The UK at a constitutional crossroads

Alan Trench discusses Ways forward for the United Kingdom, a new report from the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law which considers the constitutional issues that the UK as a whole will need to address in the short and medium term.

The impact of the Scottish independence referendum has been wide-ranging. It raises a number of questions about how the UK works as a whole and its territorial constitution, as well as ones about Scotland.  But for all the importance and urgency of these issues, they have not yet been subject to any wide-ranging or sustained scrutiny.  A new report from the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, available here, seeks to change that and look at what issues the UK as a whole will need to address in the coming months and years.  The review commission has been chaired by Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC, and its membership and remit are set out here

The Commission’s starting point was to consider the implications of the piecemeal, ad hoc approach to devolution taken so far.  Its view is that this has reached the end of its road.  The knock-on effects of the Smith Commission proposals for Scotland mean that this now creates serious constitutional difficulties beyond Scotland.  A more systematic view, considering the UK as a whole, is badly needed. 

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“Thursday’s election will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup”

Alan Trench assesses devolution commitments in the party manifestos and argues that pro-UK and nationalist parties alike display a lack of coherence and consistency. The SNP and Plaid Cymru seem to have conflicting demands, while the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems fail to take an overarching view of the implications of their proposals for each part of the UK on the others. It is however clear that the outcome of Thursday’s election will have major implications for the structure of the country.

It is hard to think of a general election that has ever been so freighted with questions about the UK’s territorial constitution. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the outcome of the 2015 election, and actions of the government that takes office after it, will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup. This post considers what the manifestos tell us about what the various parties propose to do and how they propose to do it, when it comes to the reshaping of devolution arrangements across the UK, and then discusses some of the issues that will loom larger after 7 May.

The pro-UK parties

The 2015 manifestos contain a welter of devolution-related commitments. Those in the three pro-UK parties (Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour) are all strikingly similar, though not identical. For Scotland, all commit to implementing the Smith Commission’s recommendations, and to retaining the Barnett formula. (Interestingly, they do not commit to the UK Government’s white paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, raising the possibility they could scrape off some of the barnacles that paper puts on the Smith proposals). Labour want to go further in a ‘Home Rule bill’ in unspecified ways, though it appears that wider scope for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on welfare matters is key to it. These commitments rather resemble those made by the same three parties in 2010 about the implementation of the Calman Commission’s recommendations, though with Labour somewhat breaking ranks with the two governing parties.

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Better intergovernmental relations for better devolution

Alan Trench calls for a more systematic approach to intergovernmental relations between the devolved and UK governments. He argues that leaving matters to be handled in ad hoc, reactive, unstructured way is no longer an option.

Intergovernmental relations are key to making devolution work effectively. The Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly all operate in a wider context of governance across the UK, and how their functions overlap with those of the UK government (and each other) is vital for all four governments and all UK citizens. The Smith Commission’s recent report pays a good deal of attention to the need to ‘beef up’ intergovernmental co-ordination as part of the package of further devolution.

The UK government is not very interested in managing intergovernmental relations, however. It put in place an attenuated under-institutionalised set of mechanisms in 1999, and has allowed these to weaken or fall further into disuse since then. The key institution is the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC). Plenary meetings of this body ceased altogether between 2002 and 2008; they have been more or less annual since then, but are characterised by grandstanding rather than productive work. The JMC’s ‘Domestic’ format has nearly ceased to function, as so few policy issues concern more than one devolved government. The only established format of the JMC which does meet regularly, and does more or less what it was expected to, is the EU format which helps formulate the UK ‘line’ for major EU Council meetings, though there are problems even there. In reality, most intergovernmental issues are bilateral, and with few exceptions they are dealt with in an ad hoc, casual way, out of sight of public or legislatures. As a result many important issues slip through the net.

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What follows the referendum: negotiating Scottish independence, or delivering Devo More

Earlier this year Alan Trench gave a lecture at the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus about what might follow the vote in the Scottish referendum. In this article, he picks out the key points.

The full speech is available on the Social Science Research Network here, or can be downloaded directly here

Perhaps the most important and novel part of the lecture is where I map out what would follow a Yes vote – the sort of steps needed, particularly on the rUK side to tackle the many uncertainties that will follow. This is a separate issue from that of the strengths of each party in the negotiation (discussed here earlier in the week).  This would call for a great deal of imaginative thinking, in the midst of a first-order constitutional crisis. In particular, it seems to me that:

  • The negotiating process needs to move with all due speed, to preserve the democratic legitimacy of both rUK as well as an independent Scotland. There is no good reason for rUK to seek to prolong the process, and plenty of reasons for it not to.
  • The 2015 UK General election presents grave problems for that – the time lost to campaigning in an election and briefing a possible incoming new government means it will be impossible to make a proper start in negotiations before June 2015, since even provisional agreements reached under the present government might lack support from the new one.
  • One option – which appears to be gaining some support, particularly among Conservatives– is to postpone the 2015 election. But the present government has already been in office for 4½ years, and has no mandate to negotiate something so important to rUK as Scottish independence.
  • A better option would therefore be to hold a general election early, before the end of 2014, so there was both certainty about the composition of the UK/rUK Government and that government had a political mandate for independence negotiations. This would need approval by a two-thirds majority in the Commons, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

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The Silk Commission’s Part 2 report

If ever a report deserved careful consideration rather than an immediate response, it’s the Silk Commission’s Part 2 report.  The product of more than 15 months’ evidence-taking and deliberation, it is a carefully framed, principles-based blueprint for the next step for Welsh devolution.  The full report is available here, and the executive summary (which I must admit to having relied on for this post) is here.  There’s BBC News coverage here, here and here, and from Wales Online here.

The key recommendations are:

  1. devolution of policing to the National Assembly
  2. devolution of responsibility for youth justice, but not the courts or the legal system generally
  3. devolution of planning powers to approve energy projects of up to 350 megawatts, of powers relating to sewerage and the regulation of some aspects of water supply within Wales, and for there to be a Welsh Crown Estate Commissioner.
  4. some further devolution of powers in relation to rail franchising, bus and taxi regulation, and speed limits and drink-driving
  5. appointment of a Welsh member of the BBC Trust (something already in place for Scotland), and control for the Assembly over public funding for S4C
  6. an increase in the size of the National Assembly, noting many calls for 80 members but leaving the issue for further consideration
  7. an enhanced approach to the conduct of intergovernmental relations and the machinery for that. The Secretary of State for Wales would also lose his seat in the National Assembly, his right to receive its papers and obligation to present the UK Government’s legislative programme each Parliamentary session.
  8. perhaps most importantly, a move to a ‘reserved powers’ model for the National Assembly’s legislative powers, away from the current ‘conferred powers’ one, along with a removal of the current and problematic protection of pre-devolution powers of UK ministers.

There are also calls for further study of a number of matters – not just the size of the Assembly and the number of AMs, but also the possible devolution of prisons and the court system.  It sees no need for a further referendum on any of these proposals.

What is notable about this is how cautious it is.  The recommendations eschew a number of more radical calls – for the establishment of a separate legal jurisdiction, or for devolution of the civil or criminal courts, the civil or criminal law, or of welfare.  I argued in my own submission that it would be very hard to establish a ‘reserved powers’ model without establishing a separate legal jurisdiction, and that this could be done without losing many of the advantages of the current shared arrangement.  (See also THIS EARLIER POST on the relationship between a legal jurisdiction and legislative powers.)   I suggested as well that the Welsh Government’s proposals for a reserved powers model would imply a devolved power to legislate for areas like land or contract law (these are omitted from the Welsh Government’s proposed list of reserved matters).  This would achieve the substantive outcome of a separate legal jurisdiction without formally calling it such –which may be the worst of all worlds.

The Silk proposals are, in essence, an attempt to make sure the division of powers between Welsh and UK institution catches up with reality.  They’re not actually very radical; they don’t take account, for example, of the impact of the September referendum on Scottish independence (whether there’s a Yes vote leading to Scottish independence and a restructuring of the remainder of the United Kingdom, or a No vote resulting in further devolution for Scotland).  Rather like Holtham before it, this is an exercise in bringing Welsh devolution up to date not making far-reaching plans for the future.

However, the proposals do represent a clear consensus across the Welsh political parties about what should happen next.  I’ll shortly be putting up a post about the problems arising from the way the UK Government approached Silk Part 1, and its profound misreading of the political and economic situation in Wales compared with Scotland.  The gravest mistake the UK Government could make would be to cherry-pick these proposals.  The second gravest would be to take a year to decide what to do, especially given that it has a legislative slot in the next Parliamentary session and not using that would mean a significant wait for any action – even though, from his initial reaction (saying a response would be for the next UK Parliament not the current one), that’s just what the Secretary of State seems to intend.

UPDATE, 4 March: Carwyn Jones’s response to the Silk Part 2 report, here, is interesting.  Although Jones calls for a substantial expansion of the powers of the National Assembly and Welsh Government, he appears unwilling to accept the logical implication that greater self-government means no longer being in a privileged position when it comes to UK-wide institutions.  He seeks to maintain the office of the Secretary of State (despite his well-publicised difficulties with both Conservative holders of that post), and the present number of Welsh MPs.  Both cases are poor. For a discussion of the Secretary of State, see HERE.  The latter case is if anything weaker.  Wales is presently over-represented at Westminster; if MPs were allocated to Wales on a similar basis to England, it would have around 32, not its present 40.  Scotland was similarly over-represented in the Commons before devolution, and the creation of the Scottish Parliament saw the number of Scottish MPs reduced to the English ‘quota’.  That meant a reduction from 72 to 59.  This was provided for in the Scotland Act 1998, and (to avoid  a reduction in the size of the Scottish Parliament as well) required further legislation to ‘decouple’ the number of MSPs from the number of MPs.  (Decoupling has already happened for Wales, as part of the abortive plans to reduce the size of the Commons.)

Wales cannot expect to maintain a privileged position at UK level if devolved powers are to be extended.  Carwyn Jones is trying to have his cake and east it.

 

This post also appears on Alan’s blog, Devolution Matters, here.