The future of referendums: what role should they play and how should they be conducted?

me-2015-large-e1485255919145.jpgTwo decades have passed since there was last a serious consideration of how the UK uses referendums. For this reason, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums to examine whether and how the way in which referendums are regulated in the UK should be changed. Ahead of a public event in Edinburgh, the Commission’s research director, Dr. Alan Renwick, explains its terms of reference. 

The referendum is now entrenched as a part of the UK’s political system. The principle that a referendum is needed before some fundamental constitutional changes – notably in relation to sovereignty – are made has become well established. It seems likely that politicians will continue from time to time to find it useful to manage conflicts by proposing to put certain decisions to the people.

Yet, crucially important though referendums are, there has been little concerted thinking of late about how they should be conducted. Two inquiries carried out in the 1990s – by the UCL Constitution Unit’s Nairne Commission and by the Committee on Standards in Public Life – led to the creation of some basic rules, laid down in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. But these rules were always incomplete: for example, they say nothing about who is entitled to vote in a referendum. They are also now two decades old. Much has changed in the intervening years – not least through the rise of the internet and social media. Four major referendums have also been held in that period – on Welsh devolution (2011), the Westminster voting system (2011), Scottish independence (2014), and EU membership (2016) – from which lessons can be learned. Many observers have been dismayed by the conduct of those referendums, whether they agreed with the results or not. A careful review of whether we could do better is therefore overdue.

That is the task of the Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit last autumn to examine the role and conduct of referendums in the UK and consider what changes might be desirable. Comprising twelve eminent individuals with diverse perspectives on referendums, including current and former parliamentarians, journalists, regulators, and academics, the Commission is due to report this summer. It is keen to hear as many views as possible, it is holding seminars in all of the UK’s capital cities. The Edinburgh seminar is the next in this series, co-hosted with the Royal Society of Edinburgh next Monday. Continue reading

The Crown: What does Netflix’s dramatisation and the celebritisation of an evolving monarchy mean for the royal family in 2018?

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With Prince Philip now retired from his public role and Prince Harry set to marry an American actor in the spring, the royal family has entered 2018 in the midst of a period of change. Yet change is nothing new; the monarchy is constantly evolving. Bob Morris asks where does it now stand and what further changes may be expected? He also discusses the historical accuracy and cultural impact of the popular Netflix drama, ‘The Crown’. 

As the monarchy enters 2018, unavoidable demographic effects are becoming more apparent. The Queen is now 91 and Prince Philip has announced his retirement from official duties at the age of 96. The Queen remains commendably diligent in her public duties, notching up nearly 300 engagements in 2017, although none of those took place abroad. There it is evident that the Prince of Wales (himself close now to 70) has increasingly taken up the burden, assisted principally by the Duke of York and the Princess Royal. As in recent years, the latter continues to be the busiest member of the family for domestic engagements.

There continue to be small, mostly low-voiced susurrations of speculation about whether the Queen will herself ‘retire’ in some way when, for example, she reaches her husband’s age; whether she will be succeeded by Prince William rather than by Prince Charles; whether the new king would remain Head of the Commonwealth; and at what point any of the fifteen Commonwealth states where the Queen remains monarch (known as the realms) will turn themselves into fully-fledged republics. Continue reading

The Lords and the EU Withdrawal Bill: 10 predictions

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The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has completed its bumpy passage through the Commons and now moves to the Lords, where the government falls well short of a majority. In this post Meg Russell explores what the Lords is likely to do with the bill, making 10 predictions and, in doing so, busting some common myths. She concludes that the bill will be heavily amended, but any suggestion that the Lords will ‘block Brexit’ is misconceived. 

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons last week. During its two-day second reading, eight days in committee on the floor of the House and two-day report stage, it got a pretty bumpy ride. In a fascinating test for a minority Conservative government, amendments were fended off on a range of issues, but various concessions were also given, and the government suffered one defeat. Now the bill passes to the House of Lords, where the numbers are far more stacked against the government. As of today, the Conservatives held just 248 out of a total 794 Lords seats, with Labour on 197, the Liberal Democrats 100 and independent Crossbenchers 183. In recent years this kind of party constellation has meant that even governments with comfortable Commons majorities have been frequently defeated in the Lords. So what can we expect from the second chamber on this highly sensitive bill? Here are 10 broad predictions:

Amendments are likely, right from the outset

1. There is little doubt that the bill will be significantly amended in the Lords. Even on relatively uncontroversial bills, scrutiny by peers frequently results in changes. But this is precisely the kind of bill that peers get most exercised about. The legal arrangements that it seeks to put in place for Brexit are highly technical and complex. The bill’s central purpose is to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, but at the same time to maintain legal continuity by creating a new body of ‘retained EU law’. This process in itself raises many difficult constitutional points (as indicated further below). In addition, the bill includes extensive ‘delegated powers’, allowing ministers to amend retained EU law with limited parliamentary oversight. This combination of a constitutional focus plus sweeping delegated powers, even leaving aside the disputed context of Brexit, guarantees that Lords scrutiny will be intense. It will almost certainly result in changes.  Continue reading

Referendums in UK democracy: how should they work in practice?

The Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit to review the role of referendums in UK democracy, has now met twice. One of the issues they are considering is rules for how referendums should work in practice. The Commission’s Research Assistant, Jess Sargeant, summarises the issues for consideration.

In a previous blog post I explored some principles that could be used for deciding when a referendum might be appropriate. The Independent Commission on Referendums is also considering how referendums should work in practice. The following post explores some key practical questions.

Should there be rules for when a referendum is required, permitted or prohibited?

The UK is unusual among comparable democracies in that referendums are held ad hoc: there are very few standing rules on when referendums are to be held. This means, at least in theory, that there are no restrictions on matters that a referendum may be held on: it could be held on any issue within parliament’s legislative competence.

Many other democracies have provisions in their constitutions setting out when a referendum must be, can be, or cannot be held. Constitutional issues are the most common category of issues on which a referendum is required. For example, Ireland, Australia and Japan require referendums on any bills amending the constitution. In Austria, Spain, Lithuania and Iceland amendments to certain key parts of the constitution must be approved in a popular vote. There are also examples of referendums being required on other issues: Denmark has mandatory referendums on transfers of sovereignty and changes to the voting age.

Where referendums are not required on constitutional amendments, there is often a mechanism allowing a parliamentary minority to trigger one, as is the case in Italy, Austria and Spain. In some democracies, legislation can be put to a referendum if requested by a body so empowered by the constitution. This could be the parliament, as in Denmark and Austria, the president, as in Ireland and Iceland, or groups of citizens, as in Italy and the Netherlands. Where referendums are permitted on legislation, certain types of legislation are often exempt: most commonly, finance, budgetary and tax laws or legislation implementing treaties.

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In the event of a Leave vote Brexit would dominate Westminster for years

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The Constitution Unit, together with the UCL European Institute, is holding a special series of seminars on the implications and consequences of Brexit. The first, on 21 April, focused on the consequences for Westminster and Whitehall. In this post, adapted from his comments on the night, former Clerk of the House of Commons Lord Lisvane discusses the impact that a vote to leave the EU would have on Westminster in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, during Brexit negotiations and once Brexit has actually taken place.

The immediate aftermath

After a vote to leave there will be immediate pressure for debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, probably over two days, to be held as soon as possible. There may even be calls for a rare weekend recall, though this is in the Prime Minister’s hands and I think it very unlikely that he would grant one.

David Cameron’s future will, of course, be high on the agenda. He has said that he would stay on as Prime Minister to oversee the consequences of a vote to leave, but there are Conservative MPs who have suggested that he won’t have the opportunity to do that. Might he throw the dice and have a vote of confidence among members of his own party, or would that be too high risk?

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How parliament influences policy: academic and practitioner perspectives

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There is now a large body of academic research demonstrating that the Westminster parliament has considerable policy influence, yet claims that the UK has an executive-dominated political system persist. On 15 March Professor Meg Russell and Professor Philip Cowley, who between them have carried out much of the key research in this area, spoke at a Constitution Unit seminar on the policy impact of parliament along with Sarah Champion MP, who offered an insider perspective. Ruxandra Serban reports.

Public and media discourse is often shaped by a longstanding assumption that the Westminster parliament is weak relative to the executive – but is this really true? A closer look demonstrates that it is a complex and often misunderstood institution. On 15 March the Constitution Unit, in collaboration with the Hansard Society and the Parliament and Constitution Centre of the House of Commons Library, hosted a seminar in parliament with Professor Meg Russell (Director of the Constitution Unit), Professor Philip Cowley (Queen Mary University of London), and Sarah Champion MP, to discuss parliament’s policy impact.

The legislative process, the Lords and select committees

Speaking first, Meg Russell suggested that the constant portrayal of parliament as a weak institution should be a matter for concern, as perpetuating an inaccurate assumption may drive down trust in the political process. The impact of parliament on policy has been a major strand of the Unit’s research in recent years, including extensive work on the legislative process, the House of Lords and select committees.

Tracing amendments in both chambers on 12 bills (2005-2012) revealed that although at first glance government amendments were much more successful than non-government amendments (94 per cent were passed, compared to 0.7 per cent of non-government amendments), in fact 60 per cent of government amendments that made substantive policy change were traceable to parliamentary pressure, mostly through previous non-government amendments. Select committee recommendations can also lead the government to bring forward amendments of their own , notably including the reversal of the Labour government’s manifesto policy on smoking in public places from a partial to a complete ban. These findings are elaborated in an article by Meg Russell, Daniel Gover and Kristina Wollter, recently published in the journal Parliamentary Affairs.

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The Privy Council and renewal of the BBC Charter

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Tonight Lord Fowler is speaking at a Constitution Unit seminar about the future of the BBC, as the corporation’s Charter comes up for renewal amid fears about its future funding and independence. The Charter is formally approved by the Privy Council, but will in fact be subject to significant parliamentary scrutiny. In this post Robert Hazell explains the role of the Privy Council, and the process of Charter renewal.

In media interviews about Jeremy Corbyn joining the Privy Council, I have been tempted to dismiss it as a dignified part of the constitution.  It has been criticised for being undemocratic and unaccountable, but in truth most of its formal business is of very little public interest.  It does meet in private, and its members are sworn to secrecy (hence the security briefings which the Prime Minister can give to the Leader of the Opposition on ‘Privy Councillor terms’).  But occasionally it is responsible for something of wide public interest, such as renewal of the BBC’s Charter.  On those occasions approval by the Privy Council does not preclude extensive public and parliamentary debate.

The Privy Council has about 650 members, mainly senior politicians; many of them now retired, since appointment is for life.  They are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the government; some members such as senior judges are appointed ex officio.  Their role is to advise the Queen on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative.  Meetings are held once a month, to approve Orders in Council.  The Queen is usually attended by just four ministers, led by the Lord President of the Council (currently the Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling).  Meetings are held standing up, so despatch of the business is brisk.  Every Order in Council has been drafted by a government department, and where necessary is subject to prior consultation and collective ministerial agreement; approval by the Privy Council is the final stage, a formal sign-off with no discussion.
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