Category Archives: UK Parliament

Tom Hickman: ISIS, passports and Magna Carta: New national security powers raise complex issues

tomOn 1 September the Prime Minister made a statement to Parliament in which he indicated that the Government was considering introducing the following new national security measures:

  • Powers to enable the police to confiscate passports at borders if they suspect an individual is seeking to travel to support terrorism, for a period allowing them to investigate the individual concerned. This will include “safeguards and … oversight”.
  • A power to exclude British nationals from the UK.
  • Placing no-fly list arrangements on a statutory footing.
  • Requiring persons subject to TPIMs to engage with the Prevent programme.
  • Ratcheting-up the statutory restrictions that can be imposed on individuals under the TPIM Act 2011 to include “stronger locational constraints” either through use of exclusion zones or relocation powers.

The announcement followed atrocious acts committed by ISIS in beheading Western hostages and, in particular, the fact that British citizens were implicated. In her Conservative Party Conference speech, the Home Secretary said that a new counter-terrorism bill would be introduced by the end of November.

Although the Prime Minister made a welcome reference to the need to avoid a “knee-jerk” reaction to ISIS, these proposals have a back-of the envelope feel. In addition to clarifying precisely what is proposed, it needs to be understood why these powers are—given those already in existence—required to meet the needs of the police and security services.

Several discussions in the media since the Prime Minister made his statement have demonstrated a lack of understanding of what is proposed and what powers are already available. A survey of how the proposals fit within the suite of national security powers already available is therefore worthwhile.

Removal of passports

Reference is often made by the general public to a person being granted a passport in terms which are intended to mean a grant of citizenship. Correspondingly, people often refer to a person being stripped of a passport when they mean stripped of citizenship. It is often not appreciated, even by lawyers, that as a matter of UK law the grant of a passport is quite separate from the grant of citizenship and that under UK law a national has no right to a passport.

A British citizen benefits from many rights and privileges, including a right of abode in the United Kingdom protected by s.2, Immigration Act 1971. But British citizenship does not entitle a person to a British passport. Under the peculiarities of the British constitution, the Secretary of State retains a power to refuse or cancel a passport under the royal prerogative.

The conferral of a passport is essentially a diplomatic act, which both confirms the identity of the bearer and confirms their status as a British national under the diplomatic protection of the British Crown. British passports include a request on behalf of the British Crown to “all those whom it may concern” to “allow the bearer to pass freely without let of hindrance, and afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.” Each passport states that it “remains the property of Her Majesty’s Government …and may be withdrawn at any time.” If a person refuses to return a passport upon request they are presumably guilty of theft.

The power to revoke and refuse passports has long been regulated by a published policy, a policy that was updated as recently as 25 April 2013. The policy states amongst other things that the power may be invoked to stop “British nationals who may seek to harm the UK or its allies by travelling on a British passport to, for example, engage in terrorism-related activity”.

The removal of a passport does not therefore affect a person’s right of abode in the UK, which is statutory, nor – rather importantly – does it actually remove a citizen’s right to travel abroad or come and go from the United Kingdom. This is a common law right or freedom that is also embodied in Article 12(4) of the ICCPR, which states: “Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own”. The effect of withdrawal of a passport is to frustrate the exercise of that right by denying an individual a universally accepted from of identification and by withdrawing the request of the Crown that he or she be given free passage. But a person who travels abroad having had their passport withdrawn, has done nothing wrong.

The Prime Minister’s proposals relate to the extension of the Home Secretary’s power relating to passports to the police, allowing them to withdraw and confiscate passports for a short period pending an investigation. However, given that the power does not actually preclude a person from travelling abroad—it simply makes it more difficult for them to do so—it doubtful whether an extension of this power is really the right way to approach the issue. A more appropriate power might be a temporary travel ban. But as we shall see Parliament has already made provision for travel bans under the Terrorism Investigation and Prevention Act 2011 (“TPIM Act”) and therefore any such new power needs to be considered alongside those already available under the TPIM Act.

Before turning to the TPIM Act, however, we should consider the power to deprive people of British citizenship under section 40 of the British Nationality Act 1981. This power has historically been used to strip dual citizens of their nationality, allowing them to be either deported or excluded (by a legally separate but often contemporaneous order) from the UK. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in December 2013 that the use of the deprivation power had “dramatically escalated” to prevent jihadists returning to the UK.

A controversial amendment to this power made by section 66 of the Immigration Act 2014, which came into effect in July this year, allows the Secretary of State to deprive people of British citizenship even where this would make them stateless where the individual has committed acts that are prejudicial to the vital interests of the country.

But despite its breadth, the power of deprivation of citizenship has important limitations. The power to render a person stateless does not apply to non-naturalised citizens. It must also be doubtful whether the deprivation power could be used against persons seeking to travel to the Middle East for the first time, as opposed to returning jihadists, since such persons would not have yet done any acts prejudicial to the interests of the UK. Furthermore, it would not be appropriate for this power to be used for the purpose of investigating a suspect, since its effect is permanent.

Of more significance therefore is a power under the TPIM Act to impose a “Travel Measure” on an individual reasonably believed to be involved in terrorism related activity. Schedule 1 paragraph 2 of the TPIM Act establishes a power with the explicit purpose of prohibiting a person from leaving the United Kingdom (or alternatively requiring prior notice before leaving the UK). It also includes a power to surrender a UK passport and to hand-over and not to possess any other passports and travel documents. The TPIM Act also enables the power to be exercised on an urgent basis where required.

TPIMs are usually associated with curfews, tags and limits on association. It is often overlooked that the TPIM Act can be used in a more limited fashion and that a Travel Measure can be imposed whether or not other TPIM Measures are imposed. From the perspective of the authorities, it has some obvious advantages over the passport deprivation power, in particular that it imposes a prohibition on leaving the country and that the prohibition is backed by criminal penalties.

The TPIM Act also has various safeguards for individual liberty, such a requirement for judicial approval of any Measures imposed, special advocate procedure to test the justification for the Measures, requirements to renew and keep the necessity for such measures under review, and oversight of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation (“the IR”). Not only does the prerogative not carry with it such protections, the exercise of the prerogative power can be indefinite, whereas any TPIM Measure has a maximum lifespan of two years in the absence of renewed engagement in terrorism related activity.

Therefore if the police have reasonable grounds to believe a person is seeking to leave the UK to engage in jihad abroad they could seek an urgent Travel Measure from the Secretary of State under the TPIM Act. This may require a new administrative process for border police seeking urgent TPIMs, but given that Parliament has established this power – with important safeguards – there would need to be a compelling reason why the police should be conferred an analogous, and less effective, power. There is also considerable value in maintaining centralised decision-making both for consistency of decision-making and as a disincentive against over-use of the power by police. It would also ensure that the safeguards imposed by Parliament were engaged.

It follows that if the Government seeks new powers outside the TPIM Act, it will have to explain why those under the TPIM Act – designed in part for precisely these circumstances – are inadequate. One response may be that persons leaving the UK would not yet have engaged in terrorism related activity, which is the precondition for a TPIM Measure. However, given the extremely broad way that the concept of terrorism related activity is statutorily defined, and the related concept of terrorism, it seems unlikely that the Government would contend that it is not capable of applying to persons who seek to leave the UK to engage in jihad. The Government might say that the power should be exercised on the basis of suspicion rather than reasonable belief (another condition for imposing a TPIM Measure), but Parliament would no doubt take considerable persuading that such a power should be exercised by police on the basis of suspicion alone, not least as Parliament decided when it enacted the TPIM Act that TPIM Measures should only be imposed on the basis of reasonable belief.

Nonetheless, whilst we are entitled to be sceptical given the lack of explanation currently available, there is at least potentially a gap in the Government’s armoury which the new power could fill.

This discussion may have prompted the thought amongst some readers whether it remains lawful for the Secretary of State to exercise prerogative powers intended to prevent a person believed to be involved in terrorism related activity from leaving the United Kingdom, given that Parliament has legislated powers on precisely this issue subject to numerous safeguards. It is a central principle of constitutional law that the prerogative cannot be exercised where Parliament has legislated on a subject. And here resorting to the prerogative rather than seeking a Travel Measure under the TPIM Act denies individuals a right of appeal and many associated protections (including a 2 year limit) that accompany a Travel Measure. Using the royal prerogative to deprive a person of their passport can therefore be used as a means of bypassing the protections in the TPIM Act.

This is perhaps most obvious when persons are deprived of passports after a Travel Measure comes to the end of its 2 year maximum term: the removal of a passport to continue, in effect, the travel restriction based on same factual case is difficult to reconcile with Parliament’s stipulation that Travel Measures will not endure for longer than 2 years in the absence of re-engagement in terrorism related activity.

The Prime Minister referred to litigation seeking to test this point (including one case in which the author acknowledges a role acting for a Claimant) and the Prime Minister stated to Parliament that the Government is preparing legislation in case such challenges succeed.

However, irrespective of such challenges, it is time that the prerogative power to withdraw passports is put on a statutory footing in its entirety. As long ago as 1980 Sir William Wade described the power in his Hamlyn Lectures, as, “a murky administrative area where there is a crying need for clarification and legal right”: Constitutional Fundamentals, Stevens & Sons, p.52. Legislating for the withdrawal of passports would not only give the power a proper democratic basis suitable for the modern era, it would enable proper protections to be put in place for individuals. The incentive for Governments is that it would enable the power to be made more effective by pairing it with actual prohibition on travel and removing the legally problematic overlap of the prerogative and the TPIM Act regime.

Returning to the current proposal, if the police are to be given new powers to temporarily deprive persons of their passports this should be a self-contained statutory power or an extension of the TPIM Act and not an opportunity to provide statutory endorsement by a side-wind for a prerogative power which is out-dated and in need of reform.

Preventing British citizens returning to the UK

The idea that British citizens should be prevented from returning to the UK raises myriad issues, legal, moral and practical. The most immediate legal issue is section 2 of the Immigration Act, which identifies the right of abode as a core incident of citizenship.

But there is also a deeper constitutional principle in play here. Blackstone in the Commentaries wrote in 1765 that, “every Englishman may claim a right to abide in his own country for as long as he pleases; and not to be driven from it unless by the sentence of the law. … For exile, or transportation, is a punishment unknown to the common law…” (Vol i. p.133).

Indeed, it is a mark of how deeply rooted this principle is that any legislation in this field would need to amend or depart from Magna Carta itself, the famous chapter 29 of which (which is still on the statute book) states, “No Freeman shall be …outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed…” save by lawful judgment of his peers. The Prime Minister appears to have forgotten about Magna Carta. But its sentiments were echoed by Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney-General, who stated in Parliament, “I share the concern that has been expressed about the suggestion that British nationals, however, horribly they may be alleged to have behaved, should be prevented from returning from this country.” (HC Debs 1 Sept 2014 c.32.)

From a more practical perspective, the idea of refusing to allow citizens to return to the UK reflects a sense in which the UK Government would like to think of such individuals as ‘somebody else’s problem’. But such an attitude is unlikely to win favour amongst other States left with the problem of un-returnable British jihadists in their midst, and they may well simply not accept the position of the UK Government and seek to return the individual to the UK.

If individuals return to the UK having acted in a manner inconsistent with their duty of loyalty to this country and to British law then the proper response is for them to face due process of British justice and be prosecuted for one of the wide array of terrorism offences, or for treason.

No fly lists

Just as it is appropriate for the prerogative passport power to be placed on a statutory basis, so should the arrangements for no-fly lists. And for the same reasons: (1) their legal origin and legal effect are obscure; (2) they represent an interference with individual freedom of movement and to come and go from the UK unimpeded; and (3) they lack adequate legal safeguards. The Government’s suggestion that these should be put on a statutory basis is therefore to be welcomed.

TPIMs and Prevent

In principle there is sense in the suggestion that there should be engagement with TPIM subjects other than through the police and MI5, such as through the Prevent programme or possibly the probation service, particularly if combined with a relaxation of their obligations as they near the end of a TPIM and their return to ordinary life. But there are real complexities here particularly if it is sought to compel engagement by imposing it as a TPIM Measure backed by criminal sanctions.

These difficulties arise from three features of the regime: (1) TPIM subjects usually maintain their innocence of the allegations against them and often, although not invariably, of extremist views; (2) they are subject to TPIMs on the basis of secret evidence; and (3) nothing has been proved against them and—a point that is often overlooked—do benefit from a presumption of innocence, which cannot be simply abandoned in this context. In the light of these three factors, it is difficult to see how many TPIM subjects could constructively engage with programmes insofar as those programmes are premised on their guilt, or could reasonably be compelled to do so. Furthermore, such individuals will understandably be fearful that anything they say or do might be deployed against them either in open court or, possibly, in secret.

There is also an important difference in principle between the essentially negative duties imposed by a TPIM, even those which may be enforced by limited positive duties (such as reporting to a police station to prevent overseas travel), and a positive requirement to attend meetings and engage with a prevention-orientated programme.

Therefore whilst there is undoubtedly room for new thinking and new initiatives in this context, the difficulties should not be underestimated and the proposals will require very careful scrutiny.

Relocation powers

The suggestion that the Government might re-introduce the power of relocation that previously existed under the control order regime is a suggestion which will raise concern across the political spectrum (I leave aside the idea of exclusion zones).

In 2011 Parliament accepted that relocation could not be justified given its serious detrimental impact on individuals by cutting them off from family, friends and their local community. It operated as a form of internal exile, justified by reference to secret evidence. It was one of the most resented aspects of the control order regime by affected persons and local communities. Parliament accepted that the financial saving from the surveillance budget that such a power allowed could not justify the encroachment on civil liberties that it entailed.

The Government appears to have drawn the idea (or at least support for the idea) of backtracking from the TPIM Act in respect of relocation from the recent report of the IR. In his report published in March 2014, amongst a number of recommendations for increasing safeguards under the TPIM Act, such as narrowing the definition of terrorism related activity and adopting a balance of probabilities threshold, the IR stated the “the time has now come to revisit the issue” of relocation arguing that, “Locational restraints have the ability to reduce the abscond risk, to rebuild confidence in TPIMs, to disrupt terrorist networks and to reduce the surveillance budget. Relocation was repeatedly described by the courts as proportionate …” (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures in 2013, March 2014, 6.23.)

The IR suggested that the reintroduction of relocation might be accompanied by much greater freedom for a person to travel around the country (albeit not back to his place of residence).

Many people will take the view that a relocation power simply cannot be justified, especially when accompanied by other intrusive obligations, given the low standard of proof (reasonable belief) and the fact that TPIM Measures are supported by secret evidence.

But on the premise that such powers can in principle be justified, they must, at a bare minimum, be supported by clear and compelling justification. We cannot fully analyse the arguments for and against here, but the following remarks can be made.

The first point to note is that the IR has made a range of recommendations and there is a danger in cherry-picking those that one agrees with or which suit the political climate without accepting others that would proved a counter-balance—the IR’s recommended adoption of the balance of probabilities threshold is perhaps particularly important in this respect.

The nub of the justification for relocation is really the potential for reducing the risk of absconding from TPIMs and the associated reduction of the surveillance budget (the IR has stated that relocation saved the Government tens of millions in surveillance costs.)

In terms of the surveillance budget, it needs to be borne in mind that the IR’s proposal of a form of ‘relocation lite’ which would not confine relocated TPIM subjects to a small geographical area may not generate the same savings to the surveillance budget as were facilitated by the control order regime where relocated persons were so confined. We cannot know, but it seems likely that the relocation lite proposal would still require substantial amounts of surveillance (the suggestion of exclusion zones is a fortiori).

Absconding is a problem. But it seems to be associated in the media with TPIMs when in fact 7 of the 9 absconds were under the control order regime and the two absconds under that TPIM regime (Ibrahim Magag in December 2012 and Mohamed Mohamed in November 2013) were the first absconds since 2007. There is also a major difference between TPIMs and control orders relevant to the risk of abscond, which is that TPIMs come to a natural end after two years, thus providing a much greater incentive for individuals not to abscond than existed under the control order regime under which restrictions were imposed indefinitely.

The IR points to the fact that absconding did not occur under the control order regime after relocation was introduced as evidence of its efficacy at reducing the risk of absconding. Of course, relocation will, logically, reduce the risk of absconding to some extent by cutting people off from friends and associates. But its impact under the control order regime was known to Parliament when it prohibited relocation in 2011. Furthermore, the fact that most TPIM subjects have not absconded—and, as explained above, have a greater incentive not to do so than under the control order regime—should not be lost sight of. If looking at the bald statistics alone the question they pose is, could the relocation of all 10 persons who have been subject to TPIMs have been justified to attempt to prevent two absconds? Or to put this another way, can reallocation be justified to reduce a 1 in 5 chance of absconding further? This is not, however, an argument that can be carried by reference to the statistics—apart form anything else the numbers are just too small.

It is also worth emphasising the fairly obvious point that the fact that a measure is more effective does not mean it is justified. Detention in Belmarsh would, for instance, undoubtedly prevent people absconding (as well as resulting in a massive saving to the surveillance budget) but thankfully nobody suggests that detention should be reintroduced.

In a report published in January 2014, the Joint Committee of Human Rights was clear in its view that relocation could not be justified, whilst accepting its contribution to reducing the risk of absconding. It stated: We remain of the view that a power to relocate an individual away from their community and their family by way of a civil order, entirely outside the criminal justice system, is too intrusive and potentially damaging to family life to be justifiable…” (10th Report 2013-14, Post Legislative Scrutiny: TPIM Act para. 55.

Finally, the issue of providing justification also should not, I suggest, be avoided by pointing to the approach of the courts in upholding a number of relocations under the control order regime. The courts are working within a legal regime in which their role and function is restricted. In rejecting appeals from relocation orders, they should not be thought to be endorsing such powers as they are not considering whether a regime including relocation is preferable to a regime of increased surveillance. The regime is taken as a given and the courts ask whether the measure is proportionate within that regime. If, for example, preventing a person from travelling abroad is endorsed as a legitimate aim, and there is evidence that relocation will make it more difficult for the person to travel, the courts are generally reluctant to say that the obligation goes too far, given that Parliament has endorsed the power as available for use for such purposes.

Connected to this is fact that the role of the courts in judging whether a measure is disproportionate remains secondary: they do not say whether a measure should be imposed but whether it is disproportionate to the objective. In AR, for example, Mitting J stated that he favoured a reduction in the individual’s curfew, but the refusal of a reduction could not be said to be disproportionate: “the decision”, he said “is not mine” [2009] EWCH 1376 at 4. The decision that Parliament will be asked to make if the suggestion of reintroducing relocation is carried-through, however, very much its decision and it should not avoid it by pointing to the approach of the courts.

Conclusion

The Government’s announcement of more powers to combat the national security threat posed by ISIS touches upon some fundamental constitutional issues. And it is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it includes suggestions such as preventing British citizens entering the UK and reintroducing relocation powers, which are very troubling; on the other hand it provides an opportunity put other powers, in principle justifiable, such as the withdrawal of passports and no-fly lists, on a more appropriate legal basis.

 

Tom Hickman is a Reader in Law University College London and Barrister at Blackstone Chambers.

Suggested citation:  T. Hickman, ‘ISIS, passports and Magna Carta: New national security powers raise complex issues’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (9th October 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mark Elliott: Scotland has voted “no”. What next for the UK constitution?

MarkAfter a very long — and at times electrifying — campaign, a modest but decisive majority of those who participated in the referendum on Scottish independence have voted “no”. In one sense, this is the end of the process — even if, bearing in mind the main UK parties’ still-to-be-fulfilled promises about further devolution, it is only the beginning of the end. In another sense, however, it might turn out to be only the end of the beginning.

Had Scotland voted “yes”, this would have represented a constitutional shock of seismic proportions, and would quite conceivably have resulted in major constitutional changes in the remainder of the UK. It is less certain that such changes will follow the “no” vote. Nevertheless, it is likely that the “no” vote will leave at least some sort of — and potentially a very significant — constitutional legacy thanks to the conferral upon the Scottish Parliament of the additional powers promised by the main UK parties during the final weeks of the independence campaign.

It is not, however, obvious that the changes provoked by the referendum will — or should — be confined to the beefing up of the existing devolution system. As the debate moves on from the falsely binary form — independence or Union? — it took during the campaign, a more searching and granular debate can and will succeed it. (“Falsely” binary because, as I have argued before, both independence and Union are highly catholic concepts that bear a range of meanings and are capable of shading into one another.) That debate will concern not the apparently extreme options that were on offer to the people of Scotland, but the constitutional smorgasbord of possibilities that arise when we consider what kind of Union should exist, as we move forward, between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Federalism?

The obvious counterpoint to the present system is a federal one. Some — including Lady Hale JSC — have gone so far as to argue that the UK is already a federal system. This is incorrect as a matter of technical constitutional law, since the principal hallmarks of a federal system are absent from the UK. The system of devolution is asymmetrical, with different parts of the UK having different types and amounts of power (and, in England’s case, none); the relationship between the central government and each of the four home nations is different; and the legal power vested in devolved institutions is insecure in the sense that it flows from UK legislation that remains within the legal control of the Westminster Parliament, as distinct from being enshrined in a written constitution that is immune from unilateral amendment by a single institution.

However, recognising that the UK does not conform to the technical paradigm of the federal model gets us only so far — not least because, like independence and Union, federalism is a concept whose elasticity tells against over-emphasis of technicality. Demonstrating an admirable grasp of such matters, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in an article in the New Statesman in June 2014, points out that the UK’s constitutional architecture increasingly tends towards, even though it does not fully conform to, a federal model. For example: in theory, the present system depends upon the Westminster Parliament’s ongoing acquiescence in the autonomy of devolved institutions, because, in theory, Westminster could unilaterally override legislation enacted by — or even unilaterally change, diminish or abolish the powers of — such institutions. However, the theoretical position described by the doctrine of the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament is radically transformed when viewed through the prism of political reality. From this perspective, the true measure of constitutional security enjoyed by devolved institutions in the UK is comparable to that which is enjoyed by their counterparts operating elsewhere under federal arrangements.

Yet for all that the current arrangements may disclose traces of federalism, they also remain clearly distinguishable from that model. Its adoption would entail major constitutional innovation, bearing in mind that the vast majority of the country — i.e. England — is currently exempt entirely from the devolution scheme. A genuinely federal model would involve the creation of exclusively English institutions sitting — alongside their equivalents in the other three home nations — under the umbrella of pan-UK federal institutions. This would represent an enormous constitutional change; and while the scale of that change is not in itself a good reason for rejecting it, such a fundamental alteration to the constitutional fabric ought not to be undertaken lightly.

Whether a federal system in the UK would be appropriate must be considered holistically. It would be blinkered to advocate its adoption merely because it would be in the perceived interests of one or some — as opposed to all — parts of the country. By definition, a federal model would be all-encompassing, and would change the basis of the relationship between all four home nations, as well as the relationship between those nations and central institutions of the UK state. But in spite — or perhaps because — of such radical implications, talk of federalism is on the rise as we emerge, blinking, from the Scottish independence debate.

This is likely so for two reasons. From the perspective of the devolved nations, federalism offers a degree of lock-in to the decentralisation of power which outstrips that which can be supplied by mere devolution. And although, as noted above, the constitutional security enjoyed by devolved institutions is considerable under the current system, a federal model would (among other things) supply greater and more-formal guarantees concerning both the balance of power and (just as importantly) the process by which any further alterations to that balance would fall be negotiated and secured. Meanwhile, from the perspective of England, federalism offers the prospect of a form of “home rule” that would address concerns about the increasingly anomalistic lopsidedness of the existing constitutional architecture. Viewed in this way, a shift to a federal model might facilitate the containment of English nationalist tendencies, which are certain to be awakened in the aftermath of the Scottish independence debate.

England

The position of England cannot be considered in isolation — any change to its position would necessarily have implications for the situation of the other home nations — but it is increasingly obvious that it must be confronted head-on. England has long remained (as Richard Rawlings pithily puts it) “the spectre at the [devolution] feast” because its sheer political, numerical and economic weight has generally been judged to exempt it from the case in favour of devolution. A very large part of that case has always been that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be afforded an opportunity to move out of the shadow cast by England by virtue of its size, thereby allowing those parts of the country to live out their distinct political, cultural and economic identities. (There are, it goes without saying, other layers of complexity that apply in the particular case of Northern Ireland.)

On this view, to propose the extension of the devolution settlement to England would be nonsensical: it hardly needs to step away from its own shadow. However, the position is surely more complex than this. Even if the initial impetus for devolution is understood in the way sketched above, it does not follow that — now that there is devolution elsewhere — devolution remains inapposite in England. It is one thing to argue that the arguments forming the initial impetus for devolution had particular purchase in relation to the three smaller home nations; it is another thing to argue that the inapplicability of those arguments to England ought permanently to exclude it from any recognition within the devolution settlement. What, then, might be the positive arguments in favour of revisiting England’s position? Two are particularly pertinent.

The first argument concerns fairness; it is an old one, but it is no less compelling for that. The so-called West Lothian problem — which concerns the capacity of Westminster MPs representing non-English constituencies to legislate on matters affecting only England — is an increasingly pressing one. At its heart lies a basic unfairness stemming from an absence of reciprocity: while English MPs have renounced involvement in whole swathes of devolved matters, MPs representing constituencies located in devolved nations remain capable of influencing, sometimes decisively, the passage of legislation affecting only England.

Moreover, the electoral-college function served by the Westminster Parliament — its political composition determines which party or parties form the UK Government — means that the West Lothian problem is capable of distorting the political make-up of what is, for many purposes, the English government. Indeed, in 2010, the Conservative Party could comfortably have formed a single-party majority government had only English constituencies been taken into account.

It was always only matter of time before this issue is transformed from one that concerns constitutional anoraks into one that impinges significantly upon popular consciousness and stokes resentment. And that time has very likely now arrived. As the competence of devolved institutions expands — resulting in commensurate diminishment of Westminster’s involvement in matters affecting the devolved nations — so the anomalistic nature of the involvement of MPs from outside England in purely English affairs becomes more glaring. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that promises of further powers for Edinburgh will be politically deliverable unless accompanied by a resolution of the West Lothian problem.

The second argument concerns identity. One of the purposes of devolution is to acknowledge and to give institutional life to differential national identities within the UK. Do existing arrangements adequately accommodate this need as it pertains to England? One response to this question is (as mentioned above) to argue that English national identity receives adequate expression thanks to the size of England coupled with its (ambivalent) representation within the pan-UK Parliament and Government. However, whether this is so depends, at least in part, on how well UK institutions are able to perform their secondary function as English institutions (a question that takes us back, at least in part, to the West Lothian problem). A further issue, however, is whether the focus of this debate should be an undifferentiated English identity or multiple English identities — and this, in turn, invites questions about the extent to which we should be concerned with England’s place in the Union, and the extent to which we should instead be concerned with the place of English regions within England.  A complex set of issues — encompassing not only devolution to but also devolution within England — therefore arises.

Big-bang constitutionalism — or a typically British response?

Where, then, does this leave us? A dramatic response would be a form of “big-bang constitutionalism” involving a fundamental rethink about how the constitution works, how the four home nations relate to one another, how they relate to the UK tier of government, and where and how more-local levels of government should fit in.

The upshot might be a genuinely federal model involving the creation of an English Parliament and an English Government invested with powers similar to those wielded in Edinburgh, coupled with confining the Westminster Parliament and the UK Government to matters that need to be dealt with on a pan-UK basis. The adoption of such a system would necessarily entail the enactment of a written constitution enjoying a hierarchically superior legal status, so as to render the balance of power between the different tiers of authority constitutionally secure and impervious to unilateral disturbance — the absence of such characteristics being incompatible with a federal model. But while a “federal” system is increasingly in the contemplation of those arguing the case for Scotland to remain a UK with a reimagined constitution, it is not at all clear that the language of federalism is being used in a technical sense as opposed to being a rhetorical flourish. It is also widely argued that a truly, technically federal system in the UK would be highly problematic given that one of the four sub-federal units, i.e. England, would be so large and dominant, accounting for around 85% of the population. As Professor Vernon Bogdanor recently pointed out in The Times (£):

there is no federal system in the world in which one unit represents more than 80 per cent of the population. The nearest equivalent is Canada, where 35 per cent of the population live in Ontario. Federations in which the largest unit dominated, such as the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, have not been successful.

A second possibility would be to roll out devolution to England, too. This would stop short of a federal model, since the new English (like the existing devolved) institutions would be creatures of the Westminster Parliament, lacking the constitutional security inherent in federalism. Such a system would also remain distinguishable from federalism because the devolved institutions in each part of the country would continue to wield different types and amounts of authority. As such, a system encompassing devolution in England would — by definition — not amount to full-blooded adoption of a federal system.

It would, however, represent a major constitutional change — and, as such, it would run up against much the same problem as the one cited by Bogdanor above: namely, England would acquire a distinctive institutional machinery that would (on the argument adopted by Bogdanor and others) risk destablishing the Union thanks to England’s relative size. We should not, however, adopt this argument unthinkingly, given the position at which we have arrived today. In its present condition, the Union is hardly in a particularly stable condition. It is therefore at least worth balancing any risk of destablisation against the possibility that creating English institutions might in fact exert a stablising influence, by enabling English nationalist impulses — which, as surely as night follows day, will be ignited by perceptions that Scotland is being accorded preferential treatment through the devolution of additional powers — to be accommodated within the Union.

A third possibility — and by far the most likely one, bearing in mind the Prime Minister’s statement of this morning — is an incremental, as distinct from a big-bang, approach. Such an approach would be of a piece with the incrementalist, pragmatic tradition that is arguably the defining characteristic of British constitutionalism. This tradition treats constitutional reform as an ongoing process — one that addresses challenges as they arise, rather than undertaking holistic reimaginings of the system. If this tradition prevails, then a Scottish “no” vote — and the associated conferral upon Scotland of additional powers — will likely trigger a series of consequences.

First, the possibility of conferring further powers upon devolved institutions elsewhere in the UK will arise. If Scotland is given additional powers in the aftermath of the “no” vote, it is inevitable that Northern Ireland and Wales will agitate for equivalent treatment.

Second, the West Lothian problem will be confronted, whether in the way proposed by the McKay Commission or otherwise, whilst stopping short of the more-radical option of creating wholly distinct (either federal or devolved) English institutions. Of course, as those who have wrestled with the West Lothian problem well know, there are no easy answers to it. Even curtailing the capacity of non-English MPs to influence English law is not a magic bullet, not least because this creates a further problem known as the “shifting majority”, the difficulty being that an administration formed from a party with a pan-UK majority would be unable to secure its English legislative programme if it were to lack a majority of English MPs. Indeed, the shifting-majority problem is a good illustration of the problems invited by piecemeal, as opposed to holistic, constitutional reform: pull at one loose thread, and a wider unravelling may follow.

Once — as, at some point, there inevitably will be — a UK government that commands a majority in the House of Commons thanks only to the ballast accorded by MPs from outside England, this problem will become all to apparent. It will strike at the heart of the Westminster model, according to which the government of the day commands — and must command — a majority in the House. In contrast, once the West Lothian Question is resolved, the possibility arises of a UK  government being incapable of securing a majority in the House of Commons on the vast majority of the — English — legislative business transacted there. While, therefore, the notion of “English votes for English laws” may sound as modest as it is sensible, it opens up a new can of worms that may be hard to contain. In particular, if the resolution of the West Lothian Question results in a de facto English Parliament within the Westminster Parliament, it will be hard to resist some degree of reform on the executive plane. The logic of an (effectively) English Parliament may, in other words, dictate the establishment of (in some form) an English government. A real possibility, therefore, is that tackling the West Lothian Question will — unintentionally — turn out to be the mere precursor to more far-reaching institutional reform, the logical endpoint of which is something more closely akin to English devolution of full federalism.

Third, even if reticence around pan-England institutions closes off discussion about devolution to England, it is likely that greater attention will be given to devolution within England: that is, devolution not to all-England institutions but to regional English institutions. Indeed, Nick Clegg and David Miliband have already said as much. Such proposals fell spectacularly flat when proposed in north-east England a decade ago, but that is not to say that different proposals would also fail. However, whether devolution within (rather than to) England is a fitting response to the challenges arising from the Scottish referendum is another question. The answer to it turns on (among other things) the prevailing sense (or senses) of belonging that operate in England: do those living in England identify with — and wish to be represented by — institutions that reflect an undifferentiated notion of Englishness, or would they identify more readily  with institutions standing for particular sub-strands of English identity?

Fourth, the constitutional position of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will become increasingly entrenched — not by dint of legal security wrought through the adoption of a technically federal model and the disavowal of Westminster’s sovereignty which that would entail — but thanks to the ongoing solidification of constitutional conventions that render unilateral interference by London in devolved affairs every bit as inconceivable as central incursions into local matters within a federal system.

These incremental steps would not amount to wholesale constitutional reform, but they form part of a narrative that it has been possible to discern for some time: of a system that is moving irrevocably away from the centralist model that was once said to characterise the UK constitution, and towards a system that, while not federal in the classical sense, is manifestly not unitary in nature.

Just as it does not now, so the UK constitution would not, were these things to come to pass, conform to any particular, identifiable model. It would not, for instance, be neatly characterisable as a federal system; nor could it be described as a unitary state. Rather, the constitution would remain — as it has been for centuries — messy and incomparable. But these characteristics are not necessarily negative ones. Untidiness is a price that is arguably worth paying for a system that exhibits a degree of flexibility, albeit that the practically irreversible dispersal of power that devolution is accomplishing inserts brakes upon that flexibility which are novel in this country. Nor is uniqueness necessarily something to be disparaged. That the UK constitution compares to no other should not inevitably be taken to mean that there is something defective about it. Rather, it is testament to the uniqueness of our epic constitutional story. The “no” vote in Scotland means that — at least for the foreseeable future — that story will endure. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that — in ways that are, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, difficult to forecast with absolute certainty — the “no” vote will be shown by history to have marked a profound turning-point in that story.

Mark Elliott is a Reader in Public Law at the University of Cambridge. This post was first published on his blog, Public Law for Everyone. Mark can be found on Twitter as @DrMarkElliott.

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Tom Quinn: Mandates, Manifestos & Coalitions: UK Party Politics after 2010

One of the most important assumptions underlying this view of British politics since 1945 was that governments were given mandates by voters in elections. That followed from the fact that they were directly elected by voters, as there were no post-election coalition negotiations to intervene between voters’ choices and government formation. Mandates followed from voter endorsement of governing parties’ manifestos. The winning party was assumed to have a mandate to implement its manifesto in office.

The hung parliament of 2010 and the subsequent coalition government challenged these assumptions. If no party enjoyed a parliamentary majority, what sense did it make to speak of mandates? What was the role of manifestos if no party possessed a majority to implement one in full? What was the legitimacy of coalition agreements if they have never been put to the electorate? Ultimately, is it necessary to rethink the relationship between voters, parties and governments in the UK political system?

The Traditional Mandate Doctrine

The traditional ‘mandate doctrine’ of British government is, in essence, a very simple one. Two major parties, Labour and the Conservatives, compete with each other to form majority governments to implement their preferred policies. This two-party system was upheld by a first-past-the-post electoral system that made it hard for small parties to win seats. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system would help to turn electoral pluralities into parliamentary majorities. Elections were opportunities for voters to decide whether Labour or the Conservatives would form the government.

To facilitate this choice, the parties would offer manifestos before the election. These are detailed policy programmes setting out what each party would do in government. Voters could consult these manifestos and vote for the one they most preferred. The party that won a majority of seats in parliament would have a mandate to implement its manifesto. That is, it would have both the right and the obligation to do so. At the following election, voters could decide whether the governing party had been true to its promises: if it had, they might vote it back into power; if it had not, FPTP made it easy to ‘send the rascals packing’ by voting in the other party. Thus, Britain’s party system was based on the direct election of governments by voters, ensuring strong bonds of accountability. Manifestos were an important hinge, linking pre-election promises with democratically mandated post-election governance.

The clarity and simplicity of this theory is a large part of its appeal. In reality, it begs a number of questions. First, no party has won a majority of votes in a UK election in the post-1945 era. At best, the winning party secures a plurality of the vote. In 2005, Labour won the election on only 35% of the national vote, implying that almost two-thirds of voters refused to endorse Labour’s manifesto. Yet Labour still claimed a mandate because it had a parliamentary majority. In 2010, the Conservatives won 36% of the vote but had no parliamentary majority. Was their mandate weaker than Labour’s five years’ earlier? Secondly, manifesto pledges are offered to voters on a take-it-or-leave-it basis: in voting for a party’s manifesto, the party will assume voters have endorsed everything in it, even if it contains things they do not like. Thirdly, most voters do not choose parties on the basis of manifestos. Nowadays, they are much more likely to vote on the basis of party leaders and overall party competence.

The mandate doctrine has exerted a strong influence on thinking about British politics since 1945. The apparent demise of the old two-party system, with the hung parliament in 2010, has finally forced us to confront some of these problems.

Demise of the Two-Party System

From 1945 till the mid-1970s, Britain was an almost classic case of a two-party system, with Labour and the Conservatives winning 90% of the votes and almost all seats. Those days are long gone. Since then, we have seen the rise of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats, who now hold 57 seats out 650 in the UK parliament. Nationalist and unionist parties win about 30 seats. We have reached a point at which somewhere between 60 and 80 Westminster seats are likely to continue being won by parties other than Labour and the Conservatives, making it harder for one party to win an outright majority. Hung parliaments will become more likely, though not guaranteed.

A shift to a multi-party system would require a rethinking of the process of government formation in Britain. If hung parliaments became more frequent, coalition or minority governments would become more likely. The notion of a manifesto-derived mandate becomes even more problematical than it already is when no party manages to win a parliamentary majority.

Minority governments are a frequent occurrence in Europe, though they are also common in another FPTP nation, Canada. Minority governments have weaker mandates than majority ones and do not have the parliamentary numbers to implement their entire manifestos. Unless they enjoy supply-and-confidence agreements with an opposition party, minority governments may find themselves at the mercy of those opposition parties waiting for the right moment to bring them down. Compromises may have to be sought if any legislation is to be passed.

The other alternative is a coalition government. Coalitions can occasionally be offered directly to voters before an election and receive voters’ direct endorsement, as with Britain’s ‘coupon election’ of 1918. More usually, coalitions are formed after electors cast their votes. For supporters of the two-party system, post-election deals by parties violate the principle of the direct election of the government by the people, as coalitions are chosen by political elites.

Coalition Agreements and Manifestos

When no party wins a parliamentary majority, then no single party has the means to implement its manifesto pledges. If a coalition is formed between two or more parties, the government’s policies will usually involve a combination of the participating parties’ preferred policies. The practice in Europe, followed in Britain in 2010, is for a coalition agreement to set out the government’s policies. Coalition agreements are negotiated policy deals between parties in government and they’re intended to reduce conflict within the coalition, as well as signalling to voters the direction of policy. They tend to work more smoothly as the ideological distance between the coalition parties narrows. If there are significant differences between the parties, devising a coalition agreement is more difficult and it may contain more gaps, as conflict is postponed by ‘agreements to disagree’ or the establishment of commissions of inquiry.

When government policy is based on a coalition agreement, parties’ individual manifestos become starting points for negotiations between the parties, with pledges tradable or liable to dilution. The UK coalition agreement of 2010 combined elements of both Conservative and Lib Dem manifestos. The Lib Dems identified their priorities as the four key themes of their manifesto – fair taxes, fairness in education, a green economy and political reform, with signature policies such as raising the threshold on income tax, introducing a pupil premium and electoral reform. The Conservatives focused more on their ‘red lines’ in the negotiations – immediate action to reduce the budget deficit, toughness on defence and immigration, and no further transfers of sovereignty to the EU without a referendum. In the end, both parties secured gains on key policy areas, with clear ‘wins’ for each party on particular policies. The Conservatives won out on their red lines; the Lib Dems made progress on their four priorities.

Coalition agreements are programmes for government and so they must be internally coherent, particularly on plans for taxation and spending. That may mean the negotiating parties go beyond specific policies in their manifestos. A manifesto’s tax-and-spend policies may all fit together, but if only some of those pledges make it into the coalition agreement, while others do not, there is no guarantee that they will continue to add up. There would have to be compromise and that might involve watering-down manifesto pledges or even creating wholly new pledges. For example, all spending plans in the coalition agreement were subject to the proviso that deficit-reduction was the government’s fiscal priority.

The pledge to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system provoked some debate because neither the Lib Dems nor the Conservatives had mentioned AV in their manifestos (though, ironically, Labour had!). However, it seemed a reasonable half-way-house between a referendum on proportional representation (the Lib Dem position) and the maintenance of the status quo (the Tory position). This pledge was vital in securing the formation of the coalition.

Perhaps the most contentious feature of the coalition agreement was the section on university tuition fees. The Lib Dems’ manifesto pledged the party to ‘scrap’ tuition fees but the reality of deficit-reduction made that extremely difficult. The coalition agreement declared that the government would await the Browne Report on university funding and that Lib Dem MPs would have the right to abstain – but not vote against – any rise in fees. After receiving the Browne Report, the government brought a bill before parliament to treble the ceiling on fees to £9,000 p.a. Most Lib Dem MPs voted in favour of the increase. Vince Cable, the Lib Dem secretary of state responsible for universities, later denied that this volte face involved a broken mandate:

We didn’t break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn’t win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it’s the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I’m trying to honour.

For supporters of the two-party system, this episode encapsulated the illegitimacy of coalition government: a minister producing a bill that directly contradicted his manifesto, but which he justified as the price of coalition government.

There is no doubt that this controversy badly damaged the Liberal Democrats’ credibility. But we should be careful before seeing it as an inevitable feature of coalition government. There were many other pledges on which compromises were struck that were not nearly as contentious. On this one, the Lib Dems’ original policy was not merely watered-down; it was directly opposed to the one they implemented in government. The pledge to scrap tuition fees was one of the key identity-defining policies of the post-Ashdown Liberal Democrat party. Along with opposition to the Iraq War, it helped define the party’s ideological identity as left-leaning. Reneging on it would inevitably damage the Lib Dems. But it’s hardly characteristic of most policies in the agreement.

Single-party majority governments are just as capable as coalitions of breaking their manifesto pledges. Tony Blair’s Labour government did not hold a referendum on electoral reform despite promising to do so in its 1997 manifesto. New Labour also announced operational independence for the Bank of England to set interest rates just five days after coming to power in 1997. This policy had not been mentioned in Labour’s manifesto on which the party had just fought and won an election, but a chorus of approval from the financial markets ensured that it came to be seen as a masterstroke.

Conclusion

If we accept the assumptions of majoritarian democracy, then the advent of coalition government is an unwelcome development. It blurs lines of accountability between voters and governments, and hands too much power to party elites, especially those in small parties. Government policy becomes based on coalition agreements that have not been directly endorsed by the voters and that undermines their legitimacy. Small parties may find themselves still in government playing a king-maker role even as they lose popularity.

In reality, there were already serious flaws in the traditional mandate doctrine. The concept of an electoral mandate becomes more ambiguous the closer one looks at it. It relies on some heroic assumptions about manifestos and voters, assumptions that are never satisfied in the real world. A party winning 36% fails to secure a mandate in one election, but in the previous election, another party won 35% and its parliamentary majority, created by FPTP, endows its manifesto with the mystical qualities of a mandate. The hung parliament of 2010 shone a light on the weaknesses of the mandate doctrine of British democracy, weaknesses that had previously been concealed by a procession of majority governments. Asking whether coalition agreements enjoy electoral mandates, therefore, is not really the right question. Of course, they don’t; but in all likelihood, neither do manifestos, at least, not en bloc, as a set of pledges. The real questions are: do they represent a logical compromise between the rival positions of the coalition parties; and, do they remain true to the spirit, if not always to the detail, of those parties’ manifestos? If coalition government is deemed necessary, a formal coalition agreement at least offers voters an outline of future government policy. The experience of 2010 is that most coalition pledges will have some origin in one or other party’s manifesto.

In this process, trust is a key ingredient. In the mandate doctrine, voters must trust governing parties to implement their manifesto pledges, but if they don’t, voters must wait till the next election to punish them. The same is true of coalitions. Some pledges may have to be traded, but if parties are seen to renege on major pre-election pledges, they can be punished at the ballot box.

We have probably entered an era in which majority governments, minority governments and coalitions are all genuinely possible. But it does appear that the old two-party system has largely gone and that in turn requires parties, voters and political observers to think beyond the old mandate doctrine about how we might conceive of the democratic legitimacy of government in a new era of the British politics.

 

Dr. Tom Quinn is a Senior Lecturer at Essex University.

(Suggested citation: T. Quinn, ‘Mandates, Manifestos & Coalitions: UK Party Politics after 2010’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (18th July 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

 

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James Hand: Lords response to Labour Peers’ Working Group Report – A Programme for Progress: The future of the House of Lords and its place in wider constitution.

James-Hand-140-x-150The House of Lords have recently debated the Labour Peers’ Working Group report looking at the future of the House of Lords and its place in a wider constitution. The report was published on 28th May 2014 and was generally well received by contributors from all sides during the 4 hour motion to take note. Lord Dubs, one of the authors, has set out the key conclusions of the working group here but in summary they seek to achieve in the interim a smaller House of Lords, limited to 450 members, ahead of a constitutional convention to decide on the future of the House of Lords and, potentially, other constitutional issues. The report also dealt with other matters such as recommending the final abolition of the remaining hereditary peers’ right to sit (in contradiction to the compromise in 1999 ‘binding in honour’ on those who assented that they should remain until the second and final stage of reform had taken place), ceasing to wear robes during introduction and some procedural reforms. This post, however, shall focus on two significant issues arising from the debate: the prospects for a convention and the division over the means for the reduction in the size of the House.

A constitutional convention

There has been much talk of a constitutional convention in Scotland should the Yes campaign win September’s referendum there (see e.g. Aileen McHarg’s and Katie Boyle’s blog posts) but regardless of the outcome of that referendum the constitutional position of the whole UK, and the House of Lords within it, is open to question following years of piecemeal constitutional reform. With one or two notable exceptions, there was general support among the speakers for the proposal that there should be a convention.

While the report limited the scope of the proposed convention to considering ‘the next steps on further reform of the House of Lords and any consequential impact on the House of Commons and on Parliament as a whole’ (para 3.14), some speakers took a wider approach. Lord Gordon of Strathblane, for example, endorsed the idea but held that the way European legislation was dealt with and the operation of the House of Commons would be higher up the list for consideration by such a body and Lord Norton of Louth, who had previously argued for one before with a different scope, considered that we need one ‘to help us make sense of where we are, and not necessarily to tell us where we should be going—Parliament can decide that once we have a much clearer appreciation of where we are in terms of the structures and relationships that form our constitution’ (at col 952). Only two peers from some 40 peers who spoke, expressed opposition: Lord Stephen questioned whether any convention could come up with any new answers about the Lords and Lord Howarth of Newport thought that the political parties should distance themselves but that the process ‘might valuably be undertaken by academics and think tanks, which could elucidate the issues and offer useful ideas.’ He further stated that a ‘royal commission, or a commission or convention, will get things wrong… [w]hat they recommend will be found not to work’ before going on to note to the shortcomings of the US Constitution and the 1990s Scottish Constitutional Convention (at col 959).

Significantly, both front benches spoke positively of a wider convention. Lord Hunt of King’s Heath, for the Opposition, noted that not ‘all noble Lords are in favour of such a proposal, but we cannot consider Lords reform in isolation from the many other pressing issues that we face in relation to the constitution, not least, as [Lord Maxton] said, in today’s era of new technologies, and also, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said, in view of young people’s disengagement from politics’ (cols. 983-984). For the Government, Lord Wallace of Saltaire went further:

The case for a commission or convention is out there. There was an excellent report by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee last year which suggested that the Government have no view on this issue at present. However, personally and as a Minister, this is a question that we ought to be debating in the last year of this Parliament. I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others are doing. It is one that we all need to consider because we need to look at how all of this runs together. (col. 987)

That is not say that a convention will be immediately forthcoming as time is too short to define what is sought before the election, but that the topic of a convention is, to quote Lord Wallace, ‘precisely the sort of thing’ that could usefully be considered in the last year of a fixed-term parliament which could then be taken forward by the next government. A constitutional convention for the UK (or rest of the UK) can thus be seen to be more likely than it has been in the past.

Reducing the size of the House

There was broad agreement that the House of Lords needed to be smaller and, with one exception, that it should be smaller than the House of Commons. The Act passed in the last session (colloquially termed the Norton-Steel-Byles Act) sought to reduce membership through expulsion due to criminal offence, voluntary resignation and removing those who failed to attend any sitting during a session (the first of which is in force now and the latter two due to come into force this summer). The report proposed a more drastic threshold of 60% of sittings in a session (which they curiously refer to as an average (at para 8.11)), unless there are exceptional circumstances, and a compulsory retirement for all those who reached the age of 80 in the preceding session (at paras 8.5-8.6).

To have an arbitrary age limit cut-off is inherently discriminatory – in another context it has been described as ‘the statutory age of senility’ – and the justification is slight. Its proponents describe it as the least worst alternative. However, there was support by a number of peers for an evolution of the process that saw the hereditary peers whittled down (attributed to Billy Bragg by the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill and as, for example, written about here). Each Parliament, the parties could determine how many peers each should have (possibly based on the general or other election results, either by each election or through using a rolling average) and then elect or select within themselves which peers should remain. Lord Norton of Louth when preferring such a scheme to an arbitrary age limit noted that it ‘would enable the issue of overall size, as well as party balance, to be addressed effectively’ (col. 952). Lord Haskell appeared to prefer a one-off repeat of the Weatherill hereditary peer reduction followed by a formula allowing new peers to be allocated between the parties and the cross-benches (col 980). The proposal fared less well on the front benches. Lord Hunt of Kings Heath drew an unflattering comparison with the hereditary by-elections (where there are sometimes more candidates than remaining peers to act as electors, particularly with regard to the Labour hereditaries) and considered that the cut-off at the age of 80 was the least worst option (col. 983). Lord Wallace of Saltaire pictured ‘a wonderful series of bloodlettings within each of the two groups’ (seemingly forgetting about the Liberal Democrats and others) but, when challenged by the Earl of Sandwich, acknowledged that it was ‘one way of addressing the question of topping up after the election’ (cols 988-989).

In seeking to dismiss the concept of a modified-Weatherill approach to the question of the numbers of sitting life peers (either as a one-off or occurring each Parliament), the frontbench spokesmen appear to have overlooked a number of issues. Lord Hunt was concerned that a system that sought to replicate the general election results would be a strange basis for a distinct House. However, he fails to take account of a sizeable presence of cross-benchers (fixed in one version of the proposal at 20%) which would automatically render the make-up of the House different from the Commons. Furthermore, a system of rolling averages – to avoid temporary blips in electoral support being reflected in the less democratic, less powerful, more reflective House – could be used if a longer term view was sought or, to reflect the differences in different elections, a formula comprising local and European results instead or as well could be adopted. While such a system to reduce the peers – and in the Norton, if not Haskell formulation, keep the number in regular (and reasonably proportional) check – is derived from the Weatherill reduction of peers, to disparage it based on the hereditary peer by-elections is to ignore the differences in size of much of the electorate (there are, for example, over 200 Labour life peers (and nearly 100 Lib Dems) but they have only four sitting hereditary peers each). What would take place would not be a ‘blood-letting’ in Lord Wallace’s words but a pruning (or re-potting if former peers returned following a change in the political wind) which could take account of the age and past attendance but would do so in the round and not as an arbitrary cut-off. Such a system would allow peers to emulate the now late Lord Wilberforce, who regularly attended over 100 times a year, even when in his mid 90s, if they had valuable contributions to make while allowing others to retire if they so wished or to take a sabbatical and return if there was sufficient support amongst their colleagues. Only if there had been a large number of appointments during a session (which could be prevented by a statutory appointments commission) or there had been a radical change in support would there ever likely be a sizeable change in membership (which would be further reduced by both the option of retirement and the inevitability of death).

There seems to be near universal agreement that the House of Lords’ size needs to be constrained, not least as the risk now looms large of a ballooning house if new appointments are made to reflect changing strength in the Commons looms (as predicted by Robert Hazell & Ben Seyd and Meg Russell) even if there is not unanimity about the actual size. It would, on the precedent of the Weatherill amendment, only take a small change to legislation to bring about a system of indirect election as mooted by Lord Norton of Louth which would retain much of the existing strengths (and membership) of the House and which could act to prevent chamber-hopping (see e.g. Meg Russell’s piece from March) and allow more time for a wider-ranging constitutional convention to take place.

 

James Hand is an Associate Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth

(Suggested citation: J. Hand, ‘Lords response to Labour Peers’ Working Group Report – A Programme for Progress: The future of the House of Lords and its place in wider constitution’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (29th June 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).

 

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Edward Kirton-Darling: Missing: political genius. If found, please return to the British People, care of Palace of Westminster, SW1A.

Edward2If Scottish voters chose independence in the referendum in September, the SNP confirmed on 16 June that a written constitution for Scotland would be drawn up. Where does that leave the rest of the UK? In an endeavour to consider what Scottish independence would mean for the rUK, this post considers Lord Bingham’s accounts of the proper relationship between the Rule of Law and Parliamentary Sovereignty, and, drawing on his concern about an imbalance within Parliament, argues that if Scottish were to secede, this would further unbalance the rUK’s constitutional order.

Lord Bingham, the Rule of Law and Parliamentary Sovereignty

In 2007, Lord Bingham set out his perspective on the relationship between the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty in a Commemoration Oration at Kings. Much of the speech was subsequently reproduced in 2010 in Chapter 12 of his book, but for one significant amendment, which I will come to below. Bingham argued that fundamental rights must be incorporated into any proper account of the rule of law, and having set out the rights contained in the ECHR, which are “as good a check list as any,” he paused to wonder that “It is hard to understand how this very basic and practice catalogue of rights has come to be portrayed to the public as some ill-conceived, European-inspired, affront to the commonsensical conduct of government.” For Bingham, rights are not enough; at the heart of the rule of law is democracy, and the ability of a citizen to have a say in the laws by which they are bound.

Lord Bingham then turned to parliamentary sovereignty and dismissed arguments suggesting there were legal limits on Parliament’s ability to constitutionally legislate howsoever it wished. Where legislation which interfered with fundamental rights was clear and unambiguous, the courts have no power to annul or modify such enactments. Where courts do have such power, it exists by operation of Acts of Parliament, and if Parliament told them to do so, courts would stop interfering. He reserved particular ire for arguments based on common law fundamental rights – whether founded in obiter remarks by Sir Edward Coke in 1610 or Lord Steyn in 2005 – concluding that “The British people have not repelled the extraneous power of the papacy in spiritual matters and the pretensions of royal power in temporal in order to subject themselves to the unchallengeable rulings of unelected judges.”

However, this stirring paean to a sovereign British Parliament left Lord Bingham with the problem of the protection of fundamental rights. He was not persuaded by the argument that in practice, Parliament will not interfere with fundamental rights, indeed it was not hard for him to envisage such interference. Instead, checks and balances within the concept of Parliamentary Sovereignty hold the key, and traditionally, the rule of law was protected by the existence of 3 powerful independent players in the Crown, the Lords and the Commons. In this context, the contemporary “vice at the heart of our constitutional system” is the overweening unrestricted power of whoever is in a majority in the House of Commons. Such a party can effectively act as it wishes, including passing legislation which interferes with the rule of law, and Lord Bingham argues that this serious problem, once squarely confronted, can surely be resolved by “the political genius of the British people.”

Crucially, the speech at Kings does not prescribe or even suggest what such a solution might look like. The tenor of the lecture, grounded in respect and admiration of the UK’s constitutional traditions, points towards a political solution to the tension between Parliament and the rule of law; maintaining a Parliament capable of legislating in any way it wished, but fixing the malaise by resolving the imbalance in the constituent parts of the sovereign Parliament; shackling the House of Commons, rather than the sovereign Parliament.

By 2010, this argument had changed (as I discuss below), but in relation to Scottish independence, there are two aspects of Bingham’s analysis which are important: (1) whether the Union with Scotland limited Parliament’s law making powers, and 2) how Scottish independence might affect the already unbalanced constitution.

Act of Union with Scotland & Devolution

In relation to devolution, Lord Bingham entirely dismissed any argument that Parliament had lost the power to legislate for Scotland (or Wales or NI). He maintained that as with the HRA and the EU, Parliament had curtailed its own power by express authority, and could revoke that power, at least in theory. However, the only chink which Bingham partially conceded in the armour of an all-powerful sovereign Parliament related to the question of Scotland. Bingham said:

It has been suggested, with some judicial support, that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty did not obtain in Scotland before 1707 and that the Union with Scotland Act 1706 cannot itself be amended or abrogated since it gave effect to the Treaty of Union in which certain provisions were agreed to be and were described in the Act as unalterable. The merits of this argument are far from clear. It is hard to see how the pre-1707 Scottish Parliament could have done anything more fundamental than abolish itself, and it is hard to accept that the Westminster Parliament could not modify the Act of Union if there were a clear majority in favour of doing so. But if, which I doubt, there is an exception here to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, it is a very limited exception born of the peculiar circumstances pertaining to the union with Scotland and throws no doubt on the general applicability of the principle.

If Scotland votes yes to independence, we will shortly find out if Lord Bingham is correct, and political reality suggests his doubts are valid. The recent House of Lords Constitution Committee report on constitutional implications of the referendum concludes that a, relatively short, Act of Parliament would be capable of recognising independence for Scotland and the end of the UK’s legislative competence over Scotland. Clearly, If Scotland votes yes, and the UK Parliament passes legislation amending the Acts of Union, whether or not it existed before, this one possible exception cannot survive. However, this argument for a limited UK Parliament has been primarily limited to Scottish jurists and academics, as Baroness Hale acknowledged in Jackson v. AG [2005] UKHL 56, at para 159, stating “The concept of Parliamentary sovereignty which has been fundamental to the constitution of England and Wales since the 17th century (I appreciate that Scotland may have taken a different view) means that Parliament can do anything.” A resolution of the Scottish question will consequently have limited impact on arguments about sovereignty in the rUK.

Similarly, arguments over devolution’s role in undermining the classic theory of a sovereign Parliament (dismissed by Lord Bingham, and argued by Gavin Little in Scotland and Parliamentary Sovereignty (2004) 24(4) Legal Studies 540) will become outdated if Scotland votes yes to independence. For critics of Bingham’s approach, it may make little difference, as other putative substantive limits on Parliament remain and judges will continue to engage in constitutional analysis (see for example, M. Elliott U.K. Const. L. Blog (23rd January 2014) and Vernon Bogdanor Imprisoned by a Doctrine 32(1) OJLS 179). Thus Scottish independence will not definitively settle the question of legal limits to Parliament’s power either way, but as I argue below, it will have an impact on Parliament itself.

An Unbalanced Constitution

Lord Bingham’s 2007 resolution of the tension between a sovereign Parliament and fundamental rights under the rule of law was to turn to a critique of Parliament. In his account, there are no permissible legally enforceable limits to Parliament’s power, but the existence of checks and balances within a sovereign democratic Parliament would prevent express interference with rights. As such he proposes a Madison-style approach to avoiding majoritarianism, emphasising productive tensions within the legislative branch of government.

Alison Young’s post on this blog on 17th February 2014 argued that debate over whether judges or Parliament are supreme misses the point. Instead constitutional pluralism is evidenced by courts and Parliament checking each other’s excesses, with both asserting sovereignty in different circumstances, and neither able to finally demonstrate supremacy. The argument suggests that constitutional strength comes from the tension between institutions and their ability to exert restraint on each other.

Combining these two accounts suggests that intra-institutional checks and balances are important, and constitutional plurality is protected by tensions, both between constitutional institutions and within those institutions. Taking Bingham’s argument one step further, and focussing on Parliament in particular, productive tensions within the House of Commons, ensuring effective scrutiny of legislation and restricting a Government by requiring it to take different perspectives into account, is part of what ensures legitimacy and authority – and protects rights – in the UK’s constitutional order.

Concern about an imbalance within Parliament is not a recent development – Lord Bingham quotes a Victorian Lord Chief Justice with approval:

The constitution has lodged the sacred deposit of sovereign authority in a chest locked by three different keys, confided to the custody of three different trustees … One of them is now at length, after ages of struggle, effectually prevented from acting alone; but another of the two is said to enjoy the privilege of striking off the other two locks, when, for any purpose of its own, it wishes to lay hands on the treasure.

What difference will the independence of Scotland make to this debate? It is instructive to compare mid-Victorian Britain to a future rUK to consider this question. The criticism of an over-powerful House of Commons was made in a context in which the Monarch had been prevented from acting alone, but the House of Lords retained the power to veto, and in which party discipline (and consequent executive power over both Houses) was much weaker. Powerful local government, championed by J. Toulmin Smith and exemplified by the activities of Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, provided a political counterweight to Westminster, and economic power was split between London, established regional centres like Manchester and Glasgow, and newly developing industrial hubs like Middlesbrough, Gladstone’s “infant Hercules.”

Many of these political and economic balances are either gone or are dramatically denuded; with London, the House of Commons and the government within Parliament now far more dominant. Other restricting factors have emerged. The devolved institutions are one example, and while other limiting factors could be identified – some might point to the impact of social media and more transparent government, while stronger English regional voices may be emerging, see for example the launch of the North East Party on 26 May this year, – it is clear that the secession of Scotland would have an impact on the political checks and balances within the Commons itself.

Firstly, this is because the removal of Scottish MPs will result in a concurrent increase in the proportion of MPs voting with the government as part of the ‘payroll’ vote. Around 140 members (95 paid, and an estimated 45 unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretaries) are obliged by convention to vote with the government. The 95 members figure is fixed as an absolute number in primary legislation (while the number of PPS’ is not included and fluctuates). The result following Scottish independence – if no amendment is made to the payroll vote – will be that almost a quarter of the House of Commons will not generally be permitted to exercise an independent judgment on legislative matters. Such an increase may not have a dramatic impact on the Commons by itself (the current figure is approximately 22%), but is part of a long term trend of an increase in the ‘payroll’ vote which has already been subjected to fierce criticism (see the Public Administration Select Committee report “Too Many Ministers?” 9th Report, Session 2009-10).

Furthermore, as Keating has argued, Scottish MPs have traditionally operated on a regionally distinctive basis (See Michael J. Keating Parliamentary Behaviour as a Test of Scottish Integration into the United Kingdom, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Aug., 1978), pp. 409-430). He showed (albeit pre-devolution) that the involvement of the majority of Scottish MPs in UK-wide politics was primarily aimed at seeking Scottish advantages. It could be argued therefore that removal of Scottish MPs would have little impact on a rUK, however, Keating shows disproportionately strong involvement by Scottish MPs on UK-wide Bills on economic affairs, in particular agricultural and fisheries (now devolved) and trade and industry (which is not devolved). Keating also argues that UK-wide legislation has been affected by Scottish members acting in a regionally distinctive way, illustrating this with the example of a failed attempt to legalise homosexuality across the UK in 1965 (subsequently applied to England and Wales only). Thus a Scottish MP arguing for the (perceived) best interests of Scotland affects the rUK, either through pushing UK-wide policies which are (perceived to be) best for Scotland, or through raising an argument for Scottish exceptionalism, with resulting negotiation, debate and scrutiny of proposed policies.

In a more recent paper, Keating and Cairney have shown that in a political culture moving towards a political class dominated by university educated middle class professionals, Scottish MPs were traditionally more diverse, “conforming more closely to the class stereotypes” (See Michael J. Keating and Paul Cairney, A New Elite? Politicians and Civil Servants in Scotland after Devolution Parliamentary Affairs (January 2006) 59 (1): 43-59). Although the upper class/public school/military representatives have subsequently disappeared from Scottish politics, Scottish MPs remain more likely to be from working class backgrounds than their English and Welsh counterparts.

Thus regionally distinctive behaviour by Scottish MPs has had implications for legislation affecting the whole of the UK, and the removal of Scottish members will have an homogenising effect on the Commons post-independence, as well as removing one political party in the shape of the SNP entirely. Furthermore, the removal of Scottish devolution would also remove an inter-UK test of subsidiary; a hurdle which demanded attention when any policy was considered or legislation introduced.

Conclusion

Potential Scottish independence can be put into a context in which the UK might conceivably leave the EU and repeal the HRA. Many of the arguments for these steps appeal to a sense in which Parliament has lost its democratic sovereign right to govern. Their appeal is to a Diceyean Britain in which Parliament is supreme. However, in Dicey’s late-Victorian Britain, significant checks on majority rule remained; formally in the shape of a still powerful Lords and far more interventionist Monarch; politically in a UK with far more powerful economic and political regional traditions; and theoretically, with powerful arguments opposing an unlimited Parliament built on the Acts of Union.

Checks and balances remain part of the UK’s constitutional order, but a result of Scottish membership of the UK will be a reduction in the potential restrictions on a majority party in the House of Commons. If intra-institutional plurality is a source of legitimacy and authority, this reduction in plurality in the Commons undermines Parliament itself. Did Lord Bingham predict this? His later (2010) formulation of the way to resolve the tension between Parliament’s sovereignty and the rule of law was to tentatively propose a written constitution. Perhaps he had given up on the political genius of the British people in the interim, or perhaps he had higher hopes of us than we have recently been able to evidence.

 

Edward Kirton-Darling is a doctoral candidate in socio-legal studies at the University of Kent.

(Suggested citation: E. Kirton-Darling, ‘Missing: political genius. If found, please return to the British People, care of Palace of Westminster SW1A’  U.K. Const. L. Blog (26th June 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).

 

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Philippa Webb and Kirsten Roberts: How can parliamentary oversight of human rights be made more effective? Report to be launched in Geneva this week.

KRWebb_photoThere is intense interest in the UK in the role of the judiciary in protecting and promoting human rights, but Parliaments can also play a vital role. The UK Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has featured on this blog, is widely admired as a mechanism for the oversight of human rights. However, it is not the only possible oversight mechanism, and it, too, could be improved.

This week at the United Nations in Geneva, the results of an 18-month project spanning 9 jurisdictions on Effective Parliamentary Oversight of Human Rights will be launched. We will be putting forward proposals aimed at encouraging parliaments to become more effective in their human rights work.

An advance copy of the Outcome Document can be downloaded here.

In democracies, parliaments are crucial in balancing the use of power by the executive and overseeing the functioning of the State. In many countries this balance is off – with the executive and civil service seemingly unwilling to cede any real control to oversight or accountability mechanisms. Yet as a crucial component of the state architecture, parliaments share a responsibility to protect, respect and fulfill the State’s international human rights obligations. As elected representatives, parliamentarians have the responsibility to provide for the best interests of their constituents. However, in addition to this duty, parliaments are also ideally positioned to be leaders in ensuring that the State is not perpetrating human rights violations, that domestic law is not incompatible with human rights standards and in ensuring that human rights protections are in place.

The international organization for parliaments, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, with whom we will co-host the event in Geneva, has identified 7 common tools for parliamentary oversight: Committee hearings,
Hearings in plenary sittings, Inquiry commissions,
Questions,
Question time,
Interpellations, and
the Ombudsman. These mechanisms are clearly lacking in many systems.A dedicated human rights mechanism– whether it is a committee, sub-committee or rapporteur, is required for all Parliaments. This mechanism, whatever its form, should have a clear goal. In our Outcome Document, we propose what such a goal might look like:

To help ensure increased compliance with human rights and a better life for all the people in this country through publicly examining existing or potential human rights deficits identified by parliamentarians, international organisations, the National Human Rights Institution, Civil Society Organisations, the media, the public, victims, whistleblowers and others; making proposals on areas for change or improvement; and calling the government to account for failures to protect the rights of the people of this country.

A clear goal for a parliamentary human rights mechanism would help to provide focus, purpose and clarity to its work. In addition to any mechanism, parliamentarians also have individual responsibilities. Parliamentarians should ensure they are educated on human rights standards, and aware of human rights issues. For both the mechanism and individual parliamentarians, there must be engagement with independent oversight bodies in the state as well as with Civil Society Organisations and victims’ groups. Parliamentarians should take personal responsibility for the promotion of specific human rights issues, particularly those relevant to their constituents. We hope that the proposals we put forward in Geneva this week can contribute to promoting much needed change in this area in Parliaments around the world.

 

Philippa Webb and Kirsten Roberts are co-investigators of a research project on Effective Parliamentary Oversight of Human Rights, funded by the King’s Policy Institute: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/law/research/parliamentshr/index.aspx

 

(Suggested citation: P.Webb and K. Roberts, ‘How can parliamentary oversight of human rights be made more effective? Report to be launched in Geneva this week.’  U.K. Const. L. Blog (24th June 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).

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Alexander Horne and Oonagh Gay: Ending the Hamilton Affair?

AlexanderOonaghArticle 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689 has been the subject of a variety of legal challenges. The Article, which provides (in modern parlance) that: “the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament” is usually considered to be a fundamental feature of the constitution and a cornerstone of parliamentary privilege.

The legal immunity granted by Article 9 is wide and it is also absolute: it is not excluded by the presence of malice or fraudulent purpose. Article 9 protects the Member who knows what he is saying is untrue as much as the Member of Parliament who acts honestly and responsibly. Nor is the protection confined to Members. Article 9 applies to officers of Parliament and non-Members who participate in proceedings in Parliament, such as witnesses giving evidence to a committee of one of the Houses. In the case of A v United Kingdom (2003) 36 EHHR 51 the European Court of Human Rights held that the absolute freedom of speech in Parliament was proportionate, and did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights (although the Court also asserted its jurisdiction over national parliaments’ privileges).

In 1995 an interesting issue arose relating to a case in which a Member sued a non-Member for defamation. In his defence the non-Member asserted that he was justified in saying what he did, and sought to rely on statements made by the Member in parliamentary proceedings.

The case was a libel action brought by Neil Hamilton, then an MP, and a political lobbyist, Ian Greer, against The Guardian newspaper over allegations that Hamilton had “made corrupt use of his right to ask questions of ministers and had received money via Mr Greer’s company (`cash for questions’)”. In its defence, the newspaper submitted that for a full defence it would need to use parliamentary proceedings as evidence relating to Mr Hamilton’s conduct and motives in tabling parliamentary questions and early day motions. The judge found that this was contrary to Article 9 and stopped the proceedings on the ground that it would not be fair to allow the claimant to sue for libel if the defendant newspaper was not permitted to justify what it had written. In other words, just like every other citizen a Member was bound by the prohibition on impeaching or questioning proceedings in Parliament, even if it might be in the MP’s own interest for the court to let the parties in the case do so.

Section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996 was intended to remedy the injustice perceived to exist in this type of case. It enabled a person, who may be a Member of either House or of neither House, to waive parliamentary privilege so far as he or she is concerned, for the purposes of defamation proceedings. The essential protection of Members against legal liability for what they have said or done in Parliament remained and could not be waived. The section was inserted into the Defamation Bill [HL] through a Lords Amendment, drafted by parliamentary counsel, but moved by Lord Hoffmann, a Law Lord, at Third Reading. Although the amendment was subsequently the subject of debate in the Commons, the clause survived.

Geoffrey Lock’s chapter on the Hamilton affair in Conduct Unbecoming (eds Oonagh Gay and Patricia Leopold Politico’s 2004) tells the full story of Hamilton’s subsequent legal actions. He and Greer planned to re-activate their defamation action against the Guardian, but the discovery process led Greer’s lawyers to advise against his continuing the case, and Hamilton also had to withdraw as a result.

Section 13 enabled Hamilton to take a separate action against Mohammed Al Fayed, who had made allegations about cash payments to Hamilton. The effect of a waiver under s 13 of the 1996 Act was eventually considered by the House of Lords in Hamilton v Fayed [2001] 1 AC 395. Lord Browne-Wilkinson gave the only speech (in what was a unanimous decision by the court). In respect of s 13, he concluded, inter alia:

Before the passing of the Act of 1996, it was generally considered that parliamentary privilege could not be waived either by the Member whose parliamentary conduct was in issue or by the House itself. All parliamentary privilege exists for the better discharge of the function of Parliament as a whole and belongs to Parliament as a whole. Under section 13, the individual Member bringing defamation proceedings is given power to waive for the purposes of those proceedings “the protection of any enactment or rule of law which prevents proceedings in Parliament being impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.” The section then provides by subsection (2) that such waiver operates so that evidence, cross-examination or submissions made relative to the particular M.P. are not to be excluded by reason of parliamentary privilege. The M.P. thus having been given statutory power to waive the protection afforded by the privilege so far as he is concerned, the section goes on to provide that the admission of such evidence, questioning etc., should not be treated as infringing the privilege of either House of Parliament: see subsection (2(b).

The effect of the section seems to me to be entirely clear. It deals specifically with the circumstances raised by Mr. Hamilton’s case against The Guardian. He could waive his own protection from parliamentary privilege and in consequence any privilege of Parliament as a whole would fall to be regarded as not infringed. At least in part, section 13 was passed by Parliament to enable specifically Mr. Hamilton to proceed with The Guardian action. The issues in this present action against Mr. Al Fayed are for the most part identical. It would, indeed, be very strange if the section had failed to enable Mr. Hamilton to bring this action.

Section 13 proved controversial. It was considered by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 1999 (HL 43-I / HC 214-I). That Committee concluded that:

68 … [T]he cure that section 13 seeks to achieve has severe problems of its own and has attracted widespread criticism, not least from our witnesses …. A fundamental flaw is that it undermines the basis of privilege: freedom of speech is the privilege of the House as a whole and not of the individual member in his own right, although an individual member can assert and rely on it. Application of the new provision could also be impracticable in complicated cases; for example, where two members, or a member and a non-member, are closely involved in the same action and one waives privilege and the other does not. Section 13 is also anomalous: it is available only in defamation proceedings. No similar waiver is available for any criminal action, or any other form of civil action.

69. The Joint Committee considers these criticisms are unanswerable. The enactment of section 13, seeking to remedy a perceived injustice, has created indefensible anomalies of its own which should not be allowed to continue. The Joint Committee recommends that section 13 should be repealed.

The Committee acknowledged that repeal would leave the potential problem that the provision had been intended to address unresolved and examined alternative remedies. It recommended the replacement of section 13 with a short statutory provision empowering each House to waive Article 9 for the purpose of any court proceedings, whether relating to defamation or to any other matter, where the words spoken or the acts done in proceedings in Parliament would not expose the speaker of the words or the doer of the acts to any legal liability.

In spite of the criticisms raised by the Committee, no steps were taken to repeal section 13 following its report and there are no other reported uses of the waiver. A further opportunity for repeal came in the 2010-12 Parliamentary Session, with the consideration of a draft Defamation Bill, but no action was taken, as a more wide-sweeping review of parliamentary privilege was under way in the wake of the 2009 expenses scandal. This review resulted, not in the draft Bill foreshadowed in the 2010 Queen’s speech, but in a Green Paper on Privilege (Cm 8318: 2012). The Green Paper posed the question as to whether “anything, needs to be done in relation to section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996.” It stated that it “could be repealed without replacement, amended, or left as it is, given that the existing power of waiver has never been used.”

The Government’s proposals were considered by a new Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which reported in June 2013. It recorded that it had received evidence from the Government to the effect that as it was not aware of any instances in which anyone has used the power of waiver “it would not appear to be a pressing priority to repeal Section 13.” Nonetheless, the Committee concluded that:

170. We recommend the repeal of section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996. The anomalies it creates are more damaging than the mischief it was intended to cure. There is no persuasive argument for granting either House a power of waiver or for restricting such a power to defamation cases alone. A wider power of waiver would create uncertainty, and have the potential to undermine the fundamental constitutional principle of freedom of speech in Parliament.

The Government responded to the report in December 2013 (Cm 8771) and agreed that section 13 should go when parliamentary time permitted.

The Government was given a nudge by former Commons Members of the 2013 Joint Committee (Conservatives Mr William Cash and Mr Bernard Jenkin and Labour’s Thomas Docherty) who tabled New Clause NC1 to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill and Amendment 4 to the Deregulation Bill, both propositions repealing section13 without replacement. The New Clause was withdrawn before the report stage of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, but the Government Ministers in charge of the Deregulation Bill (Conservative Solicitor General Oliver Heald and Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader of the House Tom Brake) added their names to Amendment thereby adopting it as a Government Amendment and virtually guaranteeing its path to the statute book. So it looks likely section 13 will eventually be repealed via the Deregulation Bill, due to be carried over as amended into the 2014-15 Session, among its varied provisions for the repeal of legislation “no longer of practical use”. (The Members’ explanatory note to Amendment 4 described the provision circumspectly as “hardly used” rather than the Green Paper’s bolder formulation’s “never used.”)

William Cash and Thomas Docherty spoke to the amendment with support from the Solicitor General.

As a carry-over Bill, the Deregulation Bill still needs to be considered by the House of Lords. But unless their Lordships have any strong objections, it appears that by the end of the current Parliament, Section 13 will be no more (as its repeal will come into force two months after the Deregulation Act is passed).

In addition to the Bill, a resolution was also agreed in the Commons on 8 May 2014, mirroring a Resolution in identical terms passed by the House of Lords on 20 March 2014, that legislation creating individual rights which could impinge on the activities of the House should in future contain express provision to this effect. This was another recommendation from the 2013 Joint Committee to be adopted quietly.

Reform of parliamentary privilege tends to emerge in this piecemeal way, and the end of the waiver embodied in section 13 is yet another example of this practice.

Alexander Horne is a Barrister (Lincoln’s Inn) and is Legal and Senior Policy Adviser at the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit. Oonagh Gay is a senior researcher at the Parliament and Constitution Centre in the House of Commons. The views expressed are the personal views of the authors and do not reflect the views of any other person or institution. Further information on the business of the House of Commons can be found at: Second Reading: The Blog of the House of Commons Library

(Suggested citation:A. Horne and O. Gay, ‘Ending the Hamilton Affair?’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (21stMay 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

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