To devolve or not to devolve? The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and devolution

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, published last week, is likely to have sizable implications for the future of devolution in the UK. In this post Michael Keating considers these, suggesting that the provisions of the bill may move the UK closer to a more hierarchical model of devolution, in which the broad principles are set in London and the details filled in across the nations.

One of the many contentious details of Brexit is what will happen to those competences that are currently both devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and also Europeanised. As the United Kingdom has a ‘reserved powers’ model of devolution, all powers not expressly reserved to Westminster are devolved. This means that in a range of fields including agriculture, fisheries, the environment and parts of justice, powers are shared between Europe and the devolved level, with no UK departments and common UK policies only in so far as there are common EU policies.

After Brexit, if nothing were done, these competences would revert to the devolved level. There is a broad recognition that there will need to be some UK-wide frameworks in the absence of European ones, and a linkage between the UK and devolved levels. Agricultural support and fisheries management are devolved but international agreements in these fields are reserved. If future international trade agreements include agriculture, there will be a need for provisions on permissible levels of support and subsidy. Agreements in fisheries will include the management of stocks. There will need to be arrangements for a level playing field across the UK in industrial aid and agriculture support. Environmental policy spills over the borders of the UK nations, calling for cooperation.

The question is about what form these frameworks will take and who will be responsible for making them. At one end is the position of the Welsh government, which has argued that devolved competences should remain devolved and that common frameworks, where necessary, should be negotiated among the four UK nations. This would be done through a UK Council of Ministers modeled on the EU Council of Ministers. Another suggestion has been that the UK would lay down broad frameworks for policy, while leaving the powers otherwise devolved. The UK government has recently been suggesting that this would merely reproduce the existing arrangements, in which the devolved bodies are bound by EU frameworks. They implement, rather than make, policy and would not, therefore, lose powers.

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The report of the Scottish Parliamentary Reform Commission: Westminster as a model for reforming Holyrood?

The Scottish Parliament’s Commission on Parliamentary Reform, established by the Presiding Officer last year, reported in June. Its recommendations include that committee conveners should be elected by the whole Parliament, changes to First Minister’s Questions, the extension of the legislative process from three stages to five and the establishment of a new backbench committee. Ruxandra Serban summarises the report and notes that several of the most substantive recommendations would bring the Scottish Parliament’s procedures closer to those of the House of Commons.

The Commission on Parliamentary Reform was established on 26 October 2016 by the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, Ken Macintosh MSP. It was chaired by John McCormick, a former Controller of BBC Scotland and UK Electoral Commissioner with special responsibility for Scotland, and included 10 other members: five from civic society appointed by the Presiding Officer, and one nominated by each political party represented in the Scottish Parliament.

The Commission was appointed to review the evolution of the Scottish Parliament in the 18 years since its founding, and to assess its capacity to deal with the additional sets of responsibilities devolved through the Scotland Act 2016 and expected to result from the Brexit process. The Commission convened between November 2016 and June 2017, and sought evidence through meetings and public events, written submissions, oral evidence sessions and an online survey.

The report published on 20 June 2017 makes reference to the set of principles proposed by the Consultative Steering Group (CSG) in 1998 as the key benchmark against which to measure the effectiveness of the Scottish Parliament, and upon which to base suggestions for reform. The CSG was set up in 1997 by the UK government to consider institutional design options for the Scottish Parliament. Its report set out four principles to inform the functioning of the new parliament: power-sharing; accountability; open and accessible participation; and equal opportunities. Since then, some questions have been raised about whether the Scottish Parliament has truly managed to embody the principles of ‘new politics’ envisaged by the CSG, or whether it is in fact a ‘Westminster model’ parliament (notably here and here).

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A new approach to deadlock in Northern Ireland

After Northern Ireland’s political parties missed the latest deadline for reaching an agreement to restore devolved government, the current Assembly crisis is now the longest for over a decade. In this post Brian Walker suggests a new approach that might help to break the deadlock.

Standing back, it’s easy enough to see why the latest Assembly crisis is the longest and most intractable for over a decade. Unusually in recent times and in sharp contrast to the heady days of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), this breakdown is set against a background of momentous upheaval which, typically, the local politicians have rushed to exploit for their own causes. For the DUP, Brexit revives the prospect of a physical border which in whatever final form confirms the fact of the Union. For Sinn Féin the prospect of Northern Ireland remaining in the EU as part of a united Ireland opens up a new route to the elusive old destination. Both parties now enjoy uncertain leverage in the two parliaments of their allegiance where minority governments uncertainly rule.

If Sinn Féin’s narrative of a people’s surge of rebellion against DUP intransigence is not entirely convincing, it cannot be denied that events outside have given fresh impetus to the struggle for Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Internally, the frustrations of power sharing by which the winning parties are always denied the fruits of clear victory might otherwise have been contained, had it not been for a remarkable coincidence of the green energy fiasco and the fatal illness of Martin McGuinness. For Sinn Féin the chance of exploring whether Assembly elections could become one more useful stage in an unending series of mini-referendums to create momentum for a border poll was too good to miss. In the short run the tactic has not delivered, but the contest may become all the keener with the impending emergence of a Catholic voting majority. All election victories look like becoming marginal from now on and the prospect of a well functioning Assembly all the more uncertain. Or so it appears at the moment. As recently as May last year it all looked rather different.

The shortcomings of the UK government

Faced with the collapse of the Assembly, the British government’s attitude  was curiously passive until almost the last minute, compared to the close engagement of earlier years when in a high pressure environment prime ministers presided, ears were constantly bent and many draft proposals circulated. Even after making due allowance for mediation fatigue, this looks like a fundamental error, though whether out of calculation or incompetence is unclear. It is not enough to claim – rightly – that the government have bigger things to worry about: they usually do. For under the guise of respecting devolution (interestingly also the reason given for denying Northern Irish women abortions on the NHS in England and now overthrown), a Conservative pattern of relative disengagement since 2010 has weakened the British government’s authority and exposed a loss of touch. Secretary of State James Brokenshire’s impartiality was compromised from the moment he complained about legal action against ex-soldiers in January. He appeared to care more about the Tory cause of shielding them from possible prosecution than his essential role as a minister.

As an organising principle for the talks, the split between devolved and non- devolved matters, with the former chaired by the apolitical figure of the head of the civil service, was a pointless distinction.  While insisting on the sovereign power’s prerogatives, Brokenshire exercised them very little. The present government’s line on Brexit already placed them on the opposite side from nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland whose ultimate aim is to dismantle ‘the precious, precious Union’ they are pledged to defend. Might that have been a reason for letting the locals get on with it? The Secretary of State’s role as the judge of a majority in favour of a border poll is  therefore unlikely to survive unchallenged.

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Monitor 66: The most unexpected election

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past five months, a period that has included the unexpected general election result, the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and DUP that followed, Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement of plans for a second referendum (later ‘reset’) and the beginning of Brexit negotiations, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

Current British politics is rarely dull. Added to the unexpected result in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the subsequent Miller case regarding parliament’s role in the process (not to mention the Conservatives’ unexpected outright majority in 2015), we now have our second hung parliament in seven years, a resurgent Corbyn-led Labour Party, and a previously popular Prime Minister who appears to be on the ropes. All this following a general election that few expected, and that some even thought pretty much impossible under the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

Following the successful passage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act, authorising the trigger of Article 50 (see page 4), Theresa May surprised almost everybody on 18 April by proposing a general election for 8 June. Having started with what looked like an unassailable lead in the polls, in an election where she sought to strengthen her hand in parliament during the Brexit negotiations, she managed instead to lose her slender Commons majority and was forced into a confidence and supply arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) (see page 6). Her authority within her own government is much diminished, and ministers have openly squabbled with each other over Brexit priorities. Meanwhile, Labour’s unexpected gains leave its previously fractious parliamentary party appearing suddenly united behind Jeremy Corbyn.

The results were also a blow to Nicola Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party (SNP) lost twelve seats to the Conservatives, six to Labour and three to the Liberal Democrats. Conservative leader Ruth Davidson (who spoke at a packed Constitution Unit event during the campaign) in contrast made a strong case for the Union and gained further stature and negotiating power. Sturgeon acknowledged on 27 June that she would have to put the campaign for a second Scottish independence referendum on hold for the time being (see page 11).

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Decoding the Conservative-DUP agreement

The confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and DUP was signed yesterday. Akash Paun discusses how it will work in practice, the financial commitments that have been made as part of the deal and the implications for the coming years.

The government yesterday confirmed details of its ‘confidence and supply agreement’ with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The negotiations dragged on for over two weeks, but a deal of some kind always seemed probable. Holding the balance of power is a dream outcome for smaller parties. The DUP, therefore, had nothing to gain and a lot to lose by bringing down the Prime Minister and triggering another election.

Today’s announcement keeps Theresa May in Downing Street, for now at least. But how much do we know about how this arrangement will actually work?

How it will work in practice

The agreement commits the DUP to support the Government on explicit confidence motions and key votes on the Queen’s speech later this week. The status of the Queen’s Speech vote as a confidence test is a matter of some debate.

Further, the DUP will back the government on formal ‘supply’ votes through which the House of Commons authorises government to spend money from the Exchequer, but also on Budgets and other financial legislation. Beyond that, the deal includes a promise to support the government on Brexit and national security legislation.

This is a broader set of commitments than we might have expected. And in exchange for their support, the DUP will surely expect meaningful rights of consultation on the development of policy whether through the planned ‘co-ordination committee’ or other informal channels.

International experience shows that smaller parties in such deals often grow frustrated at their limited ability to influence government policy. This is a challenge even in formal coalitions, but in this instance the DUP will have no ministerial positions, civil service support or automatic access to confidential information. People are naturally interested in the policy substance of such inter-party deals, but getting the governance of the deal right is just as important if it is going to last.

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EVEL won’t worry the new government – but the West Lothian question may well do

Following the election result some pundits have suggested that English votes for English laws might be an obstacle to the government, given its reliance on support from non-English MPs, whilst others have suggested the procedures might provide the government with an enhanced English majority. In this post Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny explain that neither of these possibilities is likely to occur. However, the territorial balance of the new Commons could cause the West Lothian question to come back to the fore – though not solely in relation to England.

Amidst the swirl of punditry and opinion unleashed by this month’s general election result, attention has once again turned to the ‘English votes for English laws’ reform (otherwise known as ‘EVEL’) recently introduced in the House of Commons. EVEL aimed to address concerns about the capacity of MPs from outside England to exercise a determining vote on England-only legislative matters. Some pundits have suggested that it may well represent an acute obstacle, of the Conservatives’ own making, to the prospects of Theresa May’s minority government given its reliance on support from MPs outside England. Others, by contrast, have wondered whether EVEL might give her the enhanced majority she needs to govern England. In fact, neither of these possibilities is likely to occur.

Indeed, some of the more outlandish claims in circulation about EVEL supply yet more evidence of how poorly understood this set of procedures still is. In our in-depth analysis of its first year of operation – Finding the Good in EVEL, published in November 2016 – we argued that the EVEL procedures should be simplified, made more transparent, and be better explained by government. But, although EVEL itself is unlikely to greatly hinder this minority government in parliament, some of the wider issues underpinning the ‘West Lothian Question’ (to which EVEL was a very belated answer) may well resurface, and it is worth pondering those at this particular moment.

EVEL and the West Lothian Question

The arithmetic of the new House does mean that questions of territorial representation could well become divisive and difficult for Theresa May, and these may add to the formidable set of challenges ahead of her. But to understand these, we should first remind ourselves of the iconic West Lothian Question posed by the late Tam Dalyell in response to proposals for devolution in the 1970s. Dalyell raised two distinct issues. His central complaint was that, were devolution to be implemented in only certain parts of the UK, MPs who represented seats where devolution applied could, in principle, determine outcomes for those who lived in non-devolved parts of the UK, whilst MPs representing the latter could not do the reverse. Implicit within this, however, was a second observation: that devolution might legitimise the idea that any UK administration needed a ‘mandate’ to introduce legislation for territories where it was not the majority party.

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Following the general election, where now for Northern Ireland?

The general election result has done little to halt the steady unravelling of the political situation in Northern Ireland, and may accelerate it. In this post Alan Whysall discusses the implications of the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and DUP, expected to be agreed in the coming days, and what might happen next.  

As Theresa May reaches out to Northern Ireland for support, the political situation there has been steadily unravelling. A pact with the DUP – which has been on the point of emerging for several days, and may appear today, or may not – is unlikely to stop the unravelling. It could accelerate it – not necessarily, but unless there are changes in outlook in Northern Ireland politics, not least from the British government, we risk losing many of the gains that have followed from the Good Friday Agreement.

The unravelling started a while ago…

Earlier blogs have outlined the increasing disarray in Northern Ireland politics since the turn of the year, here, here and here. The following is a brief summary for those who have not kept up.

Sinn Féin, which along with the DUP had constituted the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, pulled the plug on it in January. Ostensibly this was because of financial scandal involving the First Minister, Arlene Foster of the DUP, in an earlier ministerial life. But the underlying causes had more to do with the way that the DUP treated nationalism, and Brexit.

An election to the Northern Ireland Assembly followed in March. It was highly polarising. Although there have been existential crises in the life of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, elections have generally been conducted in a spirit of renewed commitment to work together. And voters increasingly came to like and expect that language – even if there was increasing disillusion at the performance of the devolved institutions.

There was little talk of working together in this Assembly election, however. The reversion in recent months to rhetoric redolent of the days before the Agreement has been marked. Arlene Foster’s spirited attacks on Sinn Féin in fact contributed to a strengthening of its vote – the overall nationalist vote had been flagging in recent elections, but now dramatically bounced back. There was also some strengthening of the middle ground, but the more moderate Unionist and nationalist parties the UUP and SDLP did less well.

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