Following yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, Robert Hazell considers the constitutional issues that featured, as well as those which were notable in their absence.
There were few surprises in the Queen’s Speech announcing the new government’s legislative programme. Like his admired predecessor Tony Blair, David Cameron knows that the public have little interest in constitutional issues, so the constitutional items came last, just before foreign affairs. England got mentioned first, with devolution to English cities; then more powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; English votes for English laws; the EU referendum; and a British bill of rights. What are the key issues to look out for in relation to each of these items? And what other items didn’t get a mention?
The Scotland Bill will be introduced early, because that was promised in the Vow, and the coalition government published draft clauses in January. It will implement the proposals of the Smith Commission, but go no further. It appears to be a done deal, but will be attacked on both sides. The SNP attack is predictable: they will say their resounding victory in Scotland is a mandate to go much further. But the bill also risks being attacked on the government side. The Smith proposals are based on no underlying principles and were very hurried, with no consultation amongst the political parties and endorsed only by the three main party leaders. When the details are examined, unionists on all sides may start to worry about their feasibility, and compatibility with the union. Whitehall was bounced into Smith like everyone else, and no one can confidently say how the fiscal arrangements will work in practice.
The Wales Bill faces the opposite problem, in that the Welsh government does not want greater fiscal powers, not even the more modest offering in the St David’s Day declaration. The Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones has condemned the proposals as lacking ‘fair funding’, and pressing a further referendum on Wales. He is more attracted by the plans to develop a ‘reserved powers’ model for Wales, defining the powers reserved to Westminster (as in the Scotland Act), instead of the complicated lists of powers devolved. But early indications are that Whitehall’s list of reserved powers may prove to be just as detailed and complicated.
For Northern Ireland, the Queen’s Speech promised to give further effect to the Stormont House agreement. It was unfortunate that this happened in the same week as the Northern Ireland Assembly refused to pass the welfare reform bill, blocked by Sinn Fein and the SDLP. The government has already legislated to devolve corporation tax to Northern Ireland, but only in exchange for welfare reform. So further devolution may be stalled, and the impasse over welfare reform could even lead to collapse of the Northern Ireland executive.
In England the government promises further powers for city regions which opt for elected mayors, over planning, transport, policing and health. But the rhetoric may be larger than the reality, consisting mainly of unbundling small funding packages into larger ones, with no new money. In the House of Commons, Standing Orders will be changed to enable English votes on English laws. Before the election the Conservatives were divided over whether to introduce EVEL with a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ English veto. The speech was silent over which bills will be subject to EVEL; an obvious early candidate will be the (English) Cities and Devolution Bill.
The EU Referendum Bill will be an early measure, because of the determination to hold the referendum before the end of 2017. The Electoral Commission will be concerned about too rushed a timetable, and have warned against trying to hold the referendum in May 2016, when it would coincide with devolved and local elections. The SNP have argued for a Scottish veto, demanding that exit should follow only if that is supported by majorities in all four nations of the UK. But polling shows no support for country vetoes, even in Scotland. It also suggests that there is less difference in public attitudes to the EU between England and Scotland than commonly supposed.
The one surprise in the Queen’s Speech was back pedalling on the plans for a British bill of rights, with the promise of a consultation paper instead of a bill. The government has begun to realise the manifold complications, with opposition from the devolved governments, the liberal wing of the Conservative party, the judiciary and the House of Lords. The tabloids will keep up the pressure, but it is hard to see how a British bill of rights which was ‘ECHR minus’ could get through Parliament.
And what the Queen did not say …
The most notable omission from the Queen’s Speech was the forthcoming parliamentary boundary review which will reduce the House of Commons from 650 to 600 seats. This was aborted in 2013, but under the law as it stands, a new review by the Boundary Commissions has to be completed by October 2018, dividing the UK into 600 constituencies. In its 2015 manifesto the Conservative Party remained committed to reducing the size of the House of Commons to 600 MPs ‘to cut the cost of politics and make votes of more equal value’. They will want more equal sized constituencies, because the present system has operated unfairly against the Conservatives. MPs will be less keen to see a reduction in their own numbers. But to prevent that they will need to amend the existing legislation; they might threaten to vote down the 2018 Orders to achieve that. But the threat would have to be deployed soon, because the Boundary Commissions need to know the total number of constituencies before starting the new review. The aborted review would have reduced the number of MPs in England from 533 to 502; in Scotland from 59 to 52; in Wales from 40 to 30; and in Northern Ireland from 18 to 16.
The Queen’s Speech was also silent about which bills will count as ‘first class constitutional measures’, and so take their Committee stage on the floor of the House of Commons. The EU Referendum Bill will certainly be one, and the Scotland Bill, and probably the Wales Bill; and the British bill of rights when it comes forward. But the whips will be keen to minimise the number of such bills, because they take up a lot of prime parliamentary time, are subject to more amendments, and are generally less manageable than when the bill is remitted to committee upstairs.
A final omission was any mention of a constitutional convention. This is not surprising, since it was an idea promoted by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Before the election the Conservatives did not wholly close the door (see here, p. 27) and they might want to keep the door half open. If negotiations with the SNP over further powers for Scotland reach a stalemate, or if the Conservatives want to moderate their commitment to a British bill of rights, referring such matters to a constitutional convention might come to seem a possible way forward: and one in keeping with Cameron’s new One Nation Conservatism.
About the Authors
Robert Hazell is Professor of Government and the Constitution & Director of the Constitution Unit.
Of course, when the electoral data for December are published it might be that the change ion the number of seats for each of the four countries will differ from that in 2010 used in the previous (aborted) review. As far as the Boundary Commissions are concerned the 2011 Act says that there will be 600 seats and – unless the Act is amended – that is the number they will divvy up between themselves at the beginning of 2016.