The origins of the Cabinet Office Constitution Unit (1974–79): documenting the pitfalls of constitutional reform

In 1974, the Cabinet Office established a ‘Constitution Unitfollowing a difficult birthing process, which operated until the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. It was this Unit that inspired our own founding Director, Robert Hazell, when naming the newly-formed Constitution Unit 25 years ago. As part of this latter Unit’s 25th anniversary, Joseph Ward examines its earlier namesake, its founding and work, and what lessons we can learn from its role within government.

The 1970s was a decade marked by rising distrust in Britain’s political institutions. Intransigent governing problems, from inflation to nascent nationalism, fuelled a narrative that Britain was in crisis. Commentators in both academia and the press talked of a crisis of ‘governability’, with the state seemingly unable to keep pace with the demands placed on it by the public. 

In response to these trends, the Wilson government(s) of 1964–70 and 1974–76 instigated a series of constitutional reform measures. After creating the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution in 1969, Wilson sought to revisit the findings of the inquiry once returned to government in 1974, creating a bespoke Constitution Unit within the Cabinet Office to implement proposals for devolution to Scotland and Wales in particular. This ‘Constitution Unit’ was the conscious inspiration for the name adopted by UCL’s Constitution Unit when it was founded by Professor Robert Hazell in 1995, and which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary

This blog post examines a selection of the Constitution Unit records held at the National Archives to document how the unit came about and to consider the struggles within the state over its remit. The political turbulence of that period, especially after James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976, presented the Unit with many challenges, as did the magnitude of its task. The post concludes with some reflections on the origins of the Unit to consider any lessons it might hold for constitutional reform in the contemporary context.

Foundations: The Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution

In response to significant by-election wins for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists in the late 1960s, Harold Wilson set up a Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1969, tasked with examination of ‘the present functions of the central legislature and government in relation to the several countries, nations and regions of the United Kingdom’ (Cmnd. 5460: 32). Its course was characterised by turbulence and disagreement: the commission took 4.5 years to report, more than one member resigned before it completed its work and the initial Chairman, Lord Crowther, died in 1972 midway through the inquiry. 

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Braking the law: is there, and should there be, an executive veto over laws made by parliament?

During the Brexit crises of 2019, something exceptionally rare happened twice in less than six months: parliament passed legislation without the government’s consent. But are there constitutional veto mechanisms that governments can use to prevent this? In a new Unit report, Paul Evans explores this question in detail. He summarises his conclusions here.

What do executive vetoes look like? 

Many constitutional democracies include mechanisms whereby a head of state can veto a law made by the legislature, but few of these are absolute vetoes. Most are suspensory, inviting the legislature to think again, but giving it the last word. The US Constitution is the most obvious example of such an arrangement. France has a broadly similar system but, as with many if not most such vetoes, it isn’t used. Some states (for example Iceland) enable the president to put a law to a referendum. Others (such as Ireland) leave the last word with a constitutional court, but only on matters of constitutionality, not on grounds of political disagreement.

In the UK (and most of the old dominions which retain the Queen as head of state) such an arrangement looks impossible. The executive and the legislature are fused – they can’t have different views. The executive as a lawmaker in the UK only exists as an element of the sovereign parliament (the somewhat misleadingly titled ‘Crown-in-Parliament’). The sovereign has no personal stake in the making of law. They must do as parliament decides. As long ago as 1867, Walter Bagehot expressed this constitutional fact with typical rhetorical brio:

The popular theory of the English Constitution involves two errors as to the Sovereign. First, in its oldest form at least, it considers him as an ‘Estate of the Realm’, a separate co-ordinate authority with the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This and much else the Sovereign once was, but this he is no longer. That authority could only be exercised by a monarch with a legislative veto. He should be able to reject bills, if not as the House of Commons rejects them, at least as the House of Peers rejects them. But the Queen has no such veto. She must sign her own death warrant if the two Houses unanimously send it up to her. It is a fiction of the past to ascribe to her legislative power. She has long ceased to have any.

Withholding of royal assent

Nonetheless, when the first stirrings of what was to become the Cooper-Letwin Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019) began in the Commons in early 2019, it was suggested in some quarters that ministers could advise the sovereign to refuse royal assent to an Act agreed upon by parliament. The same argument re-emerged six months later in relation to the Benn-Burt Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act (No. 2) 2019), which Boris Johnson insisted on referring to repeatedly as the ‘Surrender Act’. But, despite these theoretical arguments, subsequent events appear to have confirmed that this concept of a royal veto is definitely a dead letter. Queen Anne was the last sovereign to decline the royal assent to an Act passed by parliament – in 1707 (or 1708 if you prefer to apply retrospectively the change of the new year from 25 March to 1 January in 1752). 

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Remote sittings for Ireland’s parliament: questionable constitutional objections

david_kenny_02.jpg_resized.jpg (1)As a result of the temporary measures taken by the UK House of Commons, MPs as far away from London as Orkney have been able to contribute to parliamentary proceedings remotely. The same has not been true of Ireland, where legal objections have been raised. David Kenny argues that those objections can be easily overcome and that there is no good reason why Ireland’s elected representatives should not be able to attend the Oireachtas remotely. 

Ireland’s recent general election, as well as producing deep political uncertainty, has produced several fascinating and strange constitutional questions: what happens when a candidate dies (not, it turns out, what the law clearly required). Can the Seanad (Senate) legislate when no Taoiseach (Prime Minister) has been appointed to nominate 11 of its members? What are the limits of the accountability of acting ministers?

The strange circumstances of the pandemic have thrown up yet another constitutional issue, one which is arising around the world: where and how can the legislature sit? With social distancing in a parliamentary chamber or committee room difficult, this has a profound effect on how the legislature can function at a time where the agglomeration of executive power in response to the crisis requires acute parliamentary oversight. 

At present, despite emergency legislation giving sweeping powers to the executive to combat COVID-19, neither house of the Irish parliament is meeting in anything other than the most limited form. For limited purposes, such as attempting to nominate a Taoiseach, a very large space such as Dublin’s Convention Centre can be rented to allow socially distant attendance from all 160 members of the Dáil (the equivalent of the UK’s House of Commons). But this is not intended to be a regular arrangement, and is not planned for other parliamentary activities, such as committee meetings. There are limited sittings in the Dáil Chamber, with a select groups of members in attendance, and meetings of a special COVID-19 Committee in the chamber also. It would seem that virtual/remote meetings would be essential to allow sufficient parliamentary oversight in these circumstances. But constitutional objections to this have been raised. Continue reading

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

Can analogue politics work in an era of digital scrutiny? The negative effect of COVID-19 on the informal politics of Westminster

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This week the House of Commons approved measures to conduct business in a semi-virtual form. These were necessary to ensure parliament can function during the coronavirus crisis, but as Greg Power explains, they will also involve the loss of some of the key elements of parliamentary life that enable effective scrutiny and party management. 

Parliament finally returned in semi-virtual form this week. While initial coverage has inevitably focused on the novel use of digital technology in the most analogue of institutions, underlying this are more important questions about whether parliament will be able to exert the same political pressure on government when its members are not physically present. 

Westminster is not alone in this task. Every other legislature around the world is looking for ways to meet and decide things when MPs cannot be in the same room, most of which seem destined to further increase the share price of Zoom. Yet, as most parliaments are finding, whilst adapting the formal procedures is a relatively easy task, the politics is more complex.

For example, Brazil moved swiftly to change its rules to allow fully virtual plenary sessions, South Africa has introduced new systems for electronic submission of questions to ministers and many parliamentary committees have quickly moved to remote meetings. Other countries, like France, Ireland, Norway and Germany have reduced both the amount of business, and the number of people allowed in the plenary at any one time, along with other provisions for remote deliberations and questions. 

The UK has ended up with a similar combination of measures, but spats have already emerged in other countries about the politics of such changes. Reducing the number of MPs in the chamber at any one time for questions seems appropriate, provided those numbers reflect the party balance. But who decides which MPs get to turn up? And if parliamentary business is being reduced, what takes priority? This is the traditional territory of the party whips, who will relish the ability to further influence the tone and contents of such public debates. Continue reading

Proposals for a ‘virtual parliament’: how should parliamentary procedure and practices adapt during the coronavirus pandemic?

RuthFox.084_square.1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary scrutiny is essential to checking and legitimising government decisions. But the coronavirus crisis, during which government has been granted unprecedented powers, creates obvious challenges for parliament. Ruth Fox and Meg Russell argue that parliamentary change during the crisis must follow three core principles: first, parliament should go virtual insofar as possible; second, it should adapt its procedures accordingly, prioritising the most critical business; third, decisions about these changes should be open and consultative — to avoid the risk of a government power grab — should be strictly time-limited, and be kept under regular review.

Parliament has an essential role as the guardian of our democracy. But the coronavirus pandemic poses a huge and unprecedented challenge: how can parliamentarians conduct their core constitutional duties of holding the government to account, assenting to finance, passing legislation, and representing their constituents, when we are all required to adopt rigorous social distancing and, wherever possible, work from home? 

At a time when the government has been granted emergency powers of a kind unparalleled in peacetime, and ministers are taking rapid decisions that could shape our economy and society for a generation, democratic oversight is vital. Adversarial party politics take a back seat in a time of national crisis, but parliament’s collective responsibility to hold the executive to account remains. Hence the many calls – from both within and without parliament – for a ‘virtual’ legislature to ensure adequate scrutiny of the government’s decisions, and to maintain other essential time-sensitive work, while complying with public health requirements. 

As yet, however, there has been little detailed debate about how a ‘virtual parliament’ should operate. Parliament cannot work as normal, so what broad issues must it address in deciding how to work differently? 

This post identifies and argues for three core principles:

  • In the interests of safety, and to set a national example, parliament should operate as far as possible virtually, rather than accommodating continued physical presence at Westminster.
  • Parliament should not pursue ‘business as usual’ but should make more radical changes, identifying and prioritising essential business. 
  • Parliament’s crisis arrangements should be based on wide and transparent consultation with members to maximise support. ‘Sunsetting’ should be used to make clear that they are temporary and create no automatic precedent for the post-crisis era. 

In the UK, the government already has much greater control of the way parliament – particularly the House of Commons – operates than in many other countries. Any crisis arrangements must ensure fair representation for all members and parties; and the crisis and parliament’s response to it should not become a pretext to shift power further towards the executive and party managers.   Continue reading

What happens when the Prime Minister is incapacitated?

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Boris Johnson’s admission to hospital has led to speculation about who is ‘in charge’, if he is not able to fulfil his duties. Former Unit Director Robert Hazell outlines the constitutional position when the serving Prime Minister is incapacitated, arguing that our parliamentary system allows for greater flexiblity than a system in which a president is directly elected.

Since Boris Johnson was admitted to an Intensive Care Unit, the airwaves have been full of speculation about how government will be conducted in his absence, and what would happen if his condition worsens; or worse still, if he fails to recover.

When he formed his government, Boris Johnson appointed Dominic Raab as First Secretary of State as well as Foreign Secretary, and when he went into intensive care Johnson asked Raab to lead the government in his absence. So Dominic Raab will chair meetings of the Cabinet and the main Cabinet committees, and at the end of the discussion he will sum up and pronounce their collective decision. He will represent the government at its regular COVID-19 press briefings, unless he invites another minister to do so: as Johnson himself did in asking Health Secretary Matt Hancock to talk about health issues. And Raab will lead on all the government’s day-to-day business, and in responding to any other emergencies: for example, convening meetings of the National Security Council if there is a flare-up in the Middle East. In all this he will be supported by Sir Mark Sedwill, now a very experienced Cabinet Secretary, and the staff of the Cabinet Office, as well as the civil servants and political staff in Number 10.

What will happen if Johnson is ill for longer than expected? The Cabinet would then have to discuss whether to continue with these temporary arrangements, or start to consider a longer term solution if it seemed unlikely that Johnson could return to office. That leads on to the further question, what would happen if Johnson failed to recover. In those circumstances the Cabinet would then discuss who should be appointed as his successor, and would advise the Queen accordingly. Back in 1963, when Harold Macmillan reluctantly resigned from his hospital bed, it was the party elders (led by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Dilhorne) who took soundings of the Cabinet, leading to the Queen being advised to appoint Lord Home as his successor. But party leaders are now elected by the party membership rather than emerging through secret soundings, which can lead to a much longer process, typically lasting three months if the leadership election is contested. However, these would be difficult circumstances in which to hold a leadership contest, and it is notable that since the change in their rules the Conservatives have twice managed to choose a new party leader without reference to the wider membership – Michael Howard being elected unopposed in 2003, and Theresa May in 2016, when two of her rival candidates were eliminated in the initial votes by MPs, and two other candidates withdrew. Continue reading

Parliament and COVID-19: the Coronavirus Bill and beyond

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgThe Coronavirus Bill introduced by the government last week will be debated by parliament in circumstances where it is harder for both Houses to meet, scrutinise and vote than at any time in recent memory. How should parliament respond to both the legislation and the crisis that prompted it? Former Clerk of the Commons David Natzler outlines the key issues facing MPs and peers as they consider how parliament should function in the coming months.

Just as the dust is settling on the first phase of the Brexit marathon, and the Constitution Unit and others are examining the role played by Parliament over the past three years, COVID-19 presents itself wholly unexpectedly as a challenge to all the nation’s institutions. Parliament was settling in for five years of single-party majority government and it looked as if, Brexit deal aside, it would be relatively smooth sailing. Now parliament faces the challenge of fulfilling its role in a COVID-19 environment.

The Coronavirus Bill

The government published its Coronavirus Bill on Thursday 19 March, having already revealed the policy proposals to which it gives effect in its Action Plan (published on 3 March) and a more detailed prospectus (published on 17 March). The bill has 87 clauses and 27 Schedules, totalling 321 pages of legislative text. The Explanatory Notes run to 73 pages, and there is a 31-page long memorandum on the implications for human rights.

Commons scrutiny

The bill is to be debated in the House of Commons on Monday 23 March for a maximum of six hours: up to four hours on second reading and two hours for committee of the whole House and remaining stages. The House decided on 18 March to disapply the EVEL Standing Orders in relation to the bill, so it will be spared the rigmarole of forming a Legislative Grand Committee.

It has been possible to table amendments since the bill was introduced. Four amendments and four new clauses were tabled on the day of its publication, and more may be expected in so-called ‘manuscript’ form on the day. They mainly address the issue of for how long the Act will be in force. The bill establishes that its provisions will apply for two years, with provisions for individual powers to be ‘sunsetted’ earlier or indeed revived if it falls due to a sunset clause. It also provides for a general debate in both Houses after one year. Both the official opposition and a cross-party group are proposing systems of six-monthly debate and renewal only if the House so decides. It is perhaps significant that the Irish parliament last week passed a similar bill and as a result of amendment decided that it should last for one year. This is an area where some change is likely; both the Scottish Government, and independent human rights organisations such as Liberty, have expressed concerns about the sunset and scrutiny provisions as currently drafted. Continue reading

Northern Ireland: politics on the move, destination uncertain

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Three years on from the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive m prompted by the RHI scandal, a power sharing government has returned to Stormont on the back of a deal that promises a ‘new approach’. Alan Whysall analyses the new deal, how it might work in practice and what pitfalls might await the new ministerial team.

We have devolved government in Northern Ireland once more, with a new political deal, New Decade, New Approach. This is a cause for real hope, responding to the public mood, and the politics dictate it must operate for the moment. Many of the underpinnings are, however, fragile. Government and politics need to operate differently if they are to succeed in the longer term.

The last thousand days

Government in Northern Ireland has been in abeyance for three years. In early 2017, one of the two main parties, Sinn Féin, withdrew over the involvement of the other, the DUP, in a mismanaged sustainable energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive. Beneath the surface were other tensions, notably around respect for Irish identity – crystallised latterly in demands from Sinn Féin and others for an Irish Language Act. Division between the parties was sharpened by Brexit, which the DUP favoured but others did not; and later by its Westminster alliance with the May government. 

While devolution operated, parties in government had moderated their language. Once it collapsed, rhetoric, and feeling in parts of the community, became hardened and polarised, reminiscent of the atmosphere before the Good Friday Agreement. The British government, under uninspiring Secretaries of State and writhing in its Brexit agonies, incurred universal mistrust. Relations between London and Dublin became tense. The prospect of Irish unity through a border poll – which the Agreement makes in principle a matter for simple majorities in both parts of Ireland – featured increasingly in Sinn Féin’s approach, and appeared from opinion polling to be growing closer. Paramilitaries on both sides saw opportunities in the political vacuum; last spring dissident Republicans, seeking to kill police officers, murdered a journalist, Lyra McKee.

There was at first remarkable equanimity over the extraordinary situation of Northern Ireland being left without government, beyond civil servants minding the shop. The British government hesitated to impose direct rule, as in the past; its dependence on the DUP would have made such a step destabilising. 

A report late last year by the new Northern Ireland think tank Pivotal shows how seriously Northern Ireland has suffered from inattention to its grave economic and social problems, under devolution and since. Continue reading

Dramas at Westminster: select committees and the quest for accountability

iOpQqpWl_400x400.jpgNow that the government has a secure majority in the Commons, the role of select committees in scrutinising its work will be crucial. But how do select committees operate, what makes them tick and how effective are they? Drawing on the findings of his new book, Marc Geddes argues that if we want to understand the effectiveness of scrutiny, we cannot underestimate the role of beliefs and practices in mediating accountability in legislatures.

How do MPs make sense of their scrutiny work? Accountability is one of three core functions of legislatures (the other two being law-making and representation), yet we know remarkably little about how MPs interpret, or seek to carry out, scrutiny work. Those MPs that do take it seriously often join select committees. They are seen as the main vehicles of accountability in the House of Commons, made up of a small group of MPs to consider policy questions. Traditionally, there is one committee per ministerial department, as well as additional cross-cutting ones (such as on public administration and constitutional affairs). Committees normally consider policy issues through an evidence gathering process that may include written, as well as oral, evidence, before then publishing a report with recommendations for action (very often these reports are published consensually, with agreement from all the committee’s MPs). Select committees are seen to be influential and have been widely celebrated, especially in 2019, which marked the 40th anniversary since their present-day incarnation. While they are seen as fundamental to good scrutiny and we know that they can be influential, I wanted to examine select committees from a different vantage point, asking why MPs join committees and how they make sense of their role. This culminated in a book, Dramas at Westminster. What did I find? 

The core argument of my book is that there is no easy answer or unifying theme to understand what ‘scrutiny’ actually means. Rather, MPs’ interpretations of the concept are wide-ranging and, while MPs’ beliefs often blend well together to create effective means to hold the executive to account, their ideas about select committee work can also contrast and diverge from what others might consider to be ‘good scrutiny’ – or, in fact, ‘scrutiny’ at all. For example, for some, scrutiny is about holding the government’s feet to the fire and they would only regard scrutiny as being successful if they have blown a minister off-course; for others, scrutiny is about transparency, i.e. better understanding why a minister might have taken a particular decision. I argue that these different interpretations create different ‘performance styles’; behaviours that MPs can adopt when they enact their scrutiny role – much like in a theatre or play. To illustrate this point, I identify six styles: specialists, who often form the core of committee business and attempt to analyse aspects of the policy area; lone wolves, who take their passions so far that they make their case irrespective of other committee members or the committee’s remit; constituency champions, who look at scrutiny through the prism of how it can benefit local causes; party helpers, who seek to protect their party interests on the committee; learners, who use their membership to better understand a policy issue; and absentees, who – as their name suggests – are largely absent from substantive committee work.

These styles are not fixed, with many MPs changing the role they adopt based on particular circumstances. For example, it might be the case that an MP is a specialist in one aspect of a committee’s work but not another, and so acts as specialist or learner accordingly; in other areas of a committee’s work, it might directly touch on their constituency while in a hearing with the secretary of state, or they cannot help themselves and use their party allegiance to poke fun at the government. It is worth thinking about performance styles to understand the wider dynamics of committee hearings and evidence processes. Doing this detailed analysis will help us to better understand why a committee will come to certain conclusions but might avoid other recommendations. Most importantly, the performance styles that I have identified here are designed to be illustrative rather than definitive, drawing on the most recurring themes and behaviours that I found during my fieldwork.  Continue reading