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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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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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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How far did parliament influence Brexit legislation?

Parliament’s role in the Brexit process has been the subject of widespread controversy among politicians, commentators, and experts. This makes it important to understand exactly what kind of influence parliament wielded in that period. Tom Fleming and Lisa James shed new light on this question by summarising their recent article, Parliamentary Influence on Brexit Legislation, 2017-2019, as published in ‘Parliamentary Affairs’.

Parliament’s role in the Brexit process was – and remains – highly controversial. But despite this controversy, there is widespread agreement that parliament was unusually influential during this period, and particularly during the hung parliament that lasted from 2017 to 2019.

This verdict is largely based on parliament’s high-profile impact on the Brexit negotiations, where MPs famously torpedoed Theresa May’s exit deal, and delayed the UK’s eventual departure from the EU on multiple occasions. But parliament also considered a raft of important Brexit-related legislation, which aimed to unravel the UK’s membership of the EU and create new domestic regulatory frameworks. This legislation has been less studied, but is crucial to our understanding of the relationship between parliament and government in this period.

Our recent article therefore explored the extent and nature of parliament’s influence on this Brexit-related legislation. We did so by analysing the parliamentary passage of the 13 Brexit-related bills introduced in the 2017-19 parliament, including the fate of over 3000 proposed amendments.

More specifically, we explored three different mechanisms by which parliament can influence government legislation: passing non-government amendments; forcing government concessions; and influencing the government’s approach through ‘anticipated reactions’. For each mechanism, we investigated its prominence between 2017 and 2019, and compared this to evidence from earlier periods.

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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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