What the RHI Inquiry tells us about the ‘chilling effect’ of freedom of information laws

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The report into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme provided an insight into the functioning of government in Northern Ireland. Ben Worthy examines the extent to which it revealed that freedom of information laws have produced a ‘chilling effect’ and affected the completeness of the public record when it comes to ministerial discussions and decisions.

One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that Freedom of Information (FOI) laws could create an incentive to hide instead of open up. Could the presence of such laws lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? The particular concern is that laws designed to increase transparency might instead empty out the official record, so that meetings go un-minuted, conversations go unrecorded and that important audit trails simply disappear. Even where it goes on, this so-called ‘chilling effect’ is notoriously hard to prove. 

This was one of the many concerns raised as a consequence of scrutiny of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme in Northern Ireland. The alleged mishandling of the scheme partially led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017 and prompted an official inquiry, which reported last month. Back in March 2018, giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry, the Head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service, David Sterling, admitted that ‘the practice of taking minutes had “lapsed” after devolution’ and mentioned FOI specifically as a factor. 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

Light and shadows: the RHI scandal and the temptations of secrecy

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The RHI inquiry in Northern Ireland has led to concerns about a record ‘void’ that has left room for doubt and suspicion. Ben Worthy argues that the lack of a record might aid political deniability, but means that politicians also can’t be truly exonerated when accused of wrongdoing.

Marilyn Stathern, in her famous article on the ‘Tyranny of transparency’, asked: ‘what does visibility conceal’?  While openness can shed light on some areas, it can also create shadows and shade to hide in. One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that openness will create an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of letting in the light, could freedom of information laws, open meetings or open data lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? Could it create what’s called a ‘chilling effect’, whereby officials and politicians bury their decisions elsewhere?

Finding any firm evidence for resistance, avoidance or concealment is notoriously difficult. It could take place in numerous ways, whether avoiding questions or requests, keeping records and decisions off paper, or using non-official emails or networks like WhatsApp. It’s hard to prove a negative, that something isn’t happening and, if avoidance done well, it should stay hidden. Only the most incompetent or inept are likely to be caught.

A few concrete examples have surfaced. We have had flashes of an apparent ‘chilling’ in the Trump White House and closer to home with Michael Gove using a private email address for public business in 2012 (as urged by his then adviser Dominic Cummings). More worrying was the evidence in Scotland in 2018 that some parts of government were engaged in ‘deliberate delaying tactics and requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons’. But are these isolated cases or the tip of an iceberg of systematic resistance? Studies have come to varying conclusions and a select committee in 2012 concluded that there was no firm evidence.

However, it now looks as though transparency campaigners’ worst nightmare has come to pass in Northern Ireland’s RHI scandal, as detailed in Sam McBride’s new book Burned. The RHI scandal, as the later Inquiry FAQ explains, concerns ‘the non-domestic renewable heat incentive… a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy’. However, the FAQ goes on, ‘how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern’. You can see the background here and a timeline. Continue reading

This prorogation is improper: the government should reverse it

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgalan.jfif (1)professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgBoris Johnson’s prorogation announcement has generated widespread criticism, and will be hotly debated when MPs return today from their summer break. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell argue that the decision to suspend parliament for five weeks was an improper use of executive power, sets dangerous precedents, and undermines fundamental principles of our constitution. It should therefore not proceed. MPs may seek to block it, and so may the courts, but the preferable route would be for the government to recognise its mistake and reverse it.

MPs return to Westminster today after the five-week summer recess in deeply unusual and worrying circumstances. Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has faced just one day of parliamentary scrutiny since taking office on 24 July, triggered a prorogation of parliament, set to last another five weeks. Particularly given the Brexit deadline of 31 October, this has caused widespread consternation: among opposition parties, senior Conservatives (such as former Prime Minister Sir John Major, and Lord Young of Cookham who served for 24 of the last 40 years on the frontbench under a succession of Conservative leaders), plus constitutional experts, and the wider public. MPs must now decide how to respond, and meanwhile the action is being challenged in the courts. In this piece we argue that the prorogation was improper, that it sets dangerous precedents, that it is contrary to our constitutional traditions, and that there is still time for the government to defuse the crisis by reversing it.

The rights and wrongs of prorogation

At one level, parliamentary prorogation is entirely uncontroversial. By routine, a short prorogation usually occurs each year between the end of one parliamentary session and the start of the next – ahead of a new Queen’s speech. In addition, a short prorogation often occurs before parliament is dissolved for a general election, in order to regulate the timing and ensure that election day takes place on a Thursday. The recent practice and procedure of prorogation is set out clearly in an excellent briefing from the House of Commons Library.

Discussion of potentially more sinister uses of prorogation began during the Conservative leadership contest, when Dominic Raab (now Foreign Secretary) refused to rule out proroguing parliament to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit in the face of opposition by MPs. This was roundly condemned by others in the race at the time: being described by Sajid Javid (now Chancellor of the Exchequer) as ‘trashing democracy’, and Michael Gove (now effective Deputy Prime Minister) as ‘a terrible thing’. Andrea Leadsom (now Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) commented that ‘I don’t think prorogation is the right thing to do and I don’t think that a Prime Minister would choose to do that’.

Following Johnson’s prorogation announcement, ministers have instead suggested that this is absolutely standard procedure. On Thursday’s Today programme, the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, claimed that it was more or less what happened every year, and that it was ‘because of the 3 ½ weeks of conference recess [that] it is five weeks in total’. Hence Rees-Mogg accused critics of the move of expressing ‘confected anger’.

But such suggestions of normality are disingenuous, seeking to exploit public confusion between the different means by which it can be decided that the Commons will not sit. It is important to distinguish between the following three things:

Prorogation brings all parliamentary business to a complete stop. Unless rescued by a government motion, bills that are before parliament fall and must start their passage again. Importantly, the decision to prorogue lies wholly in the hands of the government – through issuing advice to the Queen, which she is duty bound to accept. Usually a prorogation lasts for just a few days. Research by the House of Lords Library shows that a five-week prorogation will be the longest since 1930.  

Parliamentary recess is very different. Recess occurs periodically throughout the year, to accommodate holidays and, usually, a break for the party conferences. However, the decision to adjourn for recess lies with MPs. The motion for the 2019 conference recess had not yet been laid, and the looming Brexit deadline meant that there was increasing pressure from MPs to cancel or cut this recess short. Crucially, it is also possible for some parliamentary business – such as meetings of select committees – to continue during recess, and the progress of bills is not halted.

Dissolution of parliament in contrast occurs before a general election. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the decision to dissolve parliament again lies with MPs themselves – and is taken by a parliamentary vote. Dissolution does not simply suspend parliament: as the name suggests, it dissolves parliament in preparation for the creation of a new one through a general election.

Hence either recess or dissolution, sometimes combined with a short prorogation, frequently result in parliamentary breaks which last a number of weeks. But in both of these cases MPs take the decision to break themselves. Had ministers genuinely wanted to hold a ‘routine’ prorogation to facilitate a Queen’s speech, as they claim, they could easily have proposed one lasting a few days, and left the decision to MPs regarding whether to take the conference recess. Instead, they have proposed the longest prorogation for 90 years, using executive power to shut down parliament in the midst of a crisis – seemingly to avoid the risk that MPs would veto the conference recess, and perhaps use the time available defeat the government on other things. As suggested in the previous comments of Conservative leadership contenders, that represents an improper use of executive power. Continue reading

The next PM’s territorial challenges

jack_sheldon.1The next stages of Brexit are now set to happen under a new Prime Minister. The chosen candidate will have to work with governments in Wales and Scotland that are openly critical. Northern Ireland may be without a government and the English regions may lack a unified voice, but neither can be taken for granted, especially as the new PM will rely on the DUP for confidence and supply. Leaving the European Union therefore cannot be separated from the challenges of maintaining the domestic union, as Jack Sheldon explains.

Following the announcement of Theresa May’s imminent resignation, the long-anticipated contest within the Conservative Party to succeed her has begun.

The campaign will inevitably be dominated by Brexit. But events over the past three years have shown that the future of relations with the EU cannot easily be separated from the future of the domestic Union. The candidates will thus need to give careful thought to how they will approach the major statecraft challenges presented by territorial politics across the UK if they become Prime Minister.

Renegotiating the Northern Ireland backstop will be popular with Conservative MPs – but a new Prime Minister might soon face the same dilemma as Theresa May

The Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ has been the main driver of opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement within the parliamentary Conservative Party and their confidence-and-supply partners the DUP. Consequently, there are strong short-term incentives for leadership contenders to commit to renegotiating it, in the hope that it might yet be possible to get a deal that doesn’t cut across Brexiteer red lines on the Single Market and customs union through the House of Commons. Pledges to this effect have already been made by Jeremy HuntBoris JohnsonEsther McVey and Dominic Raab.

In reality, substantive changes to the backstop will be extremely difficult to deliver. It remains the position of the EU27 and the Irish government that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.  Keeping an open Irish border has become highly salient in Ireland and the EU, and the new Prime Minister will need to appreciate that this means there is next to no chance that they will be open to trading the guarantees provided by the backstop for the loosely-defined ‘alternative arrangements’ envisaged by many Conservative MPs. The same dilemma Theresa May faced might thus soon confront her successor – whether, as an avowed unionist, to recoil from a no-deal scenario that would undoubtedly have disruptive effects at the Irish border and strengthen the case for an Irish border poll, or whether the delivery of Brexit trumps everything else.

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The proposal for a UK constitutional court is half-baked, unnecessary and potentially dangerous

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Recent media reports have suggested that the government plans to introduce a new ‘constitutional court’, based on the model of the German Federal Constitutional Court, in an attempt to assert parliamentary sovereignty ahead of the upcoming EU referendum. Jeff King argues that, for a variety of reasons, this is not a sensible proposal.

Of all the rushed ideas for major constitutional reform that could be adopted by the current government, the one for a UK constitutional court (UKCC) as a solution to the perceived EU problem is by far the worst. The President of the Supreme Court Lord Neuberger told The Times last week that the idea is a ‘recipe for complication, for cost and for unnecessary duplication’, and the cross-bench peer Lord Pannick added that ‘the proposal has no merit’. In this post, I am less kind to the idea. I argue that it is half-baked, unnecessary, and potentially dangerous, regardless of one’s view of the desirability of an entrenched constitution protected by constitutional judicial review.

Half-baked

The idea of a constitutional court emerged in the writings and political activism of the great Austrian jurist, Hans Kelsen, and was a component of a vision of constitutions as higher law operating within a refined and stratified system of private and public law (see Hans Kelsen, ‘La garantie juridictionnelle de la constitution’ (1928) 45 Revue de Droit Public 197; ‘Judicial Review of Legislation: A Comparative Study of the Austrian and American Constitution’ (1942) 4 J of Politics 183, and General Theory of Law and the State (1945) Part I chs. IX; Part II, chs. II and III). These ‘Kelsenian constitutional courts’ (as they are often called) account for the majority of the world’s highest courts with constitutional jurisdiction. They typically have multiple chambers. They normally centralise all judicial review of legislation instead of permitting its review by other courts. They are distinct from administrative law and social courts pursuant to well-developed doctrinal systems of law. And the appointments process for the judges are usually deliberately politicised.

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