The 1997 Labour government’s constitutional reform programme: 25 years on

25 years have passed since the Labour election win of 1997, which preceded a plethora of constitutional changes, including partial reform of the House of Lords, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Human Rights Act. Tom Leeman summarises the contributions of three expert speakers (Professor Robert Hazell, Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti and Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton) at a recent Unit event to mark the anniversary.

This year marked a quarter of a century since the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 General Election on 1 May. Blair’s first government embarked upon a programme of constitutional reform, many elements of which, such as devolution, the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the status of hereditary peers in the Lords, still spark debate in the UK today.

To mark the anniversary and discuss the Blair government’s constitutional legacy the Unit convened an event with three expert panellists: Professor Robert Hazell, founding Director of the Constitution Unit, who supported the Cook-Maclennan talks on constitutional reform between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 1996; Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton, who served as Lord Chancellor in the second and third Blair ministries from 2003 until 2007; and Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti, who was Director of Liberty from 2003 until 2016. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions.

Robert Hazell

Robert Hazell presented slides to summarise New Labour’s constitutional reform programme from their first election victory in 1997 until Gordon Brown’s resignation as prime minister in 2010. The reforms in Blair’s first term (1997-2001) were the biggest package of constitutional reforms in the twentieth century. They included devolution of power to assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in 1998; incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law in the Human Rights Act; and the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

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What can be done about the House of Lords?

More than 20 years has passed since the hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords in what was billed as the first phase of wider reform, and little has happened in the intervening decades. The Unit hosted a webinar to ask three long-serving parliamentarians what should change about the House of Lords, and how realistic is hope of major reform? Tom Fieldhouse summarises the discussion.

House of Lords reform is one of those issues that never seems to go away – in part because very little ever seems to happen.  

This perennial, complex, and often contentious issue was the subject of a Constitution Unit webinar, held on 13 January, entitled ‘What can be done about the House of Lords?’, where a distinguished panel of parliamentarians discussed the difficulties that hinder reform, whether new approaches are needed, and what those might be. 

The event was chaired by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Professor Meg Russell, herself an expert on the question of Lords reform. Speakers were Baroness (Angela) Smith of Basildon, Labour’s Shadow Leader of the House of Lords; Lord (Michael) Jay of Ewelme, Crossbench peer and former Chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission; and Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Conservative chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee and former chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which has reported on Lords reform

The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions. The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast.  

Baroness Smith of Basildon 

Baroness Smith began her remarks by suggesting that whereas most debates about Lords reform tend to focus on ‘form’ (namely, who is in the second chamber and how they get there), we should begin by focusing on ‘function’ (what we want the chamber to do, and how it can best achieve that).  

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Boris Johnson and parliament: misunderstandings and structural weaknesses

On 21 January Unit Director Meg Russell appeared on a panel with two former Conservative Chief Whips, reflecting on Boris Johnson’s troubled relationship with parliament as Prime Minister. In this post she presents her central arguments – that the Johnson government in its early months has seemed to demonstrate some basic misunderstandings about parliament and its role; but also the government’s behaviour has highlighted some of parliament’s key weaknesses.

In early September 2020 I wrote a blogpost on Boris Johnson and parliament, which documented 13 unhappy episodes in 13 months. I had originally aimed at producing a list of 10 such episodes, but found that there was just too much material. Some of the incidents were obvious – such as the attempted prorogation the previous September, ultimately ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Others have continued to bubble along unhappily in the subsequent months – including the persistent refusal by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to provide time for MPs to debate and agree proposals from the Procedure Committee to allow them to work virtually during the pandemic (frequently covered on this blog – see here and here), and the sporadic suggestions from government sources that the House of Lords should move to York. Some incidents were more obscure, but worth recalling for the record – such as Downing Street’s attempt to impose Chris Grayling as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (which rather dramatically backfired).

Of course that post was written five months ago, and the list continues to gets longer. It predated, for example, the dramatic showdown with former Conservative leaders over the government’s Internal Market Bill. It predated the announcement of the new Christmas lockdown rules during Commons recess, and the government’s refusal to allow a recall to debate them – despite protests by numerous Conservative backbenchers. It noted Johnson’s excessive first round of Lords appointments, but not his second within six months – both in clear breach of the Lord Speaker’s hardfought attempts to control the size of the chamber. It predated Johnson’s overruling of the House of Lords Appointments Commission’s recommendations on propriety, for the first time by any Prime Minister in the Commission’s 20-year existence.

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The Supreme Court ruling in Cherry/Miller (No.2), and the power of parliament

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThis week’s Supreme Court judgment against Boris Johnson on parliament’s prorogation has shaken British politics and will be looked back on as a landmark case. Yet at the same time, Meg Russell argues, it simply reinforces the core principle of parliament’s centrality in our constitution. There has long been a myth of executive-dominance in the British system. Perhaps after this case, the fact that the government gains its power and authority from parliament will be better recognised – by those both inside and outside the system.

The Supreme Court’s judgment in the prorogation case was damning. Short of deciding that Boris Johnson had misled the Queen (which would be difficult to know, given private conversations) the court issued the strongest possible condemnation on all counts. The government had argued that prorogation was non-justiciable: i.e. not a matter in which the courts could get involved. The justices instead ruled it justiciable. Having established that, they then ruled it to be unlawful. Then, rather than leaving any loose ends regarding remedies, they explicitly quashed the prorogation, declaring that ‘Parliament has not been prorogued’. To cap it all, the decision was a unanimous one by all 11 justices who sat in the case. The prorogation was hence not just ‘improper’, as argued previously on this blog, and in a letter to the Times signed by 22 constitutional experts, but also found to be unlawful in the most powerful possible terms.

In some respects this feels like a constitutional earthquake. Few at the outset expected such a resounding result. On the basis of the High Court’s judgment, the first hurdle of justiciability was in doubt. Many who watched the proceedings, and the careful forensic analysis by Lord Pannick, representing Gina Miller, will soon have started thinking otherwise. This can only have been reinforced by watching the presentations by the government’s lawyers, who claimed that the issue of prorogation should be resolved politically rather than through the courts. Their suggestion that parliament could somehow defend itself, when the very point of the case was that parliament had been shut down, rang hollow.

The court’s judgment confirmed that advising the monarch to prorogue ‘will be unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive’ (para 50). That flows, the judgment suggested, from two principles at the very core of the UK constitution: the sovereignty of parliament, and the accountability of the government to parliament – exercised, for example, through questions and committees. Continue reading