Northern Ireland: dangers and opportunities for London

Northern Ireland is again governed by civil servants. Alan Whysall argues that London’s self-interest requires it to give Northern Ireland serious attention in coming months. But success may require more effort and time than is currently envisaged, and a return to the approach that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Not making this commitment could have grave consequences for the entire Union, not just Northern Ireland.

This blog draws on the Unit’s report on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, published in May (hereafter referred to as the Report).

No government again

Northern Ireland has had no functioning Executive since the DUP’s withdrawal of its First Minister, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, in February. The party declined to appoint a deputy First Minister following Assembly elections in May – when, for the first time, Sinn Féin emerged the largest party, entitled to the First Minister post (the DUP deny their refusal to appoint has anything to do with this, but Sinn Féin and others are sceptical). Government was carried on by ministers on a caretaker basis, unable to make controversial or crosscutting decisions, amid social and economic challenges often (as in the NHS) worse than in England. There is no budget and a £660 million overspend (exacerbated by the absence of an Executive). The DUP also blocked meetings of the Assembly.

On 28 October, with no Executive formed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, came under a duty to hold further Assembly elections, before mid-January. By law, the caretaker ministers have now lost office, and civil servants are in charge.

Few wanted the elections, however, and either by his own decision or the Prime Minister’s, the Secretary of State announced emergency legislation on 9 November to put them off for 6, potentially 12 weeks. They could be avoided by the DUP agreeing to appoint an Executive by 8 December (19 January if extended). The legislation would also underpin civil servants’ powers, set a budget and enable the Secretary of State to reduce the pay of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs).

Political prospects

The issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol remains intractable. The DUP refuses to return to devolution until it changes fundamentally; it appeared unimpressed by the threat to reduce MLA pay. The EU is willing to discuss implementing the Protocol more flexibly, but not to rewriting it.

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What is democratic backsliding and is the UK at risk?

Concerns about the health of UK democracy and the risk of democratic backsliding are rising. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James warn that MPs, who are the ultimate democratic safeguard, cannot afford to be complacent if we wish to prevent backsliding and safeguard our democracy.

Commentators, civil society groups, think tanks and academics are increasingly warning about the health of UK democracy. Such warnings often draw on the concept of ‘democratic backsliding’.

But what is democratic backsliding? And is there good reason to worry about a risk of it in the UK?

What is democratic backsliding?

Democratic backsliding is, in its simplest form, the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic over time. Scholars emphasise that no cataclysmic state collapse or overthrow is required for backsliding to take place; instead, it is a gradual process, coming about through actions of democratically elected leaders.

Democratic backsliding has been observed internationally, and extensively catalogued by scholars including Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, 2021) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die, 2019). Such accounts generally define backsliding as involving the reduction of checks and balances on the executive. This might include:

  1. breakdown in the norms of political behaviour and standards;
  2. disempowerment of the legislature, the courts, and independent regulators;
  3. the reduction of civil liberties and press freedoms; and/or
  4. harm to the integrity of the electoral system.

Backsliding has been identified in multiple countries, with frequently cited cases including Poland, Hungary and the United States. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has significantly reduced judicial independence, and put pressure on the independent media. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has repeatedly assumed emergency powers allowing him effectively to bypass the legislature, undermined press freedom, and – as in Poland – curbed judicial independence. Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the 2020 presidential election, as well as longer-term patterns of voter suppression, have shown how backsliding can affect even very well-established democracies.

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Parliament and COVID-19: the Coronavirus Bill and beyond

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgThe Coronavirus Bill introduced by the government last week will be debated by parliament in circumstances where it is harder for both Houses to meet, scrutinise and vote than at any time in recent memory. How should parliament respond to both the legislation and the crisis that prompted it? Former Clerk of the Commons David Natzler outlines the key issues facing MPs and peers as they consider how parliament should function in the coming months.

Just as the dust is settling on the first phase of the Brexit marathon, and the Constitution Unit and others are examining the role played by Parliament over the past three years, COVID-19 presents itself wholly unexpectedly as a challenge to all the nation’s institutions. Parliament was settling in for five years of single-party majority government and it looked as if, Brexit deal aside, it would be relatively smooth sailing. Now parliament faces the challenge of fulfilling its role in a COVID-19 environment.

The Coronavirus Bill

The government published its Coronavirus Bill on Thursday 19 March, having already revealed the policy proposals to which it gives effect in its Action Plan (published on 3 March) and a more detailed prospectus (published on 17 March). The bill has 87 clauses and 27 Schedules, totalling 321 pages of legislative text. The Explanatory Notes run to 73 pages, and there is a 31-page long memorandum on the implications for human rights.

Commons scrutiny

The bill is to be debated in the House of Commons on Monday 23 March for a maximum of six hours: up to four hours on second reading and two hours for committee of the whole House and remaining stages. The House decided on 18 March to disapply the EVEL Standing Orders in relation to the bill, so it will be spared the rigmarole of forming a Legislative Grand Committee.

It has been possible to table amendments since the bill was introduced. Four amendments and four new clauses were tabled on the day of its publication, and more may be expected in so-called ‘manuscript’ form on the day. They mainly address the issue of for how long the Act will be in force. The bill establishes that its provisions will apply for two years, with provisions for individual powers to be ‘sunsetted’ earlier or indeed revived if it falls due to a sunset clause. It also provides for a general debate in both Houses after one year. Both the official opposition and a cross-party group are proposing systems of six-monthly debate and renewal only if the House so decides. It is perhaps significant that the Irish parliament last week passed a similar bill and as a result of amendment decided that it should last for one year. This is an area where some change is likely; both the Scottish Government, and independent human rights organisations such as Liberty, have expressed concerns about the sunset and scrutiny provisions as currently drafted. Continue reading

House of Lords Constitution Committee reports on delegated powers

photo_2017_1_cropped (1)tierney2.e1489415384219Last week, the Constitution Committee published its report on the increasing use of delegated powers by the government. Mark Elliott and Stephen Tierney highlight the key concerns raised and proposals made by the Committee in two principal areas: the ways in and extent to which legislative powers are delegated, and scrutiny of such powers’ exercise.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee last week published a major report on delegated powers. It is a component of a larger, four-part inquiry that the Committee is undertaking into the legislative process. The first report in this series, concerning the preparation of legislation for parliament, was published in October 2017; reports on the passage of legislation through parliament and post-legislative scrutiny will be published in due course.

Delegation of power

The Constitution Committee, unsurprisingly, does not begin from the unworldly premise that parliamentary delegations of law-making authority are inherently problematic; after all, they are, and will remain, a fact of life. The Committee does, however, adopt as its premise the position that the legitimacy of such delegations is governed by ‘constitutional standards’ whose enforcement amounts to a ‘constitutional obligation’ on parliament’s part.

The Committee goes on to articulate two key principles by reference to which the legitimacy of delegations of power ought to be judged. First, it is ‘essential that primary legislation is used to legislate for policy and other major objectives’, with delegated legislation used only ‘to fill in the details’. Against this background, the Committee laments the ‘upward trend in the seeking of delegated powers in recent years’. Second, and relatedly, the Committee states that it is ‘constitutionally objectionable for the Government to seek delegated powers simply because substantive policy decisions have not yet been taken’ — a phenomenon in which there has been ‘a significant and unwelcome increase’. Having thus nailed its colours to the mast, the Committee goes on to identify a suite of constitutionally dubious trends and practices to which its attention was drawn during the course of the inquiry and which it has itself discerned in recent years through its constitutional scrutiny of all Bills that reach the House of Lords. Continue reading

The Lords and the EU Withdrawal Bill: 10 predictions

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The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has completed its bumpy passage through the Commons and now moves to the Lords, where the government falls well short of a majority. In this post Meg Russell explores what the Lords is likely to do with the bill, making 10 predictions and, in doing so, busting some common myths. She concludes that the bill will be heavily amended, but any suggestion that the Lords will ‘block Brexit’ is misconceived. 

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons last week. During its two-day second reading, eight days in committee on the floor of the House and two-day report stage, it got a pretty bumpy ride. In a fascinating test for a minority Conservative government, amendments were fended off on a range of issues, but various concessions were also given, and the government suffered one defeat. Now the bill passes to the House of Lords, where the numbers are far more stacked against the government. As of today, the Conservatives held just 248 out of a total 794 Lords seats, with Labour on 197, the Liberal Democrats 100 and independent Crossbenchers 183. In recent years this kind of party constellation has meant that even governments with comfortable Commons majorities have been frequently defeated in the Lords. So what can we expect from the second chamber on this highly sensitive bill? Here are 10 broad predictions:

Amendments are likely, right from the outset

1. There is little doubt that the bill will be significantly amended in the Lords. Even on relatively uncontroversial bills, scrutiny by peers frequently results in changes. But this is precisely the kind of bill that peers get most exercised about. The legal arrangements that it seeks to put in place for Brexit are highly technical and complex. The bill’s central purpose is to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, but at the same time to maintain legal continuity by creating a new body of ‘retained EU law’. This process in itself raises many difficult constitutional points (as indicated further below). In addition, the bill includes extensive ‘delegated powers’, allowing ministers to amend retained EU law with limited parliamentary oversight. This combination of a constitutional focus plus sweeping delegated powers, even leaving aside the disputed context of Brexit, guarantees that Lords scrutiny will be intense. It will almost certainly result in changes.  Continue reading