Constitutional Reform in the Queen’s Speech

Constitutional reform featured strongly in Queen’s Speech today, setting out legislation for the coming session of Parliament. The Unit dissects… 

Lords Reform Bill

This faces massive opposition in both Houses and may fail. The reform proposals are opposed by the Lords itself, and there is so much resistance among Conservative MPs the bill may fail to get through the Commons.

The committee stage of the bill must be taken on the floor of the Commons and could take six weeks or more. Lords reform risks being for Cameron what the Maastricht bill was for John Major: this took 23 days on the floor of the House in committee alone, and saw numerous painful rebellions. At the bill’s Second Reading the rebels will seek to defeat the programme motion on its timetabling. If they succeed, the government will lose control over timing completely – but even if they fail, the bill may still be lost.

There are numerous issues over which the plans may fall apart. Simply to win the programme motion the government may need to concede a referendum on reform, which Nick Clegg doesn’t want. But defeats in the Commons are also likely on the powers of the Lords, the proportion of elected members, the electoral system, the proposed 15 year non-renewable terms, and the presence of the Bishops. Once MPs get hold of it, the bill may suffer a death of a thousand cuts.

Crime and Justice Bill

Of most constitutional relevance are the references to judicial appointments. Appointments are to be made more transparent and more diverse. Diversity is a central issue in judicial appointments, as the principle that appointment should be exclusively on merit is regarded as sacrosanct by the judiciary and many in the legal profession. The Ministry of Justice (which recently held a consultation on appointments) is thought to be frustrated at the slow pace with which minority groups have entered the judiciary.

It will be worth watching how far along the continuum between strictly merit-based appointment and affirmative action appointments are taken.

Draft Communications Bill

The proposed legislation allows intelligence officers real time access to communications of the public without a warrant. However there is growing concern about the potential impact on privacy. Theresa May commented “no-one is going to be looking through ordinary people’s emails or Facebook posts”.  The ICO have confirmed they are monitoring the development of the legislation closely and will press for the appropriate limitations and safeguards and  former head of GCHQ Sir David Ormand has drawn attention to the potential chilling effect that may occur on the use of social media as a source of information.

Electoral Registration and Administration Bill

The draft bill was widely welcomed as a means of tackling electoral fraud, however two particular concerns have also been raised. Scrapping the legal duty to register will cause millions of voters to fall off the register, as will scrapping the 2014 canvass. The Electoral Commission have called for a major public awareness campaign.

Scottish Independence & the Rules of Succession

Both issues had special mention as being actively pursued in the next parliamentary session.

The UK and Scottish governments will start negotiating in the summer and autumn about how to legislate for the independence referendum. The UK government wants there to be a single question, just on independence; while Alex Salmond will hold out for a second question, on Devolution Max. If they cannot agree the UK government may withdraw its offer to legislate for the referendum at Westminster, throwing up the risk that any referendum authorised by the Scottish Parliament is open to legal challenge.

Changing the rules of succession to the throne is much less contentious. To give a lead to the other countries where the Queen is head of state, the UK will want to legislate soon to remove the rule of male primogeniture, that sons come before daughters, and to remove one element of the discrimination against Catholics, that any heir to the throne who marries a Catholic is removed from the line of succession. (Catholics themselves and anyone else not in communion with the Church of England will remain barred from succeeding.)

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