The Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the snap election

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was supposed to have stopped Prime Ministers from calling snap general elections. But that is exactly what Theresa May seems to have done. Alan Renwick here explains what the rules say and why they have proved so weak.

We have become accustomed to a familiar choreography when general elections are called. Cabinet ministers gather to hear the Prime Minister’s decision. The Prime Minister drives to Buckingham Palace to request the dissolution of parliament from the Queen. Finally, the Prime Minister returns to Downing Street and announces the news to the world.

This time, the process is a little different. Cabinet ministers gathered. But Theresa May did not go to the Palace (we are told she spoke to the Queen by telephone yesterday, but there was no strict requirement for her to do so). Rather, following her announcement of what – interestingly – she described as the government’s intention to hold an election, Theresa May now has to seek parliamentary approval for the decision.

This is the consequence of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which was passed under the Conservative–Lib Dem coalition government in 2011. Previously, the Prime Minister could request an election whenever she wanted and the general expectation was that it would take exceptional circumstances for the Queen to refuse. Now, there are only two circumstances in which an early election can take place:

  • either two thirds of all MPs must vote for the election;
  • or the government must lose a vote of confidence and fourteen days must pass without the successful creation of a new government.

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PACAC’s report on the EU referendum opens important questions that deserve further attention

Yesterday, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report (summarised here) on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. Media headlines have focused on the committee’s concerns about possible interference during the referendum campaign by cyber hackers but, as Alan Renwick writes, the report also raised other important issues that deserve further attention.

The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) yesterday published a report on the conduct of last year’s EU referendum. The headlines in media reporting of this for the most part highlighted the committee’s concerns about possible interference during the referendum campaign by cyber hackers. But the MPs also draw out various other important lessons that might be learnt for any future referendums held in the UK. These deserve our careful attention.

Many of the proposals ought to be uncontroversial. The committee adds its weight to calls for extension of the so-called ‘purdah’ period – when state resources cannot be used in support of either side in the campaign – beyond the current 28 days. That would prevent any repeat of the pro-Remain leaflet that the government sent to all households last year at a cost of over £9 million to taxpayers. It would be a desirable step – though, as I suggest below, not the only necessary step – towards the creation of a level playing field in referendum campaigns.

The MPs also urge an updating of the purdah rules – written in 2000 – to reflect the realities of campaigning in the digital age. There was confusion last year as to whether those rules allowed a website promoting the government’s position that was created before the ‘purdah’ period to remain live during that period. The committee sensibly argues that his should be reviewed with a view to providing clarity.

Turning to the system for registering to vote, the committee – again very sensibly – argues for changes designed to minimise the danger of any repeat of last year’s website crash, which forced a last-minute extension of the registration deadline just days before the vote took place.

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How can referendums in the UK be improved? Lessons learned from the EU referendum

Today, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. The report touches on a variety of areas in relation to the conduct of referendums, including the role of referendums, the role of the civil service during referendum campaigns and cyber security. PACAC’s chair, Bernard Jenkin, outlines his committee’s findings, which they hope that the government will take heed of so that the country is ready for any future referendums.

Today, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has published its latest report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. With Holyrood demanding a new Scottish independence referendum, it is clear that referendums have become a permanent part of the UK’s democratic system, with major implications for our system, which is based on representative democracy. PACAC’s report highlights the importance of clarity in relation to the role and purpose of referendums, and ensuring that referendums are conducted fairly and effectively.

PACAC argues that referendums are appropriate for resolving questions of key constitutional importance that cannot be resolved through the usual medium of party politics. PACAC also argues, however, that referendums are less satisfactory in the case of what might be called a ‘bluff call’ referendum when, as last June, the referendum is used by the government to try to close down an unwelcome debate. As well as a clear question, the outcome in either case must also be clear. That means there should be more clarity and planning by the government holding the referendum, so there is less of a crisis of uncertainty if they don’t get the answer they want, as in the EU referendum.

PACAC considered four other areas in relation to the conduct of referendums: the fairness of the so-called ‘purdah’ period; the administration of the referendum; the role of the civil service during a referendum campaign; and cyber security.

On purdah, the government claimed at the time that the purdah provisions would impair the functioning of government. However, these provisions were of critical importance to the fair conduct of the referendum. The purdah provisions should be strengthened and clarified for future referendums and PACAC supports the Law Commission’s proposals to consolidate the law regulating the conduct of referendums. Additionally, PACAC asserts that the purdah restrictions should be updated to reflect the digital age, and extended to cover the full ten weeks of the referendum period, as recommended by the Electoral Commission.

With regard to the administration of the referendum, the evidence gathered during PACAC’s inquiry suggests that, while not without some faults, the EU referendum was on the whole run well.  PACAC commends the Electoral Commission for the successful delivery of the referendum, which was of enormous scale and complexity.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned to improve planning and delivery in the future. During the EU referendum, one of the most significant problems was the collapse of the voter registration website, just hours before the registration deadline on 7 June. The government said that the collapse of the website was caused by ‘unprecedented demand’, with 515,256 online applications to register to vote recorded on 7 June alone.

According to the Electoral Commission, the problems that led to the website’s crash were aggravated by a large number of duplicate applications to register to vote. 38 per cent of applications made during the campaign were duplicate applications.  PACAC supports the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that the government should develop an online service to enable people to check whether they are already correctly registered to vote. This would be of invaluable assistance in preventing the Register to Vote website from collapsing again in the future, though PACAC says that the possibility of this collapse being the result of a cyber-attack cannot be ruled out. This is because the crash had indications of being a DDOS (distributed denial of service) ‘attack’, which PACAC understands is common and easy to do with botnets.

Another area PACAC identifies as requiring improvement is the designation process. During its inquiry, witnesses from both Britain Stronger In Europe and Vote Leave argued that there was a lack of clarity on the criteria used to designate campaigns. Additionally, Vote Leave argued that earlier designation would have been fairer, as the late date of designation brought several budgeting and cash-flow issues. PACAC recommend that the Electoral Commission review the designation process to examine where greater transparency could be achieved. This review should address whether earlier designation would have been fairer, and whether there should be a more explicit fit and proper person test for those applying for designation.

On the role of the civil service during referendum campaigns, PACAC regrets that the government did not accept the recommendation made by its predecessor committee, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), that there should be a new paragraph in the Civil Service Code to clarify the role and conduct of civil servants during referendums. The manner of the presentation of some government reports, particularly those from the Treasury (which have proved to be so inaccurate), and the decision to spend £9.3 million on sending a leaflet to all UK households advocating a Remain vote, were inappropriate and undermined public confidence in civil service impartiality. By clarifying the role of civil servants during a referendum campaign, PASC’s recommendation would have helped to avoid such controversies.

On cyber security, PACAC argues that it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in referendums or elections. Lessons with regards to the protection and resilience of IT systems against possible foreign interference must also extend beyond the technical as while the US and UK understanding of cyber is predominantly technical and computer-network based, Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding mass psychology and how to exploit individuals.  PACAC commends the government for promoting cyber security as a major issue for the UK, but argue that more must be done and that permanent machinery for monitoring cyber security in respect of elections and referendums should be established.

As alluded to already, PACAC is critical of the government’s lack of contingency planning for a Leave vote. In the run up to the 1975 referendum, Whitehall prepared for a possible UK exit from the Common Market with a ‘fairly intensive’ programme of Cabinet Office led contingency planning. In contrast, in the run up to the EU referendum last June, PACAC was alarmed to learn that the government’s official position was that there would be no contingency planning. The only exception to this policy was planning within the Treasury to anticipate the impact of a Leave vote on the UK’s financial stability. Although PACAC was relieved to learn that work was undertaken within the civil service on the potential implications of a Leave vote, civil servants should never have been asked to operate in a climate where contingency planning was banned. PACAC recommend that in the event of future referendums, civil servants should be tasked with preparing for both possible outcomes.

It is essential that referendums are well run, that they are conducted fairly, and that they command public trust and confidence.  PACAC hopes, therefore, that the government takes heed of its recommendations, so that the country is ready for any further referendums in the future.

PACAC’s full report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum can be read here.

About the author

Bernard Jenkin MP is the Chair of the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee and the Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex.

LGBT candidates in UK elections: how much has changed?

On March 6 the Constitution Unit hosted a panel discussion on LGBT candidates in UK elections, exploring the UK parliament’s evolution to including more openly LGBT politicians than any other state legislature. The panel, chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, consisted of Professor Andrew Reynolds and four of the UK’s most prominent LGBT politicians: Angela Eagle, Baroness (Liz) Barker, Nick Herbert and Joanna Cherry. Evangelina Moisi reports.

Introducing the seminar on LGBT candidates in UK elections, Professor Andrew Reynolds posed a question to the audience: why do people care about the sexual orientation of candidates and elected officials any more? Over the past few decades, the UK has undergone major transformations in its treatment of LGBT citizens, including abolishing Section 28 in 2003 and legalising gay marriage in 2013. The UK parliament has also become the most inclusive parliament for LGBT representation in the world, with 39 ‘out’ LGBT MPs. Despite this political (r)evolution Reynolds suggested that not everything is settled: homophobia and transphobia are still significant in today’s society and present challenges for both adults and children in navigating their everyday lives.

This seminar provided the opportunity to understand the perspectives and narratives of those who have lived through this experience. Reynolds underscored that as ‘out’ LGBT politicians the members of the panel have all overcome significant hurdles to transform political life, values, and the laws of today.

Professor Andrew Reynolds

Opening the seminar, Reynolds presented highlights from some of his research, noting that the number of LGBT parliamentarians is still a tiny slice of the world’s representation. Only 0.4% of the 46,000 parliamentarians around the world identify as LGBT. However, the parties with significant representation in the House of Commons are among the most LGBT inclusive in the world – the Conservatives and Labour have 17 and 14 LGBT MPs respectively, whilst the SNP’s 8 (out of 54 MPs) makes them the ‘gayest’ parliamentary group in the world. Reynolds further elaborated that right-of-centre parties have actually overtaken left-of-centre parties in terms of LGBT MPs, in the UK and around the world. Gay rights have become less of a partisan issue, with conservatives becoming socially liberal but remaining economically conservative.

At the 2015 UK general election 154 LGBT candidates standing in England, Scotland, and Wales, enabling Reynolds to explore whether being an LGBT candidate was still an electoral liability. His research found that LGBT candidates did not perform worse than their straight colleagues and, perhaps surprisingly, gay candidates performed better in rural areas (a 2% boost). He also found that LGBT candidates did only slightly worse in areas with high Muslim populations. At the party level, LGBT Labour candidates performed better than their straight counterparts whereas LGBT Conservative candidates performed much better than their straight counterparts in winnable Conservative seats.

On a final note, Reynolds discussed Chris Smith’s ‘coming-out’ in 1984. Whilst the moment was greeted with a media backlash at the time, Smith is now the Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge and has returned to the highest echelons of British society as a gay, HIV-positive man. Reynolds emphasised that such dramatic changes in political life have been driven by the likes of Smith and the LGBT politicians present on the panel.

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The Italian Constitutional Court judgement on the ‘Italicum’ electoral law: another new reform for Italy?

Last month the Italian Constitutional Court declared several crucial elements of the ‘Italicum’ electoral system for the Chamber of Deputies, approved by parliament in 2015, to be unconstitutional. Further electoral reform is therefore now being discussed, ahead of an election that must take place by next spring at the latest. Roberta Damiani explains the background to the judgement and its implications.

On 25 January the Italian Constitutional Court announced its judgement on the latest electoral law for the lower chamber of Parliament (the Chamber of Deputies), promulgated by Matteo Renzi’s government and approved in 2015, known as the ‘Italicum’. While retaining some of its features, the Court declared that several of the Italicum’s most crucial elements are unconstitutional, and modified them accordingly. It effectively turned what would have been a majoritarian system into a proportional one.

Before examining this judgement in detail, we need to understand how it fitted into broader debates about the appropriate constitutional structure for Italy.

The Constitution of the Italian Republic, founded in 1946 in the wake of the experience of fascism, was based on the principle that power should be dispersed, in order to prevent the rise of another dictatorship. This was achieved through the creation of two coequal parliamentary chambers: not only did both have to agree all legislation; in addition, either could dismiss the government through a vote of no confidence. Some level of governability was achieved only by the fact that both chambers were directly elected through proportional representation: their compositions were almost identical, such that they rarely disagreed sharply with each other.

Nevertheless, by the 1980s there was a widespread perception that the dispersion of power had gone too far. The need for fundamental reforms became particularly acute after a major corruption scandal, known as ‘Tangentopoli’, that was uncovered in 1992 and led to an almost complete breakdown of the party system. In response, a new electoral system – the so-called ‘Mattarellum’ – was introduced in 1993, which reduced electoral proportionality in both chambers.

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Monitor 65: Testing constitutional times

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 four months, a period that has included the High Court and Supreme Court rulings in the Article 50 case, the unveiling of Theresa May’s Brexit plan and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

monitor-65-coverPolitics remains fast-moving. Its unexpected turns have raised fundamental questions about the constitutional order, in the UK and beyond – including the rightful place of voters, elected legislators, governments and judges in political decision-making – as well as the media’s role in questioning those decisions.

Here, Brexit remains the dominant preoccupation. The previous issue of Monitor reported how ‘ministers have repeatedly insisted that they are in charge of the Brexit negotiations and that to reveal their hand to parliament in advance would weaken their negotiating position’. A lot has changed since then.

Following rulings by the High Court on 3 November, and Supreme Court on 24 January, ministers had to accept that they require parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50; at the time of writing, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill has now passed through the Commons and awaits scrutiny in the Lords (see page 3). Even before the bill’s introduction, the government had conceded (in December) that its Brexit plan would be published prior to triggering Article 50, and (in January) that this would include a white paper – commitments necessary in order to see off potential Commons defeats. With help from the courts, parliament has rediscovered some of its teeth.

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We’re taking back control – but who’s going to wield it?

katie-ghose

Britain voted to ‘take back control’ from the EU, and Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech made the repatriation of power to Westminster a priority. But it is far from clear what kind of Brexit Britons want, nor how many of these powers will go to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rather than the UK Parliament. Katie Ghose argues that with direct democracy on the rise, citizens’ assemblies would help people grasp the trade-offs at stake and have a voice in these monumental decisions.

Theresa May has now fleshed out her plans for Britain to leave the EU and become an independent, self-governing nation. With more detail emerging about the economic plan, it’s time to look at the democratic implications.

Serious thinking about democracy can all too often get left behind and the public shut out of these debates, as we’ve seen with English devolution. How our democracy actually takes shape after Brexit goes beyond the two-year negotiating window, and it has to mean the public will have a strong say. After all, given the focus on ‘where power lies’ during the campaign (summed up the powerful slogan ‘take back control’), it would be ironic if this wasn’t a priority.

Theresa May says the vote was about restoring parliamentary democracy by bringing back sovereignty to the UK Parliament. This is uncontroversial – after all, many people identified the issue of laws ‘being made in Brussels’ as part of a more general unease. But it is only part of the picture. The transfer will take place at the same time as the ongoing transfer of powers from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and NI, as well as devolution within England. In other words, it will happen just as power is shifting between and within the nations of the UK – with obvious ramifications for our Union.

People feel a physical remoteness from Westminster, Holyrood and the Senedd, but that distance is knitted into a growing anti-establishment sentiment. So now is an opportunity to capitalise on the positive political interest stimulated by the vote, and convert it into a sustainable mode of political engagement – with genuinely powerful citizens.

So the first question is this: what is the public role in shaping the form of Brexit?

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