The Elections Bill’s proposals on Electoral Commission governance: risks to electoral integrity and devolution

The Elections Bill has been subject to both criticism and praise, as discussed by Emilia Cieslak on this blog, and a panel of experts at a recent Unit seminar. In this post, Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick identifies the threats to electoral integrity and devolution posed by the clauses of the bill that propose changes to the governance of the Electoral Commission.

The Elections Bill, currently before parliament, seeks to change many aspects of electoral law. Provisions to introduce voter ID requirements at polling stations have garnered most attention. But changes to the governance of the Electoral Commission also raise serious concerns. As currently formulated, they threaten both to weaken the vital independence of the elections watchdog and to violate the principles of the devolution settlement in Scotland and Wales.

Electoral Commission governance: principles and current practice

The Electoral Commission carries out a range of functions in overseeing elections and referendums and regulating campaign spending. As I have argued previously – in common with many others, not least the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in a report published in July – the independence of the elections watchdog is vital to electoral integrity. If the government of the day can skew election or referendum conduct to suit its own ends, fairness – and thus democracy – is undermined. The Electoral Commission should, of course, be accountable too. An appropriate balance of independence and accountability is needed.

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The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill: why the House of Commons should retain control over dissolution

Next week MPs debate the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) and revive the former prerogative power of dissolution. Meg Russell, Gavin Phillipson and Petra Schleiter, all of whom gave evidence to the parliamentary committees considering FTPA repeal, argue that the government’s bill is flawed. It seeks to keep the courts out of dissolution decisions, but risks drawing them in, and risks politicising the role of the monarch. Removing the House of Commons power over when a general election is held, and returning it to the Prime Minister, would be a retrograde step.

On 13 September, MPs debate the remaining stages of the government’s Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) and revive the former prerogative power of dissolution. Three parliamentary committees have considered FTPA repeal, to which all of us have submitted evidence. This post summarises key flaws in the government’s approach identified by the committees, and areas where expert evidence suggested solutions to address these flaws.

The post does not argue for retention of the FTPA. Instead it proposes a solution to the problems with the bill that would leave parliament at the heart of decision-making. It makes three key points:

  1. While aiming to exclude the courts from the question of dissolution, the government’s bill instead potentially draws them in.
  2. Placing sole reliance on the monarch as a check generates uncertainty, and risks politicising their role.
  3. The solution to both of these problems is to retain a requirement for the House of Commons to vote on the Prime Minister’s request for a general election by simple majority. Concerns that this could recreate the 2019 Brexit deadlock are groundless.

Our core argument is that maintaining the Commons’ ultimate control over dissolution, while fixing the defects of the 2011 Act, would be a better solution.

The bill seeks to exclude the courts from dissolution but risks drawing them

The bill’s central objective is to return the power to dissolve parliament to the monarch, to be granted on the Prime Minister’s request – that is, to restore the pre-FTPA status quo. Clause 3 (‘Non-justiciability of revived prerogative powers’, commonly referred to as the ‘ouster clause’) seeks to exclude the courts from considering cases relating to dissolution. The courts have never intervened in dissolution decisions (the 2019 Supreme Court case was on prorogation, which is different). But inclusion of the clause suggests that the government perceives some risk of judicial intervention if it attempts to revive the prerogative.

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The Fixed-term Parliaments Act did not cause the Brexit impasse

Next week MPs debate the government’s bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. One argument frequently deployed for scrapping the Act is that it generated gridlock over Brexit. But, Meg Russell argues, no clear counterfactual to support this claim has ever been presented. In fact, when considering the possible scenarios, it seems likely that the situation would have been made worse, not better, had the Prime Minister retained an untrammelled prerogative power to dissolve parliament in 2017–19.

Next week MPs debate the remaining stages of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). It proposes to reinstate the pre-FTPA position, whereby the Prime Minister would effectively control general election timing using prerogative power. A key argument deployed by those seeking repeal of the FTPA is that it helped to cause the Brexit deadlock of 2019: that the FTPA, as the Conservative manifesto put it, ‘led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’. But to what extent is this really true?

While suggestions that the FTPA created the Brexit deadlock are commonplace, most experts who contributed to the three parliamentary committees that have considered FTPA repeal (the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Lords Constitution Committee and Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) argued that the deadlock resulted from other factors. Most obvious were the post-2017 combination of a minority government, the need to deliver on a contested referendum result, and deep divisions within the governing party. These problems were clearly serious, and it is very far from clear that the FTPA could have resolved them.

A careful reading of the evidence presented to the three parliamentary committees, and of the Commons second reading debate on the bill, finds that most claims against the FTPA over Brexit are distinctly vague. No clear counterfactual is offered. This particularly applies to events during Theresa May’s premiership, when the most intractable problems arose. The situation did change in the autumn of 2019 under Boris Johnson (as discussed below), but the FTPA’s targeting as a causal factor dates back far earlier than this. Likewise, during interviews with a series of senior figures for a current book project on parliament and the Brexit process, I have asked several critics of the FTPA how, if Theresa May had been able to trigger an early general election without parliament’s consent, things would have turned out differently. I have yet to receive a convincing reply.

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The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill – a return to constitutional normality?

Alison Young argues that the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill transfers power from parliament to the government, and not to the people, and that it is wrong to place the blame for the extraordinary events of 2019 on the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) has not had a good press. So much so, that a promise to repeal the Act was included in the 2019 manifestos of both the Labour Party and the current Conservative government. However, as the second reading of its replacement, the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill demonstrates, the apparent consensus ends there. There appeared to be two strong themes to the debate. First, how far does the FTPA’s replacement transfer power from parliament back to the government, or from parliament back to the people? Second, to what extent did the FTPA cause the difficulties – however defined – for the then Conservative minority government in 2019?

Turning back the clock

The FTPA placed the prerogative power of the dissolution of parliament on a statutory basis. It fixed the terms of the Westminster parliament to five years, setting the dates for general elections. It provided two ways in which parliament could be dissolved earlier. First, it was possible for two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons to vote in favour of an early parliamentary general election. Second, dissolution could occur following a vote of no confidence, if, within a two week period, it proved impossible to form a government which had received the backing of a vote of confidence from the House of Commons.

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill aims to return the Westminster parliament to the position prior to 2011. It repeals the FTPA (section 1) and ‘revives’ the prerogative power to dissolve parliament and to call a new parliament (section 2). However this is interpreted, it is clear that the bill’s intention is to ensure that parliament can be dissolved and recalled ‘as if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had never been enacted’ (section 2). Fixed terms of five years are now replaced with a maximum five-year term (section 4). Moreover, the bill seeks to make the dissolution and calling of parliament non-justiciable (section 3) – arguably making the prerogative powers even less subject to judicial review than was the case prior to 2011.

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Deliver us from EVEL? Is the government right to abolish ‘English Votes for English Laws’?

Following reports that the UK government is considering abolishing the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ procedures in the House of Commons, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny argue that, although EVEL has some flaws as a solution to the ‘West Lothian Question’, abandoning it will also leave open bigger questions about how England should be represented within British parliamentary government.

According to a recent report in The Times, the UK government is preparing to abolish the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ standing orders in the House of Commons. This suggested that ministers have already been consulted on the move and look set to lend it support. The change would also need to be approved by MPs, but only a single vote in the Commons would be needed to make this important constitutional change.

That such a move is being considered by the current government is surprising and unexpected in equal measure. Proposals for various forms of EVEL, as an answer to the infamous ‘West Lothian Question’, have been championed by the Conservative Party ever since the advent of Scottish and Welsh devolution in the late 1990s, and have featured in every one of its general election manifestos between 2001 and 2015. Despite agreeing to an independent commission, the Liberal Democrats ultimately blocked this reform during the period of coalition government. It was only in October 2015, once the Conservatives held power alone, that the change was implemented. Few would have expected that a government with such a strong focus upon English voters outside large urban areas would seek to repeal it.

One part of the explanation for this may be an increased willingness of the current Conservative government to disown elements of the Cameron legacy. But it also reflects the influence of a rising current of ‘neo-unionist’ sentiment within the party, which believes that the imperative to secure Scottish consent, in the wake of growing support for a second independence referendum, is more important than English grumbles about the West Lothian anomaly. This is perhaps ironic, since EVEL was envisaged by its architects as a means of assuaging discontent with the Union, by protecting against a situation in which MPs from outside England’s borders could make the difference on England-only legislative decisions.

What is also notable about the idea of repealing EVEL is that little sense of how it has operated has informed this declaration of intent.

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