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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Moving Westminster into a multi-parliament world: the Commons takes a fresh look at devolution

The UK’s devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales celebrated their twenty-first anniversary this year. Their powers have changed several times since their creation, but much of this has occurred in an ad hoc way, without deep consideration at UK level of the overall devolution framework. Paul Evans explains how a new Procedure Committee inquiry into how the House of Commons should adapt to the ‘territorial constitution’ presents an opportunity to give some key devolution issues the attention they deserve.

Devolution in the UK turned 21 this year, and watching it grow has been a fascinating study in making up the constitution as you go along. The Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017 (each of them the third major reworkings of the statutory basis of devolution in those nations in less than 20 years) declared the devolved legislatures there, along with their governments, to be a permanent part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, which could be abolished only with the consent of the people in a referendum. 

In both those nations 16- and 17-year olds have been newly enfranchised and will participate in the elections of their parliaments next year. The Northern Ireland Assembly restarted (once more) in January after a three-year absence, and in May the Welsh Assembly renamed itself the Welsh Parliament (or Senedd Cymru if you prefer to use the UK’s – so far – only other official language). 

All in all, the journey towards a pragmatic form of de facto federalism in the UK has been a remarkably peaceful and generally good-natured velvet revolution. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the House of Commons Procedure Committee has not felt the need to have a major review of the implications of devolution for the workings of the Commons since 1999.

Watching its progeny develop their own values and make their own decisions has, nonetheless, been a challenging learning experience for Westminster. The assertions of devolution’s permanency and its implication of equality of esteem between the four legislatures of the UK has often appeared more rhetorical than real. Whitehall seems never to have fully come to terms with the loss of centralised control which devolution necessarily entails. But, collectively, the elected members of the four legislatures have done little better in opening up and sustaining channels of communication – though some good work has been done at the margins. 

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Democracy means democracy: parliament’s role in Brexit negotiations

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What role will parliament play in the Brexit negotiations and what does this show about the UK’s ever-changing constitution? On 15 September the Constitution Unit hosted Paul Evans and Christopher Johnson, two experienced clerks at the Commons and Lords respectively. Toby Shevlane reports.

Nothing in politics can be taken for granted in 2016, and perhaps our concept of democracy is no exception. It has always been the case that the democratic process requires compromises to be found between different law-makers, but have UK law-makers ever been forced to compromise so heavily with their electorate? Professor Bogdanor has recently suggested that the referendum introduced a new idea into the UK constitution: the sovereignty of the people. The suggestion is that the people have become a ‘third chamber’ of parliament, at least for constitutional issues. The constitutional division of labour is, therefore, in a state of flux, and it is worth pausing to ask: what role will these different chambers play in the Brexit process? This was the question that Paul Evans and Christopher Johnson sought to answer at a Constitution Unit seminar on 15 September.

Paul Evans

Paul Evans is currently Clerk of the Journals in the House of Commons, and will soon be the clerk in charge of the House’s select committees. He spoke expertly about the role that these committees could play in the Brexit process, especially one that is to be set up to scrutinise David Davis’ Department for Exiting the EU. A deal for such a committee has been agreed between the usual channels, which will involve a committee of 21 members with a Labour chair but a majority of Conservative members. Evans said that how this select committee will operate is yet to be decided. But he stressed the importance of collaboration and inclusiveness: it should form a collaborative relationship with the government and other committees, and the process of Brexit scrutiny should be inclusive of devolved governments and legislatures. Overall, Mr Evans also welcomed the recent high level of public interest in politics, and argued that parliament should find innovative ways of involving the public in the Brexit process as much as possible.

Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is the Principal Clerk to the House of Lords EU Select Committee. He spoke first about the process that the negotiations could follow. Article 50, he said, is expected to be triggered in 2017. Then, formal negotiations will begin with the EU member states, who will be represented by the EU Commission. Mr Johnson explained that these negotiations will produce multiple treaties: a withdrawal treaty (dividing up assets, settling financial relationships, addressing EU research programmes, and deciding the ongoing rights of UK and EU citizens under EU law) as well as at least one treaty that sets out the new relationship between the EU and the UK. He envisaged one such treaty, agreed in preparation for the moment of withdrawal, covering areas where continuity would be important, such as security and fishing rights.

Mr Johnson stressed the breadth and complexity of the negotiations that will take place, and argued that no single committee would be able to scrutinise such a complex and cross-departmental series of negotiations. Mr Johnson also pointed out that the government will need to reinvent large swathes of policy currently covered by EU law, and warned that a legislative bottleneck could form in 2018/19. In response to questions from the audience, he gave his view that the current scrutiny reserve procedure would not be triggered by the negotiations, but noted that it would be open to the government to extend the scope of the current procedure.

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