A cross-party committee of the Privy Council should be established to seek consensus on the terms of Brexit

Following last week’s general election result Theresa May is likely to face severe difficulty in negotiating Brexit successfully unless she seeks cross-party consensus. In this post Jim Gallagher suggests that consensus could be achieved through a special committee of the Privy Council, the membership of which would reflect the House of Commons and also contain representatives of the devolved legislatures.

It will be impossible for a minority government with a weak Prime Minister to negotiate Brexit successfully, against a ticking clock, if it deals with the issue in the normal way of British politics. Government cannot formulate policy privately, then seek to sell it to the House of Commons while talking fitfully to the devolved administrations. Theresa May’s administration can be held to ransom, if not by the DUP, by factions in her own party. The opposition will sense blood and might be keener to bring down the government than do a European deal. The devolved will stand on their rights to consent. So even if she can negotiate some agreement with Brussels, she will fail to secure a domestic legislative consensus and the deal will fail.

The government has already used up two of the 24 months allowed for this negotiation and succeeded only in weakening its position. As a result, the UK is faces a high risk of crashing out the EU in an unmanaged way.

Leaving the EU presents the British state with an unprecedented problem. It must be handled in an unprecedented way. Other countries might consider a government of national unity to give the negotiators authority to commit to a deal. We seem too partisan for that, but some senior figures in both government and opposition parties are already saying openly that a cross-party consensus will need to be built on this question. To build such a consensus, however, is anything but straightforward and will require a degree of trust and information sharing that is wholly alien to our normal way of doing government business – to which Westminster and Whitehall will default unless something radically different is devised.

If government tries to develop policy behind closed doors, keeping the devolved at arms-length and negotiating tactically secure a day-to-day majority in parliament, it will almost inevitably fail. There is certainly very little chance of completing the process in time for the agreement to be settled and ratified in Europe as well as here.

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The Charter review should take steps to enable the BBC to work independently and without government interference

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With the BBC’s Royal Charter up for renewal Lord Fowler, who chaired the Lords committee scrutinising the last review, came to The Constitution Unit to talk about the future of the BBC. He argued that the Royal Charter affords too much power to the government and that the BBC should therefore be established as a statutory corporation, enabling it to work independently and without government interference. Jack Sheldon reports.

Four days after the general election it was widely reported that the new government was ‘at war’ with the BBC ahead of the renewal of its Royal Charter, due by 2017. Downing Street sources were quoted as saying that the new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, intended to ‘sort out ’ the national broadcaster and some media outlets indicated that the future of the licence fee was in doubt. Whilst David Cameron has since dismissed these suggestions much uncertainty continues to surround the BBC’s future governance structure, funding and programming.

As Robert Hazell has explained on this blog the formal responsibility for Charter renewal lies with the Privy Council, which can be expected to approve without discussion an Order in Council drafted by the government. It is not necessary for the Charter to be taken through any formal parliamentary process, though select committees in both Houses have embarked on inquiries (to be undertaken by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the Commons and the Communications Committee in the Lords). On 14 July Lord Fowler, who chaired the Lords committee last time the Charter was up for renewal in 2005-06, led a debate in the upper house titled ‘Future of the BBC’ in which he warned that the corporation ‘is under unprecedented attack’. Fowler came to The Constitution Unit on 19 October to talk about the renewal process and his hopes for the current review.

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The Privy Council and renewal of the BBC Charter

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Tonight Lord Fowler is speaking at a Constitution Unit seminar about the future of the BBC, as the corporation’s Charter comes up for renewal amid fears about its future funding and independence. The Charter is formally approved by the Privy Council, but will in fact be subject to significant parliamentary scrutiny. In this post Robert Hazell explains the role of the Privy Council, and the process of Charter renewal.

In media interviews about Jeremy Corbyn joining the Privy Council, I have been tempted to dismiss it as a dignified part of the constitution.  It has been criticised for being undemocratic and unaccountable, but in truth most of its formal business is of very little public interest.  It does meet in private, and its members are sworn to secrecy (hence the security briefings which the Prime Minister can give to the Leader of the Opposition on ‘Privy Councillor terms’).  But occasionally it is responsible for something of wide public interest, such as renewal of the BBC’s Charter.  On those occasions approval by the Privy Council does not preclude extensive public and parliamentary debate.

The Privy Council has about 650 members, mainly senior politicians; many of them now retired, since appointment is for life.  They are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the government; some members such as senior judges are appointed ex officio.  Their role is to advise the Queen on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative.  Meetings are held once a month, to approve Orders in Council.  The Queen is usually attended by just four ministers, led by the Lord President of the Council (currently the Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling).  Meetings are held standing up, so despatch of the business is brisk.  Every Order in Council has been drafted by a government department, and where necessary is subject to prior consultation and collective ministerial agreement; approval by the Privy Council is the final stage, a formal sign-off with no discussion.
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