Regulating the use of COVID passports in the UK: the need for primary legislation

Talk of ‘COVID passports’ as a means of proving a person’s vaccination status has increased in recent weeks. Ronan Cormacain argues that rule of law concerns necessitate that COVID passports must be created and regulated by primary legislation, which must be given time for proper parliamentary scrutiny. They should not be brought about by secondary legislation, as has been the case with a significant amount of pandemic-related legislation.

The so-called COVID passport is a way of ‘proving’ a person’s COVID status. This blogpost makes three arguments. Firstly, that the use of COVID passports ought to be regulated, secondly that that regulation ought to be by way of legislation, and thirdly that that legislation needs to be an Act of Parliament.

There are many forms such a passport could take: digital or non-digital, domestic only or international, relating to the presence of COVID antibodies or vaccination status, etc. Furthermore, there are many important questions around the content of such a law: the justification of requiring a passport, scope, international recognition, protections, necessity and proportionality, time limits on regulation, etc. This post does not address any of these questions, focusing not on the detail of any law regulating them, instead simply arguing that there should be a law regulating the matter in the UK.

Autonomous moral actors in an unregulated market, or heteronomous rules imposed upon a regulated market

John Locke’s almost mythical conception of a pre-Commonwealth era was of autonomous individuals perfectly free to make their own moral choices. There were no externally imposed rules, and we were all individuals with complete power to determine our own actions. Or as Locke put it: ‘a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other [person]’.

At the time of writing, COVID passports, or more specifically, the right to treat a person in a particular way depending upon whether or not they have a COVID passport, occupies a near Lockean regulation-free space. There is no rule that a publican may refuse entry to a person without a passport, but nor is there a law that specifically prohibits him from doing so. There is no rule that a health worker must only be employed if they have a passport, but nor is there a specific protection for those who don’t have one. Aside from the regulation of travellers to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (who must be in possession of a negative COVID test result), this is a law-free zone.

Continue reading

Five years of ‘EVEL’

In the wake of the devolution settlements of the Blair years, political pressure to answer the ‘West Lothian Question’ persisted. In 2015, the proposed answer was ‘English Votes for English Laws (or EVEL). Today, on its fifth anniversary, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny assess how EVEL has worked, during one of the most volatile political periods in living memory.

On 23rd October 2015, the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL) procedures came into force in the House of Commons. Introduced by David Cameron in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, these new rules were designed as an answer to the notorious ‘West Lothian Question’ – the late Tam Dalyell’s resonant enquiry about why Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should continue to be able to vote on matters that only affected England after devolution, while MPs in England were not able to reciprocate in devolved areas.

When EVEL was introduced, the procedures were sharply criticised by opponents. For some, the reform would not only be logistically difficult to implement – likely to be ‘incomprehensible’ to MPs and the public alike – but would also threaten the UK’s constitutional makeup. In particular, it was argued that EVEL would establish ‘two classes of MP’ at Westminster, undermining the ability of non-English MPs to represent their constituents’ interests. Others, meanwhile, criticised the procedures as too tame, and falling short of providing adequate representation to England.

The five-year anniversary provides an opportune moment to review how this contentious reform has fared in practice. Yet the wider territorial politics of the UK have also undergone significant changes in the intervening period. The questions to which these complicated rules were a response have become ever more pressing, but whether EVEL can provide a sustainable response to the increasingly fraught question of English devolution is increasingly doubtful.

Continue reading

The Sewel convention and Brexit

mcewen-e1527685912390In March, the Constitution Unit co-published a new report, Parliament and Brexit, in which some of the UK’s leading academics examine how parliament has managed Brexit to date, and how it might seek to handle the issue in future. Here, Nicola McEwen discusses how the Sewel convention, which regulates the relationship between the UK Parliament and its devolved counterparts, was put under strain by Brexit.

There are four legislatures in the UK, but only one of these is sovereign. The sovereignty of the Westminster parliament remains one of the most important principles of the UK constitution. Each of the devolution statutes made clear that conferral of law-making powers on the devolved institutions ‘does not affect the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws’ for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – including in areas of devolved competence. But Westminster’s parliamentary sovereignty is offset by the constitutional convention that it will not normally legislate in areas of devolved competence, or alter the competences of the devolved institutions, without their consent.

That convention, commonly known as the Sewel convention, has become an important principle underpinning UK devolution. It represents a tacit understanding that the devolved institutions, each of which was founded on popular consent in a referendum, have primary democratic and political authority over laws within their areas of competence.

From the outset, the scope of the Sewel convention was ambiguous. The UK and devolved governments have frequently disagreed on the extent to which UK legislation necessitates legislative consent from the devolved institutions. When tasked with determining its status following its inclusion in the Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017, the Supreme Court in Miller I concluded that it remained a convention rather than a legal rule, therefore ‘the policing of its scope and the manner of its operation does not lie within the constitutional remit of the judiciary’. The Court thus left it to politicians and parliament to determine the operation and interpretation of the convention. Continue reading

Removing references to EU law from the devolution legislation would require the consent of the devolved assemblies

item163767

In the event of Brexit, there will be pressing devolutionary matters to be addressed. One of these concerns the issue of the legislative consent of the devolved nations to the amendment of devolution legislation in order to remove references to EU law. If such consent is not forthcoming, this could prompt a constitutional crisis. In this post Sionaidh Douglas-Scott discusses this. For the sake of simplicity and space this blog restricts discussion to Scotland, although similar issues will pertain to legislative consent in Wales and Northern Ireland.

If there is a vote to leave the EU in the referendum on June 23, then the UK would need to commence proceedings to withdraw from the EU under Article 50 TEU. Art 50(3) states that after expiry of certain time periods the Treaties ‘shall cease to apply to the State in question.’ However, this would not be enough to remove the impact of EU law in the UK. It would also be necessary to repeal or amend the European Communities Act (ECA) 1972, which is the statute giving domestic effect to EU law in the UK.

Nor would this be an end to matters. EU law is incorporated directly into the devolution statutes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For example, section 29(2)(d) of the Scotland Act 1998 provides that acts of the Scottish Parliament that are incompatible with EU law are ‘not law’. Therefore, although the Westminster parliament may repeal the ECA 1972, this would not bring an end to the domestic incorporation of EU law in devolved nations. It would still be necessary to amend the relevant parts of devolution legislation. But this would be no simple matter and could lead to a constitutional crisis.

Continue reading

Legislative consent from Wales, or not: blocking Police and Crime Panels

There was an interesting development in Wales last week, when the National Assembly voted against giving its legislative consent under the Sewel convention to the Westminster legislation creating Police and Crime Panels.  These are part of the proposals for elected police commissioners that are the centrepiece of the Coalition government’s Police Reform and Social Responsibility bill.

This is the first time a Westminster bill has been denied legislative consent under the Sewel convention – this has never happened to any bill affecting Scotland.  The reason is partly to do with party politics – while Conservative and Lib Dem AMs supported the UK bill, it was opposed by Labour and Plaid Cymru.  It’s also to do with what looks like legislative laziness, as the Police and Crime Panels are constituted as local authority committees (the bulk of their members will be councillors, but they’re not constitutionally part of any local authority).

Having got into this jam, the initial indications are that Home Office intends simply to insist that Westminster, as the sovereign parliament, has power to enact the legislation despite the National Assembly’s views.  As I’ve explained in a detailed post on Devolution Matters available HERE, that would be a grave mistake.  It would seriously upset the constitutional relationship between the devolved legislatures and UK Parliament, and risk a very messy legislative situation.  Moreover, with the Scotland bill under consideration at both Westminster and Holyrood, it would raise the stakes relating to that as well.