Looking forward, looking back: an evening with Sir David Natzler

IMG.2771On 19 March, the Unit held an event: ‘Challenges for Parliament: Looking Back, Looking Forward’, at which Sir David Natzler – who retired as Clerk of the House of Commons in February – spoke to Professor Meg Russell about his 40-year career in parliament. The discussion was both entertaining and informative; Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the key points.

Early days

Sir David first started working in the House of Commons in 1975, at what he called an ‘exciting time’, just two years after the UK had joined what was then known as the European Communities. His first assignment was as clerk to the European Legislation Committee, which was facing the novel challenge of sifting through the legislation passed by an unelected Council of Ministers sitting in the capital city of another country, and recommending which measures should be debated.

Parliament was unsurprisingly a very different place in the early years of Sir David’s Commons career. Talking of the key differences, he first spoke of how ‘expectations’ had changed significantly since then. For example, there were no limits on how long a Member could speak in those days. Whereas the Speaker (or one of the Deputy Speakers) can now impose relatively short time limits for MPs wishing to speak, that was not the case in 1975. Sir David considered this ‘almost one of the biggest changes’ of the past two or three centuries; that speaking for a long time can no longer be used to ‘destroy business’.

One of the other key differences between then and now is that the House of Commons lacked fiscal independence when he first started working there. It was instead reliant on the government for finance, thereby limiting its ability to take crucial decisions such as whether or not to recruit more staff. The Treasury hence had control of the Commons until the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978, at which point the Commons became fiscally independent. Continue reading

Understanding English identity and institutions in a changing United Kingdom

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133image_normaliainmclean200pxThe current devolution settlement has left England as the only UK country subject to permanent direct rule from Westminster, which has the dual role of governing both the UK and England. In their new book, Akash Paun, Michael Kenny and Iain McLean have been exploring some of the key arguments concerning the status of England within the Union, who speaks for England politically, and the concept of an English national identity.

Governing England, a new volume published today by the British Academy and Oxford University Press, explores whether, why and with what consequences there has been a disentangling of England from Britain in terms of its governance and national identity. The book concludes that the English have grown dissatisfied with their constitution and relationship with the wider world (as reflected in England’s decisive vote in favour of Brexit), and less content for their nationhood to be poured into the larger vessel of Britishness. But England’s national consciousness is fragmented and embryonic – unlike the other UK nations, it has yet to engage in a reflective national conversation about how it wishes to be governed – and, as Brexit unfolds, England is struggling to reshape its relationship with the other UK nations and the wider world without a cohesive national narrative to guide the way.

England, alone among the nations of the UK, has no legislature or executive of its own, and remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe. It is ruled directly from Westminster and Whitehall by a parliament, government and political parties that simultaneously represent the interests of both the UK and England. Correspondingly, at the level of identity, the English have historically displayed a greater propensity than the Scots and Welsh to conflate their own nationhood with a sense of affiliation to Britain and its state. As Robert Hazell noted in 2006, writing for the Constitution Unit on The English Question, ‘in our history and in our institutions the two identities [of English and British] are closely intertwined, and cannot easily be unwoven’.

As a result of devolution to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, Westminster and Whitehall frequently oversee legislation that applies entirely, or predominantly, to England. But the government and most politicians at Westminster tend to elide these territorial complexities, talking of setting policy or legislating for ‘the nation’ or ‘the country’, whatever the precise territorial application of the announcement in question. Governing England is rarely considered as an enterprise separate from the wider governance of the UK. Continue reading

How the UK and devolved governments can agree on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

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With the EU Withdrawal Bill now in the House of Lords, Clause 11 of the bill is expected to be a cause of potential trouble for the government. The Scottish and Welsh governments, as well as the Labour Party, are all currently opposed to the clause as currently drafted and it seems unlikely it will survive the Lords in its present form. Akash Paun explains the concerns of Edinburgh and Cardiff in this blog and proposes a number of possible solutions, each of which will require compromise on all sides.

The UK government is locked in dispute with the Scottish and Welsh governments over Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill. This clause prevents the devolved administrations from modifying ‘retained EU law’, the term for all the European legislation the bill will bring into domestic law.

The effect would be that all powers exercised in Brussels return to Westminster, at least initially, giving the UK parliament the ability to create binding legal frameworks in place of EU law. The devolved governments say this is unacceptable, and Edinburgh and Cardiff have refused to grant legislative consent to the bill.

The government accepts that Clause 11 needs to be amended, but it has not brought forth alternative proposals, despite promising to do so before the bill left the House of Commons. Meanwhile, the Scottish and Welsh Governments propose that Clause 11 should simply remove the requirement for devolved bodies to act in accordance with EU law. Full control of the 100-plus areas of ‘intersection’ between EU and devolved law would then revert to the devolved level.

In this case, new UK-wide frameworks would have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis and could not be unilaterally imposed by Westminster. The concern in Whitehall is that this would increase the risks of legal uncertainty and regulatory divergence, and could make it more difficult to implement a new UK-EU economic relationship.

The bill has now entered the House of Lords with the UK and devolved governments still dug into their trenches. Recent reports suggest, however, that a peace deal may be within reach. Continue reading

A reset of intergovernmental relations on Brexit is needed to break the deadlock over the EU Withdrawal Bill

The EU Withdrawal Bill has exacerbated the already serious tensions between the UK and the devolved governments over Brexit. Akash Paun argues that the underlying problem is a lack of trust between the governments, and that to break the deadlock there must be a revival of intergovernmental mechanisms and compromise on all sides.

The EU Withdrawal Bill will take the UK out of the European Union while providing that all European law be imported into domestic law to avoid a regulatory black hole after Brexit.

The bill creates wide-ranging powers for ministers to amend this huge body of ‘retained EU law’ to ensure it will be ‘operable’ outside the EU and to reflect the terms of the withdrawal agreement.

In Edinburgh and Cardiff, there are serious concerns about the impact of the bill on devolution and on the balance of power within the UK. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have announced that they oppose granting the bill devolved consent, which Whitehall recognises should be sought under the Sewel convention.

The EU Withdrawal Bill sets a default that EU powers return to Westminster

The central point of contention is clause 11. At present, the devolved parliaments cannot pass legislation that is incompatible with EU law. Clause 11 replaces this constraint with a new provision preventing them modifying the new category of ‘retained EU law’.

This means all powers currently exercised at EU level will initially flow back to Westminster. There is further provision for some of these powers to be ‘released’ to the devolved level, but at the discretion of UK ministers.

The Whitehall view is that new frameworks will be required to coordinate policy currently held constant across the UK by EU law in areas such as environmental regulation, agricultural policy, state aid and aspects of justice and transport.

These frameworks might be needed to prevent new barriers to economic activity within the UK, to ensure the UK can strike comprehensive trade deals, to comply with international obligations or to manage common resources such as fisheries.

A long list of policy domains where EU and devolved powers intersect has been published. For Scotland there are 111 areas mentioned. But the extent to which new frameworks will be needed is unclear.

This is partly because the terms of exiting the EU remain unknown and if the UK remains within some EU frameworks, the devolution question will be (largely) moot. But it is also because the government failed to think through these complex questions before triggering Article 50 and is now in a race against the clock.

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Decoding the Conservative-DUP agreement

The confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and DUP was signed yesterday. Akash Paun discusses how it will work in practice, the financial commitments that have been made as part of the deal and the implications for the coming years.

The government yesterday confirmed details of its ‘confidence and supply agreement’ with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The negotiations dragged on for over two weeks, but a deal of some kind always seemed probable. Holding the balance of power is a dream outcome for smaller parties. The DUP, therefore, had nothing to gain and a lot to lose by bringing down the Prime Minister and triggering another election.

Today’s announcement keeps Theresa May in Downing Street, for now at least. But how much do we know about how this arrangement will actually work?

How it will work in practice

The agreement commits the DUP to support the Government on explicit confidence motions and key votes on the Queen’s speech later this week. The status of the Queen’s Speech vote as a confidence test is a matter of some debate.

Further, the DUP will back the government on formal ‘supply’ votes through which the House of Commons authorises government to spend money from the Exchequer, but also on Budgets and other financial legislation. Beyond that, the deal includes a promise to support the government on Brexit and national security legislation.

This is a broader set of commitments than we might have expected. And in exchange for their support, the DUP will surely expect meaningful rights of consultation on the development of policy whether through the planned ‘co-ordination committee’ or other informal channels.

International experience shows that smaller parties in such deals often grow frustrated at their limited ability to influence government policy. This is a challenge even in formal coalitions, but in this instance the DUP will have no ministerial positions, civil service support or automatic access to confidential information. People are naturally interested in the policy substance of such inter-party deals, but getting the governance of the deal right is just as important if it is going to last.

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What happens if the election really does produce a hung parliament?

A hung parliament is a possible – if still unlikely – outcome of the election on Thursday. Akash Paun discusses what would happen next if no one party has an overall majority once the results have declared. He explains that in the UK system ultimately who forms a government is determined by who is best placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons. 

The recent and dramatic shift in the polls makes a hung parliament a plausible, if still unlikely, outcome on Thursday. Westminster has little recent experience of inconclusive elections – just two since the war, in 1974 and 2010. A second hung parliament in seven years would make things interesting, but it would be no crisis.

The sky won’t fall in

A hung parliament might produce a period of uncertainty about the composition of the new administration. The UK is accustomed to a government being formed immediately, but the sky will not fall in if it takes a little longer for the situation to resolve itself. In 2010, it took five days before the handover from Gordon Brown to David Cameron.

The UK is very odd in its haste to form a new government within 24 hours of the polls closing. Fellow Westminster systems like Canada and Australia wait over a week before swearing in the Prime Minister, even when he or she has won a clear majority.

With Brexit talks due to start on 19 June, weeks of coalition negotiations – as in Germany, for example – would be unhelpful. But that is highly unlikely. If it takes a few days to clarify who is best placed to form a stable administration, then that time should be taken. And if the media can restrain itself from hyperbole about political or constitutional crisis, then all the better.

We have argued for greater clarity about the government formation process, but there are some established principles. So long as it is unclear who is to be Prime Minister, the existing government remains in office, subject to similar constraints as in the pre-election ‘purdah’ period. It is the duty of an outgoing prime minister to hold on until unequivocal advice can be given to the Queen about who should be the next guest for tea at the palace.

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Sturgeon sets Scotland on collision course with May’s government

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Yesterday, at the SNP autumn conference in Glasgow, Nicola Sturgeon addressed her party faithful for the first time since the UK voted to leave the European Union. Akash Paun argues that the speech sets the UK and Scottish governments on a collision course.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s opening address to the SNP conference in Glasgow emphasised both her continued opposition to Brexit, especially a withdrawal from the single market, and also her intention to keep Scottish independence high on the agenda. These two issues are very much intertwined in a single debate about Scotland’s right to determine its own constitutional future. Sturgeon has consistently argued that it would be ‘democratically unacceptable’ for Scotland to be taken out of the EU, given that 62 per cent of Scots voted Remain.

Another referendum on independence

Sturgeon announced that her government would publish a draft Independence Referendum Bill as early as next week, paving the way for a rerun of the 2014 referendum in which Scots voted by 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK.

Opponents will inevitably argue that this was a decisive victory for the unionist side, and that there is therefore no call for another referendum so soon, not least since that vote was described at the time as a ‘once-in-a-generation decision’. Anticipating this critique, Sturgeon argued yesterday that ‘a UK out of the single market will not be the same country that Scotland voted to stay part of in 2014.’

In 2014, the UK and Scottish administrations struck a deal on the referendum, and legislation was passed at Westminster to allow Scotland to hold a one-off vote on independence on specific agreed terms. Crucially, this power was not devolved permanently and it has now expired. This would imply that an agreement might be needed once more. If the UK government is unwilling to play ball and the Scottish Parliament presses ahead nonetheless with a second referendum, the prospect of a legal challenge by the UK government would loom.

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