Green shoots for the Union? The joint review of intergovernmental relations

A review of intergovernmental relations conducted jointly by the UK government and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales was published last week. Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon argue that the most important question facing the proposed new model for intergovernmental relations will be whether an enhanced system for bringing these governments into partnership will be endowed with real respect, and be allowed to take root, by the politicians at the helm.

The territorial chasm that opened beneath the Conservative Party’s feet following the demand made by Douglas Ross, its Scottish leader, that Boris Johnson resign, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s retaliatory dismissal of him as ‘not a big figure’, shone an unflattering spotlight on some of the sharp tensions that devolution has created within the UK’s political parties.  

A much deeper divide has opened up in recent years between the UK government and the devolved governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Tensions that have been simmering since the election of administrations headed by different parties across the UK over a decade ago were exacerbated during the extended Brexit crisis, and since then more salt has been rubbed on these wounds during the COVID-19 pandemic. First Ministers Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon have been incentivised to make much of often minor differences in their approach from that adopted by the Johnson government. And yet there has been an abiding need for them and Whitehall to work together in the face of an airborne virus that does not respect the authority of internal borders.

While addressing the sharp differences that have emerged within the Conservative party looks difficult so long as Johnson remains in power, there is at least some cause for optimism that more functional arrangements for co-operation and engagement between the four governments within the UK are being put in place.

This arises specifically from the publication of the report of a long-running joint review which has been conducted by government officials from all parts of the UK. Landing amid the ‘partygate’ crisis engulfing Boris Johnson’s government, it has been largely ignored by the media and politicians at Westminster. But its content, and the thinking animating it, could prove to be an important factor in the future evolution and viability of the UK Union.

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The Constitution Unit blog in 2021: the year in review

2021 has been a fascinating time to be writing about the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in working within them. The government, despite the pandemic, has proposed a raft of policies with constitutional implications, including a restriction of judicial review, changes to the right to protest, human rights reform and an online safety bill shorn of a previous commitment to safeguard democracy from online harms. As the year comes to an end, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the year just gone, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics. 

2019 was a year of constitutional flux and tension, with a new Prime Minister, a new Brexit deal and a new parliament. In 2020, COVID-19 upset the political calculus and posed challenges aplenty for the constitution and its watchdogs. 2021 saw the country seeking to find its way as COVID-19 conditions became the new normal, within a context of a government that has persistently broken rules and violated norms (and not always to its advantage). Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, preceded by a personal selection by me, at the end of my fourth year as blog editor.

Editor’s picks

A woman’s place is in the House: reclaiming civility, tolerance and respect in political life, by Dame Laura Cox.

If I have a constitutional niche, it is parliamentary standards of conduct and the slow evolution of the standards regime at Westminster. Outside of the Unit, I provide free employment law advice to members of the public, with an emphasis on discrimination. This post was therefore always going to be included on this list.

Dame Laura, who produced a seminal report on the bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff, argues with eloquence and passion that the behaviour of too many parliamentarians is misogynistic and a cause of capable women leaving parliament, or having to accept behaviour that would not be permitted in any other workplace. She says that this is in part an institutional problem, and calls for a more open, tolerant, respectful and conciliatory politics.

‘Our travel difficulties haven’t been well-understood by the Government’: life as an MP from the smaller opposition parties during the pandemic, by Louise Thompson and Alexandra Meakin.

One of the country’s foremost experts on small parties and (in my opinion), the go-to source for analysis of Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, team up here to fantastic effect. They outline how smaller parties have been disproportionately affected by government choices about how parliament should operate during the pandemic. They offer a warning that this might have long-term and unintended consequences: failure to enable the voices of MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to be heard may lead to constituents in these nations feeling voiceless in an institution that no longer represents them.

The post is one of a long-running series on the impact of COVID-19 on our constitution and its institutions.

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The draft Online Safety Bill: the view of the Joint Committee

The government’s draft Online Safety Bill has been subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of MPs and peers: an unusual procedural step. Following on from publication of its report, committee chair Damian Collins outlines its key findings and recommendations.

On 14 December the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, which I chair, published our final report on the government’s plans to ‘make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.’

Keen followers of Westminster will know that a pre-legislative, joint committee of the House of Lords and House of Commons is a rare creature, brought into existence little more than once in the duration of a four-year parliament. When there are high levels of interest in a draft bill across all parties and both chambers, such a committee can prove a useful tool to stress test its most critical clauses. Given that the Communications Act 2003, which established Ofcom, was subject to such scrutiny under the chairmanship of Lord (David) Puttnam, it is fitting that the next major reform in media regulation should have followed the same path.

For me this started in 2018, when I chaired a House of Commons inquiry into Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, followed by another in 2019 into Immersive and Addictive Technologies. These were conducted by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and called out big tech companies for being ‘digital gangsters’ with users’ privacy and safety, and recommended that the UK set up an independent regulator to hold them to account for any harms they caused.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the government set out to do this, publishing a draft Online Safety Bill in the spring, and setting up a Joint Committee in the summer to scrutinise the proposed legislation. Composed of some of the most longstanding experts in parliament on tech policy, media regulation, civil liberties and business governance, we set straight to work. Over the last five months we have held 30 hours of public evidence sessions and read more than 200 pieces of written evidence. We have spoken with over 50 witnesses: ministers, academics, civil society campaigners, industry executives, whistleblowers, and many other parliamentarians, from the UK and abroad. After many hours of closed deliberations, we unanimously agreed on 127 recommendations.

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