Category: Constitution

The Strathclyde Review clarifies the Conservatives’ authoritarianism

 

“The Government appear to consider that any defeat of an Statutory Instrument by the Lords is a breach of convention. We disagree.” Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative)

“The conduct of Parliament is a matter for Parliament, not the Executive. The Executive is accountable to Parliament, not the other way round.” Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Conservative)

“The assertion is that this House had acted in defiance of the Government’s “electoral mandate”. But the Conservative Party never told voters that it intended to make massive cuts to in-work benefits, and it won a House of Commons majority of only 12 seats on the votes of just 24% of the total electorate, so the claim that the Lords defied an electoral mandate is tosh.” Lord Howarth of Newport (Labour). Source: Hansard.

A Bicameral Parliament is one in which two assemblies share legislative power. The main purpose of the House of Lords is to act as a deliberative assembly, providing expert scrutiny to ensure democratic checks on the power of the Lower House, and where necessary, to provide a counterbalance for excessively partisan legislation that makes no concession to the accommodation and representation of minority views. The House of Lords provides an essential additional layer of democratic process which helps to prevent the so-called “tyranny of the majority” and divisive, potentially damaging partisan changes to public life.

There is always a need to ensure additional checks and balances against incumbent governments and for extending opportunities to review and improve the quality of legislation. There is always a need to broaden the political participation of particular groups in society and to explore ways by which under-represented groups may be identified and included in political processes.

A review by Lord Strathclyde, commissioned by a rancorous and retaliatory David Cameron following the delay and subsequently effective defeat of government tax credit legislation in the House of Lords, recommends curtailing the powers of Upper House. 

Strathclyde proposes that the House of Commons is given the final say over secondary legislation (in particular, Statutory Instruments), which is frequently being used for political manoeuvring to edit the details of Acts, and ensure rules, regulations and even changes to legal definitions are made by ministerial order, rather than by the rather more open and democratic process of primary legislation: it’s being used as a way of bypassing Parliamentary scrutiny. 

In fairness, on page 6 of the report, Lord Strathclyde says:

“I believe it would be appropriate for the Government to take steps to ensure that Bills contain an appropriate level of detail and that too much is not left for implementation by statutory instrument.”

The problem is that Statutory Instruments (SI) are being over-used and are under-scrutinised in the Commons. SIs have become a major form of law-making activity in the UK. In 2015, the UK Parliament passed 34 Acts, whilst 1,999 Statutory Instruments were made. (In fact, 2015 has been a relatively light year for SIs: in 2013 and 2014, 3,292 and 3,486 SIs were made.)

The Government ensure they have a majority on any SI committee and MPs are chosen by Whips. The Hansard Society estimate that SIs currently account for as much as 80 per cent of the Government legislation that impacts citizens. However, they are given substantially less Parliamentary time than Bills, enabling Government to push through their legislative programme with very little scrutiny, exacerbating a lack of democratic transparency and accountability of the Executive (the Government).

The report details 3 possible options:

  • option 1 would remove the House of Lords from the Statutory Instrument procedure altogether – to take Statutory Instruments through the House of Commons only
  • option 2 would seek to retain the present role of the House of Lords but clarify the restrictions on how its powers should be exercised, by codifying them passing a resolution
  • option 3 is a compromise option would create a new procedure in primary legislation. The new procedure would allow the House of Lords to ask the House of Commons to think again when a disagreement exists but gives the final say to the elected House of Commons

Strathclyde has recommended option 3. However that would have a profound impact on our constitutional democracy.

The Hansard Society said that:

“Most criticism of the system is concerned with the negative resolution procedure where the initiative lies with the Opposition to table appropriate annulment motions in the form of Early Day Motions (known as “prayers”). Given that the Government controls almost all the available parliamentary time in the Commons, unless the Opposition can persuade the Government to provide time, either on the floor of the House or in Standing Committee, the SI will not be debated.

The time limit (of an hour and an half) imposed on debates should be removed.”

The Society also recommend far more robust pre-legislative scrutiny mechanisms.

Lord Craig of Radley (Cross-Bencher) points out that:

“Since 2010, 34 Acts have been passed by Parliament with Henry VIII powers. Before us at present there are five Bills with Henry VIII powers. In case your Lordships are not familiar with Henry VIII powers, I should like to read from Clause 68 of the Scotland Bill, which states: “The Secretary of State may by regulations make … such consequential provision in connection with any provision of Part 1, 3, 4, 5 or 6, or … such transitional or saving provision in connection with the coming into force of any provision of Part 1, 3, 4, 5 or 6 … Regulations under this section may amend, repeal, revoke or otherwise modify any of the following (whenever passed or made)” — and so it goes on. In other words, if your Lordships think that you have passed a Bill, you have not — because the Secretary of State can amend it by statutory instrument.”

Baroness Smith of Basildon (Labour) said she would like to thank Lord Strathclyde for his report, and:

“For the extraordinary speed with which it has been produced and the vigour with which he has sought to defend the Government’s exceptionally weak rationale for undertaking it.”

She also said:

“Lord Strathclyde asks for responsible Opposition. We provide that but seek responsible Government.”

Baroness Andrews (Labour) said:

“We have had to refer back to this House secondary legislation which contains substantial policy changes with substantial impacts — for example, the draft hunting regulations, immigration changes, and universal credit. In this Session alone, 32 SIs have had to be corrected by government after serious flaws were identified and 16 have had to be withdrawn completely.

If we add to that ministerial failure to provide impact statements, or Explanatory Memoranda which do the opposite of what they are supposed to do, a picture emerges of a Government who not only deliberately exploit secondary legislation and reduce parliamentary scrutiny in the process but are resentful of proper scrutiny. If we were to lose our exceptional power to reject SIs, Parliament would lose a legitimate brake on government excess. However, it would also reduce the credibility of the scrutiny process as a whole and open the gate to greater abuse. What is needed, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, anticipated, is a wholesale review of secondary legislation to remind Ministers of their public duty to be open and transparent about policy and legislation, to be accountable, and to respect—in fact, invite—the role of scrutiny.

We should not see this as a stand-alone report; rather, it should be seen alongside other legislation and proposals—for example, the lobbying Bill in the previous Parliament that restricted the ability of charities and other groups to campaign for their causes; new limits on freedom of information; and the Trade Union Bill, debated this week, which will strip the Labour Party of its funding, quite contrary to the balanced proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We have seen reports of Ministers being told to make increased use of statutory instruments to drive through legislation without proper scrutiny; and now we have the proposal to remove this House’s power to veto the same secondary legislation that the Government favour. It is hard not to see this as an authoritarian Executive waging war on the institutions that hold them to account. The Government are seeking to stifle debate, shut down opposition and block proper scrutiny. They are a Government who fear opposition and loathe challenge.”

Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat) said:

“I may want to see this House reformed, but I have no wish to see it become Mr Cameron’s poodle, and a neutered poodle at that.”

I suspect this is a Government that would prefer a world of neutered poodles.

disempowerment
Conservative Paternalism


A full transcript of this important debate can be found here

You can also watch the excellent contributions here.

The real “constitutional crisis” is Chris Grayling’s despotic tendencies and his undermining of the Rule of Law

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We have been hearing justifications for grotesquely unfair policies from the Conservatives a lot recently based on a claim that “we have a clear mandate to do this.” The concept of a government having a legitimate mandate to govern via the fair winning of a democratic election is a central component of representative democracy. However, new governments who attempt to introduce policies that they did not make explicit and public during an election campaign are said to not have a legitimate mandate to implement such policies.

Most of you will immediately think of the recent debates regarding the tax credit cuts, and the authoritarian threats to stifle legitimate criticism of government policies, but this is just the tip of a very deeply submerged iceberg.

I am currently researching an article about the hatchet man of justice, Chris Grayling, and his recent signaling of a crackdown on what he calls the “misuse” of freedom of information requests (FOI) as a means of researching “stories” for journalists. I’ll write about that particular symptom of Grayling’s syndrome of totalitarian thinking separately, as I got productively side-tracked.

I recently wrote an article about the government’s secret editing and amendment of the Ministerial Code Government turns its back on international laws, scrutiny and standards: it’s time to be very worried.

It’s not the first time, either: see also – A reminder of the established standards and ethics of Public Office, as the UK Coalition have exempted themselves.

And of course this – Watchdog that scrutinises constitutional reform is quietly abolished and Tory proposals are likely to lead to constitutional crisis, thisThe Coming Tyranny and the Legal Aid Bill and this – Sabotaging judicial review is one of this government’s most vicious acts.

I have had concerns for some time that the Conservatives behave unaccountably, profoundly undemocratically, with a disregard of the obligations of a government to be open and transparent, and often, the Conservatives shield very secretive and damaging long term aims.

During a House of Lords debate on Judicial Review reforms, respected peer and lawyer Lord Pannick QC spoke of the constitutional importance of Judicial Review and the hazards in circumscribing it, personally addressing Mr Grayling on the issue of the Lord Chancellor’s incompetence:

“However inconvenient and embarrassing it is to Mr Grayling to have his decisions repeatedly ruled to be unlawful by our courts, however much he may resent the delays and costs of government illegality being exposed in court and however much he may prefer to focus on the identity of the claimant rather than the substance of their legal complaint, it remains the vital role of judicial review in this country to hold Ministers and civil servants to account in public, not for the merits of their decisions but for their compliance with the law of the land as stated by Parliament.”

Grayling’s time as Justice Secretary has been an unremitting disaster. He has lost seven times so far in the courts and is the least impartial lord chancellor we have known. Rather than accept that he has attempted to legislate illegally, instead we see him trying to dismantle the mechanisms of democracy and law to suit his despotic policy designs, regardless.

I found a letter from earlier this year, by chance, it’s a response from the lord chancellor Chris Grayling to a report by the House of Lords Constitution Committee published last December following its investigation into the office of the legally unqualified but disdainful and arrogant lord chancellor: 

The Rt Hon. the Lord Lang of Monkton DL
The House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution
House of Lords,
London,
SW1A 0PW

The Right Honourable Chris Grayling MP
Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
102 Petty France
London SW 1H 9AJ
T 020 3334 3555
F 020 3334 3669E
general.queries @justice.gsi.gov.uk
http://www.gov.uk/moj
Our Ref: 20211

26 February 2015

Dear Lord Lang,

THE OFFICE OF LORD CHANCELLOR

The Government broadly welcomes the Committee’s Report on The office of Lord Chancellor and makes the following observations in response to a number of the specific recommendations.

The rule of law and judicial independence 

We invite the Government to agree that the rule of law extends beyond judicial independence and compliance with domestic and international law. It includes the tenet that the Government should seek to govern in accordance with constitutional principles, as well as the letter of the law. (Paragraph 25)

RESPONSE
The Government agrees that it should govern in accordance with constitutional principles and endorses the importance of the rule of law. However the Government does not endorse the view put forward in paragraphs 23 to 25 of the Committee’s Report in so far as it suggests that judges have power to insist that primary legislation passed by the UK Parliament “is not law which the courts will recognise”.

The Lord Chancellor’s duty to respect the rule of law extends beyond the policy remit of his or her department; it requires him or her to seek to ensure that the rule of law is upheld within Cabinet and across Government. We recommend that the Ministerial Code and the Cabinet Manual be revised accordingly. (Paragraph 50)

Page 2

To clarify the scope of the Lord Chancellor’s duty in relation to the rule of law, we recommend that the oath to “respect the rule of law” be amended to a promise to “respect and uphold the rule of law.”  (Paragraph 51)

RESPONSE
The Government believes that the Ministerial Code, Cabinet Manual and Oath of Office already accurately reflect ministerial responsibilities in relation to the rule of law. In particular, both the Ministerial Code and the Cabinet Manual note the role of the Law Officers in “helping ministers to act lawfully and in accordance with the rule of law”. The Government does not agree that there should be specific requirement on the Lord Chancellor in this respect, nor that the Code, Manual or Oath require amendment.

The Law Officers’ role in upholding the rule of law has always been important.

The changes to the office of Lord Chancellor over the last decade have made it even more so. As a result, we consider that it is imperative the Attorney General continues to attend all Cabinet meetings, and that they are adequately resourced not only in their role as legal advisers to the Government, but in their capacity as guardians of the rule of law. (Paragraph 79)

RESPONSE
The Government agrees with the Committee on the important role played by the Law Officers in upholding the rule of law. This view has been shared by successive governments. The Law Officers play this role, in particular, by advising on some of the most significant legal issues being dealt with by Government, through their significant public interest functions (for example bringing contempt proceedings) and through participating in the work of government as Ministers of the Crown. This includes the Attorney General participating in Cabinet meetings. Though the expectation is that the Attorney General will continue to attend all Cabinet meetings, this is ultimately a matter for the Prime Minister. The Government considers that the Law Officers are adequately resourced to fulfil their functions as they relate to the rule of law.

We recommend that the Law Officers give due consideration to the more reactive role of modern Lord Chancellors and ensure that the holder of that office is kept informed of potential issues within Government relating to the rule of law. (Paragraph 80)

RESPONSE
An important function of the Law Officers is keeping all Ministerial colleagues informed of significant legal issues. The relationship between the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General is an especially important one. The Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General meet regularly to discuss matters of common concern, including those that relate to the rule of law, and the expectation is that this will continue.

Page 3

A Constitutional Guardian in Government

There is no clear focus within Government for oversight of the constitution. We invite the Government to agree that a senior Cabinet minister should have responsibility for oversight of the constitution as a whole, even if other ministers have responsibility for specific constitutional reforms. In the light of the Lord Chancellor’s existing responsibility for the important constitutional principle of the rule of law, we consider that the Lord Chancellor is best placed to carry out this duty. (Paragraph 101)

RESPONSE
The Deputy Prime Minister is the relevant Secretary of State for constitutional policy and has been so since 2010. Senior ministerial oversight reflects the importance of the constitutional changes outlined in the Programme for Government. This arrangement gives a clear focus for the delivery of reforms including Individual Electoral Registration; the introduction of fixed term parliaments; changes to the laws of succession; regulation of the lobbying industry and proposals for the recall of MPs.

The Deputy Prime Minister works in close collaboration with the Prime Minister and other relevant Cabinet Ministers including the Lord Chancellor and Attorney General and is supported by two ministers, and officials from the Cabinet Office Constitution Group.

The Future of the Office

We recognise the advantages to appointing a Lord Chancellor with a legal or constitutional background. We do not consider that it is essential but, given the importance of the Lord Chancellor’s duties to the rule of law, these benefits should be given due consideration. (Paragraph 109)

RESPONSE
The Government welcomes the Committee’s acknowledgement that it is not essential for the Lord Chancellor to have a legal background.

We recommend that the Government either ensure that the Permanent Secretary supporting the Lord Chancellor at the Ministry of Justice is legally qualified, or appoint the top legal adviser in that department at permanent secretary level. (Paragraph 113)

RESPONSE
The Government does not agree that the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice need be legally qualified, nor that the department’s top legal adviser need be appointed at permanent secretary level. The Lord Chancellor and Permanent Secretary have access to high quality legal services provided by the Treasury Solicitor’s Department including direct access to the Treasury Solicitor and one of his Deputies at Director General level, should it be needed.

Page 4

Given the importance of the Lord Chancellor’s duty to uphold the rule of law, the Lord Chancellor should have a high rank in Cabinet and sufficient authority and seniority amongst his or her ministerial colleagues to carry out this duty effectively and impartially. (Paragraph 117)

RESPONSE
It is for the Prime Minister to determine the order of precedence of Cabinet Ministers.

The Lord Chancellor is currently and traditionally one of the highest officers of state. The Lord Chancellor should be a politician with significant ministerial or other relevant experience to ensure that the rule of law is defended in Cabinet by someone with sufficient authority and seniority. It is not necessary to be prescriptive: more important than age or lack of ambition is that the person appointed has a clear understanding of his or her duties in relation to the rule of law and a willingness to speak up for that principle in dealings with ministerial colleagues, including the Prime Minister. (Paragraph 125)

We urge Prime Ministers, when appointing Lord Chancellors, to give weight to the need for the qualities we have outlined in this report, and above all to consider the importance of the Lord Chancellor’s duty to uphold the rule of law across Government. (Paragraph 126)

RESPONSE
The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 provides that the Prime Minister may not recommend an individual for appointment as Lord Chancellor unless he or she is satisfied that the individual is qualified by  experience. There is a range of evidence that the Prime Minister can take into account when reaching such a conclusion.

We recognise concerns that the combination of the office of Lord Chancellor with that of the Secretary of State for Justice could create a conflict of interests at the heart of the Ministry of Justice. However, upholding the rule of law remains central to the Lord Chancellor’s role and in practice the office is given additional authority by being combined with a significant department of state. (Paragraph 133)

RESPONSE
The Government welcomes the Committee’s agreement that combining the role of Lord Chancellor with that of Secretary of State for Justice strengthens the office.

 

CHRIS GRAYLING

The boldings are mine, the original copy of the letter may be viewed here.

I’m not a legal expert – nor is the lord chancellor – but I am someone with sufficient expertise to recognise when our long-standing laws and democratic processes are being side-stepped, deceitfully edited, re-written, or deleted to prop up an authoritarian government determined to impose a toxic, socially harmful and ideologically driven policy agenda, regardless of the consequences and public objection.

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