The 2016 Queen’s speech and the constitution

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Last week’s Queen’s speech included proposals to bring forward a British bill of rights and a commitment that ministers would ‘uphold the sovereignty of Parliament and the primacy of the House of Commons’. Mark Elliott suggests that if action was taken to implement them these measures would be highly significant. However, there is no sign of developed government thinking in these areas at this stage and so, in practice, they may amount to very little.

This year’s Queen’s speech touches on two possible constitutional reform measures. (I pass over the Wales Bill, which was published in draft in October 2015). The first concerns the replacement of the Human Rights Act 1998 with a ‘British Bill of Rights’, while the second concerns the sovereignty of parliament and the ‘primacy’ of the House of Commons. If implemented, these measures would be highly significant. But the signs are that, for the time being anyway, they may amount to very little in practice – not least because the Government’s thinking in relation to them appears to be undeveloped to say the least.

A British bill of rights

The Conservative Party has for some considerable time said that it wants to replace the Human Rights Act (HRA) with a bill of rights (albeit that exactly what would thereby be entailed has been, and remains, shrouded in uncertainty). Any attempt at reform in this area was stymied in the last parliament by the politics of coalition, the Conservatives’ Liberal Democrat partners being staunchly committed to the retention of the HRA. The most that could be managed then was a Commission on a Bill of Rights, whose proposals, such as they were, came to nothing.

Freed from the shackles of coalition, the Government promised in last year’s Queen’s speech to bring forward ‘proposals for a British Bill of Rights’. This year’s speech contained an almost identically worded undertaking promising ‘proposals’ but not a bill as such. The fact that little, if any, progress appears to have been made in this area is testament to the legal, constitutional and political difficulties that arise (matters that I consider further here). In political terms, the government appears to be divided on the question of whether the UK should remain a party to the ECHR – the Home Secretary thinks not – while the politics of devolution represent a major complication.

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Scotland, Wales and Ireland point to how governments should be formed in hung parliaments

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Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones have this week been re-elected as First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, whilst two week ago Enda Kenny was re-elected as Irish Taoiseach. In each case the newly elected parliament elected the head of the new government. In a new report Petra Schleiter, Valerie Belu and Robert Hazell argue that a similar procedure should be adopted at Westminster, where currently the Queen decides who should be Prime Minister before parliament meets. Robert Hazell explains why.

This week has seen the re-election of Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones as First Ministers in Scotland and in Wales, following the devolved elections on 5 May. Two weeks ago we witnessed the re-election of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach in Ireland, ten weeks after the Irish election on 26 February. What these three countries have in common is not just that the same leader has been re-elected, but that in their recent elections Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland all saw the return of a hung parliament in which no party gained an overall majority. In these circumstances it does not fall to the Queen to decide who shall be First Minister, or in Ireland to the President; under their constitutions it falls to the newly elected parliament, whose first business (after election of a presiding officer) is to elect the head of the new government.  That is what happened in Ireland on 6 May, in Scotland on 17 May and in Wales on 18 May.

In a report published this week, which I have written with Professor Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu of Oxford University, we suggest that is what should also happen in future at Westminster. Instead of the Queen having to decide who should be Prime Minister before parliament meets, the first business of a newly elected House of Commons should be to select the Prime Minister, who would then be formally appointed by the Queen.

This may seem unnecessary after elections when a single party wins an overall majority, and it is obvious who is going to be Prime Minister: as happened in the UK in 2015. In those cases the election of the leader of the majority party to head the new government would be a formality.  The value of asking the House of Commons to choose the Prime Minister is when it is not obvious who can command confidence in the newly elected parliament. That is always going to be the case in a hung parliament, especially if it is closely hung. We risk forgetting how narrowly we escaped from having such a parliament after the 2015 general election. In the weeks before the election the polls suggested a very close result, with some forecasting a dead heat between the two major parties. Although the Cabinet Manual says it is for the political parties to work out who can command confidence in the new parliament, there is a risk of confusion and uncertainty if there is a standoff, with both main parties claiming to be able to form a government. The only reliable way to determine who can command confidence in such a situation is a nomination vote in the House of Commons. That would be a quicker and cleaner solution than the traditional vote on the Queen’s Speech as the first test of confidence in a new government.

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Reform is needed to restore public and parliamentary confidence in the private members’ bill process

Last month the House of Commons Procedure Committee published a report on the private members’ bill process in which a number of proposals for reform were put forward. The committee’s chair, Charles Walker, offers an overview and argues that the alternative to reform is that more members will abandon the existing process and backbench legislation, as we know it, will cease.

Procedure Committees past and present have examined the private members’ bill (PMB) process and found it gravely wanting. It is becoming more and more evident that parliamentary and public confidence in the process is waning. The current process misleads the general public, often falsely raises expectations about legislative action, and operates under procedures which are too easily gamed to prevent genuine legislative proposals from proceeding. The Procedure Committee undertook its latest inquiry into PMBs in light of experience of the process in this session and increasing dissatisfaction with the House’s procedures for PMBs, building on the work of the predecessor committee in the last parliament.

We identified two fundamental problems with the present process. Our chief concern is the lack of transparency: the process is impenetrable to the general public and too often brings parliament into disrepute. Our second concern is that it is now extremely difficult for a genuine PMB to reach the statute book—increasingly, not because the House as a whole has decided that a bill should not progress, but because a small number of members opposed to a measure can effectively veto it.

Evidence we heard suggests that the public is baffled by the process. Colleagues are frequently lobbied by constituents and others with requests to be present at Westminster on a sitting Friday to support a bill which has little (if any) chance of being debated, let alone reaching the statute book.

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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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The length of modern legislation means that the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny is often compromised

In a new report published by the Centre for Policy Studies Daniel Greenberg identifies a number of trends that he argues are reducing the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. In particular, he suggests that the length of modern legislation is becoming so great that significant parts of bills often receive no detailed scrutiny at all. Here, he summarises his report and suggests action that might be taken to help remedy the situation.

Recent parliamentary practice discloses a number of dangerous legislative trends that threaten the effective protection of the rule of law, by diluting parliament’s power and influence, and concentrating power in the hands of the executive in general and the civil service in particular.

The length of new bills and the number of clauses that they include has become ever greater over recent decades, and the result of portmanteau bills in particular is that even if parliament wanted to scrutinise them effectively it would be unable to do so.  Over the past 50 years, the number of acts passed by governments has stayed approximately the same. However, the average number of clauses included within them has doubled.

It is still common to describe the committee stage of the examination of bills in both Houses as a ‘line-by-line’ scrutiny process; and parliamentarians on all sides of each House commonly refer to it in that way, and often congratulate themselves on scrutinising and refining bills at great length.  The reality, however, is that the committee stage in particular has become diluted to such a degree that it can no longer be described as taking place in a consistent way.

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Parliament, government and secondary legislation: Lords select committees respond to the Strathclyde Review

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Two House of Lords select committees have this week published reports that are highly critical of the recommendations of the Strathclyde review into the Lords’ powers in relation to secondary legislation, published in December. Mark Elliott summarises the committees’ findings and welcomes calls for a consensual, reflective approach to be taken.

I wrote in December about the Strathclyde Review, which took place at great speed in the autumn against the backdrop of the House of Lords’ refusal to allow the enactment of secondary legislation on tax credits. The Review – set up by the government – recommended stripping the Lords of its power to veto statutory instruments by investing the Commons with statutory authority to override the Lords in the event of opposition to secondary legislation. Two House of Lords select committees – the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee – have now published reports that are highly critical of the Strathclyde proposals.

The report of the Constitution Committee

In its report, the Constitution Committee rejects the notion that the tax credits affair amounted to a ‘constitutional crisis’ and says that a ‘single Government defeat … does not seem a sound foundation upon which to base significant and lasting reform’ in this area. Indeed, the committee argues that the Strathclyde Review ended up – as a result of the terms of reference set for it by the Government – asking the ‘wrong questions’ and framing the issues inappropriately. In particular, the committee takes the view that while the Strathclyde Review approaches the matter in terms of the relationship between the two houses of parliament, the underlying, and far more profound, issue concerns the relationship between parliament and the executive:

Delegated legislation is the product of a delegation of power from Parliament to the Government. Parliamentary scrutiny of secondary legislation is the mechanism by which Parliament assures itself that the Government is exercising that delegated authority in an appropriate way, and in a manner which accords with Parliament’s intentions. Yet Parliamentary scrutiny of delegated legislation is less intensive and arguably less effective than its scrutiny of primary legislation. Statutory instruments cannot be amended, so there is little scope or incentive for compromise. Far less time is spent debating delegated legislation than is spent debating primary legislation. And … it is established practice that the House of Lords does not vote down delegated legislation except in exceptional circumstances. The result is that the Government can pass legislative proposals with greater ease and with less scrutiny if it can do so as delegated, rather than primary, legislation. It is in this context that proposals to weaken the powers of the House of Lords should be considered.

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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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