Five key questions about coronavirus and devolution

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The coronavirus is a once in a generation event that has required an almost unprecedented response from government at all levels, from Westminster to West Lothian. Akash Paun argues that it has raised five crucial questions about the politics of devolution at a time when efficient and effective intergovernmental relations are crucial. 

Coronavirus has hit all parts of the UK and has required a comprehensive response by government at all levels – central, devolved and local. The crisis has raised (at least!) five big questions about devolution, intergovernmental relations and the politics of the Union:

  • Does the crisis show that the UK and devolved governments can cooperate effectively?
  • To what extent does devolution enable policy divergence between the UK nations?
  • How is the crisis affecting the operation of the devolved institutions themselves?
  • How is the pandemic response being funded – and with what impact on devolution?
  • What might this period mean for wider constitutional debates and the Union?

It is too early to give a definitive answer to any of these questions. But developments over the past few months already point to some preliminary conclusions, as well as identifying important lines of investigation for future research.

The UK and devolved governments can work together – at least in a crisis

One important finding, as the Institute for Government (IfG) recently concluded, is that the UK and devolved governments have shown the ability to work together well at various points over the past three months. Given the many disputes over Brexit, the Union and other matters in recent years, and the underlying weaknesses of the UK’s system of intergovernmental relations, it was far from a foregone conclusion that the different administrations would be able to cooperate at all.

But credit should be given where it is due. In early March, the UK and devolved governments published a joint Coronavirus Action Plan – a rare sighting of a government policy paper that was co-branded by the four administrations. There was close working too on the Coronavirus Act, which was drafted with significant devolved input before being passed at Westminster with devolved consent under the Sewel Convention. And devolved leaders participated in meetings of the COBRA emergency committee throughout this period, helping to ensure that major announcements, not least the imposition of the lockdown in late March, were coordinated between the capitals. Continue reading

The Sewel convention and Brexit

mcewen-e1527685912390In March, the Constitution Unit co-published a new report, Parliament and Brexit, in which some of the UK’s leading academics examine how parliament has managed Brexit to date, and how it might seek to handle the issue in future. Here, Nicola McEwen discusses how the Sewel convention, which regulates the relationship between the UK Parliament and its devolved counterparts, was put under strain by Brexit.

There are four legislatures in the UK, but only one of these is sovereign. The sovereignty of the Westminster parliament remains one of the most important principles of the UK constitution. Each of the devolution statutes made clear that conferral of law-making powers on the devolved institutions ‘does not affect the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws’ for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – including in areas of devolved competence. But Westminster’s parliamentary sovereignty is offset by the constitutional convention that it will not normally legislate in areas of devolved competence, or alter the competences of the devolved institutions, without their consent.

That convention, commonly known as the Sewel convention, has become an important principle underpinning UK devolution. It represents a tacit understanding that the devolved institutions, each of which was founded on popular consent in a referendum, have primary democratic and political authority over laws within their areas of competence.

From the outset, the scope of the Sewel convention was ambiguous. The UK and devolved governments have frequently disagreed on the extent to which UK legislation necessitates legislative consent from the devolved institutions. When tasked with determining its status following its inclusion in the Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017, the Supreme Court in Miller I concluded that it remained a convention rather than a legal rule, therefore ‘the policing of its scope and the manner of its operation does not lie within the constitutional remit of the judiciary’. The Court thus left it to politicians and parliament to determine the operation and interpretation of the convention. Continue reading

Deal or no deal, the UK government needs a new strategy for the Union

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133Almost seven months after the EU and UK agreed to extend the Article 50 process, a new Brexit deal has been agreed. Akash Paun argues that whether the new deal passes parliament or not, the Brexit process so far has demonstrated that the UK government needs to change its strategy for maintaining the cohesion of the Union.

In his first public statement as prime minister, Boris Johnson made two constitutional pledges that stand in tension with one another. On the one hand, he promised to strengthen the UK, which he described as ‘the awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red, white and blue flag, who together are so much more than the sum of their parts.’ But in the same speech, he reiterated his determination to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October ‘no ifs, no buts’ and, if necessary, no deal. Brexit has already strained relations between the UK and devolved governments. A no deal departure would make matters even worse, and would run directly counter to the PM’s ambitions to strengthen the Union.

The Scottish and Welsh governments strongly oppose leaving the EU without a deal. In a joint letter to the prime minister in July, the Scottish and Welsh first ministers argued that ‘it would be unconscionable for a UK government to contemplate a chaotic no deal exit and we urge you to reject this possibility clearly and unambiguously as soon as possible.’ The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have also explicitly voted against no deal. Continue reading

Crisis, headache, or sideshow: how should the UK government respond to the Scottish parliament’s decision to withhold consent for the Withdrawal Bill?

 

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Different political actors have responded to the decision by the Scottish Parliament to withhold its consent for the UK government’s showpiece EU (Withdrawal) Bill in very different ways. Professor Nicola McEwen discusses the options open to both the Scottish and UK governments. 

After much deliberation, the Scottish Parliament voted by 93-30 to withhold consent for the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the main piece of UK legislation paving the way for Brexit. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens accepted the SNP government’s charge that the Bill undermines the devolution settlement and the principles on which it was founded. On the same day, the National Assembly for Wales voted by 46-9 to grant consent for the Bill, with the Welsh government arguing that the amended clause 15 (formerly clause 11) and the agreement they reached with the UK government ‘defended and entrenched’ devolution. Only Plaid Cymru disagreed.

Consent was sought from both legislatures following the convention (usually referred to as the Sewel convention) that the UK parliament will not normally legislate in devolved areas, or alter devolved powers, without their agreement. The Withdrawal Bill alters the devolution settlements by placing a new constraint on devolved legislatures and ministers to avoid acting incompatibly with ‘retained EU law’, even in policy fields which otherwise fall within their remit. In its original form, this constraint was placed upon all retained EU law, with provision to release the constraint once it was agreed that there was no need to preserve a common UK legislative or regulatory framework. In its amended form, the Bill requires the UK government to specify in regulations the areas to which the restriction will apply. It introduced a time limit – UK ministers have two years from Brexit day to bring forward new regulations, and these would last for no more than five years. The amendment also places a duty on UK ministers to await a ‘consent decision’ before tabling the regulations, but herein lies the controversy. Whereas the Sewel convention assumes that consent means agreement, Clause 15 empowers UK ministers to proceed even if the ‘consent decision’ is to withhold consent. Continue reading

Why the UK holds referendums: a look at past practice

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Since the first referendum in the UK above the local level was held in 1973, there have been three UK-wide referendums and ten referendums covering parts of the UK. In order to inform its recommendations about the circumstances in which referendums should be held, the Independent Commission on Referendums is examining the circumstances in which UK referendums have been held. In this post, Jess Sargeant explores the political history of referendums in the UK.

1973 Northern Irish Border Poll

The first non-local referendum in the UK, the 1973 Northern Irish border poll, followed the sharp deterioration in the security and political situation in the preceding years. When the UK government imposed direct rule, it pledged to hold a referendum on Northern Ireland’s future status within the UK. The purpose was to demonstrate public support for the Union, which would act as baseline for future negotiations. Although the referendum was largely boycotted by the Catholic population, the overwhelming vote (98.9%) in favour of remaining part of the UK was used legitimise the continuation of the constitutional status quo.

1975 European Economic Community membership referendum

The UK’s first national referendum was held just two years later, in 1975, on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). The UK had joined the EEC in 1973. In opposition, Labour was deeply divided on this. A referendum was first proposed in 1970 by Tony Benn, who opposed EEC membership. The idea gained little traction at the time, but future Prime Minister James Callaghan described it as ‘a rubber life-raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb’. Labour adopted the policy of putting EEC membership to a public vote in 1973, and this occurred after the party’s return to power in 1974. Continue reading

Devolution, Brexit, and the prospect of a new constitutional settlement for the four countries of the UK

 

bigpic (1)Over the next 12 months the UK’s national and devolved institutions will be taking decisions that will rank amongst the most significant political events in Britain’s post-war history. In an attempt to contribute to the debate on the role of devolved bodies in the Brexit process, the Welsh Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee has produced a report on the subject. In this blog its Chair, Mick Antoniw AM, offers his personal view on the government’s current approach to Brexit and calls for a constitutional reordering of the UK once Britain leaves the EU.

Leaving the EU has turned out to be more than a mere decision to leave a Europe-wide economic and social bloc and has brought into sharp focus the future role and status of the UK in the world. What do we represent and how are we perceived? How much influence in world economic and political affairs do we really have? These questions, however, go even deeper in that they also call into question the very purpose, long-term future and stability of the UK as a country. 

For almost 50 years, since the passing of the European Communities Act, the answers to these questions have been masked by our membership of a European project that with economic and technological globalisation has been developing into a political and social union based on its collective economic strength. 

The Social Chapter, the central role of the European Court of Justice, the developing role of the European Investment Bank and the development of the EU as a trading bloc in its own right created a legal as well as an economic framework for an expanding Europe. Within this context the UK’s increasingly dysfunctional and conflicting internal constitutional arrangements have been masked and constrained by the broader EU constitutional framework and jurisdiction. 

Pandora’s Box has now been opened. British nationalism’s nakedness has been revealed and our political and constitutional nudity is now there for all to see, exposed by the absence of any clear post-Brexit plan. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, the countdown to leaving the UK has begun and on 29 March 2019 we will be out of the EU, ready or not.  Continue reading

A ‘dual mandate’ English Parliament: some key questions of institutional design

meg_russell (1)Jack.000Almost 20 years after the creation of the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, England is the only country of the United Kingdom without its own devolved executive and legislative body. Meg Russell and Jack Sheldon offer their view on whether or not a dual mandate English Parliament is desirable or if it has the proper characteristics to be considered a parliament at all. 

Calls for establishment of an English Parliament have been made for years, particularly following Labour’s devolution in the 1990s to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Initially such proposals were largely confined to the right of politics, and appeared a relatively fringe interest. But in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, and the new powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament, proposals have also begun to be heard from the political left. Nonetheless, advocates have rarely elaborated on their proposals in detail, and there are many unresolved questions relating to the likely powers, functions, structure and composition of such a body. Since autumn 2016, the Constitution Unit has been working on a research project exploring the options, and a detailed report is due to be published shortly. This post will concentrate primarily on the key institutional questions raised by what is known as the ‘dual mandate’ model for an English Parliament, which some proponents suggest could be implemented as an incremental next step from ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). We ask whether this model for an English Parliament is as innocuous as it looks, and indeed whether what it proposes is a parliament at all.

Models for an English Parliament

The most instinctively obvious model for an English Parliament is to create a completely new body, elected separately from the House of Commons, to mirror the legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Variants of this separately-elected model have been proposed by such figures as David DavisFrank Field and Paul Nuttall. It is also favoured by the Campaign for an English Parliament, founded in 1998. Establishing such a body would be a big decision, entailing significant political upheaval and cost. The idea has many opponents, including experts such as Vernon Bogdanor and Adam Tomkins. A key concern is that a new elected body representing 85% of the UK population would, in the words of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, “introduce a destabilising asymmetry of power”. For all of these reasons, adoption of this proposal continues to appear politically unlikely.

The second model is what we call the dual mandate model, which is presented as a more incremental change. Here Westminster MPs representing English constituencies would meet as an English Parliament at certain times. Proponents see this as building on the existing EVEL procedures, creating a far clearer delineation at Westminster between England-only and UK business (and thus dealing once-and-for-all with the famous ‘West Lothian question’). The most prominent supporter has been John Redwood, but similar arrangements have also been proposed by MP Andrew Rosindell, Welsh AM David Melding, journalist Simon Heffer and writers from the Adam Smith Institute think tank. Nonetheless, this model is rejected by the Campaign for an English Parliament as ‘English Parliament lite’. Continue reading

Options for an English Parliament: policy powers and financial arrangements

Ongoing Constitution Unit research is exploring options for an English Parliament. Two of the most fundamental questions concern what policy powers such a body would have and financial arrangements. Jack Sheldon suggests that an English Parliament would be likely to have policy and fiscal powers resembling those of the Scottish Parliament, and that a new funding formula would be required to cover the costs of devolved services. These developments would have major implications not only for England but also for the other parts of the UK.

Since last autumn Professor Meg Russell and I have been working on a research project exploring the options for an English Parliament. Although there have been various calls over the last 20 years to establish such a body, how might it actually work in practice? Two of the most fundamental questions, which have major implications for other aspects of institutional design, concern what policy powers an English Parliament would have and what kind of financial arrangements would be possible. This blog post focuses on these questions.

What English Parliament supporters have said

English Parliament supporters emphasise restoring equality among the UK’s nations, in light of what they see as the unfairness of present devolution arrangements. It is thus unsurprising that they have often set the powers of the Scottish Parliament as a benchmark. The Campaign for an English Parliament (CEP) state prominently on their website that they campaign for an institution ‘with powers at least as great as those of Scotland’. This demand has been echoed by MPs who are in favour, including David Davis, Frank Field and John Redwood. In the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum Redwood wrote that ‘As we seek to put into legislation what Gordon Brown called Home Rule for Scotland we must do the same for England’.

To the extent that they have addressed finance, advocates of an English Parliament have focused on criticism of the Barnett Formula, which provides more generous per capita government spending in Scotland than in England. Eddie Bone of the CEP has linked the continued use of the formula to ‘closures of A&E departments and council services across England’. Frank Field has likewise been highly critical of the formula, saying that ‘it is totally unacceptable that the poor in [his] constituency should be less well supported than the poor in Scottish constituencies’. Proponents have said less about what sort of financial arrangements they envisage following an English Parliament’s establishment.

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The Wales Bill 2016: a marked improvement but there are fundamental questions yet to be resolved

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Amongst the recent political upheaval, the Wales Bill’s progress through the House of Commons has been somewhat overlooked. Alan Cogbill discusses how the version currently being debated has changed from last year’s much criticised draft bill. He suggests that the new bill is a significant improvement but still leaves fundamental questions unanswered.  

Amidst the excitement and despair of the EU referendum, leadership contests, and the new UK Government, a constitutional measure is hastening through parliament with relatively little attention. The Wales Bill, which puts the legislative powers of the Welsh Assembly on a new footing, and reframes the powers of Welsh ministers, was introduced on 7 June, and has already completed second reading and committee stages in the House of Commons.

The government’s 2015 draft bill ran into heavy criticism, in the Assembly, Commons, and outside. A joint Wales Governance Centre/ Constitution Unit report, which reviewed the draft bill in detail, found it severely flawed. In February then Secretary of State for Wales Stephen Crabb announced a re-think. It fell to his successor, Alun Cairns, to introduce the revised Bill.

The new bill has tried to respond to many of the criticisms made – although its authors have not resisted a little mischief. A new duty on the Assembly to require ‘judicial impact assessments’ of Assembly bills was seen in Wales as importing another (covert) fetter, but it appears not; Alun Cairns said on second reading that appraisals would not give rise to any ‘veto’ by the UK.  The bill is deliberately declaratory in high constitutional matters, but whether it needs to highlight a small and inconsequential item of inter-government relations seems questionable.

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