Parliament’s watchdogs: independence and accountability of five constitutional regulators

The Unit today published a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators. Robert Hazell explains that public awareness of these regulators is low and the position of some of them in public life is precarious. He calls for several measures, including putting the CSPL on a statutory footing, protecting watchdogs from dismissal, and repealing the legislation allowing the government to produce a strategy statement for the Electoral Commission.

Origins of this study

The constitutional reforms of the last 25 years have seen an upsurge in the number of constitutional watchdogs. The Constitution Unit anticipated these developments from the start, with an early report on constitutional watchdogs in 1997 (Unit report no. 10). This interest was continued by Oonagh Gay and Barry Winetrobe, who wrote two major reports on watchdogs: Officers of Parliament: Transforming the Role (Unit report no. 100, 2003) and Parliament’s Watchdogs: At the Crossroads(Unit report no. 144, 2008).

Today sees the launch of a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators, (Unit report 195), by Marcial Boo, Zach Pullar and myself. Marcial Boo, former Chief Executive of IPSA, joined the Constitution Unit in late 2020 as an honorary research fellow. We asked him to do a study of those watchdogs which are directly sponsored by parliament, working with Zach Pullar, a young law graduate who has since become a Judicial Assistant in the Court of Appeal. There is an obvious tension with watchdogs whose role is to scrutinise the executive (like the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests), being themselves appointed and sponsored by the government. Less obvious, but just as fundamental, is the tension for watchdogs whose role is to regulate the behaviour of parliamentarians, being themselves appointed and sponsored by parliament.

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After an unsuccessful legal challenge by All the Citizens and the Good Law Project, where next on WhatsApp use in government?

Cassandra Somers-Joce and Joe Tomlinson discuss the use of instant messaging technologies within government, arguing that good government does not mean the eradication of such technology from government practice, but that it must be used in a way that is sensitive to the state’s duties to maintain a record.

The last few years have seen several prominent examples of instant messaging technologies – some with the capacity to auto-delete messages – being used within the UK government. Examples ranging from the articulation of the rationale behind the controversial prorogation of parliament to the securing of government medical device contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic have arisen in the press. Instant messaging technologies clearly play an important role in government communication and decision-making. These technologies are seemingly utilised daily across all levels; for instance, the BBC has reported that since November 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been sent a summary of his ‘red box’, containing prime ministerial business to attend to, via WhatsApp. These reports of high-profile usage have been followed by the emergence of a Cabinet Office policy that arguably encourages the use of self-deleting instant messaging, and research from the Institute for Government that shows divergent policies on this issue across government.

What should we make of these quickly evolving practices? Instant messaging technologies such as WhatsApp undoubtedly have their benefits for public officials, and the effective functioning of government overall. Perhaps most notably, they can enable officials to exchange messages and share information more easily than other systems. However, they create a range of complexities as regards the preservation of the public record, particularly where these technologies are used in place of documented meetings or official email communications. Not least amongst these complexities is that the use of these technologies engages a variety of public law norms related to governmental record-keeping and the disclosure of information. As practices have emerged, it has become increasingly clear that the use of WhatsApp by the UK government may be at risk of being in violation of these public law norms.

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The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 led to greater judicial independence: politicians and parliament must continue to support it

As part of an ongoing inquiry, the Lords Constitution Committee has sought evidence as to whether ‘the amendment of the role of the Lord Chancellor by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (CRA), and the resulting separation of powers between the judiciary and the Government, [have] been successful’. Robert Hazell argues that the 2005 reforms led to greater judicial independence, a political achievement that requires continuing support from politicians and parliament.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the role of the Lord Chancellor and the Law Officers, in which it seeks to answer a number of questions, including whether ‘the amendment of the role of the Lord Chancellor by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (CRA), and the resulting separation of powers between the judiciary and the Government, [have] been successful’. Through written evidence, submitted with Professor Kate Malleson, I have attempted to answer that question. Our answers were based upon the main findings and conclusions of a three-year research project on the Politics of Judicial Independence, funded by the AHRC. The research explored the impact of the greater separation of powers introduced by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (CRA). Our principal conclusion – as explained in our 2015 book on the subject – was that judicial independence and judicial accountability have emerged stronger, not weaker; but that greater separation of powers requires increased engagement by the judiciary with other branches of government.

The changes made by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005

Until 2005 the head of the judiciary was a Cabinet minister, the Lord Chancellor. In an extraordinary breach of separation of powers, he could also sit as a judge in the UK’s highest court. The CRA removed the Lord Chancellor as head of the judiciary, handing that responsibility to the Lord Chief Justice in line with an agreement struck in the Concordat of 2004. The division of powers between the executive and judiciary was further refined in 2008 in a Framework Document for the management of the Courts Service (revised and updated in 2011 to incorporate the Tribunals Service). The CRA also created a new Supreme Court, and established the Judicial Appointments Commission.

The new politics of judicial independence are more formal, fragmented, and politicised

The old politics were informal, depending on regular meetings between the Lord Chancellor and senior judges; closed, in that these were virtually the only contacts between the judiciary and the government; and secretive, with both sides preserving each other’s confidences. They were also consensual and conservative, in that neither side wanted to change the system. The ‘new’ politics, by contrast, are much more formal. The CRA required more formal structures and processes to handle the relationships between more separate branches of government. We now have the Judicial Appointments Commission, Judicial Appointments and Conduct Ombudsman, and Judicial Conduct Investigations Office: all products of the CRA. The new formal processes include regular meetings between the judiciary and other branches of government, with the innovation of six-monthly meetings between the LCJ and Prime Minister, the introduction of regular meetings with senior officials in parliament, and annual appearances by the LCJ and President of the Supreme Court before the Constitution Committee.

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Partygate illustrates the fundamental constitutional responsibility of government MPs

Boris Johnson and his Chancellor have now been fined for breaking lockdown restrictions. Both have misled parliament over Downing Street parties. These are clear breaches of the Ministerial Code, which should lead to resignation. If the PM refuses to police the Code, says Meg Russell, that constitutional responsibility rests with MPs. A failure to exercise it would seriously undermine both the integrity of, and public trust in, the democratic system.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have been issued fixed penalty notices for breaching COVID-19 lockdown rules over parties in Downing Street. This means that they have broken the Ministerial Code on two counts. Paragraph 1.3 emphasises ‘the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life’. But the police have concluded that the law has been broken. Paragraph 1.3c of the Code then states that:

It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.

But it has been clear for some time that Johnson breached this rule, by repeatedly insisting in the House of Commons that all regulations were followed, and denying knowledge of Downing Street parties, when it subsequently emerged that he had attended such gatherings. Multiple sources have catalogued these denials. Rishi Sunak also said on the parliamentary record that he ‘did not attend any parties’.

But the final line of paragraph 1.3c is the rub. While both of these forms of breach would normally be considered resigning matters, the ultimate keeper of the Code is the Prime Minister himself. He has already faced down criticism over failing to uphold it in the case of bullying allegations against Home Secretary Priti Patel, which led to the resignation of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. Both Johnson and Sunak have insisted that they are not going to resign, indicating that the Prime Minister is once again setting aside the Code – this time over multiple breaches, which are highly publicly salient.

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What happened to the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission?

The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto promised to appoint a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to conduct a wide-ranging constitutional review. In practice, this promise has not been delivered. Tom Fleming and Petra Schleiter discuss this by summarising their recent article about the Commission, Radical departure or opportunity not taken? The Johnson government’s Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, as published in ‘British Politics’.

What did the government promise?

At the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party’s manifesto promised to appoint a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’. This body would be tasked with reviewing various aspects of the constitution and producing proposals ‘to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates’.

The Commission’s proposed remit was very broad, encompassing many of the central elements of the UK’s constitution. It would be asked to examine: ‘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’, as well as the Human Rights Act, administrative law, and judicial review. However, the manifesto was decidedly vague about how the Commission would be organised. There was no information about its proposed membership, format, or timeline, beyond a commitment that it would be established within a year of the election.

The manifesto’s language suggested that this proposal stemmed in part from the government’s experience of the Brexit process. This was most obvious from the manifesto’s controversial description of ‘the way so many MPs have devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people in the 2016 referendum’ creating ‘a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people’. This led some observers to warn against the dangers of the Commission ‘fighting the last war’ rather than crafting durable constitutional reforms.

Whatever its motivation, the proposed Commission had the potential to be a radical departure from previous investigations of constitutional reform in the UK. In particular, it held out the prospect of a joined-up review of multiple interconnected constitutional issues. Such joined-up thinking is vital for ensuring a coherent reform agenda, but has been conspicuous by its absence in recent decades.

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