Moving Westminster into a multi-parliament world: the Commons takes a fresh look at devolution

The UK’s devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales celebrated their twenty-first anniversary this year. Their powers have changed several times since their creation, but much of this has occurred in an ad hoc way, without deep consideration at UK level of the overall devolution framework. Paul Evans explains how a new Procedure Committee inquiry into how the House of Commons should adapt to the ‘territorial constitution’ presents an opportunity to give some key devolution issues the attention they deserve.

Devolution in the UK turned 21 this year, and watching it grow has been a fascinating study in making up the constitution as you go along. The Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017 (each of them the third major reworkings of the statutory basis of devolution in those nations in less than 20 years) declared the devolved legislatures there, along with their governments, to be a permanent part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, which could be abolished only with the consent of the people in a referendum. 

In both those nations 16- and 17-year olds have been newly enfranchised and will participate in the elections of their parliaments next year. The Northern Ireland Assembly restarted (once more) in January after a three-year absence, and in May the Welsh Assembly renamed itself the Welsh Parliament (or Senedd Cymru if you prefer to use the UK’s – so far – only other official language). 

All in all, the journey towards a pragmatic form of de facto federalism in the UK has been a remarkably peaceful and generally good-natured velvet revolution. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the House of Commons Procedure Committee has not felt the need to have a major review of the implications of devolution for the workings of the Commons since 1999.

Watching its progeny develop their own values and make their own decisions has, nonetheless, been a challenging learning experience for Westminster. The assertions of devolution’s permanency and its implication of equality of esteem between the four legislatures of the UK has often appeared more rhetorical than real. Whitehall seems never to have fully come to terms with the loss of centralised control which devolution necessarily entails. But, collectively, the elected members of the four legislatures have done little better in opening up and sustaining channels of communication – though some good work has been done at the margins. 

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Five key questions about coronavirus and devolution

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The coronavirus is a once in a generation event that has required an almost unprecedented response from government at all levels, from Westminster to West Lothian. Akash Paun argues that it has raised five crucial questions about the politics of devolution at a time when efficient and effective intergovernmental relations are crucial. 

Coronavirus has hit all parts of the UK and has required a comprehensive response by government at all levels – central, devolved and local. The crisis has raised (at least!) five big questions about devolution, intergovernmental relations and the politics of the Union:

  • Does the crisis show that the UK and devolved governments can cooperate effectively?
  • To what extent does devolution enable policy divergence between the UK nations?
  • How is the crisis affecting the operation of the devolved institutions themselves?
  • How is the pandemic response being funded – and with what impact on devolution?
  • What might this period mean for wider constitutional debates and the Union?

It is too early to give a definitive answer to any of these questions. But developments over the past few months already point to some preliminary conclusions, as well as identifying important lines of investigation for future research.

The UK and devolved governments can work together – at least in a crisis

One important finding, as the Institute for Government (IfG) recently concluded, is that the UK and devolved governments have shown the ability to work together well at various points over the past three months. Given the many disputes over Brexit, the Union and other matters in recent years, and the underlying weaknesses of the UK’s system of intergovernmental relations, it was far from a foregone conclusion that the different administrations would be able to cooperate at all.

But credit should be given where it is due. In early March, the UK and devolved governments published a joint Coronavirus Action Plan – a rare sighting of a government policy paper that was co-branded by the four administrations. There was close working too on the Coronavirus Act, which was drafted with significant devolved input before being passed at Westminster with devolved consent under the Sewel Convention. And devolved leaders participated in meetings of the COBRA emergency committee throughout this period, helping to ensure that major announcements, not least the imposition of the lockdown in late March, were coordinated between the capitals. Continue reading

The government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission: what, why and how?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgalan.jfif (1)The Conservative Party manifesto promised a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’, but as yet little is known about the government’s plans. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on what such a Commission might look at, and how it might go about its work. They conclude that a long-term perspective is important, so that the Commission is not just ‘fighting the last war’ over Brexit. Given the fundamental nature of the questions that may be asked, citizens should be fully involved.

Page 48 of the Conservative Party manifesto committed the government to establishing a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ within its first year. This could have a far-reaching remit, covering ‘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’, plus the operation of the Human Rights Act. Creation of such a body is clearly an ambitious enterprise, with potentially long-lasting effects – but, as yet, very little is known about the government’s plans for the Commission. This post first explores the ‘what and why’ of the Commission: which issues might it need to address, and what is the motivation behind it? Second, we consider the ‘how’: specifically, in terms of how the public could and should be involved.

What will the Commission review, and why?

The list of topics potentially ascribed to the new Commission is long, and covers some absolute fundamentals of the constitution. While the UK has seen much constitutional change in recent decades – most obviously Labour’s post-1997 programme, which included devolution and Lords reform, and the subsequent Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which established the Supreme Court – these developments involved no formal review of the core relationships between different constitutional branches. Indeed, Labour’s programme was often criticised as piecemeal, and for failing to go back to first principles. In some ways, a review of these fundamentals is therefore refreshing. But questions such as the proper balance of power between government, parliament and courts, and the role of the monarchy are also extremely big, complex and delicate.

So why are such challenging questions being asked now? This is where the Commission’s potential role gets more troubling. The UK has recently witnessed an exceptionally turbulent period in constitutional terms, with the referendum vote for Brexit followed by a significant struggle over its implementation. Particularly during 2019, tensions ran very high between government and parliament, with the Supreme Court becoming involved via the prorogation case. That these tensions helped motivate the proposed Commission seems clear from other words in this section of the manifesto, which suggest that ‘The failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit… has opened up a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people’. Leaving aside the question of which parliamentarians exactly were responsible for blocking Brexit, this statement highlights how concerns about the most recent period (including the Supreme Court’s role) have driven some on the Conservative side to seek reform.  Continue reading

Parliament, spin and the accurate reporting of Brexit

lisa.james.resized.staff.webpage.jpg (1).pngmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliament has been the site of many of the key Brexit battles, and political journalists play a vital role in reporting such developments and holding politicians to account. But unfamiliarity with the workings of parliament can leave them vulnerable to spin. Lisa James and Meg Russell argue that when it comes to key aspects of parliamentary procedure, the present climate of anonymous briefings and counter-briefings may make reporters’ traditional sources less trustworthy than usual. But there are other sources to which they can, and should, be turning.

Parliamentary reporting has rarely been more exciting or important. From the ‘meaningful votes’ on Theresa May’s Brexit deal to the first Saturday sitting since 1982, parliament has been the site of ever-more suspenseful Brexit episodes. These have been narrated and analysed by reporters in real time – and followed by record audiences.

Recent weeks have seen a growing chorus of concern about the relationship between the Johnson government and the media, with the perceived misuse of anonymous briefing and spin coming under pointed criticism from senior journalists and former Conservative MPs. In this environment, parliamentary battles and controversies pose particular challenges for journalists. The more politics is played out in parliament, rather than around the cabinet table or in TV studios, the more important an understanding of parliamentary procedure becomes.

Raw politics of course is important in driving parliamentary outcomes. But parliamentary procedure sets the framework within which political questions are negotiated and resolved. It can determine which actors will have most influence and when. Hence if journalists misunderstand procedure, or are deliberately misled, they risk misrepresenting which political outcomes are likely to happen, and indeed which are even possible. Continue reading

Deal or no deal, the UK government needs a new strategy for the Union

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133Almost seven months after the EU and UK agreed to extend the Article 50 process, a new Brexit deal has been agreed. Akash Paun argues that whether the new deal passes parliament or not, the Brexit process so far has demonstrated that the UK government needs to change its strategy for maintaining the cohesion of the Union.

In his first public statement as prime minister, Boris Johnson made two constitutional pledges that stand in tension with one another. On the one hand, he promised to strengthen the UK, which he described as ‘the awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red, white and blue flag, who together are so much more than the sum of their parts.’ But in the same speech, he reiterated his determination to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October ‘no ifs, no buts’ and, if necessary, no deal. Brexit has already strained relations between the UK and devolved governments. A no deal departure would make matters even worse, and would run directly counter to the PM’s ambitions to strengthen the Union.

The Scottish and Welsh governments strongly oppose leaving the EU without a deal. In a joint letter to the prime minister in July, the Scottish and Welsh first ministers argued that ‘it would be unconscionable for a UK government to contemplate a chaotic no deal exit and we urge you to reject this possibility clearly and unambiguously as soon as possible.’ The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have also explicitly voted against no deal. Continue reading

Voting for Brexit: the practical and constitutional barriers to getting consent for the withdrawal agreement before exit day

MIKEMASSARO.9198.CROPPED..hannah.114x133_0_MIK4282.cropped.114x133The government has repeatedly given assurances that parliament will be offered ‘a meaningful vote’ on the final Brexit deal, which is still being negotiated. In this post, Hannah White and Raphael Hogarth discuss the challenges of meeting that commitment and argues that the binary choice of ‘deal’ or ‘no deal’ is a false one. They also discuss some of the practical and constitutional issues raised by the government’s legislative plans to implement Brexit within a very short timeframe.

By October ministers hope to have negotiated a withdrawal agreement on the terms of the UK’s departure from the European Union, and a ‘framework for a future relationship’ on long-term UK-EU relations. To reach agreement with the EU on these documents in so little time will be a monumental challenge for the government – but when this challenge is complete, a new one begins. The government will then have to shepherd these documents through a number of processes in parliament.

Our new report, Voting on Brexit, sets out what the government has to do in order to get its deal through parliament, and give effect to that deal in domestic law. Below are seven key messages from that research.

1. The government’s timetable for getting its deal through parliament is ambitious

The government has promised to seek parliament’s approval for both the withdrawal agreement and the future framework in one go. However, there will be very little time in which to do so. The UK is currently set to leave the EU on 29 March 2019. That means that there will be only six months available for scrutiny and approval of the deal.

This should be enough time, providing nothing goes wrong. But if negotiations drag on past October, or parliament raises significant objections to the deal that require a renegotiation or referendum, or if the European Parliament raises its own objections, then the timetable could be unachievable. The government would need to consider seeking an extension of the Article 50 period in order to complete its negotiation and allow time for scrutiny and approval. Continue reading

How the UK and devolved governments can agree on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

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With the EU Withdrawal Bill now in the House of Lords, Clause 11 of the bill is expected to be a cause of potential trouble for the government. The Scottish and Welsh governments, as well as the Labour Party, are all currently opposed to the clause as currently drafted and it seems unlikely it will survive the Lords in its present form. Akash Paun explains the concerns of Edinburgh and Cardiff in this blog and proposes a number of possible solutions, each of which will require compromise on all sides.

The UK government is locked in dispute with the Scottish and Welsh governments over Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill. This clause prevents the devolved administrations from modifying ‘retained EU law’, the term for all the European legislation the bill will bring into domestic law.

The effect would be that all powers exercised in Brussels return to Westminster, at least initially, giving the UK parliament the ability to create binding legal frameworks in place of EU law. The devolved governments say this is unacceptable, and Edinburgh and Cardiff have refused to grant legislative consent to the bill.

The government accepts that Clause 11 needs to be amended, but it has not brought forth alternative proposals, despite promising to do so before the bill left the House of Commons. Meanwhile, the Scottish and Welsh Governments propose that Clause 11 should simply remove the requirement for devolved bodies to act in accordance with EU law. Full control of the 100-plus areas of ‘intersection’ between EU and devolved law would then revert to the devolved level.

In this case, new UK-wide frameworks would have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis and could not be unilaterally imposed by Westminster. The concern in Whitehall is that this would increase the risks of legal uncertainty and regulatory divergence, and could make it more difficult to implement a new UK-EU economic relationship.

The bill has now entered the House of Lords with the UK and devolved governments still dug into their trenches. Recent reports suggest, however, that a peace deal may be within reach. Continue reading

Government still lacks a strategic approach to research

 

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The Cabinet Office this week published the official Areas of Research Interest for six government departments, including the Department for Transport and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Tom Sasse, of the Institute for Government, welcomes the decision to publish, but claims that the quality of the output varies between departments. At a time when ministers have less money to spend on research, he argues that the government does not work well enough with academia and needs to change its approach if proper evidence-based policy making is to occur in the future.

Policy makers need to find the research and evidence they need to strengthen policy, and researchers need to identify the Government’s priorities so that they can provide input.

The 2015 Nurse Review of Research Councils called on the government to publish the priority questions it would like answered through new or existing research. Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, announced the first publication of the Cabinet Office’s Areas of Research Interest (ARI) last week.

Six government departments (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; Health; Transport; Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Cabinet Office; and the Foreign Office) have now published their ARIs, with the rest expected to follow soon.

These first six ARIs are mostly brief, high-level and of mixed quality. The Department for Transport’s ARI, however, stands out as an example for others to follow.

These ARIs are welcome, but government departments need to develop more comprehensive strategies for accessing the evidence and research they need.

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