The Constitution Unit Blog

A question of confidence? The Constitution Committee’s view on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011

Nine years after the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, both government and opposition have expressed a desire to repeal it, following two general elections: one brought about about using the provisions of the Act and another by circumventing them. The Constitution Committee has produced a report setting out what any replacement legislation needs to address. Its Chair, Baroness Taylor, discusses the Committee’s conclusions below.

On its introduction in 2011, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) was heralded by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, as a ‘constitutional innovation’ that would no longer allow the timing of general elections to be a ‘plaything of Governments’. Nine years on, it is safe to say that the FTPA has not had the effect that he and others envisaged. The FTPA has been stress-tested and found wanting by political parties and commentators alike. 

The FTPA sets the length of parliaments at five years and requires the approval of the House of Commons for an early general election. It removed the longstanding prerogative power of the monarch to dissolve parliament at the request of the Prime Minister and instead vested this authority in Members of Parliament. In 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May proved that a government that wanted an election could secure one using the provisions of the FTPA. In 2019, at the helm of a minority government that was thrice denied an early general election under the FTPA, Prime Minister Boris Johnson sidestepped its requirements with the Early Parliamentary General Election Act.

These events prompted proposals from both the Conservative and Labour parties to repeal the FTPA. The current government has reiterated that commitment since taking office. However, repealing the FTPA is not straightforward, given its constitutional and legal implications. It is in this context that the House of Lords Constitution Committee published its report on the FTPA on 4 September, exploring its effects and the questions that need to be addressed for any future reform.

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Should the government be able to suspend parliament?

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Petra Schleiter and Thomas Fleming examine the power to prorogue parliament. They outline the legal basis of prorogation, survey how it is used in the UK and other Westminster systems, and discuss how the UK could reform its prorogation process.  

The UK government has the power to suspend parliament, in a process known as prorogation. Prorogation is usually a routine measure, used to schedule gaps between sessions of parliament. But it became highly controversial in 2019, when the government tried to prorogue parliament for five weeks shortly before the scheduled Brexit date of 31 October. This decision caused uproar, and was ultimately quashed by the Supreme Court.

This controversy prompted discussion of whether the UK’s prorogation rules should be reformed. In particular, some have asked whether this power should be considered as part of the forthcoming review of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which is legally required to take place this year. Here we outline the consequences of the current rules, showing that they are unusual, and suggesting possible ways for them to be reformed. Fuller versions of our arguments can be found in our recent articles in Political Quarterly and Parliamentary Affairs (forthcoming).

What are the consequences of the current prorogation rules?

Prorogation ends a parliamentary session. It means that neither House of Parliament may sit, and parliamentary business is almost entirely suspended. Though prorogation is formally a prerogative power of the monarch, she acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. In practice, therefore, the timing and length of prorogation are decided by the government. Parliament has no power to insist on sitting once it has been prorogued: only the government can shorten or prolong a prorogation. This situation makes it possible for the government to use prorogation for political purposes when its interests conflict with those of parliament.

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Choosing a Prime Minister: their exits and their entrances

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Seventeen of the Prime Ministers to take office since 1900 left office for reasons other than defeat at a general election. In this blogpost, Rodney Brazier, author of the recently published Choosing a Prime Minister, reflects on how those Prime Ministers have secured and surrendered the keys to Number 10, and the Queen’s role in their appointment.

It’s unlikely that Boris Johnson spends much time thinking about the next election. Thanks largely to him the government obtained an 80-seat Commons majority at the polls just over six months ago, and each member of his Cabinet gave pledges of personal loyalty before getting their jobs. What could possibly go wrong? But if any of his close advisers were to read my book Choosing a Prime Minister then brows might furrow. The book notes that 17 of the two-dozen individuals who have occupied Number 10 since 1900 were forced to leave without any push from the voters. Illness or old age, revolts in the governing party, loss of the confidence of the House of Commons, or personal political blunders all contributed to that high total. Indeed, three of Johnson’s four immediate predecessors (Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May) quit without the electorate’s help. Ill health and party coups were the main, but not at all the only, causes of all those 17 exits. Johnson himself had a brush with death in March. I would bet good money against the present Prime Minister leading the Conservatives into the next general election.  Continue reading

‘Palace letters’ show the Queen did not advise, or encourage, Kerr to sack Whitlam government

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Four decades after the dismissal of the Whitlam government, letters between the Palace and the Governor-General of Australia have been made public. Anne Twomey explains that they show the Queen acted properly, neither advising nor encouraging the government’s dismissal, recommending simply that he obey the Australian Constitution.

For more than four decades, the question has been asked: did the Queen know the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, was about to dismiss the Whitlam government, and did she encourage or support that action? The release of the ‘palace letters’ between Kerr and the palace can now lay that question to rest. The answer was given, unequivocally, by the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, in a letter to Kerr on November 17 1975. He said:

‘If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe that in NOT informing The Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.’

Certainly, Kerr had kept the palace up to date with the various developments in Australia. While governors-general usually communicate with the Queen only three or four times a year during ordinary times, it is common during a crisis for updates on the political situation to be made every few days – particularly if there is a risk of the Queen becoming involved or the exercise of a reserve power drawing the palace into the crisis.

In 1975, there were multiple issues that might have drawn the palace into the crisis. First, there was the question of whether Kerr should exercise a reserve power to refuse royal assent to an appropriation bill that had been passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate. Fortunately, Whitlam dropped this idea, so that controversy disappeared.

Then there was the question of whether state premiers would advise state governors to refuse to issue the writs for a half-Senate election, and whether Whitlam would then advise the Queen to instruct the governors to issue the writs. This didn’t happen either, because Whitlam did not get to hold his half-Senate election. But the prospect was enough to worry the palace. Continue reading

Coronavirus: how Europe’s monarchs stepped up as their nations faced the crisis

bob_morris_163x122.jpgprofessor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgLast Sunday, the Queen spoke to the nation in a rare televised address. The speech was widely praised, and several other European monarchs have made similar attempts to connect with the public. Bob Morris and Robert Hazell argue that her intervention demonstrates the value of an apolitical head of state that remains compatible with modern democracy. 

The British Queen’s address to the nation on Sunday, April 5 evoked huge interest, respect and widespread appreciation. Nearly 24 million people in the UK watched her deliver the four-minute speech, which paid tribute to National Health Service and other key workers, thanked people for following government rules to stay at home and promised ‘we’ll meet again’.

Her words were greeted with almost universal praise from politicians, press and the public alike. But what made it so special? Who advises the Queen on such occasions? And what does it tell us about the monarchy – what can monarchs do that political leaders cannot?

It was special because of its rarity – this was only the fourth occasion on which Elizabeth II has addressed the nation other than in her annual Christmas message. All have marked particular national moments: war in Iraq, the deaths of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, her thanks for the celebrations for her diamond jubilee. In different ways they bring the nation together – her heartfelt address before Diana’s funeral was especially effective in bringing her people to understand why she had prioritised consoling her bereaved young grandchildren.

The coronavirus speech – a little over 500 words – came invested with the authority of someone able to draw on long personal experience of the country’s trials. Instancing her own message as a 14 year-old to child evacuees wrenched from their families in 1940 was but one way of giving the speech a depth of field to which no politician could aspire. Continue reading

The Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda: prospects and challenges

thumbnail_20190802_092917.jpgThe Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election included a commitment to set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission (as discussed previously on this blog by Meg Russell and Alan Renwick) and engage in a wider programme of constitutional reform. In February, the Unit hosted an event to discuss the new government’s constitutional reform agenda: Sam Anderson summarises the main contributions. 

Page 48 of the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 general election committed to a wide range of constitutional reform proposals – including repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), an ‘update’ of the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the creation of a ‘Constitution Democracy and Rights Commission’ to examine broader aspects of the constitution. On 4 February, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the implementation of this agenda, entitled ‘The Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda: prospects and challenges. The panel consisted of two Conservatives: Lord Andrew Dunlop, a member of the House of Lords Constitution Committee and former Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland; and Chris White, a former Special Adviser to William Hague, Andrew Lansley and Patrick McLoughlin. Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, chaired the event. The following is a summary of the main contributions. 

Lord Dunlop

Lord Dunlop suggested that the key question for the new government is what ‘taking back control’ means in constitutional terms. The years since the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 have been incredibly rich for those interested in the constitution. We have seen a deadlocked parliament, an arguably ‘activist’ judiciary, and fracturing Union, whilst foundational concepts like parliamentary sovereignty, the separation of powers, and the rule of law have come under scrutiny. It would be wrong, however, to see the government’s manifesto commitments as simply a direct response to the political and constitutional crisis of last autumn. Brexit placed a number of areas of the constitution under strain, but for Dunlop, it is the long-term context that is key to explaining the proposals in the manifesto. In his opinion, the proposals are not about ‘settling scores’.

For a number of years, EU membership, the devolution settlements and the HRA have all to varying extents limited parliament’s law-making powers. For example, Lord Neuberger, former President of the Supreme Court, has pointed out the profound changes that the HRA has brought to the role of judges in relation to interpretation of statute law, and retired Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption’s recent Reith Lectures have contributed to a long-running debate about the proper role of judges in a democracy. In Lord Dunlop’s view, the proposals on page 48 of the manifesto reflect the fact that Brexit has put additional pressure on an already strained constitution, and should therefore prompt us to consider whether the constitution is operating as it should.  Continue reading

Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and the Sandringham settlement

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgbob_morris_163x122.jpgFollowing the decision of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to withdraw from a frontline royal role, the nature and timing of that departure has now been announced. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris explain what the settlement means for both the Sussexes and the monarchy itself. 

When it wants to, the British monarchy can move with remarkable and decisive speed. There were just ten days between the Sussexes unilateral declaration on 8 January and the outcome of the second Sandringham meeting released on 18 January. What has it all been about and how should the immediate and longer-term effects of the settlement be understood?

The settlement of 18 January

Its main features are:

  • The couple will from 1 April 2020 withdraw from active royal duties (including Prince Harry’s honorific military offices), no longer receive public money, surrender use of their ‘HRH’ titles, and seek to become self-sufficient financially.
  • They will live for substantial periods each year in Canada, at a location as yet undetermined.
  • So far as their activities abroad are concerned, they have undertaken ‘to uphold the values of Her Majesty’: this a reference to the Nolan Principles of Public Life.
  • Frogmore Cottage on the Windsor estate will remain their residence in England. They will reimburse the £2.4m public money cost of the refurbishment.
  • The working of the arrangements will be reviewed from 1 April 2021. During this period, the Prince of Wales will continue their funding of £2.3m a year until they become self-sufficient.
  • No constitutional changes are involved, but some possible secondary implications of reducing the size of the active royal family are considered below.

Not settled in the statement are:

  • The Canadian immigration, residential and tax status of the couple – Canada’s leading daily newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, raised some sharp questions on whether they should be allowed to live in Canada and advised that the Canadian government’s response should be a simple and succinct ‘No’. Although the Canadian government has so far been silent, it is expected to have a more welcoming, if cautious, attitude.
  • Meghan’s application for British citizenship – still under consideration, where length of residence outside the UK will be one of the criteria in the balance.
  • How financial self-sufficiency is to be achieved – the reference to upholding ‘the values of Her Majesty’ shows some anxieties about the means that the couple may choose. 
  • The arrangements for police protection – British police officers have no police powers in Canada, nor may they carry firearms. The nature of protection and defraying the considerable costs of providing it remain to be settled.

Immediate effects

While some changes (resigning the post of Captain General of the Royal Marines) will happen immediately from 1 April, withdrawal will be a process rather than an event. It will also be conditional on the progress made. That is, the settlement implies that permission to keep but not use the HRH title can be withdrawn if the Queen is, say, dissatisfied with the way the Sussexes embark on commercial ventures which capitalise on their royal status (HRH status was withdrawn from the wives of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York following their divorces). Similarly, establishing a review mechanism not only leaves open the possibility of the Sussexes’ return to UK public life, but also a possibility that the settlement’s terms might be tightened if developments are not to the Queen’s satisfaction. Continue reading