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Iain Jamieson’s earlier post argues that the ability of the Scottish Parliament to implement its own model of press regulation in response to the Leveson Report has effectively been ousted by the UK government’s proposal to establish a UK-wide system of press regulation by Royal Charter. I would take issue with two aspects of his analysis.
First, Jamieson claims that, since the provisions of the proposed Royal Charter will be entrenched by clause 92 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which applies to Scotland, the Scottish Parliament cannot legislate to amend the Royal Charter or provide that it should not apply to Scotland. Clause 92 provides that the Charter cannot be amended except in accordance with the procedure laid out in the Charter itself (two thirds majority of each House). As Jacob Rowbottom has argued on this blog, the degree of entrenchment actually provided by this device is limited because clause 92 can itself be repealed or amended by subsequent UK legislation with no special majority.
To argue that the Scottish Parliament will nevertheless bound be by clause 92 therefore requires the further claim that, because clause 92 (however indirectly) ‘occupies the field’ in relation to press regulation, the Scotland Act 1998 will be impliedly repealed insofar as it devolves power to legislate on that issue to the Scottish Parliament. There are at least three ways of responding to this implied repeal argument, all of which lead to the conclusion that the Scottish Parliament will not in fact be bound by clause 92.
The first, and most speculative, response would be to rely on Laws LJ’s obiter dictum in Thoburn to the effect that, since the Scotland Act is a constitutional statute, it cannot be impliedly repealed. This would mean that the only way in which the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence can be reduced would be through express amendment via primary legislation or a section 30 order, either of which would require (by convention, in the former case, and by statute, in the latter) the consent of the Scottish Parliament.
It is, however, unnecessary to adopt such a heterodox approach. A second, more conventional, approach would be to accept that the Scotland Act may be impliedly repealed, but to argue, as Barber and Young have done (‘The Rise of Prospective Henry VIII Clauses and Their Implications for Sovereignty’  PL 112, pp 112-6), that a statute can only be impliedly repealed by a subsequent statute on the same subject matter, not merely by a later conflicting statutory norm. Since the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill does not deal with the same subject matter as the Scotland Act (the division between reserved and devolved legislative competences), it cannot impliedly repeal the transfer of power to the Scottish Parliament effected by the Scotland Act even if a norm contained within it or flowing from it for the time being ‘occupies the field’ of a particular devolved competence. It would, on this analysis, still be open to the Scottish Parliament to assert its legislative competence in relation to press regulation and repeal (expressly or impliedly) the provisions contained in clause 92.
A third, even more conventional approach, would lead to the same conclusion. This would be to accept that a statutory provision can be impliedly repealed by a later inconsistent statutory norm, even if the subject matter of the two statutes is not identical. This view, however, requires a more nuanced approach to when such a conflict arises. In relation to the Scotland Act 1998, for instance, it may be argued that the transfer of legislative competence in devolved areas to the Scottish Parliament is not inconsistent with (and therefore not impliedly repealed by) later UK legislation on a devolved matter because the Scotland Act itself, in s.28(7) expressly envisages that such a situation may occur. This approach suggests that the Scotland Act, properly understood, involves a sharing of legislative power between the UK and Scottish Parliaments, and that the latest norm on a particular devolved matter will prevail irrespective of the Parliament from which it emanates. This analysis would appear to be the one which best fits the post-devolution legislative practice, where the Scottish Parliament has regularly consented to allow the UK Parliament to legislate on its behalf, but has on some occasions subsequently amended such legislation.
The second point which arises out of Jamieson’s blog concerns whether the UK government is legally or constitutionally entitled to impose a system of press regulation on Scotland via the royal prerogative. The constitutional position, as set out in written answer by Tony Blair on 30 June 1999, is that where the exercise of prerogative powers relates to a matter within devolved competence, it is for the First Minister rather than Ministers of the Crown to advise the Queen. The situation is slightly different in relation to business of the Privy Council, such as grant or amendment of a Royal Charter, because it is the Privy Council as a whole rather than a particular minister which advises the Queen. Nevertheless, the written answer states that:
‘the advice in relation to a particular matter which the Privy Council offers to Her Majesty is in many instances based, either by virtue of statutory provision but more often by convention, on advice or information provided to the Privy Council by one or more particular Ministers of the Crown as the Privy Counsellor with the principal interest in that matter.’
It goes on to state that, in areas of devolved competence, the Privy Counsellor with the principal interest would be the First Minister (who is a member of the Privy Council).
It is not clear from these provisions whether the Privy Council as a whole is entitled to depart from the advice of the principal minister. Where there is a conflict of views between members of the same administration it may perhaps be argued that the majority view should prevail. However, in the case of a conflict between the view of the First Minister and other Privy Counsellors representing the UK government, there is a strong case (for the reasons that Jamieson outlines) for saying that it should not.
Given that the question of who should advise the monarch on the exercise of the royal prerogative is a matter of convention rather than law, it may be difficult to argue that the UK government would be acting illegally if the Privy Council were to recommend the adoption of a system of press regulation applying throughout the UK in the face of Scottish opposition. As a matter of constitutional morality, though, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that to treat the design of a new UK-wide system of press regulation as a matter for negotiation purely between the main parties in the UK Parliament is constitutionally improper.
Contrary to Jamieson, therefore, I would argue that just because the UK government has chosen a regulatory vehicle which manages to avoid the application of the Sewel Convention, it does not thereby follow that the Scottish Parliament is compelled to accept it or deprived of its competence to legislate for a different system of press regulation in Scotland.
(I am grateful to Chris Himsworth for his very helpful comments on this note and particularly for alerting me to the Blair written answer.)
Aileen McHarg is Professor of Public Law at the University of Strathclyde.