The role of referendums in the UK: the question of information

blog-photoOn 22 November the Constitution Unit and the Committee on Standards in Public Life hosted a joint seminar on ‘The Role of Referendums in the UK’. Bringing together eminent speakers from across academia, the media, government, and elsewhere, the seminar examined possible problems with the conduct of referendums in the UK, focusing particularly on two issues: how to ensure high-quality information; and how to maintain balance during the campaign. In this, the first of two posts on the event, Alex Quirk outlines the discussions on the first of these areas.

It is widely accepted that both the Remain and the Leave camps were guilty during the EU referendum campaign of seeking to manipulate voters’ opinions through the use of misleading statistics – such as the Leave campaign’s assertion that we send the EU £350 million a week’ and the Remain side’s claim that ‘families would be £4,300 worse offif Britain left the EU. None of the participants in the seminar questioned this viewpoint. There was lively and illuminating discussion, however, around what – if anything – should be done about it.

Controlling the truthfulness of campaign claims

The most direct method for seeking to control misleading claims would be to establish a process for identifying and challenging them. Since the referendum, a petition and an early day parliamentary motion have called for the creation of an official body that would ‘verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns’ and ‘issue fines and factual clarifications’ where there were breaches. Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit pointed out that systems of this kind exist (though with limited reach) in South Australia and some American states. Among seminar participants, Professor Sarah Birch (King’s College London) gave the strongest support for this approach, proposing an electoral offence for referendums, analogous to the defamation and libel laws that apply during elections. Under the Representation of the People Act 1983 it is a criminal offence to make a false statement about the character of an election candidate, and to make a false statement that a candidate has withdrawn from an election. If these offences were to be adapted so as to apply to referendums, they could deal with at least a proportion of misleading campaign statements. Professor Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit argued that the debate on the regulation of statements during political campaigns should be seen as akin to any other debate on free markets versus regulated markets. In a goods market, we don’t trust either the consumers or the producers to regulate themselves. Why, therefore, do we trust politicians to regulate their own statements during political campaigns, when the stakes are exponentially higher?

Many participants, however, were skeptical. Professor Stuart White (University of Oxford) voiced concerns about the ‘chilling effect’ such an offence could have in discouraging political speech. This sentiment was echoed by Bernard Jenkin MP, a prominent Leave campaigner, who argued that those calling for regulation of truthfulness underestimate the ‘wisdom of the crowd’. Sir Peter Housden (formerly Scotland’s most senior civil servant) and Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky also expressed the view that such interventions would be undemocratic.

There was, however, interest in less stringent versions of the same approach. Will Moy (Director of Full Fact) highlighted the importance of independent fact-checking. Another option discussed was an official fact-checking body with advisory power, which could initiate investigations into the truthfulness of claims and quickly issue statements calling on campaigners not to make them. As highlighted by, respectively, CSPL Chair Lord Bew and Alan Renwick, Ireland’s referendum commissions and the New Zealand Electoral Commission already perform this function, and the evidence is that their work has produced positive results. Ed Humpherson of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) discussed this body’s role during the referendum campaign. He pointed to its important work in highlighting misleading statistical claims, but also said that the organisation will be keen to learn lessons and develop its practice further for future cases. In particular, he mentioned the need to react to concerns more quickly. Speed, he emphasised, is especially important during a referendum campaign, because the vote provides a final cut-off, and the campaign groups do not have future reputations to defend in the same way as political parties do during elections.

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Brexit in the Supreme Court, and after: your questions answered

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The Supreme Court will be the centre of political attention this week when the government’s appeal of last month’s High Court ruling on the triggering of Article 50 is heard. Robert Hazell and Harmish Mehta offer an overview of what the case is about, the likely outcome and its implications for the Brexit timetable.

The Brexit appeal to be heard by the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) from 5 to 8 December is the constitutional case of the century. All eyes will be on the Court hearing (which is to be broadcast live). And not just in Britain, but around the world. In recent weeks Robert Hazell has been advising foreign embassies, banks and investment managers from New York to Tokyo about the significance of the case, and the consequences which may flow from the court’s decision. They were particularly concerned about the impact on the timetable, the likelihood of the government getting authorising legislation through parliament, and the possibility of Brexit being delayed or even aborted. Here are some answers to their most frequently asked questions.

What is the case about?

On 3 November the High Court ruled that it was unlawful for the government to use prerogative powers to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the negotiations for Brexit, without reference to parliament. The government accepts that the judgement requires legislation to authorise the triggering of Article 50. But it has appealed to the Supreme Court to have the judgement reversed. All 11 Justices will hear the appeal from 5 to 8 December in a packed timetable. Their judgement is expected in January.

What is the likely outcome?

The case has generated huge interest amongst constitutional lawyers. Initial comment was strongly supportive of the High Court judgement, but since then the 30 or so commentaries on the UK Constitutional Law Blog have been more evenly divided. The government is likely to lose the appeal, because it has not significantly shifted its ground from the arguments it advanced in the High Court. In particular, it still maintains that Article 50 is irreversible: once triggered, it leads inexorably to the UK’s departure from the EU. The reasons for that are political: the government does not want to allow the possibility of second thoughts. But it seriously weakens the government’s legal case. It enabled the claimants to show that triggering Article 50 would lead inevitably to the abolition of statutory rights, such as the right to vote in European Parliament elections, and the alteration of UK statutes. They then argued that under a series of cases going back to the seventeenth century, statutory rights can only be abolished and UK statutes can only be altered by another statute, not by the prerogative.

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We must address the House of Lords’ size, for the good of parliament

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Tomorrow the House of Lords will debate its size, which is widely criticised for having grown by almost 200 since the removal of most hereditary peers in 1999. In this post former Lord Speaker Baroness D’Souza argues that change is urgently required to contain the number of peers, including placing limits on the Prime Minister’s patronage power, in order to maintain both the chamber’s ability to command respect and the wider effectiveness of parliament.

Tomorrow the House of Lords debates a motion ‘that this House believes that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved’. The current membership of the chamber stands at over 800 (and substantially more when those temporarily absent are included). As the Constitution Unit’s work has frequently highlighted, there has been a steep increase in size since the chamber was last substantially reformed by the Blair government in 1999 – of a kind that is frankly unsustainable.

In the decade 1997-2007 a total of 374 new peers were created (i.e. 37.4 per annum). In the six years 2010-16, a further 261 peers entered the House (i.e. 43.5 per annum). Although some peers sadly die each year, and new voluntary retirement provisions were introduced in 2014, the number being appointed by the Prime Minister has far outstripped the number who have departed.

Of course the Lords was far bigger, with over 1,200 members, before the 1999 House of Lords Reform Act which excluded the majority of the hereditary peers from membership. But attendance then was fitful with some peers rarely, if ever, participating. Today with many more younger and active peers attendance it is at an all-time high – for several years now, average daily attendance has very significantly exceeded that  before the 1999 reform.

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Negotiating Brexit in a devolved state: the dynamics of intergovernmental relations

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Theresa May has repeatedly declared her commitment to involving the devolved governments in the Brexit process. In this post, Nicola McEwen discusses the likely dynamics of Brexit negotiations between the UK’s four governments. She argues that if the intergovernmental process fails to give a meaningful voice to the devolved governments this could have serious and long-lasting repercussions for territorial politics across the UK.

 As we ponder the forthcoming Brexit negotiations between the UK government and the EU27, another set of negotiations is already underway. The UK government and the devolved administrations have kick-started a period of intergovernmental relations which promise to be more intense than any that have gone before. This is a high stakes process. The extent to which it gives a meaningful voice to the devolved governments represents the Union’s biggest test since the Scottish independence referendum.

The Prime Minister has frequently declared her commitment to engaging with the devolved governments. After her symbolically significant visit to meet Scotland’s First Minister shortly after she assumed office, Theresa May noted: ‘I have already said that I won’t be triggering Article 50 until I think that we have a UK approach and objectives for negotiations – I think it is important that we establish that before we trigger Article 50.’ There have been some mixed messages since then, but at October’s plenary session of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) – the first since December 2014 – the PM continued to insist she wanted the input of the devolved administrations in shaping Brexit: ‘The country is facing a negotiation of tremendous importance and it is imperative that the devolved administrations play their part in making it work.’ Quite what part she envisages them playing remains unclear.

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Northern Ireland has become more politically stable but little progress has been made in overcoming the underlying divisions

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The Northern Ireland Community Relations Council’s fourth Peace Monitoring Report, written by Robin Wilson, was published in September. Brian Walker offers an overview of a wide-ranging report in which it is concluded that Northern Ireland has become more politically stable but that too little progress has been made in overcoming the underlying divisions.

‘It was all going so well’, lamented an anonymous Northern Ireland civil servant in response to the Brexit referendum result, fearing for the cohesion of the power sharing partners in government who had just been presented with a new theme to divide them.  While the DUP supported Leave and Sinn Féin were for Remain, the region’s voters had breached the sectarian boundaries to support Remain by 56 per cent to 44 per cent. But with the overall result for Leave, the Irish border was suddenly thrust back into politics, just after an Assembly election in which the constitutional issue had barely figured. Now external threats of as yet uncertain severity are looming for the province, as they also affect the future of the Irish border and the British Union.

The outworking of Brexit is one of the causes of potential instability identified in the compendious fourth Peace Monitoring Report published by the NI Community Relations Council. Written by erstwhile Constitution Unit associate Robin Wilson, who contributed regularly to our devolution monitoring reports in the first decade of devolution, it ranges far more widely than purely ‘peace’ issues to constitute a uniquely comprehensive ‘condition of Northern Ireland’ report from 2014 to the present. As such it provides indispensible background. The report is more analytical than prescriptive, much less prophetic, but the direction of travel is clear. For inspiration it relies heavily on comparisons with international best practice which are generally locally ignored, but on which the author is an acknowledged expert.

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One year of EVEL: evaluating ‘English votes for English laws’ in the House of Commons

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A major report on how the new ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) procedures in the House of Commons have operated since their introduction in October 2015 is published today. The authors, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny, argue that the current version of EVEL has avoided many of the problems predicted by its critics. However, they recommend changes to facilitate greater expression of England’s voice (as opposed to simply a veto right), to apply the ‘double veto’ principle that is central to the reform more consistently, to reduce the complexity of the system and to improve its legitimacy. The report is summarised here.

finding-the-good-in-evelIt is now just over a year since the House of Commons adopted a new set of procedural rules known as ‘English votes for English laws’ (or EVEL). Put simply, EVEL provides MPs representing constituencies in England (or England and Wales) with the opportunity to veto certain legislative provisions that apply only in that part of the UK. (For a reminder of how the process works, see here). Introduced with some fanfare by the Conservative government following the 2015 election – and criticised heavily by its political opponents – these procedures have quickly faded from public view. But, one year on, what lessons can be drawn from how EVEL has operated so far?

Over the past year, we have been conducting an in-depth academic investigation into the implementation of EVEL. This work has been supported by the Centre on Constitutional Change and the Economic and Social Research Council. It has involved a detailed analysis of the main arguments for and against this reform, and a full assessment of how the procedures have worked in practice during their first 12 months in operation (October 2015–October 2016). Today we publish our findings in a new report, Finding the Good in EVEL, which also includes a number of proposals for how this system could be significantly improved.

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Will Congress be able to hold President Trump in check?

nigel-bowlesDonald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States in January, but will he actually be able to carry out his agenda? Nigel Bowles writes that he will largely be able to. In the areas of trade, security, taxation and judicial appointments Congress will struggle to constrain him under current law and politics. Changing immigration law and reforming the Affordable Care Act are likely to prove more challenging. Nonetheless, during the first year of the Trump presidency American politics is likely to give the appearance of being what it only rarely is: a presidential system. For better or for worse, President Trump really will be in charge.

The United States constitution is Madisonian in design and spirit. Separation of powers and federalism in combination are the structure against which, through which, and by which American politics plays out. Much else matters: party, ideology, public opinion, crises external and internal, leadership’s quality of imagination and purpose, especially. But the system’s architecture is Madisonian. It is not (not usually, at least) a presidential system. Instead, federal government comprises separate but coordinate institutions sharing in authority and in power. Article I of the US Constitution places Congress first in this separated Madisonian order. The symbolism of first place reflects Congress’s abundant richness in authority.

Yet Congress’s authority is limited by recurrent and systematic collective action problems. Those problems spring from Congress’s bicameralism, from its four-party organisation across the two chambers, and from its committee structure. They arise, too from electoral bases of legitimacy: from Senators’ identifications with state interests and cultures, from Representatives’ dependence upon their districts’ majority party voters and party activists for biennial re-election. The collective action problems are exacerbated in the early twenty-first century by ideologically distinct, and typically hostile, Congressional parties; and they are complicated by clashing personal ambitions of legislators. These constraints upon Congress’s authority in turn limit its political effectiveness and, accordingly, its collective capacity to bring about intended effects – in other words, its political power.

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