Wake up to big reforms from the Conservatives

Conservative plans for “ fixing broken politics” are more ambitious than they themselves realise. That’s the verdict reached by the Constitution Unit in our major critique of their constitutional reform agenda. Decisions are needed on some of these major issues much earlier than people think – in many cases before the end of this year, in order to fulfil pledges to implement them before the end of the next Parliament of four to five years. Don’t suppose that if the Assembly stabilises, all power is centred on Stormont. Whatever your aspirations, this is very far from the fact. Of particular interest to NI are plans eventually to reduce the overall number MPs (NI back to 12 and with what tribal balance?); to merge into a single minister the separate NI, Scotland and Wales Secretaries of State – right at the start of a new government if possible, NI factors permitting; and by 2013 to enact a UK Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act. Almost certainly Cameron will leave to Holyrood the campaign of opposition to the SNP’s plan for a referendum on independence. A decision is needed urgently on holding a Welsh referendum on primary lawmaking powers later this year. Specific NI interest ranges to the major reserved and excepted powers retained by Westminster. How would a Conservative government respond to pressure from Scotland and Wales to end the Barnett formula for allocating the financial block grant and how would NI be affected? This issue will come on the agenda at last. The idea of local referendums for capping council taxes could be adapted for non-toxic issues locally. How does Cameron’s support for English votes on English laws which appears to create two classes of MP, square with his core aim of the Conservatives, the party of the Union? For NI a big issue is how to square Conservative party support for unionism and the Union with UK government’s co- guarantor role under the GFA. But that appears to be one for later. Below is a summary of the full Report.

Summary of Key Points

The Conservative party have a big agenda for constitutional reform in the next Parliament, including big commitments of their own, and unfinished business from Labour’s constitutional reforms. The big Conservative commitments are

to reduce the size of Parliament (Commons and Lords);

introduce a British bill of rights;

legislate to require referendums for future EU Treaties, and reaffirm the supremacy of Parliament in a Sovereignty Bill;

introduce English votes on English laws; and hold referendums on elected mayors in all major cities.

Unfinished business from Labour includes strengthening the autonomy of the House of Commons; further reform of the House of Lords; and devolution, where all three assemblies are demanding further powers.

Ministers and the Executive

How serious Cameron is about his constitutional reforms will be tested by early decisions on which ministers he puts in charge of what; whether he reduces the size of his government by 10%, as well as the Commons; and strengthens the Ministerial Code.

Key ministerial posts will be the Cabinet Office minister put in charge of Civil Service reforms; the Leader of the House, in charge of parliamentary reform; the Justice Secretary, on the British bill of rights.

Cameron will also need to decide where to place the policy lead on Lords reform; the referendum requirement for EU Treaties, and the Sovereignty Bill; English votes on English laws; and whether to have a Cabinet Committee on constitutional issues.

The Ministerial Code could be strengthened by upholding the primacy of Cabinet and its committees, tightening the rules on collective decision making, and being re-issued as part of a new Cabinet Manual.

The Civil Service will resist fixed term contracts for senior civil servants, and putting more non executive members onto Whitehall departmental boards. New Zealand is a better model than Australia for fixed term contracts.
More work is needed on the purpose and functions of Whitehall boards before any more non-execs are recruited.

Devolution

Immediate decisions are required on whether to continue with three territorial Secretaries of State; and to hold the referendum on primary powers for Wales in 2010.

Early decisions will be needed on greater tax powers for Scotland (Calman) and devolution finance generally (Barnett), and on transfer of policing and justice to Northern Ireland.

English votes on English laws can be introduced more slowly.

Parliament

The immediate decision is whether to shrink the House of Commons by 10% in time for the next election in 2014/15. To achieve that, a White Paper will be needed by July, and a Bill in November 2010.

Immediate decisions will also be needed on establishing a Business Committee and electing Select Committee chairs, to implement the Wright
reforms.
In the Lords, the immediate decision is how many Conservative peers to appoint. To catch up with Labour, Cameron would be justified in appointing 30-40 new Conservative peers; but if he follows the same policy of restraint as Labour, he could do so gradually,
narrowing the gap by 10 peers a year.

British bill of rights, and the judges

The British bill of rights can be developed more slowly, with a Green Paper and White Paper in 2011, public consultation led by an independent commission in 2012, and draft bill in 2013. The process is as important as the content, to build up public ownership and legitimacy, and overcome resistance from lawyers and judges, who are strongly attached to the Human Rights Act. The judges may resist repeal of the Human Rights Act. They will defend the budgets of Legal Aid and the Courts Service against public spending cuts; and resist attempts to restrict judicial review or their interpretation of EU law and the ECHR, and any threat to the Judicial Appointments Commission.

Europe

The EU Treaties (referendums) bill and the British bill of rights both raise the issue of entrenchment. The courts are likely to hold that the referendum requirement is nonjusticiable. But the British bill of rights will be deemed to apply to all other laws (like the Human Rights Act), unless expressly disapplied.

Transparency

Publishing every item of government expenditure over £25k is laborious but feasible. It will do little to help reduce public expenditure, and nothing for public trust, since the cases publicised will be negative examples.

Review of constitutional watchdogs

Constitutional watchdogs may be reviewed as part of a wider review of quangos. The Conservatives want to abolish the Standards Board; streamline the Electoral Commission; but strengthen the Information Commissioner. This raises wider questions about the design of other constitutional watchdogs, on which Cabinet Office should give a lead.

Monarchy

Early preparation is required for the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, and contingency
planning for a possible regency (if the Queen should become incapable), as well as for
the accession of King Charles III.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London