Checks and balances: what are they, and why do they matter?

Checks and balances are fundamental elements of constitutional democracy that prevent the unconstrained exercise of power, improve the quality of decision-making and ensure that mechanisms exist for preventing or penalising unethical behaviour. Lisa James, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell argue that they therefore play a vital role in maintaining public confidence in the political system and the government has a particular responsibility to uphold them.

Background

The importance of checks and balances is often cited in debates about the health of democracy, and their erosion is widely considered a sign of democratic backsliding. But what are they, and why are they important?

Checks and balances are the mechanisms which distribute power throughout a political system – preventing any one institution or individual from exercising total control. The words ‘checks’ and ‘balances’ are typically used together, but can be thought of as referring to subtly different (though overlapping) things. Checks are the mechanisms which allow political institutions to limit one another’s power – for example by blocking, delaying or simply criticising decisions. Balances, meanwhile, ensure that a wide variety of views and interests are represented in the democratic process. This includes structures like federalism, or broader features of democratic functioning such as the existence of multiple political parties.

The term ‘checks and balances’ is given more prominence in some countries than others, and is often particularly associated with the United States. But the principle is core to all modern democracies.

Checks and balances operate between and within most political institutions. However, the risks of unconstrained power are often considered particularly high with respect to the executive. This briefing hence focuses on the key institutions which check and balance executive power at UK level:

  1. parliament
  2. the courts
  3. impartial officials, and
  4. media and civil society.

Why do checks and balances matter?

Checks and balances play two key roles. First, they limit the power of the majority to act without regard to the views or interests of others. They ensure that the perspectives of those who are in the minority on a given issue are represented – for example, by guaranteeing that opposition voices are heard in the process of law-making. Second, at a more practical level, they ensure that policy is tested and behaviour supervised. This helps to improve the quality of decision-making, and prevent behaviour which might threaten the integrity or reputation of the political system.

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The constitutional causes and consequences of the Truss-Kwarteng budget crisis

Within weeks, Liz Truss’s premiership was plunged into economic and political turmoil due to Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. But this crisis, suggests Meg Russell, has distinctly constitutional roots. Building on Boris Johnson’s legacy, Truss chose to sideline expert officials and regulators, and shut out her own MPs. The consequences that have since befallen her are a compelling advertisement for respecting – and rebuilding – appropriate constitutional checks and balances.

The Conservative Party conference, indeed the entirety of Liz Truss’s new premiership, has been severely destabilised by the market reaction to Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. Far from securing Truss her desired reputation for acting on the energy crisis and boosting the economy, and a positive bounce in the polls, Kwarteng’s 23 September ‘fiscal event’ saw the pound plunge, lenders withdraw mortgage products, and Labour achieve record poll leads. Faced with a mass rebellion by Conservative MPs, Kwarteng performed a U-turn on abolition of the top rate of income tax, while other parts of the package may face further such trouble ahead.

Fiscal policy is well beyond the usual scope of the Constitution Unit blog, or of this author. But the extent to which the unforced economic and political crisis built on foundations of poor constitutional and governance practice is striking. Boris Johnson played fast and loose with many constitutional norms, and Liz Truss seems quickly to have followed suit. But her now catastrophic position – with some Conservative MPs calling for the Prime Minister’s removal after less than a month in the job – demonstrates just how shortsighted and dangerous such behaviour can be.

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Deliver us from EVEL? Is the government right to abolish ‘English Votes for English Laws’?

Following reports that the UK government is considering abolishing the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ procedures in the House of Commons, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny argue that, although EVEL has some flaws as a solution to the ‘West Lothian Question’, abandoning it will also leave open bigger questions about how England should be represented within British parliamentary government.

According to a recent report in The Times, the UK government is preparing to abolish the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ standing orders in the House of Commons. This suggested that ministers have already been consulted on the move and look set to lend it support. The change would also need to be approved by MPs, but only a single vote in the Commons would be needed to make this important constitutional change.

That such a move is being considered by the current government is surprising and unexpected in equal measure. Proposals for various forms of EVEL, as an answer to the infamous ‘West Lothian Question’, have been championed by the Conservative Party ever since the advent of Scottish and Welsh devolution in the late 1990s, and have featured in every one of its general election manifestos between 2001 and 2015. Despite agreeing to an independent commission, the Liberal Democrats ultimately blocked this reform during the period of coalition government. It was only in October 2015, once the Conservatives held power alone, that the change was implemented. Few would have expected that a government with such a strong focus upon English voters outside large urban areas would seek to repeal it.

One part of the explanation for this may be an increased willingness of the current Conservative government to disown elements of the Cameron legacy. But it also reflects the influence of a rising current of ‘neo-unionist’ sentiment within the party, which believes that the imperative to secure Scottish consent, in the wake of growing support for a second independence referendum, is more important than English grumbles about the West Lothian anomaly. This is perhaps ironic, since EVEL was envisaged by its architects as a means of assuaging discontent with the Union, by protecting against a situation in which MPs from outside England’s borders could make the difference on England-only legislative decisions.

What is also notable about the idea of repealing EVEL is that little sense of how it has operated has informed this declaration of intent.

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The public appointments system is under strain: it needs more clarity and transparency

In September, Peter Riddell will step down as Commissioner for Public Appointments after over five years in the role. In this post, which summarises comments made at a recent Unit seminar, he explains how the public appointments system is under strain, and how it might be improved. In particular, he calls for more clarity and transparency in both regulated and unregulated public appointments.

The public appointments system rests on two, at times, apparently contradictory principles — ministerial responsibility and selection by merit. These were set out both in the original Nolan report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995 and in the government’s Governance Code in late 2016. Their existence side by side — along with selflessness, integrity, openness, diversity, assurance and fairness — can cause confusion. Ministers and their advisers understandably want to appoint those who share their values and views, while critics allege cronyism and an undermining of the merit principle.

In reality, as with so much in public life, the answer lies in a balance between the principles, as envisaged in the 1995 report: ‘responsibility for appointments should remain with ministers advised by committees which include independent members’. The system is inherently political, and always has been, but patronage is constrained. The process of competition acts as a filter to identify candidates assessed as appointable in relation to the published job and person specifications. It is then up to ministers to pick one of these candidates.

The integrity of the system is now under strain. The appointment of political allies has happened before and is consistent with the Governance Code. What is different now is the breadth of the campaign led from the top of the government. This raises questions about the overall pluralism of arms-length bodies. That is a matter for ministers to explain and defend.

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COVID-19 and Commons procedure: back to the future?

Last week the House of Commons extended the temporary procedural arrangements designed to facilitate business during the pandemic, but did not debate the issue separately, and it is not clear if another opportunity to debate the measures will present itself. Former Clerk of the Commons David Natzler argues here that MPs are entitled to an opportunity to determine all significant aspects of its future procedures before the current arrangements expire.

On Thursday 25 March the House of Commons decided to extend for a further three months its temporary procedural arrangements in response to COVID-19, a year on from the first national lockdown. During that period there have been substantial innovations in the way the House works. Some of these have been controversial, in particular new arrangements for members to take part ‘virtually’ in questions and debates and committees, and new rules on voting, including remote electronic voting. Equally controversial has been the issue of how the decisions to continue, change or terminate these arrangements have been made and who has the power to decide: in other words, who really controls the workings of the House of Commons. Such controversy is not new. The problem was discussed at length in the Unit’s January report Taking Back Control. But the past year has given them new urgency.

The Procedure Committee published a report on 14 March, entitled Back to the Future? Procedure after coronavirus restrictions. Having given an account of developments since the autumn, the committee recommended an extension of the temporary orders until the beginning of stage 4 (currently 21 June), which was agreed by the House on 25 March. But the report also recommends that ‘the House reverts to all aspects of its pre-pandemic practice and procedure’. That reflects an amendment made to the chair’s original draft by most of the Conservative majority on the committee, led by William Wragg – who also chairs the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. The same group of members removed a proposal that the committee should mount a further inquiry into the process of making procedural change (see the committee’s Formal Minutes).  

On Thursday 25 March the motion to renew the orders until 21 June was debated as part of a much wider debate on coronavirus regulations and the six-monthly renewal of the Coronavirus Act. The issue of the House’s procedures was naturally overshadowed and there was little reference to them other than in a speech by the chair of the Procedure Committee (see below). There can be no certainty that there will be another chance to consider the arrangements, and every possibility that they will be allowed to lapse on 21 June without further debate or vote. 

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