The UK’s devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales celebrated their twenty-first anniversary this year. Their powers have changed several times since their creation, but much of this has occurred in an ad hoc way, without deep consideration at UK level of the overall devolution framework. Paul Evans explains how a new Procedure Committee inquiry into how the House of Commons should adapt to the ‘territorial constitution’ presents an opportunity to give some key devolution issues the attention they deserve.
Devolution in the UK turned 21 this year, and watching it grow has been a fascinating study in making up the constitution as you go along. The Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017 (each of them the third major reworkings of the statutory basis of devolution in those nations in less than 20 years) declared the devolved legislatures there, along with their governments, to be a permanent part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, which could be abolished only with the consent of the people in a referendum.
In both those nations 16- and 17-year olds have been newly enfranchised and will participate in the elections of their parliaments next year. The Northern Ireland Assembly restarted (once more) in January after a three-year absence, and in May the Welsh Assembly renamed itself the Welsh Parliament (or Senedd Cymru if you prefer to use the UK’s – so far – only other official language).
All in all, the journey towards a pragmatic form of de facto federalism in the UK has been a remarkably peaceful and generally good-natured velvet revolution. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the House of Commons Procedure Committee has not felt the need to have a major review of the implications of devolution for the workings of the Commons since 1999.
Watching its progeny develop their own values and make their own decisions has, nonetheless, been a challenging learning experience for Westminster. The assertions of devolution’s permanency and its implication of equality of esteem between the four legislatures of the UK has often appeared more rhetorical than real. Whitehall seems never to have fully come to terms with the loss of centralised control which devolution necessarily entails. But, collectively, the elected members of the four legislatures have done little better in opening up and sustaining channels of communication – though some good work has been done at the margins.
Today saw the start of two days of report stage debate in the House of Commons on the content of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. At committee stage, amendments were made that created a new sifting committee for statutory instruments related to Brexit. Joel Blackwell, of The Hansard Society, argues below that the current proposals are insufficient to guarantee proper scrutiny and makes several recommendations for changes that can be made before the bill passes to the House of Lords.
The EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which returned to the House of Commons for its report stage today, was successfully amended at committee stage in December 2017 to create a mechanism which will allow MPs, via a new European Statutory Instruments sifting committee, to consider statutory instruments (SIs) made under the Bill’s widest delegated powers and recommend an upgrade in the level of scrutiny of those about which they have most concern.
This new scrutiny mechanism, incorporated through a series of amendments tabled by Procedure Committee Chair Charles Walker, is intended to constrain the wide Henry VIII powers the government will use to make changes to retained EU law via SIs (under clauses 7, 8 and 9 of the Bill).
But if MPs are serious about scrutinising the changes arising from Brexit, these amendments, and the related proposals to amend Standing Orders will, as currently drafted, offer only limited help. If MPs are not happy with what the government wants to do, they will still be unable to exercise any real influence on the substance of a Brexit SI.
Last week’s Queen’s speech included proposals to bring forward a British bill of rights and a commitment that ministers would ‘uphold the sovereignty of Parliament and the primacy of the House of Commons’. Mark Elliott suggests that if action was taken to implement them these measures would be highly significant. However, there is no sign of developed government thinking in these areas at this stage and so, in practice, they may amount to very little.
This year’s Queen’s speech touches on two possible constitutional reform measures. (I pass over the Wales Bill, which was published in draft in October 2015). The first concerns the replacement of the Human Rights Act 1998 with a ‘British Bill of Rights’, while the second concerns the sovereignty of parliament and the ‘primacy’ of the House of Commons. If implemented, these measures would be highly significant. But the signs are that, for the time being anyway, they may amount to very little in practice – not least because the Government’s thinking in relation to them appears to be undeveloped to say the least.
A British bill of rights
The Conservative Party has for some considerable time said that it wants to replace the Human Rights Act (HRA) with a bill of rights (albeit that exactly what would thereby be entailed has been, and remains, shrouded in uncertainty). Any attempt at reform in this area was stymied in the last parliament by the politics of coalition, the Conservatives’ Liberal Democrat partners being staunchly committed to the retention of the HRA. The most that could be managed then was a Commission on a Bill of Rights, whose proposals, such as they were, came to nothing.
Freed from the shackles of coalition, the Government promised in last year’s Queen’s speech to bring forward ‘proposals for a British Bill of Rights’. This year’s speech contained an almost identically worded undertaking promising ‘proposals’ but not a bill as such. The fact that little, if any, progress appears to have been made in this area is testament to the legal, constitutional and political difficulties that arise (matters that I consider further here). In political terms, the government appears to be divided on the question of whether the UK should remain a party to the ECHR – the Home Secretary thinks not – while the politics of devolution represent a major complication.
Two House of Lords select committees have this week published reports that are highly critical of the recommendations of the Strathclyde review into the Lords’ powers in relation to secondary legislation, published in December. Mark Elliott summarises the committees’ findings and welcomes calls for a consensual, reflective approach to be taken.
I wrote in December about the Strathclyde Review, which took place at great speed in the autumn against the backdrop of the House of Lords’ refusal to allow the enactment of secondary legislation on tax credits. The Review – set up by the government – recommended stripping the Lords of its power to veto statutory instruments by investing the Commons with statutory authority to override the Lords in the event of opposition to secondary legislation. Two House of Lords select committees – the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee – have now published reports that are highly critical of the Strathclyde proposals.
The report of the Constitution Committee
In its report, the Constitution Committee rejects the notion that the tax credits affair amounted to a ‘constitutional crisis’ and says that a ‘single Government defeat … does not seem a sound foundation upon which to base significant and lasting reform’ in this area. Indeed, the committee argues that the Strathclyde Review ended up – as a result of the terms of reference set for it by the Government – asking the ‘wrong questions’ and framing the issues inappropriately. In particular, the committee takes the view that while the Strathclyde Review approaches the matter in terms of the relationship between the two houses of parliament, the underlying, and far more profound, issue concerns the relationship between parliament and the executive:
Delegated legislation is the product of a delegation of power from Parliament to the Government. Parliamentary scrutiny of secondary legislation is the mechanism by which Parliament assures itself that the Government is exercising that delegated authority in an appropriate way, and in a manner which accords with Parliament’s intentions. Yet Parliamentary scrutiny of delegated legislation is less intensive and arguably less effective than its scrutiny of primary legislation. Statutory instruments cannot be amended, so there is little scope or incentive for compromise. Far less time is spent debating delegated legislation than is spent debating primary legislation. And … it is established practice that the House of Lords does not vote down delegated legislation except in exceptional circumstances. The result is that the Government can pass legislative proposals with greater ease and with less scrutiny if it can do so as delegated, rather than primary, legislation. It is in this context that proposals to weaken the powers of the House of Lords should be considered.
Lord Norton of Louth argues that the Strathclyde Review recommendations are based on a false premise that there is a convention that the Lords does not reject statutory instruments. Instead of rushing into wider changes the immediate response to October’s tax credits controversy should be to address the inconsistency in the way Commons financial privilege is recognised in relation to SIs. In the longer term there is a case for a wider review of how both houses deal with secondary legislation.
The report produced by Lord Strathclyde is based on two propositions. First, that there is a convention that the House of Lords does not vote to reject statutory instruments. Second, that the problem of the vote on 26 October last year, when the House withheld agreement to the Tax Credits Regulations, is one of failure to comply with that convention. Both propositions are false, the second necessarily so given that the first has no basis in fact.
There is much misunderstanding of what constitutes a convention. They are non-legal rules that determine a consistent, indeed invariable, pattern of behaviour. Those who comply with them do so because they accept that they are, as David Feldman has cogently expressed it, right behaviour.
Conventions do not become such by the words of a particular person, be it Viscount Cranborne in 1945 or Lord Sewel in 1998. They are not created, but develop. A convention exists once there is an invariable practice. That is not the same as standard or usual practice. If one deviates from it, it is not an invariable practice. Kenneth Wheare distinguished between conventions and usage. I think it more appropriate to distinguish between invariable and usual practice.