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.

  • Dewi

    “Early preparation is required for the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012”

    Yeah – let’s not forget that bit God help us….

  • “A UK Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act”

    Sounds just like replacing the Parades Commission to me. Something which sounds radical, but will probably end up as more of the same, given the constraints of the ECHR.

  • Greenflag

    So the Monarchy will continue to exclude RC’s ? Maybe Queenie should apply for membership of the Orange Order and be done with it .

    Whatever happened to earlier moves to make the Monarchy non sectarian ?

    Coincidentally I watched the Helen Mirren ‘Queen’ the other evening by accident rather than design . Great actress Mirren and Cromwell did a great job as the Duck . But I agree with Blair that the English will never be republicans . Those Cromwellian Puritans must have seriously pissed the English off no end 😉

  • Greenflag

    ‘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.’

    Indeed -much later . First the Tories will have to examine the fall-out from the UCUNF experiment assuming of course that they manage to limp into power which is not as assured as it once was .

    Is it just my impression because I’m anti Tory that the above list of reforms are merely tangential to the very real economic and social issues which will affect the British people over the next several years ?

    Are the Tories already out of touch even before they assume the powers of government ? A few more or less MP’s and or Peers is almost meaningless in terms of the current economy.

  • Brian Walker

    Greenflag, Re the monarchy, the “RC” bar and male promgeniture are in the air since the last Commonwealrth Heads of government in November but not yet on the agenda.

  • Greenflag

    Brian W,

    Despite the sound of my post 3 above I’m not that fussed about monarchical reform or the RC and male primogeniture issues . As for them being ‘in the air’ I suspect that there will be so much in the air over the coming year that these items will remain in the air until the current Queenie retires from the throne .

    From the Monarchical record

    The Queen has visited Australia 15 times, Canada 23 times, Jamaica 6 times and New Zealand 10 times and the Irish Republic – 0 times .

    I’m looking forward to her visit so that I can officially ignore her visit 😉

  • Panic, these ones like it up em.

    I never trusted Tories but now I don’t trust any politicians, clergy, police and judicary, business people, journalists…………

    Anyway I trust Tories even less than I trusted them before.

    Who can one trust ! ! ! ! !

  • PACE Parent

    Brian,
    I suspect that David Cameron will have more to worry about than “fixing broken politics”. According to this article in today’s Daily Telegraph by Graeme Paton, education correspondent. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7149127/Grammar-schools-should-be-expanded.html it would appear that the Conservatives are completely out of touch with the electorate, and the new voter group in particular. So David’s policy change in 2007 is coming home to bite him. Broken Conservatives more like.

  • st etienne

    On a somewhat more radical note, Tories are also looking to publish details of all government expenditure above 20k.

    In light of the allegations surrounding Labour today and their non-handling of British law with regards to our citizens in American hands (where’s our dear old friend Peter ‘Champion of Human Rights’ Hain when he’s needed?), I regard transparency as the key to the next election.

    Economically it’s up to the BoE to decide when the tide turns and the future begins to pay for the present. However the gutless head in the sand attitude from New Labour on as base an issue as human rights abuses highlights their one-track mind for power, influence and little else.

    The Conservatives may not be perfect, but at least they understand the free-minded people of the UK are fed up with the current crop of self serving bandits.

  • Davros

    @Greenflag

    To be fair, even if you were a protestant, you were probably never in with a shot.

  • Bob Wilson

    ‘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.’

    This is obviously an issue for some Brian but is really quite simple. The Govt of the UK should not side with an part of the community in NI but the idea that it HAS to be neutral or indifferent to the Union is nonsense.

    The Conservatives want to normalise politics in NI and allow everyone who wishes to to play a full part in the politics of the UK. Indeed one could argue that it is their duty to do so and it is the right of every citizen in the UK to have access to the politics of the UK.

    The idea that we are forever kept in constitutional limbo or aspic so that no one gets offended is nonsense. It plays to a sense that we must accept our sectarian lot and be grateful.

  • Greenflag

    davros,

    ‘you were probably never in with a shot.’

    I’m in favour of the abolition of the monarchy not the assassination. Strictly speaking it’s none of my business as I don’t have a vote in the UK. Queenie is a great woman for her age and does a great job representing her country.

    ‘We serve neither King nor Kaiser’ etc

    Some wags out there might want to amend the early 20th century Citizen Army slogan to

    ‘We now serve the Banks , Wall St, the City, Brussels, the ECB , the Federal Reserve of the USA and a globalised world market ‘

    And they have a point 😉

    Posted by Davros on Feb 11, 2010 @ 07:12 AM

  • Greenflag

    apologies davros for the error above

  • Greenflag

    bobwilson ,

    ‘It plays to a sense that we must accept our sectarian lot and be grateful.’

    We? It’s not only ‘we’. The fact is that all of the outside /inside parties to Northern Ireland’s current settlement ALSO accepted the given ‘sectarian lot’ premise . That’s why they cemented ‘sectarianism’ into the very marrow of governance in NI. And they did it with the ‘permission’ of the local politicians and the local electorate.

    Yes it is NI’s lot and yes you should be grateful that the price has been only 4,000 lives and not 40,000 lives or even more . And don’t forget who is paying for it .

    ‘The Govt of the UK should not side with an part of the community in NI but the idea that it HAS to be neutral or indifferent to the Union is nonsense.’

    Here you are on stronger ground . The only local example I can think of that mirrors this co -guarantor of the GFA role for any future Conservative Government is Irish ‘neutrality’ in WW2 .

    It’s presumably not impossible for the Conservatives to be neutral while favouring one side over the other . The Free State Government had few problems pulling that stunt .

    But even if the Tories climb to power and even if they pull off the above mentioned stunt successfully, the ‘perception’ and the ‘reality’ of the present NI State being in a forever state of constitutional limbo or aspic, is not going to go away .

    Be grateful for political stagnation . It beats the only other possible alternative at this time .

  • st etienne

    yeah, because a revolution’s just around the corner, any time now…

    “That’s why they cemented ‘sectarianism’ into the very marrow of governance in NI”

    I cannot fathom the mentality of those who demand power sharing only to dismiss it as sectarian in any case. Such two-faced politicking smacks of an agenda to keep people ‘oppressed’ and prevent them from moving on.

  • Greenflag

    st etienne ,

    ‘I cannot fathom the mentality of those who demand power sharing only to dismiss it as sectarian in any case.’

    It’s the mentality of those who want to have their cake and eat it too . But in NI it’s a practical mindset -nothing else is possible apart from a small minority in say the AP . In any case it’s not so much a ‘dismissal’ of sectarianism as an embracing of sectarianism that being seeing as the original raison d’etre of the State at it’s foundation and likely to continue to being the raison’ d’etre of the State until’s it’s either total or partial dissolution. Call it vox populi if you want but the 37 ‘peace’ walls in Belfast have not been erected to ‘beautify’ the city .

    ‘Such two-faced politicking’

    There is an element of that but then two faced and politicking are birds of a similar feather and have a very long history not just in NI .

    ‘an agenda to keep people ‘oppressed’’

    If there is an agenda for such the people have voted for it -frequently – and appear to enjoy their current oppression even if it’s sectarian based .

    ‘and prevent them from moving on.’

    Moving where ? Haven’t you heard ? There is nowhere to move to – except to a discredited past (The TUV /Dissident Republican options) or the present uneasy political stagnation . Given that choice I’m sure the people of NI will continue to opt for ‘stagnation’. They would be fools not too . As for the hyped dreams of UCUNF ?

    The morning after the election I suppose they will awake from the ‘dream’ only to find that no it’s not a new world in the morning but same old spot between rock and hard place 😉

  • Greenflag

    I of course would much prefer a fair ‘repartitioning’ of NI as I don’t have a lot of faith in mandatory power sharing . I can see however that in NI circumstances ‘voluntary’ power sharing would not improve the politics of NI but probably worsen them and as the man said they are worse enough as it is ;(?

    The irony is to remove ‘sectarianism’ from NI would necessitate the creation of an even more ‘sectarian’ state i.e a smaller predominantly ‘Unionist ‘ state mostly east of the Bann . But the stomach for such appears to be absent for now within mainstream unionist ranks .