The 1997 Labour government’s constitutional reform programme: 25 years on

25 years have passed since the Labour election win of 1997, which preceded a plethora of constitutional changes, including partial reform of the House of Lords, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Human Rights Act. Tom Leeman summarises the contributions of three expert speakers (Professor Robert Hazell, Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti and Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton) at a recent Unit event to mark the anniversary.

This year marked a quarter of a century since the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 General Election on 1 May. Blair’s first government embarked upon a programme of constitutional reform, many elements of which, such as devolution, the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the status of hereditary peers in the Lords, still spark debate in the UK today.

To mark the anniversary and discuss the Blair government’s constitutional legacy the Unit convened an event with three expert panellists: Professor Robert Hazell, founding Director of the Constitution Unit, who supported the Cook-Maclennan talks on constitutional reform between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 1996; Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton, who served as Lord Chancellor in the second and third Blair ministries from 2003 until 2007; and Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti, who was Director of Liberty from 2003 until 2016. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions.

Robert Hazell

Robert Hazell presented slides to summarise New Labour’s constitutional reform programme from their first election victory in 1997 until Gordon Brown’s resignation as prime minister in 2010. The reforms in Blair’s first term (1997-2001) were the biggest package of constitutional reforms in the twentieth century. They included devolution of power to assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in 1998; incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law in the Human Rights Act; and the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

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Sir John Laws and The Constitutional Balance

The Constitutional Balance, a new work by the former judge John Laws, was published posthumously in January. Here, David Feldman discusses the key themes of the book, and pays tribute to the author, a long-serving judge, who served as a Lord Justice of Appeal and was one of the most well-respected public law judges of the last 50 years.

The late Sir John Laws stood out as one of the greatest English public law judges of the last 50 years. Throughout his distinguished and creative career as Treasury Devil – First Junior Treasury Counsel (Common Law), responsible for advising and representing the government in a large range of public law matters – and judge, he was uniquely willing to argue publicly for and apply in his judgments a systematic philosophy of the liberal, democratic state and of the respective roles within it of the people, their representatives, the government and the judiciary. After retiring from the Bench he spent the 2016-17 academic year as A. L. Goodhart Visiting Professor of Legal Science at Cambridge. There he gave a course of 16 lectures, primarily for final-year undergraduates, entitled ‘Judicial Review and the Constitution’. In them he distilled his latest thinking on matters to which, as writer and judge, he had made distinctive contributions to our public law. These included parliamentary sovereignty and the interpretation of statutes, the importance of the common law in constitutional development, the place of human rights in the constitution, the role of judicial review, how government and judiciary should understand and give appropriate respect to each other’s different, equally legitimate roles in the governance of the country, and the proper relationship between religion and the law.

Sir John used his lectures as the basis for a book, The Constitutional Balance. Unfortunately his zest for life was severely dented by the death in 2017 of Sophie, his wife, and his physical health deteriorated. Nevertheless, greatly helped by Nigel Pleming QC, his long-standing colleague and friend, Sir John finished the text before he, too, died in 2020.

At the heart of the book lies a connection between his view of the constitution and his understanding of the human condition. Ideally, he thought, people are rational, enjoy free will (and so are responsible for their actions), are social, communing with others of their kind (pages 6-7) and have to find ways to coexist fairly with them. These characteristics demand freedom of thought and expression, and rigorous rejection of ideology (‘a preconception or preconceptions, an assumption or assumptions, not tested by reason, by argument, by practice or by results; an a priori belief, given or imposed in advance, assumed to be true’: page 2) that forecloses debate about the good and the bad, and reliance on reason and fair process to conduct and resolve disagreement (pages. 2-6 and 134-138). Sir John saw reason, fairness and a presumption in favour of liberty as key values of the common law, that unique system whereby principles and precedents are continuously tested through rigorous argument and gradually developed over centuries, and of a democratic constitution respecting the rule of law.

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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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