press and often secure favorable results for the judges. Absent a real constitutional crisis, it is difficult to imagine what using s5 could add; almost always there will be more appropriate, and more effective, ways of highlighting judicial concerns short of submitting formal representations to Parliament. A prudent LCJ will engage with ministers in private first, and only slowly escalate the matter in public. When relations with government are proving troublesome, the LCJ must decide whether to raise a concern publicly, how and where, reflecting on whether putting ministers on the spot in public will advance the judicial cause over the long haul. Knowing how to advance judicial interests inside Whitehall and Westminster requires political judgment. Almost always the LCJ will be well advised to avoid escalating matters through s5. Above all, there is something to be said for having an identified measure of last resort recognized by ministers, MPs, peers and civil servants as a tool that the LCJ would only use in the most strained circumstances. Seeking to employ 5 as something other than a measure of last resort to be used only in the most serious circumstances ultimately risks undercutting its potency.

A Final Word on the LCJ’s Reports

There are more appropriate ways than s5 for ensuring that the LCJ’s reports are laid before Parliament. Only four such reports have been prepared over nearly 10 years. They offer a selective, high-level account of the stewardship of the judiciary, with their irregular frequency rendering it impossible to compare performance of the senior judiciary over time. Successive LCJs have resisted producing the reports annually on the grounds that it would be administratively burdensome. This seems a poor excuse given the wide array of management and leadership responsibilities exercised by, or in the name of, the LCJ. It seems that Lord Thomas now intends to issue reports annually. Talk is cheap: Lord Phillips made a similar commitment in 2007, only for his successor to resile from it. To ensure regular reports, the LCJ should be under a statutory duty to produce an annual report similar to that on the Senior President of Tribunals, except that it should include explicit statutory authority to enable the LCJ to lay reports directly with each House.

Graham Gee is a law lecturer at the University of Birmingham. In 2011-2013 he worked with Robert Hazell, Kate Malleson and Patrick O’Brien on an AHRC-funded project on The Politics of Judicial Independence.

Jenny Watson’s lecture on the modernisation of the electoral administration system

In the latest Constitution Unit seminar, Jenny Watson, the Chair of the Electoral Commission, provided the audience with a very eloquent account of the challenges and opportunities presented by the imminent and future work towards electoral modernisation. Drawing upon the effective steps that have already been taken by the Labour administration and most recently the coalition government, she elaborated on the likely effects of the new legislation including the transition to Individual Electoral Registration and emphasised the imperative need for thefurther modernisation of the electoral administration system. The Electoral Commission has always played a vital role towards that direction through a number of proposals and recommendations aiming to improve the election process. But it is the need for comprehensive legislation that will create clarity and transparency and ensure that ‘confidence and the effectiveness of our system will be maintained’ as Watson noted. A major step was taken in 2013 with the Electoral Registration and Administration Act which replaced Household Electoral Registration (HER) with Individual Electoral Registration (IER) and introduced new close of poll arrangements. It is expected that the move to IER will improve the security of the registration process and increase registration mainly among younger voters, students and the mobile population. However, in an increasingly disenfranchised society, there is an urgent need to reform the electoral framework, making it more efficient and less complex. As Jenny Watson highlighted the Electoral Commission will be leading the way in order to find the best ways to modernise the system and ‘make it more reflective of the wider society’.

The 2014-2016 election cycle presents a particularly busy and challenging phase for the Electoral Commission as well as the electoral administrators on the ground, not only due to the number but mainly the nature of the forthcoming elections. This cycle which opens with the European Parliament and local elections in May this year and ends in 2016 with the elections for the devolved bodies, local authorities, the London Mayor and the second round of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections also includes two of the most significant electoral events in the UK; the high profile 2015 general election and the Scottish Independence referendum which Watson characterised as the ‘most constitutionally significant event for the century so far’. Though the significance of these various elections depends on wider political factors, the successful delivery of all elections is not a matter of compromise. Watson continuously emphasised throughout her lecture the need to ensure that all elections are delivered successfully so as ‘confidence and effectiveness’ in the system is not undermined. The passage of timely and comprehensive legislation allows for the proper planning and successful delivery of the polls. To this end, she highlighted that the Independence referendum legislation which was in place well in advance should provide the model to follow for all future elections.

The focus of her lecture however, was on the most significant imminent change of the transition to Individual Electoral Registration (IER). The timetable for implementation was the topic of heated debate in Parliament with the government preferring that the transition be completed at the end of 2015. For Watson there are two strong arguments for early implementation. First, the system of online registration which is not only easy and quick to use but mainly, it appeals to young unregistered voters, which one of the sections of the population that the Electoral Commission mostly wishes to target. Second, an invaluable tool such as the data matching process is already in place. That is,the register is being matched against the data of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) as well as local databases to confirm the identity of each elector. A test of that process, known as the ‘confirmation process’, which was run a year ago, showed that three quarters of those in the current register were automatically transferred onto the new register. And though there will be still a substantial number of voters (around 10m) who would not be registered, the data matching process provides election registration officers with the information and skills they need to identify the groups of people in their local area who are unregistered and develop plans to effectively target those groups.

The successful implementation of the transition to IER however, depends on a number of factors. Watson emphasised the important role that the Electoral Commission has to play in the process. Their work develops into three different levels. First, the Electoral Commission will monitor the process and collect data about the registers at various points including the general election of 2015 and evaluate the risks of an early transition. This will allow the identification of those electors who have not been confirmed or registered individually and those who at the end of the transition would be disenfranchised. She noted that this is of vital significance as it allows for the identification of variations at the local level and thus, a more effective planning and targeting especially in the light of the 2016 local elections. Most importantly, if the data analysis shows that too many voters would be disenfranchised then recommending early implementation would be highly unlikely. Second, the Electoral Commission will run a mass media campaign to raise public awareness. The main aim of the media campaign will be to encourage people to register complementing the work that election administrators will be doing on the ground. Finally, the Electoral Commission is building upon the findings of the data matching process in order to increase registration rates especially amongst those electors who are not likely to be automatically confirmed. To this end, Watson said that they are working with a range of partner organisations with good links togroups of people who are less likely to register, such as young adults and students, ethnic minority communities and mobile population, in order to pass a clear message to them about how to register.

One of the most interesting points of the lecture was her referenceto the practical issue of public engagement and participation and the implications of low turnout. While acknowledging the fact that encouraging political participation and increasing voting turnout are not areas of the Electoral Commission’s direct responsibility, Watson emphasised that the Electoral Commission cannot ‘sit on the sidelines’. Indeed, the Commission has an important twofold role to play; first, by supporting organisations who work towards these directions and second, by looking at the mechanics of the electoral system and their impact on turnout. The UK is in need of a more up-to-date and comprehensive strategy for bringing voting methods into the modern era. The role of the Electoral Commission should be to explore new areas and advise on the options for change. Online registration was a significant but limited step forward. The main aim should be to bring the electoral system into the modern world by giving people the opportunity to engage with it in the same way that they engage with everything else in their lives. To this end, Watson said that the Electoral Commissionplans to look at a variety of options including the electors’ ability to register to vote on the day of the election, touse any polling station in their constituency, the introduction of advance voting or even the ‘radical’ option of e-voting. Finding the right balance between security and accessibility of the system would be a major challenge. The Electoral Commission should not be working in isolation. This is an area where politicians and political parties should take responsibility and lead the debate about democratic participation. Addressing the issue of low turnout and enfranchising the younger generation requires political will and consensus. The Electoral Commission can lead the way; it is up to politicians and political parties to rise to the occasion.

Watch the video of Jenny Watson’s talk


Concerns about the Steel/Byles Lords reform bill: a summary

David Steel’s Lords reform bill (previously sponsored in the Commons by Dan Byles) had its second reading in the chamber on Friday. Last night the Constitution Unit and Constitution Society jointly hosted a meeting in the Lords to discuss concerns about the bill. Its main provisions – allowing peers to retire, and for the expulsion of serious criminals - have been widely welcomed. But concerns have been raised about the detail, and possible unintended consequences, by the Unit’s Meg Russell and various others (in addition to the links below, see here). The meeting was addressed by David Steel and Meg Russell, and chaired by Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society. The text below is an edited version of Meg Russell’s speech, summarising her concerns.

Audio recording of Dr Meg Russell’s speech and Lord Steel’s response from the event held on 1st April 2014

I should start by saying that I regret that this discussion is happening for two reasons. First, because I have become a proponent of incremental Lords reform. As I have frequently written and said, including in my book last year, history tells us that large-scale Lords reform invariably fails, but that incremental changes can both succeed, and be important. I have also emphasised how urgent it is to get on with the next, small steps. Second, because I am an admirer of David Steel – in part, obviously, for his tenacity on this issue. So I have no desire to make his life, or his task, more difficult.

Nonetheless, I have very real concerns about the likely unintended consequences of his bill. I wholeheartedly welcome the opportunity for peers to retire, and the expulsion of criminals. But my concern is with clause 4, subsection 5 of the bill, which reads (in the context of a section titled “Effect of ceasing to be a member”):

If the person is a peer other than a hereditary peer, the person is not, by virtue of that peerage, disqualified for—

(a) voting at elections to the House of Commons [so far so good…], or

(b) being, or being elected as, a member of that House.

My concern, in short, is that the Lords will become a training ground for future members of the Commons. This change will be inadvertent, at least on David’s part, and may be gradual, but I believe it is a virtual certainty.

It has not been comfortable to step in and raise these problems. I am very aware of the timing difficulties, this being a private member’s bill, now nearing the end of the session. I thought carefully whether I should raise the concerns at all. But my work for the last 16 years has included providing objective, evidence-based advice about the prospects for Lords reform, and crucially its detailed implementation. So it would seem a dereliction of duty not to explain what the evidence suggests about David’s bill. I have no vested interest whatsoever in expressing these concerns. My sole motivation is that I think them serious and important. It is a basic principle of good policy-making, usually adhered to in the Lords, that people should take decisions carefully, in the light of the available evidence.

So I would like to present five bits of evidence that indicate a problem. I will then briefly say a word about timing, then try to end more constructively, on what can be done.

The first bit of evidence relates to the consequences of the 1999 reform. I have written extensively about this, and how it strengthened the Lords by making it a more confident and assertive institution. But few people predicted such an outcome. I hardly think Tony Blair, in legislating to remove most hereditary peers, envisaged that the new chamber, stripped of hundreds of Conservative legislators, would make it harder to get his policy through. Indeed, he almost certainly believed the reverse, as did many commentators at the time. So the first lesson is that reform can have major unintended consequences, even when quite clever people have tried to think it through.

The second bit of evidence is related. As my book describes, that reform had immediate consequences, in terms of party balance, and thereby assertiveness; but it had equally important longer-term effects, in changing the types of people appointed. And this is the central problem with David’s bill. No one suggests that lots of peers are poised to jump ship and run for the Commons. After all, current members took their peerages knowing they would be barred from standing for election. The real difference comes in those appointed after the bill has passed. Party leaders will no longer have to rule out those who might consider a future Commons career, and when such people are offered peerages they will not need to rule themselves out, either. They might try the Lords for a few years, get a taste of parliament, and then run for the Commons. It could certainly suit party leaders to appoint such people, who would be more controllable than current peers. But it would clearly change the Lords fundamentally, bringing in more political point-scoring, local campaigning, and so on. As I say, the 1999 reform has already changed the type of people appointed, with fewer party grandees and far more emphasis on active service. So in some ways this could even seem a natural next step.

Some people suggest that these projections are far-fetched. But the third bit of evidence, about the profile of today’s party peers, suggests otherwise. Around 30% of them are former MPs. An additional 30% have stood for the Commons sometime in the past. So 60% of party peers have at one time fancied a Commons career. The crucial point is that they now have to renounce such ambitions before entering in the Lords. Under David’s bill, that would cease.

The fourth bit of evidence relates to other parliaments. Our centuries-old tradition is that political careers can start in the Commons and move to the Lords, but not the other way around. Some countries are not so fortunate. The key example is Ireland, where respected political scientist Michael Laver describes the Senate as ‘a convenient berth for political hopefuls on the way up (or down) or for those who consider themselves to be “resting” from the Dáil following what they hope will be a temporary election setback’. Irish MPs who lose their seats can use a place in the Senate to retain an income and public profile, while nursing a constituency to run again. As Laver says ‘It gives the impression of the Senate as a kind of political second division, to which fading stars can be relegated and from which rising talent can be promoted’. This feeds public cynicism about the Senate, and reduces its effectiveness.

The fifth bit of evidence is more concerned with how these other points have previously been viewed. To avoid such problems occurring in the UK, the Royal Commission on House of Lords Reform recommended a 10 year cooling off period before those departing the Lords could run for the Commons. This basic principle was later reiterated by the Commons Public Administration Committee, by a cross-party group of senior MPs co-ordinated by Paul Tyler, and crucially by the government. So the 2007 White Paper stated that ‘To counteract the possibility of members using the House of Lords to build a political base, members who have held a seat in the House of Lords should be prevented from seeking election to the House of Commons for [5 years] after their Lords’ term expires’. Nick Clegg’s 2011 White Paper said something very similar. His bill included a four year cooling off period. David’s bill, of course, does not.

Turning to timing, it is doubtless troublesome to raise these concerns now. But they have been raised consistently ever since it became clear this bill might actually reach the statute book. The lack of a cooling off clause was one of the main objections at Commons second reading in October, and the bill’s then sponsor Dan Byles responded that ‘we could consider whether some small amendment might be made in committee’ to resolve the problem. When I myself spoke in early January to one of the bill’s main organisers, Philip Norton, he indicated that a committee stage amendment was coming. It did not. I and others then raised the concern before Commons report. Ministers clearly considered an amendment, but for some reason decided against. By then the bill’s supporters had come down against the idea. I am genuinely mystified why. To me this was a very unfortunate error.

But we are where we are, so what can be done?

As I have pressed throughout, and former Royal Commission members have echoed, the only sure solution is an amendment inserting a cooling off period, as appeared in the Clegg bill. By now the only realistic means of achieving this is probably for David to move an amendment with government support. But it is clear that he does not want to. In terms of whether an amendment would kill the bill, this is debatable. In short, if the government wants the bill enough it can happen. Only a tiny corner of Commons time would be needed to put it through in amended form.

But if not an amendment, some have sought government assurances that the new patronage powers in the bill will not be used opportunistically by party leaders, and that if they are, further legislation will follow. This was the clear position of the Lords Constitution Committee. It was pressed during the bill’s second reading in the Lords on Friday by former Appointments Commission chair Lord Jay, supported by Baroness Hayman, and also by Lord Haskel. Any assurances are clearly unenforceable, but even what was offered at the end of the debate was very weak. Lord Hill simply said that ‘were that to become a problem in the future, we would want to review the situation. There is always an option to legislate to sort it out’. Yes, of course there is always an option. But would it be used? The assurances from Labour were even weaker.

Another viable solution would be empowering the Appointments Commission to vet party peers. Unlike Crossbench candidates, party nominees are not interviewed by the Commission about their commitment to the Lords, and it can only reject them on grounds of propriety, not suitability. So John MacGregor, who dismissed these concerns on Friday, was wrong to suggest that ‘The Appointments Commission would obviously be asking questions’ of such candidates. It has no power to do so. Lord Norton, speaking via Patrick Cormack, suggested that ‘It could be brought within the remit of the Appointments Commission, in examining every nominee of a party leader’. I agree that this would help sort out the problem, and indeed have argued for years that regulating appointments is far the most urgent small-scale Lords reform. But where are the assurances on this? We have had precisely none.

David said in his opening speech in the debate on Friday that he believed concerns from myself and others on this matter were “somewhat fanciful”. I hope I have demonstrated that this is not the case: these concerns are not frivolous, they have been expressed for years, and by very serious people. But if we are to trade adjectives, I think the ones I would use to describe what the bill’s promoters are doing might include “overoptimistic”, “ risky”, or perhaps even “reckless”. There is a real danger that in seeking a short-term gain for the Lords today, peers leave bigger long-term problems for their institution. That is clearly not what I want to happen, and it’s also not what I want David to be remembered for. So even at this late stage I hope that a more convincing solution can be found.

Does Commons “financial privilege” on Lords amendments need reform?

During its initial passage through the House of Lords in 2011-12, the government suffered seven defeats on amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill. The defeats concerned highly contentious policies, including changes to housing support (the “bedroom tax”), the introduction of a benefit cap, disability benefits, and the reform of the child maintenance system. When the bill returned to the Commons, MPs overturned all seven defeats and asserted their “financial privilege” (or primacy over tax and spending matters). It was argued that, by convention, the Lords could not then insist on its changes. The episode revealed significant confusion about the process, and led to claims that the government had abused parliamentary procedure to avoid unwelcome scrutiny of its policies.

Even to seasoned observers of parliament, financial privilege may be something of a mystery. To shed light on it, Meg Russell and I conducted a research project into the operation of financial privilege between 1974 and 2013, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The aim of our research was twofold: to clarify how financial privilege works in practice; and to consider whether arrangements in Westminster should be reformed. Yesterday we published our conclusions in Demystifying Financial Privilege, and launched these at an event in parliament, with responses from well-respected Crossbencher and senior barrister Lord Pannick, and former first parliamentary counsel Sir Stephen Laws.

One major complaint voiced is that the government controls financial privilege for its own political purposes. In reality, ministers have far less involvement than is sometimes assumed. When Lords amendments are received by the Commons, an impartial clerk first identifies whether any have tax or spending implications (or “engage” financial privilege). Government officials will often argue their case – which, as we identify in the report, is a potential problem – but it is ultimately for the clerk to make a decision based on precedent. The next step is for MPs to decide what to do with each amendment. They have three broad choices: if they agree it, financial privilege is automatically “waived”; if they make an alternative proposal (eg an amendment in lieu), financial privilege does not arise; and if they reject the amendment outright, financial privilege is “invoked”. Although the government usually determines the Commons’ choice (by virtue of its majority), it does not determine whether privilege was engaged on the amendment in the first place.

A second complaint, particularly made since 2010, is that financial privilege is being used in a way that it wasn’t in the past. Financial privilege is certainly not a new innovation: it is one element of the Commons’ “financial primacy” over the Lords, a principle that dates back centuries and was formalised in the late 17th century. The Commons claimed financial privilege on Lords amendments throughout the period we studied (160 amendments, 1974-2013), with the highest absolute number (36) in the 1974-79 parliament. However, in 2010-13 the Commons asserted financial privilege in response to a particularly high proportion of Lords defeats: 24%, compared to just 6% in 2005-10. But this change did not result from privilege being interpreted more broadly than before (although we do identify the possibility of “creep” over a longer period); instead, the key political battlegrounds are now over spending matters, which means that a higher proportion of Lords defeats engage financial privilege.

An important complaint is that the financial privilege process lacks transparency. At present there are no clear definitions as to what falls within Commons financial privilege. And once privilege has been invoked on an amendment, the Commons gives no explanation as to why. Such lack of transparency makes it difficult for peers to anticipate whether financial privilege will be applied to their amendments, and has fed perceptions outside parliament that the process is being abused. There is also some lack of transparency about how the Lords may respond when faced by a claim of Commons financial privilege. Notably, some overseas legislatures manage arrangements better in this respect: in Australia, statements are published explaining how and why an amendment is judged to be financial, while in Canada statements have specified the costs involved.

It seems clear to us that existing arrangements surrounding financial privilege are unsatisfactory, and that more could be done in particular to improve transparency. Both Houses (especially the Commons) should consider how clearer information could be provided about financial privilege, for example by expanding the text on the parliament website. We believe it is reasonable for peers to be given an explanation of why their amendments engage privilege, including an indication of the amount of money involved. Most importantly, the Commons should publish a clear definition of what types of amendment it considers to be covered by privilege. The Lords should also make clearer in its own guide to procedure its interpretation of how the Lords may respond to the Commons’ claim of financial privilege.

Commenting on the report at the launch event, Lord Pannick (who has experienced his own amendments being rejected on financial privilege grounds, without clear reasons) said “the Constitution Unit, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover have done a very great service in identifying the principles of financial privilege” and said that the report was “particularly persuasive” with respect to transparency. He concluded saying “I hope the report will encourage the Commons’ authorities to look again at their procedures. At the moment, the procedures are indefensible”.

Ultimately, however, our report notes that arrangements around financial privilege rest entirely on convention, and (contrary to some claims) there are currently no absolute restrictions on how the Lords may respond. All parties – and especially the government, when determining how the Commons responds to Lords amendments – should thus exercise caution, to ensure that tensions are not inflamed too far.

Fewer Special Advisers run for Parliament than is generally thought, but those that do are quick to climb the ladder

Special Advisers becoming Members of Parliament is a phenomenon seen as symptomatic of a wider ‘professionalisation’ of British politics. Looking at the career progress of those Special Advisers who served between 1979 and 2010, Max Goplerud shows that they do not all seek a berth in Parliament, though those that do tend to experience rapid career progression. 

The notion that Special Advisers (“spads”) turned-MPs dominate the Government and Opposition frontbenches appears periodically in the media as exemplifying the rise of ‘career politicians’ and the ‘professionalisation of politics’. A forthcoming book on Special Advisers by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit explores the profession from 1979 to the present government and provides a detailed look into who they are, what they do, and their relationships and interactions with other actors in the political system.

My recent article for Parliamentary Affairs explores the ‘myth’ outlined above: Is it actually the case that Special Advisers invariably go into politics and rise to the top? The answer, in short, is no. Those Special Advisers who do run for Parliament are not particularly representative of the wider profession.

Despite the presence of some high profile MPs who were previously Special Advisers (most prominently David Cameron and Ed Miliband), the reality is less straightforward. While it is clear that the Special Advisers who do run for Parliament are generally successful (both in terms of their electoral success and subsequently in being promoted), they are not representative of the wider “spad” group. A more satisfactory explanation is that underlying factors drive a certain type of ambitious, politically minded individual to both become a Special Adviser and stand for Parliament. Those individuals are then in a strong position to draw upon the skills and connections they amassed during their time in Whitehall to further advance their political careers.

Special Advisers as Candidates

In total, around 25% of Conservative (1979-1997) and 10% of Labour (1997-2010) Special Advisers ran for Parliament at some point, with most of them doing so after leaving Whitehall. Whilst high compared to the proportion of other groups in the population, it is not so high in absolute terms. These individuals are somewhat younger than the ‘normal’ Special Adviser, with around 40%  of those standing for Parliament aged under 30 on their on their appointment as a special adviser. Conversely, only 25% of ‘ordinary’ Special Advisers are that young.

Figure 1: Number of special adviser candidates by general election



This difference might be uninteresting if these ex-Special Advisers took a number of tries to get into Parliament or contested unwinnable seats. However, that is resoundingly not the case; 80% of “spads” (46 individuals) who stood after leaving Whitehall became MPs at some point. For Labour, 18 out of the 21 former Special Advisers who stood for Parliament have won every General Election they contested.

Special Advisers as MPs

Of those Special Advisers-turned-MPs, nearly half have achieved high office as a Secretary of State (or Shadow Secretary of State) at some point in their parliamentary career, with a full 80% achieving the rank of at least Minister of State. This is very different compared to the great mass of MPs who generally remain on the backbenches.

Special Advisers who become MPs tend to skip the established ‘career ladder’ and head straight to the frontbenches; many become Ministers of State without having first served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) or other comparable junior role. They also tend to be very young upon entering government. The data suggest that 17 ex-Special Advisers became (Shadow) Minister of State before their 40th birthday. Compare this to the median parliamentary candidate who is still attempting to be elected to Parliament at that age. This is also not only a Labour phenomenon—rapid promotion of Special Advisers also occurred under Conservative governments. For at least the last thirty years, Special Advisers-turned-MPs have experienced ‘super-charged’ careers in Parliament, outstripping even other types of ‘career politicians’.

On balance, there is clearly some credibility to the dominant narrative about Special Advisers becoming ministers insofar as those who have ministerial office as their goal seem to be quite successful at achieving it. The evidence suggests that having been a Special Adviser is a good signal that an individual is;

  • loyal to the party, and
  • has valuable prior experience with how government works.

Key actors, particularly selection bodies for parliamentary candidates and the party leadership (who may well be their former boss!) may see this as desirable and therefore push for these ex-Special Advisers to be placed in safe seats and promoted rapidly.

Yet, we should be careful to distinguish between those Special Advisers who do run for Parliament from those who do not. It is possible to be critical of the advancement of the first group whilst making a different evaluation about the desirability of the profession of “spads” more broadly. If one thinks this rapid promotion is normatively undesirable, it is a problem for the political parties to solve rather than an issue with Special Advisers writ large.

Note: this post represents the views of the author. It is based upon an article for Parliamentary Affairs which can be found here. It was originally posted on Democratic Audit:

Can the Union Survive? (It’s about the British identity, stupid. But what is it? )

In the latest of a series of British Association/Royal Society of Edinburgh seminars, the question was debated in sparkling style by a stellar panel of Vernon Bogdanor John Curtice, Michael Keating and Adam Tomkins. This summary requires no additional commentary.

Vernon Bogdanor thought the decision on independence was more momentous than was admitted by either side. Both sides agree that nationhood matters less in a globalised world but they go too far. Separatism can’t be fudged by social union. Nationhood still matters. The EU hasn’t really got a foreign policy and its future shape will probably not be what the founding fathers wanted. Even in the eurozone it really matters in which country you live.

Independence means a fundamental discontinuity which cannot be fudged. There would presumably be a governor general in Edinburgh and a high commissioner in London. Scots would enjoy no leverage at Westminster. Like Norway with the EU, Scotland would be consulted but little noticed. As EU decisions are faxed to Oslo so Scotland would become a “faxed democracy.”

Has the question already been answered? It isn’t really a question about £500 more or less better off per person. It is primordial, like the Irish in the 1920s. Will Scots say: “We do not belong with you any more?”

There is insufficient analysis of what holds the UK together and we should be extremely grateful to the SNP for raising it.  What’s being asked is a primordial question of identity.

On identity, John Curtice partly disagreed with Bogdanor. Scots were a nation of dual identity. The referendum is not about how Scottish they feel – everyone does – but how British. Not all “Scottish onlys” are in favour of independence.. Identity does not provide a sufficient guide for how to vote and a No vote may be a conditional vote. This is where the economy is crucial. Scots are no more nor no less keen on independence than they were 10, even 40 years ago. Labour made the mistake of thinking Scots wanted a lovely partnership with London. The SNP realised they really wanted devolved government to defend Scotland’s interest against London. They voted for SNP competence rather than independence. They believe that only foreign affairs  and defence are clearly not Edinburgh’s business but opinion in favour of maximum devolution is not widely shared. For example only a third of Scots want different pensions from the English. They don’t want to leave the UK safety net behind.

If the vote is No, England is not looking for devolution so a symmetrical Union solution is unlikely. But more taxation powers for Edinburgh could be win:win for both Scots and English as that means Scots would  pay for more of their services themselves. Wrangling over the (already contracting) Barnett formula should go away.

George Osborne’s veto on currency union flopped in Scotland but seems to have made the English keener on the Union. They are recording 3:1 in favour of Scotland staying in and that independence would not be good for England and Wales either. This means that if there’s a Yes vote the English may strike a tough deal.

Michael Keating insisted that “independence” and “ sovereignty” don’t mean want they used to. Even with a No vote, the relationship will be reconfigured in a way not very far from “independence lite.” In Scotland the sovereignty of the Crown or Parliament was never quite established as in in Westminster ; that’s why Scots are quite happy to discuss a divided or multiple sovereignty.

It used to be said that welfare and taxation policy were essential to sovereignty. That’s changing. The debates on welfare and independence are linked. The present welfare state is unsustainable. The social compromise in Scotland is mediated differently from England and will probably mean higher taxation. In 10 years’ time there will be more autonomous devolution but probably not full independence.

Adam Tomkins delivered a scathing critique of the SNP White Paper “Scotland’s Independence.” It failed to distinguish between institutions ( which would cease to apply to Scotland such as the Bank of England, the BBC, the intelligence service and embassies) and assets which would be fairly apportioned on independence. Apportionment was a highly complex task but doable. He delivered the stark verdict: the SNP’s assumptions are wrong in law and the White Paper is a false prospectus.

Final thoughts : Michael Keating thought that after a Yes vote, independence could be negotiated by the May 2016 deadline of the next election to the Scottish Parliament.(The Constitution Unit has doubts).

Vernon Bodganor didn’t see how Scottish membership of the EU could be denied. And something must be done for English cities to redress the imbalance of London and central government.

There is deep concern in Dublin that a Yes vote would destabilise the power sharing St Andrews Agreement in Northern Ireland.

A better articulation is needed of the Union state.

John Curtice spoke for the panel consensus. The referendum was the No campaign’s to lose but he didn’t underestimate their capacity for messing it up.

The Byles/Steel bill – unless amended – holds grave dangers for the Lords

On Friday 28 February Dan Byles’ Private Member’s Bill on Lords reform completed its Commons passage. It is now in the Lords, and will be sponsored by David Steel. The bill, which allows retirement from the Lords and expulsion of non-attendees and serious criminals, has been presented as a small, uncontroversial “housekeeping” measure. But as already argued in an earlier blog post, as currently drafted it would in fact introduce a very major change that would alter the Lords fundamentally, and in very undesirable ways.

I will not repeat the basic arguments in my earlier post, which is still available to read (see here). But it urged an amendment at Commons report stage, to ensure that those allowed to depart the Lords (through retirement or expulsion for non-attendance) cannot immediately run for the House of Commons. Such calls were made throughout the bill’s Commons passage, but have been resisted by ministers. This is both puzzling and very worrying. It is puzzling because a ‘cooling off’ period before those departing the Lords could run for the Commons has been included in numerous earlier proposals, from the Wakeham Royal Commission to the Clegg bill (both of which are quoted in my previous post). It is worrying for reasons that I will now spell out, somewhat more forcefully than before. In the rest of this post I summarise the problem, reflect on what the Lords should do, and end on responses to some points that have been made against the change that I propose – all of them unconvincing.

The bill as drafted (clause 4(5)(b)) explicitly allows departing Lords members to run for the Commons. The problem that this creates applies not to existing peers, who presumably gave up any Commons ambitions when accepting their life peerage. It relates instead to new members appointed after the bill has passed. One of the weaknesses of the debates to date (on which more below) is that they have focused too narrowly on the likely short-term effects, in terms of how many current peers may depart – and insufficiently on the long-term effects, in terms of future appointments. But while there may be small, short-term gains through allowing a few peers to retire, the effects of the bill in the longer term would be far larger, and potentially extremely damaging to the Lords.

To illustrate, let us consider three possible candidates for the Lords once the bill has passed:

  • Candidate A has served two terms as an MP, and is appointed to the Lords in 2015 after narrowly losing his seat. He badly wants to regain his constituency, and spends much of the next five years working there, maintaining a constituency office and regularly campaigning door-to-door.
  • Candidate B has fought several Commons seats unsuccessfully in the past, and after missing out again in 2015 is rewarded with a seat in the Lords. But she still yearns after a Commons career, so seeks reselection as soon as possible, and uses the Lords to try and raise her local profile above that of the incumbent local MP.
  • Candidate C is appointed to the Lords in 2015 after many years working as an adviser to his party leader. From there he starts looking for a Commons constituency, and uses Lords speeches primarily to broadcast his suitability as a future MP, and maybe even a future leader.

Candidates A, B and C are not so very different to many who have been appointed to the Lords in the past – indeed, around 60% of current party peers are either former parliamentary candidates or MPs. The key difference is that such people currently have to weigh up carefully whether they still want a Commons career. Those in doubt will turn down any offer of a peerage; those accepting one will set other ambitions aside. I do not see candidates A, B and C as bad people who are doing anything underhand or inappropriate; it is understandable that they should see the Lords as a useful temporary resting place. Nor would their party leaders be acting improperly; indeed, it is easy to see how and why leaders would embrace these new patronage powers. The point is that the bill as it stands fundamentally changes the calculus both for those offered seats in the Lords, and for those doing the appointing. Unless the route from Lords to Commons is explicitly ruled out, people will understandably conclude that it is fine to use it. If the bill passes in its current form, please have no doubt: these changes are certain to occur.

It should hopefully already be clear what effect this would have on the Lords. Many members would become far more preoccupied with constituency business and campaigning than with parliamentary scrutiny work; many would watch far more carefully what they said, in order to appeal to the media, local voters and their party leaders; in seeking to make Lords debates more eye-catching, they would make those debates more politicised. In addition, many members would become short-term occupants of the Lords, staying only a few years before another career could be developed – with a consequent loss of long-term thinking. Should this be considered fanciful, look (as set out at greater length in my previous post) at Ireland, and more recently Canada. In Ireland chamber-hopping is absolutely the norm, and Senators (despite not being directly elected) spend much of their time on local campaigning work. Only last month I acted as an adviser to the Irish Constitutional Convention, where this problem with their parliament was much lamented.

The Byles bill has been presented as a small “tidying up” measure, but these changes would be fundamental, and major. For hundreds of years (with a couple of exceptions, discussed below) members have been able to move from Commons to Lords but not the other way around. The bill would thus change centuries of British tradition, and the consequences need very careful thinking through. It could be argued to the bill effectively ends life peerages in all but name: allowing members to depart the chamber when they wish, at any age and after any period of service. But members can de facto already do this if they really wish, simply by ceasing to turn up. The one thing that they cannot do is run for the Commons. Perhaps some see advantages in changing these historic arrangements; but if so they should make a positive case for change, out in the open, and subject to proper scrutiny. This has absolutely not happened so far.

During the passage of the Byles bill through the Commons, concerns about these matters were raised repeatedly, particularly by Conservative backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg. In response, at second reading last October Dan Byles said that, “That is the sort of detail that I would be more than happy to discuss… and we could consider whether some small amendment might be made in Committee” (col. 1005). When a ‘cooling off’ period was specifically suggested, so that departing peers had to wait several years before running for the Commons (as was provided in clause 41 of the Clegg bill), Byles said that “I would be interested to look into whether a time bar solution could be achieved” (col. 1055). Hence it was reasonable to assume that the problem would be resolved by government-backed amendments at committee stage – but it was not. At report stage last week the concerns were repeated. Rees-Mogg proposed amendments (particularly amendment 21) to deal with them, arguing that it was “fundamentally undesirable” (col. 558) for the Lords to become a base for aspirant MPs. Dan Byles responded that “we all agree that we would not want the House of Lords to become a training ground for a seat in the House of Commons” (col. 560). Stephen Twigg, speaking for the opposition frontbench, described this as “a serious issue” and “a risk” (col. 561). The minister likewise said that “We do not want to see the House of Lords become a nursery for the Commons where young hopefuls start their careers” and claimed to “fully understand” the concerns expressed (col. 562). Nonetheless no amendment was made. Despite pressures both behind-the-scenes and in the chamber, ministers had resisted changes to resolve the problem.

These developments demonstrate in part the weakness of the private members’ bill process. The bill had its second reading and report stage on ill-attended Fridays, with little media attention. Its sole committee session lasted a mere 38 minutes. There was no pre-legislative scrutiny, no call for evidence, no opportunity for witnesses to appear, and consequently no outside group engagement. The limited time available also led to great resistance to amendments. This was worse for the Byles bill for most PMBs, due to fears that any Commons amendments would make its Lords passage more difficult. Those in the Commons were warned to stick rigidly to the contents of David Steel’s previous bill on the topic, which had passed the Lords in 2012-13. Steel’s bill had also failed to include a ‘cooling off’ period, but it was a similarly fragile creature, with fears at the time that any amendments would derail it. Yet everyone knew that its prime purpose was as a spur to government action; and once government gets involved, Private Members’ Bills inevitably get tidied up. Now, however, the original Steel bill is being treated as a kind of revered text, which cannot be altered. The deafness to argument which is occurring over this bill is a classic recipe for bad policy-making, and even for policy disaster. On such an important matter it is essential for reasoned amendments to be properly debated and considered.

So the Lords is now left in a dreadful position. Typically when a bill leaves the Commons with outstanding problems, the Lords provides the forum for them to be carefully discussed and sorted out. It would be a terrible irony if this norm was broken with respect to a policy that concerns – and indeed threatens – the House of Lords itself. But the government claims that any Lords amendments will kill the bill, due to lack of time for these to be considered in the Commons. I am reliably advised by Commons clerks that this is not actually true – while there are no Private Member’s Bill Fridays left, several tricks could be used to get necessary Lords amendments through the Commons by May if the government wants the bill. The Lords therefore should carefully consider possible amendments to deal with the problem.

Options include:

  • Inserting clause 41 of Nick Clegg’s bill of 2012, which would require a ‘cooling off’ period of 4 years (which could be amended to a longer period). This seems the preferable and least contentious solution.
  • Simply removing subclause 4(5)(b), which provides that those departing the Lords are not disqualified from “being, or being elected as, a member of that House [i.e. the House of Commons]“. This would retain the current absolute bar on future candidacies – which probably goes too far, and could create legal uncertainty.
  • Restricting retirement provisions to current peers, not new entrants. Also problematic, as pressures for retirement would recur and require further legislation. Would also need to apply to provisions for expulsion by non-attendance, otherwise this creates a loophole.
  • Restricting these same provisions to those aged over 65 (as was suggested by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s unsuccessful amendment 3 at Commons report stage for the first of the provisions). This too would be a reasonable long-term solution.

Any of these amendments would resolve a weakness highlighted by MPs and therefore be unlikely to face Commons opposition. If the Lords does amend the bill, and the government does not deploy the tactics available to get it through the Commons, it is ministers not peers who would be culpable for killing the bill. If the bill is not amended in one of these ways, my reluctant advice to peers would be to resist it.

It pains me greatly to have to suggest this latter outcome, even as a possibility. I have long argued for the next small steps on Lords reform, both publicly (e.g. here and here) and behind-the-scenes. Allowing retirement would clearly be a beneficial next step. But a conspiracy of silence to get a flawed version of retirement onto the statute book is clearly a bad idea, and the threats in the bill as it stands are far too great. I began research in this area 16 years ago precisely in order to offer objective, evidence-based advice on Lords reform. That evidence tells me that any gain from the bill as is will be relatively small, while its long-term consequences will be huge and negative. Opening up a direct route from Lords to Commons, which has been closed for centuries, would be a major constitutional and political change. If this bill is truly about “housekeeping”, then using one of the amendments above to maintain something similar to the status quo is essential.

Finally (in a post which is already far too long) the really committed may want to hear some of the arguments which have been made against the ‘cooling off’ period, and why I believe that they are wrong:

Argument 1: Peers have been able to leave the Lords and run for the Commons before, under the 1963 and 1999 Acts.
Response: these changes occurred in very different circumstances, and only ever extended to those who had inherited their seats in the Lords (i.e. entered by accident of birth) not those who had themselves been appointed. Hereditary peers of “first creation” were not covered by the 1963 Act, while the 1999 Act was a one-off exodus. Neither implied any change to the type of people appointed.

Argument 2: The ‘cooling off’ period proposed in other packages has been in the context of election to the second chamber, not appointment.
Response: This is simply untrue. The Wakeham Royal Commission (as quoted in my previous post) was particularly strong on this point, despite proposing a largely appointed house.

Argument 3: Once in the pleasant environment of the Lords, few people will feel motivated to depart for the Commons.
Response: I believe that this argument is naive, and too influenced by feelings among some current peers. It is important to remember that those now in the Lords have – by definition – renounced the option of a future Commons career. But the bill allows people who feel very differently to be appointed, and their party leaders will be tempted to do so. It is undeniable that a Commons career remains a desirable to many people active in politics, for example promising a salary, access to senior ministers, and a chance at a cabinet career. Indeed a majority of current party peers have run (successfully or unsuccessfully) for the Commons in the past.

Argument 4: Introducing a cooling off period would deny democratic rights to people to run for the Commons.
Response: In fact, a bill with a cooling off period (of say 4, 5 or 10 years) would significantly increase freedoms beyond what they are now. Life peers have been barred since 1958 from running for the Commons (and likewise, aside from exception 1 above, this has always applied to hereditary peers). Few have complained about this restriction.

Argument 5: There is no time in the Lords to consider amendments, given that the second reading is occurring so late (28 March).
Response: It is very unfortunate that the sponsors of the bill chose a late second reading date, seemingly to procedurally block the opportunity for amendments. The Companion to Standing Orders does set down minimum time periods between stages (e.g. 14 days between second reading and committee stage), but these are only ‘recommended’, and it is not unusual for them to be breached by agreement of the usual channels. If an amendment is put down, a committee stage will be required to debate it, and one can be provided.

Argument 6: It would be better to get this bill through, and if a problem occurs to then legislate to correct it afterwards.
Response: This is a very dangerous suggestion. Once the legislation is on the statute book there is absolutely no guarantee that it can be changed. A “corrective” PMB in the next session could easily die, or indeed be blocked by ministers. Then once the route from Lords to Commons has been opened post-2015, it would probably prove impossible close it again: such legislation would appear critical of particular individuals who have taken this route, or of their party leaders; party leaders will anyway by then have adjusted to the enhanced patronage that the bill provides. Far better not to take the risk - even if this means waiting for a better safeguarded retirement provision in a future bill.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,108 other followers