Brexit and the constitution: seven lessons

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The process of exiting the European Union has revealed that the relationship between law and politics was perhaps not as sound as it might once have appeared. Jack Simson Caird believes that we are in the midst of a constitutional moment that has taught us seven key lessons.

Brexit can plausibly be described as a ‘constitutional moment’. The decision to leave the EU will shape the UK constitution over the coming decades. Even if the full extent of the constitutional changes that will flow from Brexit are not yet known, future Prime Ministers will be defined (in part, at least) by their ability to oversee successful constitutional reform. The post-referendum period has revealed a great deal about the relationship between the UK’s political system and its constitutional framework. Those responsible for changing the constitution moving forward will need to learn the lessons from this tumultuous period.

1. Governing without a majority needs a change of approach

One of the principal causes of the current crisis has been the way in which Theresa May’s government approached the task of governing without a majority. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, members of the government stressed the need to deliver on the referendum result without delay. The overwhelming sentiment was that the government, led by the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, should be left to get on with the task of negotiating a deal: a majoritarian mindset disconnected from the reality of a divided Cabinet and parliament. Instead, the government should have sought to build a majority for its proposed approach to delivering Brexit before it triggered Article 50 (or at the beginning of the 2017 Parliament).

Any future government that wishes to deliver constitutional change without a majority should look to the example of 2010 Coalition government. The coalition agreement struck between the Conservative and Liberal Democrats specified the constitutional changes that the two parties would agree to support. Theresa May’s government should have done the same and at the outset sought support for the substance of its approach for delivering Brexit.

2. Identify processes that can help to build consensus

The domestic process by which Brexit was to be delivered was not given sufficient attention early enough. Constitutional change gives rise to cross-cutting issues deserving of a special form of public and parliamentary scrutiny. In the absence of a rock-solid parliamentary majority, a special process needed to be constructed to deliver the constitutional transformation of the scale required by Brexit. The commitment to construct such a process at an early stage would have sent a positive message to other parties – and to the public – that the government was committed to finding a compromise that commanded wide support.

In the absence of a formal agreement with another party, the government could have sought to construct a bespoke process that might have facilitated cross-party support for delivering Brexit.

In the early stages of the process, suggestions that parliament should have more input in the negotiations were rejected on the basis that the government should not have its hands tied. Rather than treating these suggestions as an opportunity to bring MPs onside, they were treated as threats that could derail the process. Theresa May’s government only resorted to indicative votes and cross-party talks after the negotiations with the EU finished (and her deal or no deal strategy had failed) which did little to inspire the sense that the desire to engage was genuine.

3. Parliament needs to develop new forms of influence

The Article 50 process has demonstrated that parliament is a powerful constitutional actor. Since the Withdrawal Agreement was published in November 2018, the majorities against the Withdrawal Agreement and against a no deal exit shaped the debate. However, the Article 50 process has also shown that parliament’s influence on the substance of treaty negotiations and the legislative process is limited. Over the course of the 2017 parliament, the House of Commons inched its way to more control through innovative uses of parliamentary procedure, such as through business of the House motions and the Humble Address. The problem is that MPs only realised the extent of their power when it was too late. This meant that compromises were put together and agreed in haste. Essentially, backbench MPs made the same mistake as the government by not prioritising their influence over the process at an earlier stage.

4. The values of liberal democracy should be robustly defended

During the Brexit process, parliamentary scrutiny and debate has been characterised by some as anti-democratic. However, one of the central tenets of liberal constitutionalism is that proposals to change the constitution should be subject to scrutiny and debate. Constitutional democracy is in a very difficult place if this scrutiny and debate is not valued and defended. The core of the case for a carefully constructed procedure for constitutional change is that it enhances the democratic legitimacy of the end-product. How can constitutional reformers build the case for properly constructed change, if deliberation itself is undervalued in UK political culture?

The House of Commons and the Civil Service are restricted in their ability to defend their constitutional role by the requirements of impartiality. So, advocates of constitutional democracy need to robustly defend the role that institutions play in empowering citizens through democratic deliberation. No one is suggesting that politicians or institutions should be free from criticism (on the contrary, criticism is critical to their health and development). However, Brexit has highlighted a need for the values that underpin the basic elements of the democratic process to be defended far more vigorously.

5. Reframe the language of constitutional democracy

Prior to the referendum vote, the Vote Leave campaign demonstrated that a constitutional argument could be framed and communicated in a way that could cut through. Restoration of sovereignty (‘take back control’) was central to the Vote Leave campaign narrative. However, in the post-referendum period, the government has struggled to find a way of communicating the message that leaving the EU with a deal would empower ordinary citizens.

Of course, the reality of constitutional change is more complex than the messaging during the referendum campaign conveyed. However, it is clear that the constitutional ambition of the government was limited by its ability to communicate the value of democratic institutions. Implementing Brexit through radical constitutional change (by, for example, devolving power to English regions) would have required innovative ways of communicating this change to voters – and the government did not have this capacity.

6. Bring law and politics closer together

The Brexit process has exposed a fairly dysfunctional relationship between law and politics in Westminster. Parliamentarians have often been called out for misunderstanding some of the legal fundamentals of the Brexit process. The level of understanding of international law and EU law has been particularly problematic (although this perhaps reflects the limited incentives that parliamentarians have so far had to engage with either of these areas of law). At the same time, it is important to recognise that lawyers are not best equipped to engage with politics. As a result, the Brexit process has often been characterised by a frustratingly circular discourse. To improve the quality of debate over constitutional change, we need to bridge the gap between law and politics.

7. We need politicians that want to build a constitutional consensus

It may be that the UK’s constitutional democracy is in such difficulty that it cannot be repaired through piecemeal change. However, a more radical constitutional overhaul (perhaps in the form of a written constitution) will require politicians that are willing to prioritise finding a new constitutional settlement to resolve the post-Brexit divisions. At present, there are very few frontline politicians that prominently advocate constitutional change. It is not a message that seems to garner support.

Professor Jeff King’s inaugural lecture – delivered at University College London in April 2018 – persuasively argued that moving towards a written constitution in the UK would provide a means for citizens to take ownership over the UK’s constitutional democracy. In order to revitalise constitutional democracy in the UK post-Brexit, political leadership will need to harness this insight and communicate it to the public at large.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Counsel and is reprinted with permission.  

About the author

Dr Jack Simson Caird is Senior Research Fellow in Parliaments and the Rule of Law at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. He tweets as @jasimsoncaird

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Should we worry if MPs seize control of the parliamentary agenda?

download.001Ahead of Tuesday’s votes on Brexit, attention has focused on the rights and wrongs of the House of Commons seeking to ‘seize control’. Meg Russell argues that there’s nothing unusual about a democratic parliament controlling its own procedure and business. Indeed, the core principle of parliamentary sovereignty already gives the Commons control by default.

With stalemate over the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, rejected dramatically by the House of Commons on 15 January by 432 votes to 202, there is increasing talk of parliament ‘seizing control’. On Tuesday, following the Speaker’s controversial decision to allow a vote on Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve’s amendment speeding up the timetable, MPs will vote on a series of propositions about what should happen next. These include a further proposal by Grieve that the government’s usual control of the agenda should be set aside on specified days to allow MPs to make decisions on Brexit, and a proposal from Labour’s Yvette Cooper that such control be set aside to allow time to debate a private member’s bill demanding that ministers avoid a no deal Brexit by requesting an extension to Article 50.

Consequently, some inside government have expressed concerns that the Commons, with the Speaker’s assistance, is overreaching itself. It has been reported that an internal government document warns of MPs’ moves ‘represent[ing] a clear and present danger to all government business’, and even meaning that ‘the government would lose its ability to govern’. One senior legal figure (whose career was spent inside the government) has argued that changes of this kind could set dangerous precedents for the future, even potentially dragging the monarch into a constitutional crisis (though other legal experts have firmly rebutted such claims).

So are we entering dangerous constitutional territory? What is, after all, so odd about the idea of a democratically-elected chamber gaining greater control over its own time, and its own rules? Continue reading

House of Lords Constitution Committee reports on delegated powers

photo_2017_1_cropped (1)tierney2.e1489415384219Last week, the Constitution Committee published its report on the increasing use of delegated powers by the government. Mark Elliott and Stephen Tierney highlight the key concerns raised and proposals made by the Committee in two principal areas: the ways in and extent to which legislative powers are delegated, and scrutiny of such powers’ exercise.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee last week published a major report on delegated powers. It is a component of a larger, four-part inquiry that the Committee is undertaking into the legislative process. The first report in this series, concerning the preparation of legislation for parliament, was published in October 2017; reports on the passage of legislation through parliament and post-legislative scrutiny will be published in due course.

Delegation of power

The Constitution Committee, unsurprisingly, does not begin from the unworldly premise that parliamentary delegations of law-making authority are inherently problematic; after all, they are, and will remain, a fact of life. The Committee does, however, adopt as its premise the position that the legitimacy of such delegations is governed by ‘constitutional standards’ whose enforcement amounts to a ‘constitutional obligation’ on parliament’s part.

The Committee goes on to articulate two key principles by reference to which the legitimacy of delegations of power ought to be judged. First, it is ‘essential that primary legislation is used to legislate for policy and other major objectives’, with delegated legislation used only ‘to fill in the details’. Against this background, the Committee laments the ‘upward trend in the seeking of delegated powers in recent years’. Second, and relatedly, the Committee states that it is ‘constitutionally objectionable for the Government to seek delegated powers simply because substantive policy decisions have not yet been taken’ — a phenomenon in which there has been ‘a significant and unwelcome increase’. Having thus nailed its colours to the mast, the Committee goes on to identify a suite of constitutionally dubious trends and practices to which its attention was drawn during the course of the inquiry and which it has itself discerned in recent years through its constitutional scrutiny of all Bills that reach the House of Lords. Continue reading

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill raises questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the legislative process

leston.bandeira.thompson.and.mace (1)The EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons saw SNP MPs protest about their voices having been excluded from the debate. Louise Thompson explains how parliamentary procedures can indeed restrict debate for smaller opposition parties, and considers whether something ought to be done about it.

Following the first session of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons, most newspaper headlines focused of the battle between Theresa May and the group of backbench Conservative rebels seeking concessions from the government about parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal. The front page of The National instead highlighted the lack of debate on the devolution clauses within the bill, which was limited to just 15 minutes, as well as the fact that only one SNP MP was able to speak. Just a few hours later, every single SNP MP walked out of the Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in protest about this issue – and the Speaker’s refusal to allow a vote that the House sit in private to discuss it. It’s not unknown for the SNP to deploy tactics like this in the chamber and it raises interesting questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the Commons.

The parliamentary position of small ‘o’ opposition parties

When it comes to opposition in the House of Commons, it’s easy to focus attention solely on the ‘Official’ Opposition. But there are four (or five, or six) other opposition parties, depending on where you position the DUP and Sinn Fein. Just as parliamentary architecture in the Commons privileges a two-party system (with the green benches facing each other in adversarial style, the despatch boxes for the use of the government and official opposition party only), parliamentary procedures also help to underpin a system which seems to prioritise the ‘Official Opposition’. Hence, the guarantee of questions at PMQs.

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Exploring Parliament: opening a window onto the world of Westminster

leston.bandeira.thompson.and.mace (1)Cristina.Leston.Bandeira.1.000In February this year, Oxford University Press published Exploring Parliament, which aims to provide an accessible introduction to the workings of the UK parliament. In this post, the book’s editors, Louise Thompson and Cristina Leston-Bandeira, explain why the book is necessary and what it hopes to achieve.

If you travelled to Parliament Square today you’d see hundreds of tourists gathered in and around the Palace of Westminster. Over 1 million people visited parliament in 2017 to take part in organised tours, watch debates in the Lords and Commons chambers, attend committee hearings and visit its unique gift shops. Many more will have watched parliamentary proceedings on television; most likely snapshots of Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs). Recognition of the iconic building, with its gothic architecture, distinctive furnishings and vast corridors is high. However, the public’s understanding of what actually goes on within the Palace of Westminster is much lower.

As we write this blog it is another typically busy day in parliament. Among the many other things happening in the Commons today, Labour MP Diana Johnson is asking an Urgent Question on the contaminated blood scandal, there is a backbench debate on autism and an adjournment debate on air quality. Over in the Lords, peers will be scrutinising the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill and debating the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Those of us who teach, research or work in parliament will know what each of these activities is. We’ll know why the Commons chamber will be far quieter during adjournment debates than at question times and we’ll be able to follow with relative ease the discussion in the Lords as peers scrutinise the various clauses, schedules, and amendments being made to government legislation. But to the wider public the institution can seem somewhat opaque. The language may seem impenetrable, the procedures archaic and the customs of debate unfamiliar. One may say there is therefore an important role, and perhaps duty, for those of us who teach and research parliament to inform and educate the wider public about the diverse range of roles being performed each day by the institution and its members. Continue reading

Why we need better Budgets

Philip Hammond’s u-turn on proposed changes to National Insurance Contributions was the latest in a growing list of Budget measures to be withdrawn in the face of a parliamentary and media backlash. Jill Rutter and Alice Lilly argue that the exceptionalism of the Budget process makes it vulnerable to poor policy making. They propose a number of possible improvements, including the introduction of a Budget cabinet committee and greater support for parliament in scrutinising tax policy.

On March 8 Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond stood up to deliver his first – and last – spring Budget. He was in such a relaxed mood that he joked that the last Chancellor to claim a spring Budget was his final one (Norman Lamont) survived only ten weeks after his speech. Within hours, the government was reeling as their backbenchers and the press denounced a change to National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed, a measure that raised the fiscally relatively trivial sum of £400m and had been welcomed by the overwhelming majority of fiscal experts as a sensible minor reform.

The measure survived only a week before Hammond was forced back to the Commons to announce he was dropping the change – for this parliament at least. The Financial Times added the NIC u-turn to the ever-expanding list (£) of Budget rabbits that turned into hand grenades when unleashed – and exploded in the face of their instigator.

So why does the Chancellor, one of the most powerful figures in government, advised by people seen (not least by themselves) as the government’s crack policy troops, keep stepping on political and policy minefields – while finding their room for manoeuvre ever more constrained?

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Taking back control? Initial thoughts on the Great Repeal Bill white paper

In the newly published Great Repeal Bill white paper, the government makes much of the theme ‘taking back control’. But the paper’s content does little to alleviate the fear that it is the executive, not parliament, that will benefit from the Great Repeal Bill process. The Hansard Society’s Ruth Fox has five initial questions raised by the white paper.

1/ When will the parliamentary votes on any Brexit deal be held?

The white paper seems to reveal confusion in the government’s position regarding the timing of the votes that it has promised both chambers of parliament on the Brexit deal. In the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech and at the start of the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill second reading debate on 31 January the government said that the votes would be held before the deal ‘comes into force’. By the second day of the bill’s committee stage on 7 February, the government said that it would bring forward a motion to approve the deal ‘before it is concluded’. In the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday and her foreword to the white paper today, she reverted to the original ‘before it comes into force’ position. But paragraph 1.19 of the white paper reintroduces ‘before it is concluded’. This may be carelessness, but the two phrases could mean very different things. Parliament now needs urgently to clarify with the government when exactly in the process it plans to put any final Brexit deal to the vote.

2/ Is the government’s description of the delegated legislation process accurate?

On page 23 of the white paper, the government states that parliamentary procedures allow parliament to scrutinise as many or as few statutory instruments as it sees fit, and notes that parliament can and regularly does both debate and vote on secondary legislation.

What the white paper omits to mention, however, is that secondary legislation subject to the negative scrutiny procedure (the majority of this type of legislation) can only be debated if an MP ‘prays’ against it via an Early Day Motion (EDM). Even then, whether it is debated lies in the hands of the government, not parliament. Paragraph 3.21 states that under the negative procedure members of either chamber can ‘require’ a debate and if necessary a vote. In fact, they can ‘request’ these, but they cannot ‘require’ them. The government controls the parliamentary timetable in the House of Commons, and it must therefore agree to grant the time for any debate. In the last parliamentary session, MPs debated just 3 per cent of the 585 negative instruments laid before them. And although the Leader of the Opposition and his front bench colleagues tabled 12 prayer motions for a debate, just five were granted.

Sometimes the government doesn’t prevent a debate but runs down the clock and builds in delays that minimise the ability of MPs to revoke a regulation. In the last week alone, the opposition had to secure an emergency debate under Standing Order 24 in order to debate the new Personal Independence Payment Regulations. 179 MPs from eight different parties prayed against the SI via an EDM, but the government only scheduled a debate for 19 April, 16 days after the ‘praying against’ period would have expired. This makes revocation difficult. The emergency debate was a means to air the issues before the annulment period came to an end, but it had no force, as there was no substantive vote on the regulations.

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