The report on Richard Sharp raises big constitutional questions

The Heppinstall report into Richard Sharp’s appointment as BBC chair raised questions about possible reforms and has sparked calls for more far-reaching changes. Peter Riddell surveys such proposals, arguing that the merits of different options need to be carefully weighed.

The long-awaited report by Adam Heppinstall KC into the appointment of Richard Sharp as BBC chair has not only led to Sharp’s resignation, but also triggered a debate about changing how public appointments are made to reduce or eliminate the role of the Prime Minister. This links with many of the themes I discussed in my inaugural lecture at UCL on 26 April.

Having been Commissioner for Public Appointments at the time of Sharp’s appointment, I welcomed the setting up of the Heppinstall inquiry following the disclosure in January that Sharp had been involved – on his own account in a very limited way – in previously secret discussions about arranging financial support for Boris Johnson, the then Prime Minister, in autumn 2020 at the same time as he was applying to become BBC chair.

Heppinstall concluded that the original appointment process had been ‘good and thorough’ but that Sharp had breached the government’s Governance Code for Public Appointments by not disclosing to the advisory interview panel that he had met Johnson to inform him of his application and that he was going to meet Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, to attempt to introduce him to someone (Sam Blyth, a distant cousin of Johnson) who might assist the Prime Minister with his personal finances.  This created a potential conflict of interest and the risk of a perception that Sharp would not be independent from Johnson. The Sharp/Case meeting – and differences about what was said and recorded – has attracted considerable attention but is largely irrelevant, since Case never met nor contacted Blyth.

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The parliamentary battle over Brexit and the constitution

Today sees the publication of a new book by the Unit’s Meg Russell and Lisa James, The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit. Here the authors summarise some of its key findings about why parliament was drawn into such controversy over the implementation of Brexit. They reflect on what these events teach us about our constitution, as well as what may need to change in order to avoid repeating such problems, and to mend the damage done.

The UK’s arguments over what became known as Brexit began long before the June 2016 referendum, and continued with increasing bitterness afterwards. Parliament was often central, both as a venue for such arguments, and in terms of disputes about its proper role. It and its members frequently faced criticism and blame. Our new book, published today, charts The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit, from the early pressures for a referendum, through disputes about the triggering of Article 50 and control of the House of Commons agenda, the repeated defeats of Theresa May’s deal, and Boris Johnson’s unlawful parliamentary prorogation, to the UK’s eventual departure from the EU following his deal. The book charts what happened, but also asks what went wrong and whether things could have been handled differently. It reflects on what these events teach us about the functioning of our constitution, and what if anything might need to change.

The book includes a wealth of detail about key political moments, and the roles of different individuals and groups. Here we focus on some of the bigger questions about the lasting legacy of the battles over Brexit for the culture and institutions of UK politics, and particularly for the place of parliament itself. A fuller version of this analysis appears in the final chapter of the book.

Referendums and public participation

The referendum of 23 June 2016 was only the third ever such UK-wide vote (the first being on European Community membership in 1975, and the second in 2011 on changing the House of Commons voting system). The handling of the referendum was the single biggest error of the Brexit process, from which many other difficulties flowed.

Unlike the 2011 referendum, which was underpinned by legislation setting out the detail of the proposed new voting system, no clear prospectus was offered to the voters for Brexit. Prime Minister David Cameron hoped to use the vote – described disapprovingly by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee as a ‘bluff call’ referendum – to make the question of Brexit go away. Parliament never debated the substance of the question, the government did not detail the options, and civil servants were forbidden from preparing for a Leave vote. Leave campaigners argued at the level of principle, rather than on a specific plan. As one Brexit-supporting interviewee told us, ‘it was only [after the referendum] that different types of Brexit started coming to the fore. Soft Brexit and hard Brexit had never been canvassed before the referendum; the expressions were coined afterwards’. Issues that would soon come to dominate the agenda, such as membership of the Customs Union or Single Market, and crucially the Northern Ireland border, were barely mentioned during the campaign. This left the government – and parliament – in a very difficult position. The different options for Brexit had to be established only after the vote had taken place, and on this the voters had conveyed no clear instruction.

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Why Rishi Sunak should take the initiative on standards reform

Rishi Sunak has appointed a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, but there is still a need for the role to be strengthened to ensure the new Adviser has genuine independence and freedom to act. Concerns have also been raised about the standard of recent appointments to the House of Lords. Peter Riddell argues that Sunak should follow the example of John Major and take the initiative on standards reform.

Rishi Sunak has so far been stronger on aspirations to improve standards in public life than on his actions, which have largely continued the approach of his predecessors. Ministers have reaffirmed limits to the role of independent regulators and scrutiny by reasserting executive prerogatives.

On the positive side, in his first comments on entering 10 Downing Street, Sunak promised that his government would have ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level’. Trust, he said, is earned. And in his personal foreword to the Ministerial Code issued just before Christmas, he referred to upholding the Principles of Public Life (commonly known as the Nolan principles), which Boris Johnson had omitted from the May 2022 version. At the same time, Sunak appointed Laurie Magnus as the new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, six months after the resignation of predecessor Lord (Christopher) Geidt.

The role of the Independent Adviser

The remit of the Adviser has not, however, been strengthened since the compromise changes of last May, which attracted criticism at the time. The government adopted some of the package proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in its Upholding Standards in Public Life report of November 2021, which recommended a graduated system of sanctions solely in the hands of the Prime Minister, combined with greater independence for the Adviser in launching inquiries and determining breaches of the Code. As Lord (Jonathan) Evans of Weardale, the committee’s chair, commented in June 2022, the government accepted the former but not the latter in the form proposed.

The Adviser will now be able initiate their own investigations but only after ‘having consulted the Prime Minister and obtained his consent’. The requirement for prime ministerial consent is justified on the grounds that the Prime Minister is constitutionally responsible for appointing and dismissing ministers. As Boris Johnson said in a letter to Lord Evans in April 2021, this meant that, ‘I cannot and would not wish to abrogate the ultimate responsibility for deciding on an investigation into allegations concerning ministerial misconduct’. Moreover, the Prime Minister will also continue to have the right to decide when any report by the Adviser is published – risking lengthy delays, as has happened in the past – and on the significance of any breach of the Code, as well as on the form of any sanctions. Parliament is still left with no role in approving the Code or its implementation.

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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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The problem(s) of House of Lords appointments

Lords appointments are back in the news, with rumours of resignation honours from Boris Johnson, and even possibly Liz Truss. The current unregulated system of prime ministerial patronage causes multiple problems, and new Constitution Unit polling shows widespread public demand for change. Meg Russell reviews the problems and possible solutions, in the context of a bill on Lords appointments due for debate tomorrow. She argues that small-scale changes are now urgently required, and urges party leaders to embrace them – whatever their longer-term aspirations for Lords reform.

Recent weeks have seen revived controversies about appointments to the House of Lords. These include concerns about Boris Johnson’s long-rumoured resignation honours list, now joined by concerns that Liz Truss may want resignation honours of her own after just 49 days as Prime Minister. While the personalities may be different, controversies over Lords appointments are nothing new. The central overarching problem is the unregulated patronage power that rests with the Prime Minister. As this post highlights, a series of other problems follow: regarding the chamber’s size, its party balance, the quality of candidates appointed, the chamber’s reputation and widespread public dissatisfaction with the system.

An end to the Prime Minister’s unfettered appointment power is long overdue. Tomorrow a bill will be debated in the Lords aiming to tackle some of the problems, but as a backbench bill it is unlikely to succeed. Its contents nonetheless provide a useful (though incomplete) guide to the kind of important small-scale changes needed. Both main party leaders now need urgently to propose short-term packages of their own.

The problem of the size of the Lords

Much attention has focused in recent years on the spiralling size of the House of Lords. The current system places no limits whatsoever on the number of members who may be appointed to the chamber by the Prime Minister. Most – though not all – prime ministers have appointed unsustainably. Particularly given that peerages are for life, over-appointment drives the size of the chamber ever upwards. This is a historic problem, visible throughout the 20th century. The Blair government’s reform of 1999 brought the size of the chamber down (from around 1200 to just over 650). But since then it has risen again. Two reports from the Constitution Unit – in 2011 and 2015 – analysed this problem, calling for urgent action. In 2016 the Lord Speaker established a cross-party Committee on the Size of the House, which made recommendations the following year. Centrally these included restraint by the Prime Minister based on a ‘two-out-one-in’ principle – so that only one new peer would be appointed for every two who left, until the chamber stabilised at 600 members. These principles were endorsed by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and respected by Theresa May. But Boris Johnson ignored them. In 2021, the Lord Speaker’s Committee lamented how he had ‘undone progress’ achieved by his predecessor.

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