Constitutional regulators play a vital role in the UK’s democratic system, but recent ethical scandals have led to suggestions that they need to be strengthened. Lisa James, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell argue that all those in public life should uphold the regulatory system, and take such proposals seriously.
Constitutional regulators enforce key standards and rules. These cover matters which are viewed as too important to be left purely to constitutional norms, but most of which are not covered by the criminal justice system (though some regulators do have prosecution powers).
Regulation is common to many sectors and professions, including those beyond the scope of this briefing. For example, the medical and legal professions use regulatory standards systems, and many industries operate statutory or voluntary ombudsman schemes.
The focus of this briefing is the regulators and regulatory systems that relate to politics in the UK. This includes various codes that govern the behaviour of politicians or officials, and the regulators that enforce them. It also includes regulators which oversee the processes of politics and governance – such as elections, public appointments or public spending – and those that aim to uphold certain standards of public discourse, for example by regulating the media.
Various terms exist for such organisations; for example, they are often referred to as constitutional watchdogs or guardians. Here, for simplicity, we use the term constitutional regulators throughout.
Why do regulators matter?
Regulation safeguards the integrity of a profession or sector, and protects the public. It establishes the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, ensuring that both the regulated profession and those who come into contact with it understand what standards should be upheld. In politics, such standards most obviously include financial probity and personal conduct. Regulation also guards against unfair competition, often by preventing those in dominant positions from abusing their power. One example is the legal requirement for a purdah period in the run-up to elections, which bars incumbent governments from using public money or resources to support their campaigns.Continue reading