What happened to the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission?

The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto promised to appoint a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to conduct a wide-ranging constitutional review. In practice, this promise has not been delivered. Tom Fleming and Petra Schleiter discuss this by summarising their recent article about the Commission, Radical departure or opportunity not taken? The Johnson government’s Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, as published in ‘British Politics’.

What did the government promise?

At the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party’s manifesto promised to appoint a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’. This body would be tasked with reviewing various aspects of the constitution and producing proposals ‘to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates’.

The Commission’s proposed remit was very broad, encompassing many of the central elements of the UK’s constitution. It would be asked to examine: ‘the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people’, as well as the Human Rights Act, administrative law, and judicial review. However, the manifesto was decidedly vague about how the Commission would be organised. There was no information about its proposed membership, format, or timeline, beyond a commitment that it would be established within a year of the election.

The manifesto’s language suggested that this proposal stemmed in part from the government’s experience of the Brexit process. This was most obvious from the manifesto’s controversial description of ‘the way so many MPs have devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people in the 2016 referendum’ creating ‘a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people’. This led some observers to warn against the dangers of the Commission ‘fighting the last war’ rather than crafting durable constitutional reforms.

Whatever its motivation, the proposed Commission had the potential to be a radical departure from previous investigations of constitutional reform in the UK. In particular, it held out the prospect of a joined-up review of multiple interconnected constitutional issues. Such joined-up thinking is vital for ensuring a coherent reform agenda, but has been conspicuous by its absence in recent decades.

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How do you solve a problem like judicial review reform?

The Independent Review of Administrative Law (IRAL) announced last autumn has been much criticised for both its remit and its process. Joe Tomlinson and Lewis Graham offer an early assessment of the review, highlighting the flaws in its conception and design. They also acknowledge that the recently announced review of human rights seems not to be repeating the mistakes of IRAL.

In our constitutional system, it is a reality that central government wears two hats in relation to the judicial review system: the actor chiefly responsible for the design and management of the system in practice and the key ‘repeat player’ defendant. It is almost inevitable that, from time to time, tensions will result from this arrangement. Indeed, the UK has a rich history of governments of different political stripes ‘clamping down’ on the judicial review system and ‘striking back’ against specific court judgments. When such moments occur, they understandably provoke a form of constitutional anxiety that is familiar in the UK: a sense that the government is allowed to mark its own homework (or at least to exercise influence over the marker). While cyclical anxiety about the position of judicial review and looming reforms may be better understood as a feature not a bug of our contemporary system, startlingly little attention has been paid to the issue of how reform to the judicial review system ought to be considered. 

The importance of the reform process adopted was on display recently when, after being on the wrong side of a series of high-profile court cases, the government announced that the time was right for a new wide-ranging reconsideration of judicial review. It was clear immediately that this review—styled the Independent Review of Administrative Law (IRAL)—promised to be the most expansive policy examination of judicial review in decades. It is chaired by Lord (Edward) Faulks—a former Conservative Justice minister and now a crossbencher in the House of Lords—and constituted of a small group of academics and practitioners. Six months or so later, there has been much angst about potentially regressive changes being proposed and the defence of the current system has been robust. However, at the same time, many have been pointing to what they perceive to be significant deficiencies in the reform process. Features of the IRAL process which have drawn criticism include:

  • Confusion over the parameters of review: IRAL’s formal Terms of Reference have been described by Mark Elliott as ‘replete [with] syntactical errors’ and commentators have drawn attention to a number of ambiguities relating to the scope of the Panel’s mandate. For example, whilst the Review’s Call for Evidence confirmed that it was ‘considering public law control of all UK wide and England and Wales powers only,’ it seemingly left open a number of questions as to how any proposed changes to the law would affect devolved institutions (see here, here and here). The consultation also contains a paucity of relevant information, in contrast to previous consultations, which included details of the specific proposals and empirical data being considered. 
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The origins of the Cabinet Office Constitution Unit (1974–79): documenting the pitfalls of constitutional reform

In 1974, the Cabinet Office established a ‘Constitution Unitfollowing a difficult birthing process, which operated until the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. It was this Unit that inspired our own founding Director, Robert Hazell, when naming the newly-formed Constitution Unit 25 years ago. As part of this latter Unit’s 25th anniversary, Joseph Ward examines its earlier namesake, its founding and work, and what lessons we can learn from its role within government.

The 1970s was a decade marked by rising distrust in Britain’s political institutions. Intransigent governing problems, from inflation to nascent nationalism, fuelled a narrative that Britain was in crisis. Commentators in both academia and the press talked of a crisis of ‘governability’, with the state seemingly unable to keep pace with the demands placed on it by the public. 

In response to these trends, the Wilson government(s) of 1964–70 and 1974–76 instigated a series of constitutional reform measures. After creating the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution in 1969, Wilson sought to revisit the findings of the inquiry once returned to government in 1974, creating a bespoke Constitution Unit within the Cabinet Office to implement proposals for devolution to Scotland and Wales in particular. This ‘Constitution Unit’ was the conscious inspiration for the name adopted by UCL’s Constitution Unit when it was founded by Professor Robert Hazell in 1995, and which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary

This blog post examines a selection of the Constitution Unit records held at the National Archives to document how the unit came about and to consider the struggles within the state over its remit. The political turbulence of that period, especially after James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976, presented the Unit with many challenges, as did the magnitude of its task. The post concludes with some reflections on the origins of the Unit to consider any lessons it might hold for constitutional reform in the contemporary context.

Foundations: The Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution

In response to significant by-election wins for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists in the late 1960s, Harold Wilson set up a Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1969, tasked with examination of ‘the present functions of the central legislature and government in relation to the several countries, nations and regions of the United Kingdom’ (Cmnd. 5460: 32). Its course was characterised by turbulence and disagreement: the commission took 4.5 years to report, more than one member resigned before it completed its work and the initial Chairman, Lord Crowther, died in 1972 midway through the inquiry. 

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