The Constitutional Standards of the Constitution Committee: how a code of constitutional standards can help strengthen parliamentary scrutiny

The Constitution Unit has today published a third edition of its report on the Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Constitution Committee. The report contains a code of constitutional standards based on past Constitution Committee reports, which provide detailed guidance on the application of constitutional principles to legislative proposals. Robert Hazell and Dawn Oliver argue that such a code is particularly needed in the 2017 parliament and could have significantly improved the drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

Today the Constitution Unit has published a third edition of its report on the Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution. The report contains a code of constitutional standards based on almost 200 reports from the Constitution Committee, published between its creation in 2001 and the end of the last (2016–17) parliamentary session. The standards provide detailed guidance on the application of constitutional principles to legislative proposals, and cover a range of subjects, including the rule of law, delegated legislation, the separation of powers and individual rights.

The use of a code of soft law constitutional standards is particularly needed in the 2017 parliament. Standards of the type set out in our report could have significantly improved the drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Such a code could also be used by parliamentary committees of either House to enhance the scrutiny of the delegated legislation needed to prepare the statute book for Brexit.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is providing a showcase of parliament’s ability to scrutinise constitutional legislation. It is packed with provisions that raise matters of fundamental constitutional principle, from the rule of law to Henry VIII powers to devolution. A good number of the amendments reflect arguments made by the Constitution Committee, which unusually reported before the bill received its second reading in the Commons.

The government has been criticised by some, including Hannah White from the Institute for Government, for failing to engage meaningfully with parliament before the bill was introduced to the Commons. The government is now making concessions in order to avoid defeats. Engagement with an officially recognised code of standards could have enabled the government to avoid these difficulties. The Constitution Committee’s recommendations are rarely framed in absolute terms. Many of the standards demand forms of justification for departures from constitutional principles. Even when the committee’s standards go beyond justification, they often demand changes that relate to drafting or the inclusion of safeguards, neither of which normally frustrates the policy aims of a bill.

The basic case for the use of standards is that it can enable basic constitutional concerns to be addressed systematically at the earliest possible stage. This was a point made by the Constitution Committee itself in its recent report on the legislative process:

We continue to believe that there would be merit in producing a set of standards that legislation must meet before it can be introduced.

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Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings: parliament’s bark delivers a stronger bite than MPs realise

For the past decade House of Commons select committees have held pre-appointment scrutiny hearings with preferred candidates for some of the most senior public appointments. Many select committee chairs and members consider these to be a waste of time because there is no power of veto. However, research published in a new Constitution Unit report suggests that they have much more influence than committees realise. Robert Hazell outlines these findings.

Although little remarked upon at the time, one of Gordon Brown’s more significant constitutional reforms was the introduction of pre-appointment scrutiny hearings. Following his 2007 White Paper The Governance of Britain, the government agreed that candidates for 50 of the most senior public appointments would be scrutinised by the relevant select committee before the government confirmed their appointment. Some select committee chairs and members consider such hearings a waste of time, because they have no power of veto; but Constitution Unit research has shown that they have more influence than select committees realise.

In the last ten years select committees have conducted just over 90 pre-appointment hearings (for a full list see here). The Constitution Unit has conducted two evaluations of their effectiveness: first in 2009, studying the first 20 hearings; and second in 2016-17, when we looked at the next 71. We found three cases where the candidate withdrew following a critical hearing; and two instances where statements or disclosures at a hearing subsequently triggered a resignation. So pre-appointment scrutiny undoubtedly has an impact, even though committees have no formal power of veto: they are an important check on the integrity and effectiveness of senior public appointments, and a curb against ministers abusing their powers of patronage. And their effectiveness cannot be measured solely by the number of negative reports – the select committee hearings also help to deter ministers from putting forward candidates who would not survive this additional public scrutiny.

The puzzle remains that select committee chairs do not recognise how much influence they wield. There are two reasons for this. First, the baleful example of Washington: when pre-appointment scrutiny was introduced, many MPs anticipated that the hearings would be like confirmation hearings in the US Senate, which does have a power of veto. Second, although pre-appointment scrutiny does provide an important check, it is rare for an individual committee or chair to have experience of thwarting an appointment: there have only been five such cases in the last ten years. So for most committees, most of the time, pre-appointment scrutiny can feel like a bit of a chore.

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Blueprint for a Constitutional Convention

In a new report published today, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell examine options for the design of a constitutional convention in the UK. The report identifies and examines twelve key design features that need to be decided. These are summarised here.

 

Proposals for a UK constitutional convention are made by several parties in their 2017 election manifestos and have been prominent on the political agenda ever since the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Such proposals are intended to address both widespread disillusionment with the state of democracy and deep constitutional challenges, such as those posed by Brexit and uncertainty over the future of the Union. But there has as yet been little detailed thinking about the form that a constitutional convention should take. In our new report, we seek to fill that gap. We examine the issues, explore the lessons to be learned from constitutional conventions elsewhere, and identify the pitfalls to be avoided.

Most supporters of a constitutional convention argue that it should not be a commission of the ‘great and the good’ and nor should it be composed solely of politicians. Such approaches may have been viable in the past, but expectations for democracy have moved on and more direct forms of citizen engagement are now widely advocated. Where fundamental questions about the country’s future form and direction are at stake, the voices of members of the public should be clearly heard. This attracts many to the citizens’ assembly model of a constitutional convention.

A citizens’ assembly is a body of citizens who are selected at random from the population at large. Stratification is used to ensure that, so far as possible, the assembly’s membership reflects the diversity of the population in terms of criteria such as gender, age, and place of residence.  The assembly meets over multiple weekends. First, the members learn about the options that are available and get the chance to quiz experts and discuss initial ideas among themselves. Then they hear from advocates of a wide variety of views – from politicians, campaigners, and members of the public who wish to be heard. Finally, they reflect on all they have heard, deliberate in depth among themselves, and agree conclusions. Those conclusions are written up in a report, which is submitted to government and parliament.

Citizens’ assemblies were first held around a dozen years ago in British Columbia, Ontario, and the Netherlands. The most recent official assembly of this kind is working at present in Ireland: it agreed proposals for the liberalisation of Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion rules in April and it will shortly move on to consider a number of other issues.

There is clear evidence that such assemblies work well: the quality of members’ engagement is very high and they can develop conclusions that are reasoned and coherent.  At least in Ireland, they have also done much to encourage wider public debate and shape decision-making.

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Is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act a dead letter?

The ease with which Theresa May was able to secure an early dissolution last week has led to suggestions that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 serves no useful purpose and should be scrapped. Drawing on wider evidence of how fixed-term parliaments legislation works in other countries, Robert Hazell argues that there is a danger that it is being judged prematurely, on the basis of a single episode. Future circumstances in which a Prime Minister seeks a dissolution may be different, and in these cases the Fixed-term Parliaments Act may serve as more of a constraint.

On 19 April the House of Commons voted by 533 votes to 13 to support the Prime Minister’s motion for an early general election, easily surpassing the two-thirds threshold required for dissolution under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. In the preceding debate Conservative MPs such as Sir Edward Leigh and Jacob Rees-Mogg argued that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act served no useful purpose, and should be scrapped; while others such as Peter Bone said that it demonstrated the Act was working. Which of them is right? Was this a vindication of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, in allowing a degree of flexibility, with the formal decision to hold an early election now being made by parliament, and not the executive? Or did it show that the Act is an emperor without clothes, as Sir Edward Leigh put it, because no opposition party can ever be seen to vote against the prospect of an early election?

There is a risk of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act being judged prematurely, on the basis of a single episode. This blog draws on a wider evidence base of how fixed term parliaments legislation works in other countries, set out in our 2010 report on fixed-term parliaments.  Almost all European countries have fixed terms, and in the Westminster world fixed-terms have recently been introduced in Canada, as well as most of the Canadian provinces, and most of the Australian states; only the Australian federal parliament, New Zealand and Ireland have no fixed-term laws, but in Australia and New Zealand the maximum term is three years. These countries show varying degrees of flexibility, with differing safety valves for extraordinary dissolution.

Mid-term dissolution is the most crucial aspect of any fixed term parliament law, balancing the need for government stability against democratic accountability. Key considerations are how and by whom dissolution may be initiated, what threshold must be reached, and any limitations on the process. The coalition government in 2010 initially proposed a 55 per cent threshold for dissolution, but that proposal was widely misunderstood to apply to no confidence motions as well. In introducing the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, Nick Clegg set the record straight, explaining that no confidence motions would still require a simple majority; but raised the bar for government initiated dissolutions to two thirds of all MPs, based on the two thirds requirement in the devolution legislation. The justification for a higher threshold for government-initiated dissolution is that it should make it impossible for governments to call an early election without significant cross-party support.

But such a dual threshold is rare in other parliaments. Figure 1 sets out the threshold requirements for dissolution and confidence motions elsewhere in Europe.  In all cases the threshold for a no confidence motion is a simple or absolute majority (an absolute majority being of the total number of MPs, rather than of those voting). In those cases where dissolution can be triggered by a parliamentary vote, the threshold is the same

Figure 1. Source: K. Strøm et al, Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Table 4.12.

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Following the Supreme Court ruling, what happens next?

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Following today’s Supreme Court judgement, the focus of attention shifts back to parliament.  How long will it take for parliament to pass the necessary legislation? How likely is it that the legislation will be amended? Robert Hazell and Alan Renwick assess the implications for the Brexit timetable, and the government’s negotiating strategy.

What will happen to the government’s timetable?

The government have confirmed that they will introduce a short bill, probably just one or two clauses, which it will seek to pass as a matter of urgency. Bills have occasionally been passed through parliament in a few days, or even a few hours. But that can only happen if both chambers recognise the urgency, and support the bill. Crucially, the government would need to get majority support for a timetabling motion in the House of Commons to expedite the process. That might not be forthcoming in a House where three quarters of MPs voted for Remain. (In 2012 Nick Clegg had to abandon his Lords Reform bill after the government lost the timetabling motion following a big Conservative rebellion).

In the House of Lords, the government has no majority, and no control over time. The Lords Constitution Committee and the Lords EU Committee will both want to scrutinise the bill and its implications. The Lords will not block or wreck the bill, but they will want to give it proper scrutiny; especially if they think the scrutiny in the Commons has been inadequate.

Can the bill be amended?

In November government sources suggested the bill would be ‘bombproof’. Parliamentary officials say that is a fantasy. All sorts of ingenious amendments can be tabled, on process as well as substance: requiring a white paper to be published setting out the government’s negotiating position; seeking a second referendum on the negotiated terms; requiring the government to acknowledge that Article 50 notification is revocable, etc. Debate risks exposing continuing splits within both the Conservative and the Labour parties. Because the referendum specified nothing about what Brexit means, the battle continues between Brexiteers, who mostly support a hard Brexit, and Remainers hoping for a soft Brexit. Meanwhile Labour remains split on how to respond to the referendum outcome – to respect the will of the 52 per cent (who make up a majority in constituencies such as Stoke-on-Trent Central, where the forthcoming by-election will be hard fought), or speak up for the majority of Labour voters, who backed Remain. Speaking in parliament after the judgement, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, indicated that Labour would seek to amend the Article 50 legislation to require a white paper on the government’s plans, stipulate mechanisms for parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiations, and hold a ‘meaningful’ vote on the final deal. Legislation gives all groups in parliament multiple opportunities to table amendments or extract promises or impose conditions on the government during its passage.

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Brexit in the Supreme Court, and after: your questions answered

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The Supreme Court will be the centre of political attention this week when the government’s appeal of last month’s High Court ruling on the triggering of Article 50 is heard. Robert Hazell and Harmish Mehta offer an overview of what the case is about, the likely outcome and its implications for the Brexit timetable.

The Brexit appeal to be heard by the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) from 5 to 8 December is the constitutional case of the century. All eyes will be on the Court hearing (which is to be broadcast live). And not just in Britain, but around the world. In recent weeks Robert Hazell has been advising foreign embassies, banks and investment managers from New York to Tokyo about the significance of the case, and the consequences which may flow from the court’s decision. They were particularly concerned about the impact on the timetable, the likelihood of the government getting authorising legislation through parliament, and the possibility of Brexit being delayed or even aborted. Here are some answers to their most frequently asked questions.

What is the case about?

On 3 November the High Court ruled that it was unlawful for the government to use prerogative powers to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the negotiations for Brexit, without reference to parliament. The government accepts that the judgement requires legislation to authorise the triggering of Article 50. But it has appealed to the Supreme Court to have the judgement reversed. All 11 Justices will hear the appeal from 5 to 8 December in a packed timetable. Their judgement is expected in January.

What is the likely outcome?

The case has generated huge interest amongst constitutional lawyers. Initial comment was strongly supportive of the High Court judgement, but since then the 30 or so commentaries on the UK Constitutional Law Blog have been more evenly divided. The government is likely to lose the appeal, because it has not significantly shifted its ground from the arguments it advanced in the High Court. In particular, it still maintains that Article 50 is irreversible: once triggered, it leads inexorably to the UK’s departure from the EU. The reasons for that are political: the government does not want to allow the possibility of second thoughts. But it seriously weakens the government’s legal case. It enabled the claimants to show that triggering Article 50 would lead inevitably to the abolition of statutory rights, such as the right to vote in European Parliament elections, and the alteration of UK statutes. They then argued that under a series of cases going back to the seventeenth century, statutory rights can only be abolished and UK statutes can only be altered by another statute, not by the prerogative.

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What role will parliament have in triggering Article 50 and shaping the terms of Brexit?

robert_hazell (1)Jack_Sheldon

Constitutional lawyers have been engaged in a major debate over whether parliamentary authorisation is needed for Article 50 to be triggered and the process of negotiating Brexit to formally begin. In this post Robert Hazell and Jack Sheldon move the discussion on, asking how parliament might debate the triggering of Article 50 and, once it has been triggered, what role parliament might play in scrutinising the negotiations that follow.

There has been an outpouring of blog posts discussing whether there is a legal requirement for parliamentary authorisation before the Prime Minister can trigger Article 50 and start the formal negotiations to lead to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. However, it is probable that regardless of the legal position, the political realities will require some form of parliamentary consent. This post moves the discussion on, to ask in what ways parliament might debate the triggering of Article 50, and, once it has been triggered, what role parliament might play in scrutinising the Brexit negotiations that follow.

Controlling the use of Article 50

Whether the government wants it or not, parliament is likely to have an opportunity to express its support for or opposition to the triggering of Article 50. This could take the form of either legislation, which would formally bind the Prime Minister and government, or a debate on a resolution about the triggering of Article 50 and the conduct of negotiations.

Legislation

Some have argued for the passage of legislation to govern the Brexit process. A court action has been launched to test whether legislation is required before Article 50 can be triggered. Undoubtedly much primary and other legislation will be necessary over the coming years to achieve separation. To explain the different options, this post assumes the court action will fail, so that legislation prior to triggering Article 50 is optional, and not a legal requirement.

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