Report warns about rushed constitutional reform

29 July 2009

A Justice Committee report published today says the Government’s "ad hoc and piecemeal" attempts at constitutional reform risk further undermining the public confidence they seek to restore.

The report continues that the recent Parliamentary Standards Bill, while a laudable attempt at restoring confidence, "should serve as a warning about the dangers of undertaking reform too quickly, and without adequate consultation to enable a full and thorough investigation of the constitutional implications."

The Committee says reform must be underpinned by a set of constitutional principles and that individual reforms cannot be treated in isolation. For example, the possibility of a written constitution, mooted by the Prime Minister, involves fundamental issues about the sovereignty of Parliament, the nature of the monarchy, the role of the judiciary and the rights of the citizen. These issues require thorough debate.

The Committee says the experience of the passage of the Parliamentary Standards Bill offers broader lessons in terms of parliamentary and constitutional reform.

The report says "the inappropriate handling of bills and proposals for reform specifically designed to restore public trust may further undermine that trust."

Further, although the Bill had the support of the party leaders, it also had potential constitutional consequences not identified by them or Government - in particular in posing a threat to free speech in Parliament. "Without the strategic implementation of constitutional principles, proposals for change can have unintended and unforeseen constitutional consequences and risk the creation of a constitutional imbalance. The Parliamentary Standards Bill, as originally presented to the Commons, provides a stark illustration of this."

To avoid these dangers, the Committee says the Government must allow sufficient time for adequate and thorough consultation with the public and with Parliament on constitutional change.

"It is essential that the process for reform is transparent, considered and appropriate. If this is not achieved, not only will the legitimacy of the specific reforms be undermined, but the Government will also risk the further alienation of the public - potentially worsening the crisis that it is seeking to resolve."

The Committee is not satisfied that the process for constitutional reform outlined in Building Britain’s Future is adequate for changes of such magnitude and significance, and says that a more systematic and established process is required, which could include a constitutional convention to work through the more complex issues, and a referendum on fundamental changes.

The Committee refers to its recent report on Devolution and its description of the governance of England as "the unfinished business of devolution", remaining highly centralised, with no consensus on solutions to the "English Question", and a marked unwillingness of successive governments to devolve power to local government and free it from central financial control.

The Committee says "local government in England remains relatively weak" with central government free to make major changes to local authorities without constitutional restraint - as illustrated by the abolition of the Greater London Council and metropolitan counties under a previous government and the imposition of unitary authorities by the present government. This raises the question of whether the powers and structures of local government should be safeguarded in a written constitution.

The Committee draws attention to the eleven life peers appointed by the Prime Minister in order for them to become ministers, which, together with the phasing out of hereditary peers "accentuates the trend" toward an appointed second chamber, contrary to the view expressed by the three main parties and the House of Commons. It says this is likely to lead to an "unsustainable" continuous trend in future governments to appoint peers in order to rebalance the numbers.

On reforming the House of Commons the Committee says the three key areas to consider are:

  • the near total control of the Order Paper which determines the House’s business each day;
  • the dual role of the Leader of the House as the main channel for all House business and as a member of the executive; and
  • the fact that the House itself has no mechanism for introducing effective motions relating to business and timing other than through the Leader of the House

The Committee says the House of Commons needs its own 'voice'. It expects that the new committee on commons reform will examine the case for a business committee - without an automatic government majority - to carry out this function.

Chairman of the Committee, The Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith, said:

"While we welcome the Government's interest in constitutional reform and renewal, and its desire to restore public trust in Parliament and the political process, we cannot have rushed and piecemeal changes which will affect the way our country is governed for generations to come, and we need a process in which the public is genuinely involved.

"The Parliamentary Standards Bill, as first presented, illustrated the dangers of party leaders, in an understandable response to public anger, getting involved in a "bidding war" on constitutional change. Issues like a written constitution, reform of the electoral system, how England should be governed following devolution, and the relationship of Parliament and the Executive, require wide consultation and careful consideration.

"Instead we are seeing a rush to legislate, and other changes - for example through the appointment of so many life peers to serve as Ministers - which run counter to the direction of reforms which had already been widely agreed."

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