Parliament’s watchdogs: independence and accountability of five constitutional regulators

The Unit today published a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators. Robert Hazell explains that public awareness of these regulators is low and the position of some of them in public life is precarious. He calls for several measures, including putting the CSPL on a statutory footing, protecting watchdogs from dismissal, and repealing the legislation allowing the government to produce a strategy statement for the Electoral Commission.

Origins of this study

The constitutional reforms of the last 25 years have seen an upsurge in the number of constitutional watchdogs. The Constitution Unit anticipated these developments from the start, with an early report on constitutional watchdogs in 1997 (Unit report no. 10). This interest was continued by Oonagh Gay and Barry Winetrobe, who wrote two major reports on watchdogs: Officers of Parliament: Transforming the Role (Unit report no. 100, 2003) and Parliament’s Watchdogs: At the Crossroads(Unit report no. 144, 2008).

Today sees the launch of a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators, (Unit report 195), by Marcial Boo, Zach Pullar and myself. Marcial Boo, former Chief Executive of IPSA, joined the Constitution Unit in late 2020 as an honorary research fellow. We asked him to do a study of those watchdogs which are directly sponsored by parliament, working with Zach Pullar, a young law graduate who has since become a Judicial Assistant in the Court of Appeal. There is an obvious tension with watchdogs whose role is to scrutinise the executive (like the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests), being themselves appointed and sponsored by the government. Less obvious, but just as fundamental, is the tension for watchdogs whose role is to regulate the behaviour of parliamentarians, being themselves appointed and sponsored by parliament.

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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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Lord Geidt’s resignation is a fresh reminder of the government’s restrictive approach to scrutiny of its actions

After barely a year in post, Lord (Christopher) Geidt resigned yesterday as the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. As Peter Riddell demonstrates below, his resignation is a further example of the battles of constitutional watchdogs to remain independent of the executive, and reflects the increasing presidentialism of the current administration, dismissing scrutiny not only by regulators but also by parliament, the courts and the media.

The immediate and pressing question raised by Lord (Christopher) Geidt’s resignation is whether the role of Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests is doable at present. This is only partly a matter of rules but more one of political culture and attitudes. That has been implicitly acknowledged in the response of a Downing Street spokesman that there will not be an immediate replacement and that the Prime Minister is ‘carefully considering’ the future of the role.

As often with resignations, the background and the run-up to the decision to go matter as much as the specific reason for departure. Lord Geidt’s frustrations have been increasingly clear in his correspondence with Boris Johnson, in his annual report last month (as I discussed on this blog last week) and in his evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) on 7 June. Johnson and his team failed to supply relevant information over the decoration of the Downing Street flat when initially sought and the PM did not take account of his obligations under the Ministerial Code over the ‘partygate’ allegations, for which he received a fixed penalty notice. Lord Geidt felt that Johnson’s eventual comments still did not address criticisms by Sue Gray about his adherence to the Nolan principles of public life.

Nonetheless, despite ‘inconsistencies and deficiencies’, Lord Geidt said in his resignation letter that he ‘believed it was possible to continue credibly as Independent Adviser, albeit by a very small margin’. He apparently told Boris Johnson on Monday that he would be content to serve until the end of the year. This followed the government’s concession last month that the Adviser could initiate his own investigations but only after having consulted the Prime Minister and obtained his consent, and with greater transparency over a refusal. Lord Geidt has described this as a ‘low level of ambition’ and his discomfort over the ambiguities of his relationship with the Prime Minister was evident in some robust questioning by PACAC. He was clearly seen by the MPs as not truly independent, not least when he said he was one of the PM’s assets, and, in practice, inhibited from advising a Prime Minister on his own conduct and obligations under the Code.

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The Constitutional Standards of the Constitution Committee: how a code of constitutional standards can help strengthen parliamentary scrutiny

The Constitution Unit has today published a third edition of its report on the Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Constitution Committee. The report contains a code of constitutional standards based on past Constitution Committee reports, which provide detailed guidance on the application of constitutional principles to legislative proposals. Robert Hazell and Dawn Oliver argue that such a code is particularly needed in the 2017 parliament and could have significantly improved the drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

Today the Constitution Unit has published a third edition of its report on the Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution. The report contains a code of constitutional standards based on almost 200 reports from the Constitution Committee, published between its creation in 2001 and the end of the last (2016–17) parliamentary session. The standards provide detailed guidance on the application of constitutional principles to legislative proposals, and cover a range of subjects, including the rule of law, delegated legislation, the separation of powers and individual rights.

The use of a code of soft law constitutional standards is particularly needed in the 2017 parliament. Standards of the type set out in our report could have significantly improved the drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Such a code could also be used by parliamentary committees of either House to enhance the scrutiny of the delegated legislation needed to prepare the statute book for Brexit.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is providing a showcase of parliament’s ability to scrutinise constitutional legislation. It is packed with provisions that raise matters of fundamental constitutional principle, from the rule of law to Henry VIII powers to devolution. A good number of the amendments reflect arguments made by the Constitution Committee, which unusually reported before the bill received its second reading in the Commons.

The government has been criticised by some, including Hannah White from the Institute for Government, for failing to engage meaningfully with parliament before the bill was introduced to the Commons. The government is now making concessions in order to avoid defeats. Engagement with an officially recognised code of standards could have enabled the government to avoid these difficulties. The Constitution Committee’s recommendations are rarely framed in absolute terms. Many of the standards demand forms of justification for departures from constitutional principles. Even when the committee’s standards go beyond justification, they often demand changes that relate to drafting or the inclusion of safeguards, neither of which normally frustrates the policy aims of a bill.

The basic case for the use of standards is that it can enable basic constitutional concerns to be addressed systematically at the earliest possible stage. This was a point made by the Constitution Committee itself in its recent report on the legislative process:

We continue to believe that there would be merit in producing a set of standards that legislation must meet before it can be introduced.

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A Code of Constitutional Standards

The Constitution Unit of University College London is today publishing a report which sets out a code of constitutional standards based on the reports of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution. Since 2001 the Committee has made many recommendations in its reports, and the goal of this report was to codify these recommendations in order to make the Committee’s analysis of the constitution more accessible. The report, by Robert Hazell, Dawn Oliver and myself, contains a code of 126 constitutional standards, each of which is relevant to the legislative process, and each of which has been extracted from the 149 reports of the Constitution Committee that were reviewed. The standards are organised into five sections: the rule of law; delegated powers, delegated legislation and Henry VIII clauses; the separation of powers; individual rights; and parliamentary procedure.

The Constitution Committee’s formal terms of reference were set by the House of Lords Liaison Committee when it was established in 2001 and have not changed since then: ‘to examine the constitutional implications of all public Bills coming before the House; and to keep under review the operation of the constitution’. The Constitution Committee decided against drawing up a formalised code of constitutional norms in their first report to inform their bill scrutiny, instead the Committee adopted a pragmatic approach. The Committee identifies the norms that are relevant to each particular bill or inquiry in question. This flexible approach has a number of advantages, but one disadvantage is that the Committee’s conception of the normative foundations of the constitution is not easily accessible.

The first aim of the code in this report is to make the normative foundations of the Committee’s work more accessible. As part of their work, the Committee has made choices about what the constitution means in the context of the legislative process. It is these choices that the code seeks to highlight. It is important to note that the Committee advanced many of the cited standards in relation to particular bills, and did not put them forward as generalised standards. There is little doubt that if the Committee were to advance its own code of constitutional standards, it would look different to the code within this report. Nevertheless, the code does represent an accurate summary of the constitutional norms that the Committee has sought to uphold in its work since it was established in 2001.

In terms of the content of the code, it is noteworthy that many of the standards appear to be derived from the principles that underpin the parliamentary process. For example, standards that seek to regulate the use of fast-track legislation are not just general principles of good governance, nor are they are based on a particular constitutional principle, but rather they are derived from the normative foundations of the parliamentary process itself. Such standards serve to protect the integrity of the parliamentary process. This focus on parliamentary norms demonstrates the value of giving a parliamentary committee the task of assessing the constitutional implications of government bills. It has enabled the Committee to articulate the normative implications of the principles that form the foundations of the parliamentary process.

The second aim of the code is to provide a resource for those involved in the legislative process. It is widely recognised that one of the disadvantages of the United Kingdom’s uncodified constitution is that it is not easily accessible, and within Parliament the task of pointing out the constitutional implications of bills often falls to constitutional experts, particularly in the Lords, and the relevant committees. If the norms of the constitution were more readily accessible, it would be reasonable to expect more parliamentarians to engage with them during the legislative process. By publishing this code, it is hoped that parliamentarians, and others involved in the law-making process will make use of the standards within it during their scrutiny. The code might also be used by the Constitution Committee to develop its own code of legislative or constitutional standards.

The third aim is to contribute to the debate on the value of legislative standards within the legislative process in Westminster. In an earlier blog post, I put forward a critique of the code of legislative standards developed by the House of Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform in their report titled ‘Ensuring standards in the quality of legislation’. In that post, I argued that although their code would represent a significant step forward, I thought it did not go far enough. Since that post, the Government has issued its response to the PCRC’s report. The Government could not be clearer – it does not think that a code of legislative standards is a good idea (paras 12-15). It suggests that the Cabinet Guide to Making Legislation is all that is needed for parliamentarians to judge the standard of the Government’s approach. Further, the Government argued that the PCRC’s code would risk encouraging a ‘box-ticking mentality’, and they point out that the code does not provide the ‘degree of objectivity it envisages.’ The latter point is surprising because the PCRC’s code makes every effort to be as ‘neutral’ as possible.

The Government appears to have misinterpreted the rationale for a code of soft law standards. The idea is to stimulate parliamentary debate on aspects of bills to which the standards relate, rather than to introduce an objective box-ticking exercise. The presence of parliamentary sovereignty and the absence of a codified constitution are sometimes taken to mean that Government and Parliament legislate into a normative vacuum. That somehow parliamentary sovereignty means that the government does not have to justify why a bill seeks to depart from the existing norms of the constitution. That idea, as Murray Hunt has recently argued in Parliament and the Law, is antithetical to any meaningful idea of constitutionalism. A code of constitutional standards is designed to challenge the myth of the normative vacuum and to raise the standard of justification within the legislative process, but without legally limiting Parliament’s legislative capacity. In this sense a code of soft law standards does not represent a threat to the political nature of the legislative process, as the code would always the subject of debate, and could be changed by purely political means. Soft law constitutional standards developed within Parliament might even find support from political constitutionalists, because they serve to enhance the quality of parliamentary debate by focusing the minds of parliamentarians on the value of the political process and the norms that form its basic architecture. Even if the standards are prescriptive, this does not mean that they cannot be departed from. The value of a code of soft law standards does not depend on them being complied with all of the time, instead it depends on then being used as the basis for debate and justification within the legislative process.

There seems to be little to lose and everything to gain from making more use of soft law codes of standards in Westminster. As this code demonstrates, committees within Parliament are already articulating the normative standards that are vital to the integrity of the parliamentary process. The challenge is to maximise the benefits of this work by making those standards as accessible and as influential as possible. It is hoped that this code makes a small contribution to this aim.