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The future of the UK constitution: IfG and Bennett Institute conference

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19/09/2023

The Bennett Institute and Institute for Government hosted a special one-day conference to reflect on the state of the UK constitution and discuss proposals for reform.

The UK constitution has been placed under huge strain in recent years. The process of implementing Brexit – a major constitutional change – led to battles between the government, parliament and the courts, and destabilised the relationships between the four governments of the UK. The coronavirus pandemic led to unprecedented restrictions on rights and freedoms and recent scandals over ethics and standards have eroded public trust in the UK institutions. 

With a general election approaching, now is an opportune moment to reflect on the state of the UK constitution and consider how to address its weaknesses and build on its strengths. Over the past 18 months, the Institute for Government and Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy have worked together to assess and review the UK constitution – and set out recommendations for reform. How can we reinforce the checks and balances amongst the UK’s institutions? Does parliament need more power? Does devolution need greater protection? What role should the public have in constitutional change?

To mark the conclusion of the Institute for Government/Bennett Institute Review of the UK Constitution, this special one-day event brought together commentators, academics and parliamentarians for a series of keynote speeches and panels to consider all these questions and more.


Welcome and launch of the final report of the Review of UK Constitution

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Briefing on the final report from Professor Michael Kenny, Director of Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge, Dr Hannah White, Director of the Institute for Government, and Jess Sargeant, Associate Director at the Institute for Government.


Is parliament able to fulfil its constitutional role?

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Parliament is at the centre of the UK constitution, passing law, representing citizens, and holding the government to account. However, the government’s strong control of the House of Commons, and issues of democratic legitimacy in the House of Lords, have raised questions about whether parliament is an effective check on the executive. 

So how well does parliament fulfil its constitutional role? Are MPs and peers able – and willing to protect the constitution? What reforms are needed to help ensure that they can? 

Speakers:

  • Rt Hon Sir David Lidington, former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
  • Rt Hon the Baroness Smith of Basildon, Shadow Leader of the House of Lords
  • Rt Hon the Lord Wallace of Saltaire, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson on the Cabinet Office 
  • Dr Hannah White OBE, Director of the Institute for Government

The event was chaired by Jess Sargeant, Associate Director at the Institute for Government.


What will the next general election mean for the UK constitution?

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Speakers:

  • Dr Catherine Haddon, Programme Director at the Institute for Government
  • Dr Alice Lilly, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government>
  • Jack Newman, Research Associate at the Productivity Institute and the Department of Politics, University of Manchester
  • Akash Paun, Programme Director at the Institute for Government

The event was chaired by Jess Sargeant, Associate Director at the Institute for Government.


What needs to change in Westminster and Whitehall to make devolution work?

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The devolution settlement of 1999 marked a major constitutional development for the UK, but over two decades on devolution is anything but settled. The devolved governments and parliaments have become established features of the UK constitution, but the UK’s central institutions have failed to adapt. With further devolution on the agenda, there may be more changes in the near future.

So what can the UK government, parliament and civil service do to improve the workings of devolution? How can the UK government work with devolved legislatures to achieve common aims whilst also respecting the desire for policy divergence in different nations? How can the UK parliament reflect the multi-national state? And what civil service reforms are needed to facilitate co-operation over conflict?

Speakers:

  • Rt Hon Sir Robert Buckland MP, former Secretary of State for Wales
  • Christine Jardine MP, Member of Parliament for Edinburgh West and Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)
  • Ciaran Martin, Professor of Practice in the Management of Public Organisations at the Blavatnik School of Government
  • Jessica Studdert, Deputy Chief Executive of New Local

The event was chaired by Professor Michael Kenny, Director of Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge.


When and how should the public decide?

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There is now an expectation that the public should be consulted on constitutional change. However, traditional routes for gaining public legitimacy – such as referendums and elections – can result in binary choices, or unclear mandates. 

So is there a greater role for deliberative democracy? Processes including citizens’ assemblies, with informed discussions amongst a representative group of citizens, can offer many benefits to decision-makers, but getting them right is a challenge and getting them wrong can do more harm than good.

When and how the public should be involved in constitutional decision making? How could options for deliberative democracy best be implemented? What are the challenges and benefits of this approach?

Speakers:

  • Sarah Allan, Director of Capacity Building and Standards at Involve
  • Joanne Anderson, former Mayor of Liverpool
  • Doreen Grove, Head of Open Government at the Scottish government
  • Professor Alison L Young, Sir David Williams Professor of Public Law at the University of Cambridge

This event was chaired by Dr Rebecca McKee, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government.


In conversation with the Rt Hon The Baroness Hale of Richmond, DBE PC FBA, former President of the Supreme Court

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The event was chaired by Dr Hannah White, Director of the Institute for Government, and Professor Michael Kenny, Director of Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge.


Report: Review of the UK Constitution – Final report

News release: The UK constitution needs urgent reform to fix crisis of trust in UK politics


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