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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Reforming the royal prerogative  

The Brexit process raised questions about how – and in what areas – the royal prerogative should operate. Following a lengthy project, which has resulted in a new book on the subject and a Unit report – published today – on options for reform, Robert Hazell explains why the prerogative matters, and how it might be reformed to strike a better balance between parliament and the executive.

The royal prerogative has long been a mystery to most observers. I have now produced a book Executive Power: The Prerogative, Past, Present and Future to help demystify it. It was written with my former researcher (now a barrister) Tim Foot, and covers the whole range of prerogative powers, from going to war and ratifying treaties, appointing and dismissing ministers, regulating the civil service and public appointments, to the grant of honours and pardons and the issue of passports. The book’s 19 chapters provide a comprehensive guide to the operation of the prerogative – past, present, and future – together with suggestions for reform.

Working with us was another researcher, Charlotte Sayers-Carter, and Charlotte and I have distilled the key findings of our book into a much shorter report, Reforming the Prerogative. It selects just five powers, to illustrate the scope for reform through codification in statute, soft law, or by clearer and stronger conventions. This blog offers edited highlights from the book and the report, to explain why the prerogative matters; to illustrate this with a few prerogative powers; and to suggest ways in which it might be reformed.

What is the prerogative?

The prerogative derives from the original executive powers of the Crown. Over the years these have been overlain and superseded by statute, and most powers have transferred to ministers. The monarch retains the power to summon, dissolve and prorogue parliament; to grant royal assent to bills passed by parliament; to appoint and dismiss ministers. The main prerogative powers in the hands of ministers are the power to make war and deploy the armed forces; to make and ratify treaties; to conduct diplomacy and foreign relations; to grant peerages and honours; to grant pardons; to issue and revoke passports.

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The problem(s) of House of Lords appointments

Lords appointments are back in the news, with rumours of resignation honours from Boris Johnson, and even possibly Liz Truss. The current unregulated system of prime ministerial patronage causes multiple problems, and new Constitution Unit polling shows widespread public demand for change. Meg Russell reviews the problems and possible solutions, in the context of a bill on Lords appointments due for debate tomorrow. She argues that small-scale changes are now urgently required, and urges party leaders to embrace them – whatever their longer-term aspirations for Lords reform.

Recent weeks have seen revived controversies about appointments to the House of Lords. These include concerns about Boris Johnson’s long-rumoured resignation honours list, now joined by concerns that Liz Truss may want resignation honours of her own after just 49 days as Prime Minister. While the personalities may be different, controversies over Lords appointments are nothing new. The central overarching problem is the unregulated patronage power that rests with the Prime Minister. As this post highlights, a series of other problems follow: regarding the chamber’s size, its party balance, the quality of candidates appointed, the chamber’s reputation and widespread public dissatisfaction with the system.

An end to the Prime Minister’s unfettered appointment power is long overdue. Tomorrow a bill will be debated in the Lords aiming to tackle some of the problems, but as a backbench bill it is unlikely to succeed. Its contents nonetheless provide a useful (though incomplete) guide to the kind of important small-scale changes needed. Both main party leaders now need urgently to propose short-term packages of their own.

The problem of the size of the Lords

Much attention has focused in recent years on the spiralling size of the House of Lords. The current system places no limits whatsoever on the number of members who may be appointed to the chamber by the Prime Minister. Most – though not all – prime ministers have appointed unsustainably. Particularly given that peerages are for life, over-appointment drives the size of the chamber ever upwards. This is a historic problem, visible throughout the 20th century. The Blair government’s reform of 1999 brought the size of the chamber down (from around 1200 to just over 650). But since then it has risen again. Two reports from the Constitution Unit – in 2011 and 2015 – analysed this problem, calling for urgent action. In 2016 the Lord Speaker established a cross-party Committee on the Size of the House, which made recommendations the following year. Centrally these included restraint by the Prime Minister based on a ‘two-out-one-in’ principle – so that only one new peer would be appointed for every two who left, until the chamber stabilised at 600 members. These principles were endorsed by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and respected by Theresa May. But Boris Johnson ignored them. In 2021, the Lord Speaker’s Committee lamented how he had ‘undone progress’ achieved by his predecessor.

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Examining last session’s record-breaking number of government defeats in the House of Lords

In the 2021-22 session of parliament, government defeats in the House of Lords reached record levels. Sam Anderson argues that two key factors combined to drive this phenomenon. First, the Johnson government pursued a controversial legislative agenda. Second, it seemed in some cases unwilling to compromise where evidence suggests that previous governments would have done so.

There were numerous examples throughout Boris Johnson’s premiership of his government’s rocky relationship with parliament. One recent manifestation – noted elsewhere – was that there were an unprecedented 128 government defeats in the House of Lords in the 2021-22 parliamentary session. This led some government supporters to suggest that the Lords has become a ‘House of opposition’ that ‘views themselves as there to obstruct’ the government. But is this assessment fair?

The Constitution Unit’s tracking of when and on what topics governments are defeated in the House of Lords offers key insights. With data stretching back to 1999, we can compare such defeats between different governments over time. This blog uses such data to dig deeper into the 128 defeats, seeking to understand what might have caused them. First, I argue that a large number of bills covering topics that have long animated the Lords was a factor. Second, I suggest that pressures which have in the past increased the chances that the government would make some sort of concession to the Lords had less effect under Johnson.

Lords defeats over time

The Constitution Unit’s Meg Russell – who now serves as its Director – began recording defeats in 1999, when the House of Lords Act removed most hereditary peers, breaking the Conservative dominance of the chamber. Since then, no single party has had a majority in the Lords, making governments of all parties more vulnerable to defeats there than in the Commons. Votes are of course just one form of parliamentary influence, but the Lords’ ability to defeat the government has been an important source of institutional power.

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Must a caretaker government be a zombie government?

During the recently concluded Conservative leadership contest, the government appeared to be in a holding pattern, taking little or no action of substance until the election of Boris Johnson’s successor. But did the government, which had a substantial parliamentary majority and an electoral mandate, need to act as if it was merely a ‘caretaker’? Robert Hazell explains that the rules around a ‘lame duck’ PM remain fuzzy, and argues that steps must be taken to clarify the position as soon as possible.

Something very strange happened at Westminster over the summer: a government which enjoyed a comfortable working majority of 71 seats was declared to be a caretaker which could not take any major decisions. It was variously accused of being a ‘zombie government’ ‘asleep at the wheel’, and incapable of taking urgent decisions required by the energy crisis. In its defence the government might have responded that as a caretaker it was precluded from taking such decisions. But the Whitehall rules on this are far from clear. So, what are the Whitehall rules about caretaker governments, and the principles underlying them? And given the confusion this summer, do the rules need clarifying or updating?

‘Caretaker government’ is not a term to be found in any UK government guidance. The Cabinet Manual talks instead about ‘restrictions on government activity’. A leadership election in the governing party is not one of the circumstances when the Cabinet Manual says government activity must be restricted. It envisages just three such circumstances when governments are restricted:

…governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character in the period immediately preceding an election, immediately afterwards if the result is unclear, and following the loss of a vote of confidence.

Paragraph 2.27.
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