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

Sir-Robert-Rogers

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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