The Queen’s speech, the Johnson government, and the constitution – lessons from the 2021-22 session

As a new session of parliament commences, Lisa James discusses what constitutional lessons can be learned from its predecessor. She argues that the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms are fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership.

A new parliamentary session began last week, with a Queen’s speech that laid out a highly ambitious volume of new bills. Many of these are likely to prove controversial – including planned constitutional measures.

To assess how the government might proceed, and how this might play out in parliament, it is useful to look back at the 2021-22 session. This was the first of Boris Johnson’s premiership not wholly dominated by Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic – offering insight into both the government’s constitutional agenda, and its broader legislative approach. Since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has been accused of a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms. In earlier sessions, his supporters could blame the exigencies of Brexit and the pandemic – citing the need for rapid action in the face of fast-moving situations. But the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that these are more fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership. And whilst Johnson has thus far been successful in passing his constitutional legislation, his rocky relationships with both MPs and peers mean that he may face greater difficulties in the future.

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The House of Lords amendment to the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill returns appropriate power to MPs: they should accept it

The House of Lords has amended the government’s Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill to require House of Commons approval for early general elections. Tom Fleming and Meg Russell explore what MPs should consider when the bill returns to the Commons. They argue that the Lords amendment deserves support, as it provides an important limit on Prime Ministers’ power to call early elections, and avoids drawing either the monarch or the courts into political controversy.

Background

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill seeks to change how early general elections are called in the UK. Specifically, it aims to restore the Prime Minister’s control of election timing, by repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA).

Before 2011, general elections were required at least every five years. However, the Prime Minister could ask the monarch to dissolve parliament during that period, resulting in an earlier election. The FTPA removed this personalised power, and instead handed control to the House of Commons. Under its provisions, early elections would occur only if two-thirds of all MPs voted to support one, or if the Commons expressed ‘no confidence’ in the government and no government could regain confidence within two weeks. Subsequently, in 2019, the two-thirds majority was shown to be unenforceable, when Boris Johnson presented the Early Parliamentary General Election Bill. This temporarily overrode the FTPA requirement in order to stage the December general election, and both the Commons and the Lords supported it.

The government is now seeking to permanently reverse the FTPA with the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill. This bill passed through its Commons committee and remaining stages in little over two hours last autumn, with limited opportunity for detailed consideration, and was approved without amendment. However, it has since faced more extended scrutiny in the House of Lords.

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What can be done about the House of Lords?

More than 20 years has passed since the hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords in what was billed as the first phase of wider reform, and little has happened in the intervening decades. The Unit hosted a webinar to ask three long-serving parliamentarians what should change about the House of Lords, and how realistic is hope of major reform? Tom Fieldhouse summarises the discussion.

House of Lords reform is one of those issues that never seems to go away – in part because very little ever seems to happen.  

This perennial, complex, and often contentious issue was the subject of a Constitution Unit webinar, held on 13 January, entitled ‘What can be done about the House of Lords?’, where a distinguished panel of parliamentarians discussed the difficulties that hinder reform, whether new approaches are needed, and what those might be. 

The event was chaired by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Professor Meg Russell, herself an expert on the question of Lords reform. Speakers were Baroness (Angela) Smith of Basildon, Labour’s Shadow Leader of the House of Lords; Lord (Michael) Jay of Ewelme, Crossbench peer and former Chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission; and Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Conservative chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee and former chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which has reported on Lords reform

The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions. The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast.  

Baroness Smith of Basildon 

Baroness Smith began her remarks by suggesting that whereas most debates about Lords reform tend to focus on ‘form’ (namely, who is in the second chamber and how they get there), we should begin by focusing on ‘function’ (what we want the chamber to do, and how it can best achieve that).  

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Partygate and the special advisers’ code of conduct: lessons for the new Downing Street Chief of Staff

Following the publication of Sue Gray’s report update, the Prime Minister announced his intention to reform the Downing Street machine. Robert Hazell, author of an authoritative study of the way special advisers work, argues that this presents an opportunity to revise the code of conduct that regulates their behaviour, and that incoming Chief of Staff Steve Barclay would be wise to take it.

Towards the end of his statement in the House of Commons on 31 January Boris Johnson said that he would ‘sort out what Sue Gray rightly calls the “fragmented and complicated” leadership structures of Downing Street’. He undertook to do two things:

  • create an Office of the Prime Minister, with a Permanent Secretary to lead Number 10.
  • review the civil service and special adviser codes of conduct to make sure that those codes are properly enforced.

Three days later Munira Mirza, the PM’s Head of Policy, resigned, swiftly followed by the resignations of Dan Rosenfield, the PM’s Chief of Staff, Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary, and Jack Doyle, director of communications. On 5 February it was announced that the Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay was to be the new Chief of Staff. This blog is addressed to him, and the new Permanent Secretary in Number 10, as they consider what changes might be required to the Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct.  It draws upon the research done for a book by Ben Yong and myself, Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do, and why they matter, a year-long project including over 100 interviews with ministers, special advisers and senior officials.

The first point to make is that under the Ministerial Code and the Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct it is the PM who is responsible for the special advisers in No 10.  That is clearly spelled out in paragraph 3.3 of the Ministerial Code, and paragraph 9 of the Code of Conduct, which contain identical wording:

The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment.

The Ministerial Code goes on to say:

Individual Ministers will be accountable to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers.

And the Code of Conduct states:

It is also the appointing Minister’s responsibility to ensure that their special adviser(s) adhere to this Code of Conduct.

With the previous paragraph in the Code of Conduct reminding Special Advisers that:

Special advisers are bound by the standards of integrity and honesty required of all civil servants as set out in the Civil Service Code.

So there is no wriggle room here.  If special advisers in Number 10 have fallen below the required standards of integrity and honesty, the PM is responsible; and the PM is accountable to parliament and the public for their conduct. But the second point to make is that although the PM may be ultimately responsible, to expect him to look after the management of all of his special advisers is completely unrealistic. The PM is an exceptionally busy person.  So it is a responsibility which must be delegated: the rest of this blog considers, to whom.  Should the management and conduct of special advisers be the responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary, the Permanent Secretary, or the Chief of Staff?

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The Elections Bill’s proposals on Electoral Commission governance: risks to electoral integrity and devolution

The Elections Bill has been subject to both criticism and praise, as discussed by Emilia Cieslak on this blog, and a panel of experts at a recent Unit seminar. In this post, Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick identifies the threats to electoral integrity and devolution posed by the clauses of the bill that propose changes to the governance of the Electoral Commission.

The Elections Bill, currently before parliament, seeks to change many aspects of electoral law. Provisions to introduce voter ID requirements at polling stations have garnered most attention. But changes to the governance of the Electoral Commission also raise serious concerns. As currently formulated, they threaten both to weaken the vital independence of the elections watchdog and to violate the principles of the devolution settlement in Scotland and Wales.

Electoral Commission governance: principles and current practice

The Electoral Commission carries out a range of functions in overseeing elections and referendums and regulating campaign spending. As I have argued previously – in common with many others, not least the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in a report published in July – the independence of the elections watchdog is vital to electoral integrity. If the government of the day can skew election or referendum conduct to suit its own ends, fairness – and thus democracy – is undermined. The Electoral Commission should, of course, be accountable too. An appropriate balance of independence and accountability is needed.

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