The Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda: prospects and challenges

thumbnail_20190802_092917.jpgThe Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election included a commitment to set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission (as discussed previously on this blog by Meg Russell and Alan Renwick) and engage in a wider programme of constitutional reform. In February, the Unit hosted an event to discuss the new government’s constitutional reform agenda: Sam Anderson summarises the main contributions. 

Page 48 of the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 general election committed to a wide range of constitutional reform proposals – including repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), an ‘update’ of the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the creation of a ‘Constitution Democracy and Rights Commission’ to examine broader aspects of the constitution. On 4 February, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the implementation of this agenda, entitled ‘The Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda: prospects and challenges. The panel consisted of two Conservatives: Lord Andrew Dunlop, a member of the House of Lords Constitution Committee and former Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland; and Chris White, a former Special Adviser to William Hague, Andrew Lansley and Patrick McLoughlin. Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, chaired the event. The following is a summary of the main contributions. 

Lord Dunlop

Lord Dunlop suggested that the key question for the new government is what ‘taking back control’ means in constitutional terms. The years since the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 have been incredibly rich for those interested in the constitution. We have seen a deadlocked parliament, an arguably ‘activist’ judiciary, and fracturing Union, whilst foundational concepts like parliamentary sovereignty, the separation of powers, and the rule of law have come under scrutiny. It would be wrong, however, to see the government’s manifesto commitments as simply a direct response to the political and constitutional crisis of last autumn. Brexit placed a number of areas of the constitution under strain, but for Dunlop, it is the long-term context that is key to explaining the proposals in the manifesto. In his opinion, the proposals are not about ‘settling scores’.

For a number of years, EU membership, the devolution settlements and the HRA have all to varying extents limited parliament’s law-making powers. For example, Lord Neuberger, former President of the Supreme Court, has pointed out the profound changes that the HRA has brought to the role of judges in relation to interpretation of statute law, and retired Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption’s recent Reith Lectures have contributed to a long-running debate about the proper role of judges in a democracy. In Lord Dunlop’s view, the proposals on page 48 of the manifesto reflect the fact that Brexit has put additional pressure on an already strained constitution, and should therefore prompt us to consider whether the constitution is operating as it should.  Continue reading

Judges keep out: off-the-bench influence on the UK’s anti-terror regime

anisa-kassamali

The UK’s anti-terror regime has evolved rapidly over the past 15 years with the Investigatory Powers Bill the latest landmark. Much has been written about how the judiciary’s court decisions have influenced the anti-terror regime, but less attention has been paid to judges’ potential influence beyond their decisions in court. In a new report Anisa Kassamali examines off-the-bench judicial influence on the UK’s anti-terror regime, concluding that fears of judicial over-reach are unfounded. The report’s findings are summarised here.

anisa-report-coverTheresa May first published the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill as Home Secretary in November 2015, citing concerns around terrorism as one of its key drivers. State surveillance is a major feature of the UK’s anti-terror activities, and amongst other changes, the bill reconstructs the framework for the oversight of this system. As the bill now begins its report stage in the House of Lords, it is therefore apt to consider the role of the different branches of the state in tackling terrorism.

The Constitution Unit’s latest report focuses on the role of the judiciary. It is entitled Judges Keep Out: Off-the-bench Influence on the UK’s Anti-terror Regime and examines the state’s approach to terrorist threats from a constitutional angle. Have judges been overstepping their constitutional boundaries?

This question has previously been addressed only in relation to the judiciary’s court decisions. Kate Malleson is one of a number who argue that whilst ‘judges are not politicians in wigs’, the advent of procedures such as judicial review means that they ‘are increasingly required to reach decisions … which cannot be resolved without reference to policy questions’.

There has been much less focus on the judiciary’s activities outside of the courtroom – this report is the first systematic review of judicial impact on the UK’s anti-terrorism policies off-the-bench. Its findings are less controversial – it concludes that fears of judicial overreach, at least in this arena, are unfounded. It examines the question from two distinct angles – the impact of extra-judicial comments on anti-terrorism policies, and judicial involvement in the administration of the anti-terror regime.

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