Brexit at Westminster: can parliament play a meaningful role?

On March 13 the Constitution Unit hosted a seminar on Brexit at Westminster, exploring the role parliament has played in the lead up to the triggering of Article 50 and that it might play in the forthcoming negotiations. The panel consisted of Hilary Benn, Chair of the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee; Arnold Ridout, Counsel for European Legislation at the House of Commons; and Baroness (Kishwer) Falkner, Liberal Democrat peer and Chair of the Financial Affairs Sub-Committee of the House of Lords EU Committee. Ascher Nathan reports.

Introducing this seminar on Brexit at Westminster, Constitution Unit Director Meg Russell remarked on the perfect timing: the Article 50 Bill would have its final votes that evening. Despite earlier concerns that parliament would be shut out from any influence over Brexit it has played a central role in the lead up to the triggering of Article 50 through debates, questions, the work of select committees and, following the judgement in the Miller case, the passage of the Article 50 Bill. The next big piece of legislation will be the ‘Great Repeal Bill’. Thus, the answer to the question of whether parliament can play a meaningful role in Brexit should be considered as a resounding ‘yes’ – it has already begun to do so. And yet if the Miller case and subsequent events have been a reminder about the role parliament can play, questions still remain about exactly how it will influence debates going forward.

The three speakers each brought a different perspective. Hilary Benn, Labour MP for Leeds Central, has served as a cabinet and shadow cabinet minister and is now Chair of the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee. Arnold Ridout is Counsel for European Legislation at the House of Commons, and legal adviser on EU matters to the Commons select committees. Baroness (Kishwer) Falkner, a Liberal Democrat peer, sits on the Lords EU Committee and chairs its Financial Affairs Sub-Committee.

Hilary Benn

Hilary Benn explained that the Exiting the EU Committee was a mixed group of Leavers and Remainers and thus his role as chair was to establish consensus and direct their work in a constructive manner. In what he described as the most complex trade negotiations since the end of World War II, with the Great Repeal Bill to be an ‘enormously daunting task for any government,’ Benn pledged that parliament would ‘not be a bystander’ and intended instead to be a key participant in the policy process. Fundamentally, he challenged the government claim that persistent parliamentary involvement in the negotiations would undermine ministers’ position and lead to bad deals, noting Nick Clegg’s comment that the government’s position implied that only dictatorships were in a position to make treaties.

For Benn, the complexity of Brexit was a great challenge. He talked at length of numerous examples of areas where exiting the EU would prove difficult: passporting for financial services; regulation of medicines (where pharmaceutical companies will seek approval in the largest markets first) resulting in UK patients accessing them later; the regulation of data handling between states. Whilst this is a huge challenge for government, it is equally difficult for the Brexit select committee to address in the limited time available, as well as challenging for the EU. Benn agreed with the government’s position in favouring parallel negotiations for the divorce settlement and the new framework because the eighteen-month window given by Michel Barnier, chief EU negotiator, is so tight. Benn thinks it will be ‘impossible’ to agree a comprehensive trade negotiation in the time available and so called for a transitional agreement to be drafted.

Finally, he discussed the Great Repeal Bill, and the nature of the detail that should be scrutinised. He called for openness by government on both the negotiations regarding transitional arrangements, and the divorce settlement itself (whilst anticipating that much of this information may be gleaned through the ‘leakiness’ of Brussels). He wanted to see a white paper on the Great Repeal Bill, and information on how subsequent legislation will be formulated: will it largely be secondary legislation, authorised by Henry VIII clauses? Benn was concerned by the fact that so far government had had to be ‘pushed and cajoled’ into understanding that parliament would not be bystander: ‘We are not a string, we are very attached to our democracy … and we intend to do our job.’

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Brexit presents parliament with daunting challenges but steps are being taken to help it meet them

Brexit presents parliament with daunting challenges, both politically and procedurally. In this post Arnold Ridout, Counsel for European Legislation at the House of Commons, highlights some of these and explains what steps are being taken to held ensure that parliament performs its role effectively. The post is adapted from a talk he gave at a Constitution Unit seminar on ‘Brexit at Westminster’, held on 13 March.

As Counsel for European Legislation in the House of Commons I can be called upon to assist the House or any of its select committees on EU law matters. I have a formal role with the European Scrutiny Committee and the Committee for Exiting the EU, both of which have standing orders explicitly providing for assistance to be given by Speaker’s Counsel. For this purpose I generally represent her.

Uncertainty

I do not know if it is fair to say that parliament as an institution was as ready for the referendum result as the government was. There was a good deal of uncertainty at that time as to the very basics, such as the Brexit process itself and even more as to what role parliament would play. In some ways that might be regarded as an advantage; by leaving a clear field on which parliament could put down its markers, and influence at an early stage the formulation of the process and the policy. On the other hand it created the risk of lack of focus or focus on the wrong issues. In particular, it was unclear what tools were available to parliament to exert its influence. This remains the case to a certain extent.

The government has now committed to putting ‘the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament’. This is important as having a final say on the outcome could give parliament a real handle on the negotiations. However, if the Article 50 notice is not revocable, or revoked, then the choice for parliament looks like ‘deal or no deal’. Five eminent lawyers disagree and have gone as far as suggesting not only that the Article 50 notice is revocable, but that a further act of parliament is required to either agree the deal or authorise the UK’s departure from the EU without any deal. If correct it means that parliament has a further, and unilateral, chance to decide whether the UK leaves the EU or not even after the Article 50 notice has been served.

The government has committed to ensuring ‘that the UK Parliament receives at least as much information as that received by members of the European Parliament.’ We do not yet know with certainty what that entails, and in particular whether it includes something similar to the arrangement in trade negotiations whereby the European Parliament receives ongoing explanations as to how its view has been put into effect during negotiations.

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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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Brexit, federalism and Scottish independence

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As the UK withdraws from the EU, is this the opportune moment for a restructuring of the Union along (con)federal lines? On 13 February, the Constitution Unit hosted a panel discussion on ‘Brexit, Federalism, and Scottish Independence’, to explore this question further. The panel, chaired by Kenny Farquharson, consisted of Professor Jim Gallagher, Kezia Dugdale and Baroness (Jenny) Randerson. Seema Syeda reports.

Opening the Constitution Unit’s seminar on ‘Brexit, federalism and Scottish Independence’ on 13 February, Kenny Farquharson declared that ‘Brexit is a painting that has not yet dried’. After the EU referendum result exposed a nation fractured along the lines of geography, age, wealth, and education the full consequences are yet to become apparent. The divisions now manifest in UK society are troubling enough to satisfy the worst of cynics – yet, in the greatest constitutional upheaval the UK has seen in decades, some have spied an opportunity.

Might the transfer of wide-ranging powers from Brussels, not only to Whitehall but also to the devolved administrations, provide an opportunity to revitalise our democracy through a newly federal UK? Important competencies relating to agriculture, fisheries and the environment will, unless the UK government legislates otherwise, return to the Scottish Parliament and to the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. Both the devolved and central governments will therefore see a dramatic increase in their powers. Brexit, as ‘wet paint on canvas’, in a continuation of Farquharson’s vividly imagined metaphor, might be an opportunity to restructure the relationship between the UK’s four constituent nations.

These possibilities were discussed by a panel which consisted of Professor Jim Gallagher, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale and former Liberal Democrat Welsh Assembly member and Wales Office minister Baroness (Jenny) Randerson. Kenny Macaskill, Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish government under Alex Salmond, was also due to attend but unfortunately could not make it due to unavoidable business in Scotland.

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The Grimstone proposals to reform the public appointments process are a step in the wrong direction

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Earlier this year the government published Sir Gerry Grimstone’s report on public appointments, proposing a dismantling of the Nolan system of regulation that has been in place since 1995. Sir David Normington, whose term as Commissioner for Public Appointments ended shortly after the publication of the Grimstone report, has been an outspoken critic of the proposals. At a Constitution Unit seminar on 8 December he explained why he believes they represent a step in the wrong direction. This post is adapted from his speech.

Ministers make on average over 2,000 appointments each year to boards of about 300 public bodies and statutory offices. The bodies touch every aspect of our lives. They include regulators like the boards of Ofcom and Ofwat; inspectors, like the Chief Inspectors of Schools, Police, Probation and Prisons; funders like the Arts Council and the Big Lottery Fund; advisory bodies like the Committee on Climate Change; and a multitude of executive bodies, like NHS trusts, national parks, museums and galleries.

It matters who fills these roles. The boards themselves need to comprise well-functioning teams of skilled people from diverse backgrounds who can command public confidence. At the same time these are ministerial appointments and it is essential that those appointed are willing to work within, and not against, the framework of the policy that the government of the day has set down.

There is, however, a balance to be struck between ministers’ right to appoint and independent oversight and regulation. Think of it as a spectrum. At one end ministers have almost complete freedom to make appointments as they think fit. At the other, appointments are handed over to an independent body and ministers forego their powers to appoint altogether. Over nearly 30 years policy and practice has flowed to and fro across this spectrum; and so have the arguments about where to draw the line.

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

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 second of two posts on the event, Alex Quirk outlines the discussions on the second of these areas.

The discussion of balance during the seminar can be broadly divided into two areas: how to improve balance in the media, both traditional and online; and how to address imbalances created by the legislative framework for holding referendums.

Media balance

Bob Posner of the Electoral Commission began the day by reporting on polling conducted after the referendum, which showed that over half (52 per cent) of respondents thought that the conduct of the campaign was not ‘fair and balanced’. Various perspectives emerged over the course of the day on how well the media did in ensuring that they reported the campaign in a ‘balanced’ way. Although the print and online media have no duty to report the arguments with any sort of balance, all broadcasters have a statutory duty to act with ‘due impartiality’. The BBC, in common with other broadcasters, considers the appropriate interpretation of ‘due impartiality’ for each referendum and election campaign, and produces guidelines for programme-makers. Sue Inglish, former head of political programmes at the BBC, and Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, argued that the BBC interpreted ‘due impartiality’ in the context of the referendum correctly. In their view, the BBC did not create a false balance between experts on each side, but simply reported the arguments of the campaigners in a balanced way. Inglish stressed that broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky did not simply report misleading statements without question, but did their best to point out that they may be misleading.

This perspective was challenged by Professor Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster, who argued that broadcasters like the BBC had failed ‘catastrophically’ during the EU referendum campaign. He contended that they followed too slavishly the press agenda, which was especially problematic given the amount of misleading information in national newspapers. He also argued that the BBC’s interpretation of ‘due impartiality’ was incorrect, as it involved balancing the coverage given to arguments from both sides too mathematically, rather than interpreting the arguments in a more interrogative fashion. Further criticism of the ‘due impartiality’ interpretation came from Dr Oliver Daddow of the University of Nottingham. He argued that, despite notional ‘balance’ in the BBC’s coverage, there remained in-built structural biases in the media as a whole, which are more difficult to counteract. Symptoms of these biases included the preponderance in coverage of Conservative party figures and a lack of time dedicated to challenging statistics used by campaigners. However, Sue Inglish and Ric Bailey disagreed with these criticisms, suggesting that broadcasters also influenced the agendas of newspapers, and that they took great care not to produce artificial balance.

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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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