Checks and balances: what are they, and why do they matter?

Checks and balances are fundamental elements of constitutional democracy that prevent the unconstrained exercise of power, improve the quality of decision-making and ensure that mechanisms exist for preventing or penalising unethical behaviour. Lisa James, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell argue that they therefore play a vital role in maintaining public confidence in the political system and the government has a particular responsibility to uphold them.

Background

The importance of checks and balances is often cited in debates about the health of democracy, and their erosion is widely considered a sign of democratic backsliding. But what are they, and why are they important?

Checks and balances are the mechanisms which distribute power throughout a political system – preventing any one institution or individual from exercising total control. The words ‘checks’ and ‘balances’ are typically used together, but can be thought of as referring to subtly different (though overlapping) things. Checks are the mechanisms which allow political institutions to limit one another’s power – for example by blocking, delaying or simply criticising decisions. Balances, meanwhile, ensure that a wide variety of views and interests are represented in the democratic process. This includes structures like federalism, or broader features of democratic functioning such as the existence of multiple political parties.

The term ‘checks and balances’ is given more prominence in some countries than others, and is often particularly associated with the United States. But the principle is core to all modern democracies.

Checks and balances operate between and within most political institutions. However, the risks of unconstrained power are often considered particularly high with respect to the executive. This briefing hence focuses on the key institutions which check and balance executive power at UK level:

  1. parliament
  2. the courts
  3. impartial officials, and
  4. media and civil society.

Why do checks and balances matter?

Checks and balances play two key roles. First, they limit the power of the majority to act without regard to the views or interests of others. They ensure that the perspectives of those who are in the minority on a given issue are represented – for example, by guaranteeing that opposition voices are heard in the process of law-making. Second, at a more practical level, they ensure that policy is tested and behaviour supervised. This helps to improve the quality of decision-making, and prevent behaviour which might threaten the integrity or reputation of the political system.

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What does the new Prime Minister mean for the constitution?

The Constitution Unit held an event in November at which three expert panellists discussed the potential constitutional impact of newly appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, discussing the problems posed by concerns about ministerial standards, the government’s decision to proceed with several bills that pose worrying constitutional questions, and the future of the devolution settlement. Alice Hart and Hashmath Hassan summarise the contributions.

On the day that the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot legally hold another independence referendum without Westminster’s approval, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the potential constitutional impact of the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, and brought together three expert panellists: Jill Rutter (a Senior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government); Dr Ruth Fox (Director of the Hansard Society); and Professor Colm O’Cinneide (Professor of Constitutional and Human Rights Law at University College London). The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions. 

Jill Rutter 

Jill Rutter discussed the need to repair the damage done to the perception of standards in public life during Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister. Johnson suffered the resignation of two Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests in as many years, tolerated misbehaviour from his MPs and was ‘fast and loose with the facts’ in parliament. Sunak’s commitment to the integrity agenda is unclear, Rutter stated. He has made assurances that he will appoint an Independent Adviser (unlike his predecessor, Liz Truss, who indicated that she did not need one) and has appointed a barrister to lead an independent inquiry into bullying allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. However, questions remain about Sunak’s approach to his new Independent Adviser, such as whether he will provide the postholder with sufficient resources (as promised by Johnson to former Independent Adviser Lord (Christopher) Geidt) and whether he will make any effort to ensure their independence in terms of both the publication of reports and initiation of investigations without the approval of the Prime Minister.  

Other than these immediate actions, little is known about Sunak’s plans to restore integrity and trust in government. Clamping down on lobbying may be a good place to start, Rutter suggested: she noted that the Gordon Brown review of the constitution commissioned by the Labour Party is planning to propose limitations on MPs’ second jobs. She provided some examples of big ideas that Sunak could adopt, such as Labour’s proposal to establish an Integrity and Ethics Commission and the Australian government’s introduction of an anti-corruption commission. A key challenge for Sunak, Rutter suggested, is dealing with Johnson’s and Truss’ lists of nominations to the House of Lords – especially with regard to how they may affect trust in politics.  

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The constitutional causes and consequences of the Truss-Kwarteng budget crisis

Within weeks, Liz Truss’s premiership was plunged into economic and political turmoil due to Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. But this crisis, suggests Meg Russell, has distinctly constitutional roots. Building on Boris Johnson’s legacy, Truss chose to sideline expert officials and regulators, and shut out her own MPs. The consequences that have since befallen her are a compelling advertisement for respecting – and rebuilding – appropriate constitutional checks and balances.

The Conservative Party conference, indeed the entirety of Liz Truss’s new premiership, has been severely destabilised by the market reaction to Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. Far from securing Truss her desired reputation for acting on the energy crisis and boosting the economy, and a positive bounce in the polls, Kwarteng’s 23 September ‘fiscal event’ saw the pound plunge, lenders withdraw mortgage products, and Labour achieve record poll leads. Faced with a mass rebellion by Conservative MPs, Kwarteng performed a U-turn on abolition of the top rate of income tax, while other parts of the package may face further such trouble ahead.

Fiscal policy is well beyond the usual scope of the Constitution Unit blog, or of this author. But the extent to which the unforced economic and political crisis built on foundations of poor constitutional and governance practice is striking. Boris Johnson played fast and loose with many constitutional norms, and Liz Truss seems quickly to have followed suit. But her now catastrophic position – with some Conservative MPs calling for the Prime Minister’s removal after less than a month in the job – demonstrates just how shortsighted and dangerous such behaviour can be.

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Constitutional standards matter: the new Prime Minister must not forget that voters care about the honesty and integrity of their leaders

Tomorrow, it is expected that the UK will have a new Prime Minister. Whoever is appointed will have a number of high priority issues competing for their attention. Peter Riddell argues that constitutional standards should be near the top of the new PM’s to do list. He calls for a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests to be appointed, and warns against interfering with the Privileges Committee investigation into Boris Johnson.

The new Prime Minister is going to have such a large in tray of urgent decisions that there is a danger that the ethical and constitutional issues that largely brought down Boris Johnson will be neglected. There is an even worse risk that the wrong lessons will be learned from these events and that the future standards regime will be weaker than before, particularly over the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests.

During the regional hustings meetings of the past few weeks, there have been hardly any references to the controversies over standards that so dramatically undermined Johnson’s position among Conservative MPs. As striking, and worrying, have been the recurrent attacks by Liz Truss’s supporters on unelected advisers and regulators, whether the civil service, the Bank of England, City and business regulators, or ethical watchdogs. In particular, while Rishi Sunak has said that he would quickly appoint a new Independent Adviser to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Lord (Christopher) Geidt in mid-June, Truss has been more equivocal.

Truss has so far refused to commit to appointing an ethics adviser, arguing that she personally has ‘always acted with integrity’ and understands the difference between right and wrong. She has said that ‘one of the problems we have got in this country in the way we approach things is that we have numerous advisers and independent bodies, and rules and regulations’. While she would ‘ensure the correct apparatus is in place so that people are able to whistle-blow’, she believes that ‘ethics and responsibility cannot be out-sourced to an adviser’.

This view confuses the roles of advisers/regulators and ministers. In the case of the Independent Adviser, there is no outsourcing of ethics and responsibility. What the Adviser is being asked to do is to establish the facts about whether the Ministerial Code has been broken, while an elected politician, in this case the Prime Minister, decides whether a minister should be punished and what form any sanction should take. In that sense the Prime Minister is the guardian of the final judgement on ethics and responsibility. And there is now general agreement that there should be a range of sanctions, and not just resignation.

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Rebuilding constitutional standards: five questions for the next Conservative leader

Boris Johnson yesterday fired the starting gun on a Conservative leadership race which should make the winner Prime Minister. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell pose five key questions which Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to ask the party leadership candidates, based on recent public, parliamentary and expert concerns.

Boris Johnson’s premiership has been marked by ever-growing concerns about the maintenance of various constitutional standards, which in recent days have reached fever pitch. These were echoed repeatedly in ministerial resignation statements and calls for him to go. Recent opinion polls meanwhile show strong public support for constitutional standards of integrity and accountability.

Conservative MPs now have an opportunity to choose among candidates to take Johnson’s place, which also creates an important constitutional responsibility. A high priority when picking the next Conservative leader should be to restore the standards essential to UK democracy, in order both to rebuild integrity in politics, and to work towards rebuilding public trust.

This blogpost sets out five key questions for Conservative leadership candidates, reflecting concerns raised by the public, independent expert organisations, and MPs themselves. Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to prioritise these questions, and raise them with the candidates when the party is making its choice.

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