Constitutional reform: then and now (1995-2020)

In the latest blog celebrating the Constitution Unit’s 25th anniversary, human rights academic and advocate Francesca Klug recounts how aspects of the constitutional agenda of the mid-1990s were realised, and what lessons we can learn about how to entrench its achievements, prevent democratic backsliding and stop erosion of hard-won rights.

When I was at school, I learned nothing about the British constitution, but one thing I did absorb was this: although we do not have a written founding document, our invisible constitution was apparently uniquely successful and therefore inviolable. However, during the 1980s, I gradually became aware that there was something a bit odd about this perfect constitution. In other democracies, many of the controversial or unpopular measures introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s governments – such as the ‘poll tax’ and broadcasting and book bans – could be challenged in the courts. In the UK, however, there was nothing citizens could do to overturn such policies, except take to the streets to protest or wait up to five years for another election. 

This powerlessness and lack of accountability was a major driver behind the founding of Charter 88 in 1988, led by Anthony Barnett and Stewart Weir. I was lucky as a relatively young activist to be asked to join its council. We called for holistic change: a democratic second chamber, electoral reform, devolution, freedom of information and a bill of rights. And we had one major overall objective: we wanted the people of this country to have more power over the decisions which affected them; what in today’s money might be called ‘taking back control’. We sought this not for its own sake, but as a means of making our society fairer. 

It took a little time, but this message started to persuade people at the highest levels of the Labour Party. John Smith succeeded Neil Kinnock as Leader following the Conservatives’ 1992 general election victory and the following year he gave a landmark speech to Charter 88, entitled ‘A Citizens’ Democracy. For the first time, he articulated a clear objective for wholesale constitutional reform. Its purpose, he said, was to ‘restore democracy to our people – for what we have in this country is not real democracy: it is elective dictatorship.’ The use of the term ‘elective dictatorship’ is interesting, as it partly echoed Lord Hailsham, a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, who had coined the phrase two decades earlier. Notably, in this speech Smith committed the Labour Party to the introduction of a human rights act based on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which turned 70 years old this month. 

John Smith died unexpectedly the following year, but Tony Blair, despite some scepticism, largely kept faith with his predecessor’s commitment to constitutional reform. The precise objectives articulated by Smith, however, seemed to wither away and the purpose of the proposed policies became more obscure. In particular, there was no unified narrative to link them together and no sense of what might come next. 

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An ‘extraordinary scandal’: looking back at the 2009 MPs’ expenses crisis and its consequences

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More than ten years on from the 2009 expenses scandal, Andrew Walker and Emma Crewe have published a book that seeks to offer fresh insight into the origins and legacy of the crisis. David Natzler, a former Clerk of the Commons, offers his own take on the book, and the crisis it seeks to shed light on.

Over a decade has passed since the Westminster expenses scandal of 2009. It is widely regarded as one of the factors, together with the banking crisis and the absence of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which led to popular contempt for the political class, the growth of UKIP, and thus the outcome of the 2016 referendum. There have been useful books and articles on the scandal’s effect as well as accounts by the journalists involved, and last year there were several TV and radio programmes looking back to what seemed at the time to be a momentous series of events. 

Now there is a book by Emma Crewe and Andrew Walker, An Extraordinary Scandal: the Westminster Expenses Crisis and Why it Still Matters, published late in 2019 by Haus. Andrew Walker was the senior Commons official responsible for the administration of the expenses regime; Emma Crewe is an academic anthropologist who has specialised recently in looking at parliamentary culture. I should declare an interest as it was at my suggestion that Andrew approached Emma with the prospect of working together on this project.

The basic story is familiar. A disc (or discs) containing at least a million documents was bought by the Daily Telegraph, who through May and June 2009 published daily exposés of the claims made by MPs. The information was on the discs in preparation for the major clerical task of responding to a court ruling under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requiring the publication by the House of Commons of much more detailed information than hitherto on payments made to members under the expenses scheme. The Act’s final incarnation included within its statutory ambit both ‘the House of Commons’ and ‘the House of Lords’, although neither appeared in the bill as first drafted. Jack Straw, the minister in charge of the bill, added them to the list of public authorities in Schedule 1 to the Act, and is said to have regretted it ever since. Individual MPs and peers were not then – and are not now – regarded as public authorities. But the House authorities were subject to the Act, and since they administered the expenses system and held the information on MPs’ claims, it became disclosable.

The Act did not come into force until 2005, giving anybody that would be affected five years to prepare. One obligation was to prepare ‘schemes of publication’, which would list what information would be published proactively. The House of Commons made similar preparations to other public authorities: they appointed specialist staff to oversee the effort and discussed what they would proactively publish. The House of Commons eventually decided in late 2004 to publish details of MPs’ expenses broken down into several headings, for each of the previous three years, and to then issue quarterly updates. Crewe and Walker recount the vain attempt to prevent the press from creating ‘league tables’ of MPs by publishing only a locked pdf, which the press had little difficulty in cracking. Various MPs were appalled and angry at being ‘exposed’ as the UK’s or Lancashire’s most expensive MP. One external PR adviser had to resign when it emerged that he had been secretly encouraging one party to make more of a meal of the other party’s record. Continue reading

Farewell to the Commons: Reflections on parliamentary change over 40 years

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On 4 March Jack Straw and Sir George Young spoke at a Constitution Unit valedictory event where they considered how parliament has changed since the 1970s. Sam Sharp offers an overview of the discussion.

Jack Straw and Sir George Young have 77 years of parliamentary experience between them – Straw was first elected in 1979, and Young in 1974. With both set to retire in May, they reflected on how parliament has changed since they joined in the seventies. The event was chaired by Tony Wright, while Meg Russell provided a ‘myth busting’ role. Both speakers described a parliament that has changed for the better, in both its culture and efficiency.

For Jack Straw one of the biggest changes has been in the atmosphere of the House of Commons. He remembered previously having to ‘swim through thick clouds of smoke’, with the chamber itself being the only complete escape. Alcohol abuse was also prevalent and Tony Wright recalled actually once carrying a passed out member through the division lobby. In general, parliament was very white and male with a Gentleman’s Club culture and the few women present were very much made to feel like outsiders. Straw argued that the change in the gender balance, although ‘not far enough’, has ‘actually changed how the House feels’.

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