Report sets out how to strengthen the existing political constitution starting with establishing a new Parliamentary Committee on the Constitution.
The UK’s constitution has been tested to its limits and found in urgent need of reform, says a major new joint report by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and Institute for Government (IfG).
The report warns that a tumultuous period in UK politics has damaged trust in UK politics, its political institutions, and its international reputation as a stable democracy – with further injury inflicted by a series of scandals involving ministers and MPs, including those in the highest offices having been found to have broken the law.
The new IfG/Bennett report concludes an 18-month long review of the UK constitution – supported by a high-level advisory board including former supreme court judge Baroness Hale, former ministers Sir Robert Buckland and Sir David Lidington, and shadow leader of the House of Lords Baroness Smith of Basildon and former Mayor of Liverpool, Joanna Anderson. Taking a non-partisan and evidence-based approach, the review makes robust recommendations designed to re-assert the UK’s fundamental constitutional principles, establish them as a stable basis for the operation of government and reassure the public that they will be enforced.
Recent years have seen governments willing to test or even break constitutional norms. The UK system allows significant constitutional changes to be made speed, driven by narrow political party interests, without establishing broad consensus or a sense of wider public legitimacy. With no independent and authoritative source of constitutional knowledge to provide insight on constitutional issues or challenge short-sighted policy, partisan interests – rather than principles – have been allowed to drive constitutional change.
The report sets out how to strengthen the existing political constitution.
- Establishing a new Parliamentary Committee on the Constitution to express an authoritative view on constitutional matters independent from the government of the day, scrutinise constitutional policy and monitor adherence to norms and conventions – with the power to delay legislation.
- Creating an independent Office of the Constitution to support the new parliamentary committee, and give it the resources to conduct detailed research and analysis to inform the committee’s scrutiny and decisions – in the way the National Audit Office supports the Public Accounts Committee.
- Creating a new category of constitutional acts to formally recognise the importance of key pieces of legislation that underpin our political system – and ensure Constitutional Acts are given additional protections to promote constitutional stability.
- Giving Parliament a more extensive scrutiny process for new constitutional bills to ensure proposals are thoroughly tested and attract cross-party support.
- Clarifying the role and strengthening the capacity of the civil service to give constitutional advice, with the role of the Cabinet Secretary as the primary constitutional advisor made explicit.
- Establishing a permanent centre for constitutional expertise within the Cabinet Office to give advice on constitutional law, parliamentary procedure, intergovernmental relations and legislation – under the Cabinet Secretary.
- Integrating public engagement – though citizens’ juries and assemblies – into the processes of constitutional change to enhance the legitimacy of decision-making and provide a level of political entrenchment.
Director of the Institute for Government, Hannah White said:
“Some governments enter office with a manifesto commitment to constitutional change, others find the temptation to tinker with the constitution comes upon them. Our recommendations are intended to ensure that any politician considering changing the UK constitution is supported with robust advice, and to ensure that the UK constitution is changed only with appropriate consideration and public support.”
Inaugural Director of the Bennett Institute, Mike Kenny said:
“One of the key issues that this Review has explored is how to get more public engagement in discussions about the principles and norms underpinning our public life. There is a growing imperative for government to take much more seriously the challenge of ensuring that citizens’ deliberations become a regular, integral part of the processes of making and examining constitutional change. This report suggests ways in which this might be done in concert with other key reforms, such as the establishment of a distinct body of constitutional legislation and new processes to ensure that reforms are properly scrutinised and debated in parliament.”
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.