Checks and balances: what are they, and why do they matter?

Checks and balances are fundamental elements of constitutional democracy that prevent the unconstrained exercise of power, improve the quality of decision-making and ensure that mechanisms exist for preventing or penalising unethical behaviour. Lisa James, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell argue that they therefore play a vital role in maintaining public confidence in the political system and the government has a particular responsibility to uphold them.

Background

The importance of checks and balances is often cited in debates about the health of democracy, and their erosion is widely considered a sign of democratic backsliding. But what are they, and why are they important?

Checks and balances are the mechanisms which distribute power throughout a political system – preventing any one institution or individual from exercising total control. The words ‘checks’ and ‘balances’ are typically used together, but can be thought of as referring to subtly different (though overlapping) things. Checks are the mechanisms which allow political institutions to limit one another’s power – for example by blocking, delaying or simply criticising decisions. Balances, meanwhile, ensure that a wide variety of views and interests are represented in the democratic process. This includes structures like federalism, or broader features of democratic functioning such as the existence of multiple political parties.

The term ‘checks and balances’ is given more prominence in some countries than others, and is often particularly associated with the United States. But the principle is core to all modern democracies.

Checks and balances operate between and within most political institutions. However, the risks of unconstrained power are often considered particularly high with respect to the executive. This briefing hence focuses on the key institutions which check and balance executive power at UK level:

  1. parliament
  2. the courts
  3. impartial officials, and
  4. media and civil society.

Why do checks and balances matter?

Checks and balances play two key roles. First, they limit the power of the majority to act without regard to the views or interests of others. They ensure that the perspectives of those who are in the minority on a given issue are represented – for example, by guaranteeing that opposition voices are heard in the process of law-making. Second, at a more practical level, they ensure that policy is tested and behaviour supervised. This helps to improve the quality of decision-making, and prevent behaviour which might threaten the integrity or reputation of the political system.

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Why Rishi Sunak should take the initiative on standards reform

Rishi Sunak has appointed a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, but there is still a need for the role to be strengthened to ensure the new Adviser has genuine independence and freedom to act. Concerns have also been raised about the standard of recent appointments to the House of Lords. Peter Riddell argues that Sunak should follow the example of John Major and take the initiative on standards reform.

Rishi Sunak has so far been stronger on aspirations to improve standards in public life than on his actions, which have largely continued the approach of his predecessors. Ministers have reaffirmed limits to the role of independent regulators and scrutiny by reasserting executive prerogatives.

On the positive side, in his first comments on entering 10 Downing Street, Sunak promised that his government would have ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level’. Trust, he said, is earned. And in his personal foreword to the Ministerial Code issued just before Christmas, he referred to upholding the Principles of Public Life (commonly known as the Nolan principles), which Boris Johnson had omitted from the May 2022 version. At the same time, Sunak appointed Laurie Magnus as the new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, six months after the resignation of predecessor Lord (Christopher) Geidt.

The role of the Independent Adviser

The remit of the Adviser has not, however, been strengthened since the compromise changes of last May, which attracted criticism at the time. The government adopted some of the package proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in its Upholding Standards in Public Life report of November 2021, which recommended a graduated system of sanctions solely in the hands of the Prime Minister, combined with greater independence for the Adviser in launching inquiries and determining breaches of the Code. As Lord (Jonathan) Evans of Weardale, the committee’s chair, commented in June 2022, the government accepted the former but not the latter in the form proposed.

The Adviser will now be able initiate their own investigations but only after ‘having consulted the Prime Minister and obtained his consent’. The requirement for prime ministerial consent is justified on the grounds that the Prime Minister is constitutionally responsible for appointing and dismissing ministers. As Boris Johnson said in a letter to Lord Evans in April 2021, this meant that, ‘I cannot and would not wish to abrogate the ultimate responsibility for deciding on an investigation into allegations concerning ministerial misconduct’. Moreover, the Prime Minister will also continue to have the right to decide when any report by the Adviser is published – risking lengthy delays, as has happened in the past – and on the significance of any breach of the Code, as well as on the form of any sanctions. Parliament is still left with no role in approving the Code or its implementation.

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What does the new Prime Minister mean for the constitution?

The Constitution Unit held an event in November at which three expert panellists discussed the potential constitutional impact of newly appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, discussing the problems posed by concerns about ministerial standards, the government’s decision to proceed with several bills that pose worrying constitutional questions, and the future of the devolution settlement. Alice Hart and Hashmath Hassan summarise the contributions.

On the day that the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot legally hold another independence referendum without Westminster’s approval, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the potential constitutional impact of the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, and brought together three expert panellists: Jill Rutter (a Senior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government); Dr Ruth Fox (Director of the Hansard Society); and Professor Colm O’Cinneide (Professor of Constitutional and Human Rights Law at University College London). The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions. 

Jill Rutter 

Jill Rutter discussed the need to repair the damage done to the perception of standards in public life during Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister. Johnson suffered the resignation of two Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests in as many years, tolerated misbehaviour from his MPs and was ‘fast and loose with the facts’ in parliament. Sunak’s commitment to the integrity agenda is unclear, Rutter stated. He has made assurances that he will appoint an Independent Adviser (unlike his predecessor, Liz Truss, who indicated that she did not need one) and has appointed a barrister to lead an independent inquiry into bullying allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. However, questions remain about Sunak’s approach to his new Independent Adviser, such as whether he will provide the postholder with sufficient resources (as promised by Johnson to former Independent Adviser Lord (Christopher) Geidt) and whether he will make any effort to ensure their independence in terms of both the publication of reports and initiation of investigations without the approval of the Prime Minister.  

Other than these immediate actions, little is known about Sunak’s plans to restore integrity and trust in government. Clamping down on lobbying may be a good place to start, Rutter suggested: she noted that the Gordon Brown review of the constitution commissioned by the Labour Party is planning to propose limitations on MPs’ second jobs. She provided some examples of big ideas that Sunak could adopt, such as Labour’s proposal to establish an Integrity and Ethics Commission and the Australian government’s introduction of an anti-corruption commission. A key challenge for Sunak, Rutter suggested, is dealing with Johnson’s and Truss’ lists of nominations to the House of Lords – especially with regard to how they may affect trust in politics.  

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How Sunak can restore integrity, professionalism and accountability

Meg Russell, Alan Renwick, Sophie Andrews-McCarroll and Lisa James argue that for Rishi Sunak to keep his promise to put integrity, professionalism and accountability at the heart of his government, he must strengthen the standards system, enhance parliamentary scrutiny, defend the rule of law, abide by constitutional norms and defend checks and balances.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak promised to put integrity, professionalism and accountability in government at the heart of his premiership. This promise is to be warmly welcomed – commentators and experts have raised consistent alarms about slipping constitutional standards in recent years, and research shows that the public care deeply about honesty and integrity in their politicians.

But what might such a pledge look like in reality? Against the backdrop of Boris Johnson’s resignation this summer, precipitated by concerns about his approach to standards, integrity and accountability, an earlier post on this blog issued five questions for the then leadership candidates to address on rebuilding constitutional standards and restoring integrity. The subsequent premiership of Liz Truss aptly demonstrated these questions’ continuing relevance. This new post returns to the five core tasks, links them to Sunak’s stated goals, and suggests what his government might do to meet them. It demonstrates close agreement with proposals by respected experts from other bodies in response to Sunak’s pledge.

1. Strengthening the standards system

The system for maintaining government and parliamentary standards was placed under great stress during the Johnson premiership. Successive Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests resigned, ministers unwisely attempted to derail a House of Commons Committee on Standards investigation, and a Privileges Committee inquiry into whether Johnson himself misled parliament is ongoing. Truss’s subsequent claim that her personal integrity was a sufficient bulwark against standards breaches fell far short of the serious commitment to institutional arrangements needed to safeguard integrity.

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The constitutional causes and consequences of the Truss-Kwarteng budget crisis

Within weeks, Liz Truss’s premiership was plunged into economic and political turmoil due to Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. But this crisis, suggests Meg Russell, has distinctly constitutional roots. Building on Boris Johnson’s legacy, Truss chose to sideline expert officials and regulators, and shut out her own MPs. The consequences that have since befallen her are a compelling advertisement for respecting – and rebuilding – appropriate constitutional checks and balances.

The Conservative Party conference, indeed the entirety of Liz Truss’s new premiership, has been severely destabilised by the market reaction to Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. Far from securing Truss her desired reputation for acting on the energy crisis and boosting the economy, and a positive bounce in the polls, Kwarteng’s 23 September ‘fiscal event’ saw the pound plunge, lenders withdraw mortgage products, and Labour achieve record poll leads. Faced with a mass rebellion by Conservative MPs, Kwarteng performed a U-turn on abolition of the top rate of income tax, while other parts of the package may face further such trouble ahead.

Fiscal policy is well beyond the usual scope of the Constitution Unit blog, or of this author. But the extent to which the unforced economic and political crisis built on foundations of poor constitutional and governance practice is striking. Boris Johnson played fast and loose with many constitutional norms, and Liz Truss seems quickly to have followed suit. But her now catastrophic position – with some Conservative MPs calling for the Prime Minister’s removal after less than a month in the job – demonstrates just how shortsighted and dangerous such behaviour can be.

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