Category Archives: Northern Ireland

Devolved elections and the timing of the EU referendum

All three devolved first ministers have now written to the Prime Minister seeking to ensure that the referendum on the UK’s EU membership is not held in June. The current thinking suggests that 23 June may be in David Cameron’s mind, assuming all goes well in reaching a final agreement with the other member states in the renegotiation. The First Ministers’ concern is proximity to devolved elections, and they are right to be concerned; the surprise is that their concern is not shared by Conservatives, or Labour, at Westminster.

The timetable for the EU referendum is not clear, but there are two fixed dates running up to the process. The first is the deadline for publication by the UK Government of

a report which contains … information about rights, and obligations, that arise … as a result of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, and … examples of countries that do not have membership of the European Union but do have other arrangements with the European Union (describing, in the case of each country given as an example, those arrangements).

This is required by section 7 of the European Union Referendum Act 2015, and must take place not less than 10 weeks before the referendum date.

The second is the formal referendum campaign period, during which the two designated In and Out campaigns will have referendum election broadcasts, rights to public funding, and be required to keep detailed accounts. All that is complicated and requires effort and engagement from those involved in campaigning (and can easily be got wrong).  It also means engaging the public with issues about the UK’s future relationship with Europe rather than parties’ plans for taxation, housing policy or the health service.  That period starts 10 weeks before referendum polling day.

Thursday 23 June falls seven weeks after polling day for the devolved elections, 5 May. If 23 June is referendum day, the information report will have to be circulated at least three weeks before the devolved legislatures’ polling day – so, quite probably, in the middle of the devolved election campaigns. Referendum activities, broadcasts and expenditures will be starting three weeks before election day. And the activists who can be expected to be campaigning for both Leave and Remain votes will probably also be campaigning, or wanting to campaign, in the elections.

Moreover, at least three of the major parties have clear internal divisions about the EU. While the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and the DUP may be clearly on one or other side, there are significant divisions among supporters of Labour, the Conservatives and (perhaps surprisingly) UKIP about the EU. At least for the Conservatives and Labour, those divisions are mirrored among their leadership and elected representatives.  If the two campaigns coincide, party activists will be torn between working on one of two different campaigns, which is bad enough. But worse, in one of those they may be allied with people from other parties – and in the other they will be publicly and conspicuously disagreeing with their party colleagues. What is a list Conservative candidate in Cardiff or Glasgow meant to do if they are pro EU but the person above or below them on the list, or running for the constituency seat, is an Out-er? Labour will have the same problem, and so might UKIP (which has serious prospects in the Assembly elections in Wales). These questions will be asked on the doorstep and by TV, radio and press interviewers.  They cannot be avoided. News coverage will be full of ‘party splits’, which will do no-one any good – whether in the devolved elections or in the EU referendum.

As the most divided party the Conservatives will be most hit by this clash of campaigns.  It will undermine their electoral prospects in both Scotland and Wales, where they have well-founded hopes of gaining votes and seats.

There are of course other arguments why polls should not coincide.  The Electoral Commission emphasises organisational readiness on the part of those who will deliver the referendum and whether voters might be confused by two simultaneous or near-simultaneous campaigns in arguing for separation of the timing of polls.  The devolved first ministers have emphasised ‘due respect’ for elections to their institutions. Each of those concerns overlooks the practical difficulties which face parties and campaigners and which are even further-reaching than those issues of principle.

This is not, in fact, a new issue. Exactly the same question cropped up regarding timing of the referendum in Wales on the National Assembly’s law-making powers, which was eventually held on 3 March 2011 and followed by Assembly elections on 5 May. That was a separation of 10 weeks between polls. The Welsh situation was easier for several reasons.  The referendum came first, so politicians from across the party spectrum could campaign together in that and then disagree in the election campaign – easier than doing it the other way round. Three parties officially supported a Yes vote (Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems), and the bulk of Conservatives did so too though the party stayed neutral.  Ironically, the failure to have designated Yes and No organisations may have helped too, since that meant limited media coverage and so reduced the public emphasis on party division or unity in the run-up to elections. It is doubtful those factors will apply in the EU poll.  The Welsh situation still made for an exhausting five months for those involved in the two campaigns.

What to do about this? There are compelling domestic reasons why Cameron would be well advised to want a referendum to be held sooner than later, and at all costs to avoid 2017 (let alone the later autumn). Moreover, apart from those domestic concerns, elections loom in Germany and France, Schengen countries are deeply concerned by the migration crisis, and much work remains to be done about the nature of the Eurozone. None of this directly concerns the UK, but it concerns key participants in the negotiations and everyone will want to know where the UK stands. A referendum date in early or mid-summer presents serious problems, though. Holding the EU referendum 10 weeks after the devolved elections would mean holding it on 14 July; well into the Scottish holiday season, when school holidays are just starting or are about to start in England and Wales, and in the middle of the marching season in Northern Ireland. Going any later into July is impractical because of the holiday seasons. So that makes the first part of September look much better. That is far from problem-free – party conference season looms, in particular –  but it avoids the problems of trying to hold a referendum so close to the devolved elections and lets campaigns for devolved elections dissolve before referendum campaigns start in earnest.

David Cameron should make his decision very soon, though, and let the public know. That needs to be before the scheduled European Council meeting on 18-19 February (let alone the March follow-up).  The date of the 2011 Welsh referendum was known more than eight months before the poll. For the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, it was eighteen months. Each of those may have been flawed, but were better than what we have: serious confusion about the date of a referendum which could be held in as little as four and a half months, with the alternative being seven months. Neither such confusion nor potentially short notice is good for democracy.

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Filed under Conservatives, Elections, EU issues, Northern Ireland, Referendums, Scotland, Wales

The Enterprise bill: public sector pay-outs and devolution

Having made its way through the Lords, the Enterprise bill will get its Commons second reading next Tuesday. In many ways, this bill exemplifies bad post-devolution legislation, as it’s a portmanteau bill with provisions on a range of subjects including a Small Business Commissioner, non-domestic rates, late payment of insurances claims, regulatory reform and other matters. Some of these provisions relate only to England, some of them mainly affect England but have knock-on effects for devolved functions in various parts of the UK, some of the bill’s provisions are UK-wide or GB-wide and relate to reserved/non-devolved matters – but others are intended to apply across the UK or Great Britain while affecting devolved matters. To make matters worse, it extensively amends existing legislation, so working out exactly what it does is no easy task.

One clause that is particularly striking is clause 35, which deals with ‘public sector exit payments’ – redundancy and similar payments made to people leaving public sector employment. It covers not only redundancy and ex gratia payments but also contractual obligations such as pay in lieu of notice or for outstanding leave entitlements, and limits the sum total of such payments to £95,000. The bill delivers a Conservative manifesto promise to ‘end taxpayer-funded six-figure payoffs for the best paid public sector workers’.  These have been particularly notable in recent times with the shake-out of the public sector arising from austerity and also major reorganisations of services, which have often led to individuals taking a pay-off from one job and then moving straight into another.  Another side of the coin, for very senior posts, is how to remove a senior figure like a chief executive who cannot work with a changed political leadership, a common problem in local government. An amicable redundancy settlement has usually been the way to resolve that. (As an aside, putting the figure of £95,000 onto the face of the bill is unusual and likely to cause serious practical difficulties in future, as inflation erodes the value of that amount.)

As is well known, the management of the public sector generally is a devolved matter for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, employment law is reserved in Scotland (by Head H in Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998), an undevolved ‘silent subject’ not mentioned in Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006 for Wales, though devolved in Northern Ireland. (For Wales, this means the Assembly can legislate for matters affecting employment law where this is necessary for enforcement or making effective a provision relating to a devolved subject, or otherwise incidental or consequential to such legislation; see section 108(5) Government of Wales Act 2006.) So clause 35 has the scope to affect devolved matters considerably if it applies in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

The Enterprise bill itself is silent about the territorial extent of this clause, which means it extends to all parts of the United Kingdom. The Explanatory notes contain a table confirming that the provision applies to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and saying ‘not applicable’ when identifying whether it is devolved or not. That conclusion is doubtful in each case. In Scotland the Scottish Parliament is to consider a legislative consent motion assenting to the clause – approval has been recommended by both the Scottish Government in its legislative consent memorandum and by the Parliament’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee. Similarly, in Northern Ireland the matter has been considered by the Assembly’s Finance and Personnel Committee which expressed a number of concerns about the bill but recommended approval via an LCM. In Wales, although there has been an LCM, this relates only to the ‘Small Business Commissioner’ and non-domestic rating provisions of the bill and not the public sector payout ones.  Those have not been considered by the National Assembly.

What makes the Welsh position even odder is the provision in the Draft Wales Bill published in October to make such public sector payouts a reserved matter. Reservations 144 and 145 in the new Schedule 7A included to the draft bill reserve the following:

144. Schemes for the payment of compensation for or in respect of public sector workers in respect of—
(a) incapacity or death as a result of injury or illness,
(b) loss of office or employment, or
(c) loss or diminution of emoluments.

145. Regulation of amounts payable, or paid, to or in respect of public sector workers in consequence of leaving office or employment.

The upshot would be that Scotland and Northern Ireland will be free to alter the application of the UK rules at some future time, if they wish, while accepting arguments at present for the desirability of having similar rules across the UK. Wales will not; the proposed reservation would prevent it from ever doing so, if it makes it into enacted legislation. That not only distinguishes Welsh devolution from that for Scotland and Northern Ireland, for no very clear reason, but also hampers the ability of the National Assembly and Welsh Government to organise and management the devolved Welsh public sector effectively.

BIS, and its predecessor departments, have never had a reputation for being particularly supportive of devolution. (The department is of course also currently promoting the Trade Union bill, which has raised much anger, and questions of whether devolved legislative consent is needed – previously discussed HERE.) It has also a long track record of being insensitive to devolution questions when they arise, which the Enterprise bill exemplifies. What it doesn’t appear to have realised is that times have changed. Ten years ago, such mis-steps were merely inconvenient and inconsiderate. Now, they have much wider political and constitutional implications.


Filed under Conservatives, Legislation, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Westminster, Whitehall

Spending Review 2015: a test the Treasury flunked

The welter of responses to yesterday’s UK Spending Review and Autumn Statement have overlooked an important set of things the review did not do when it comes to managing the devolved UK. Despite proposals on the table for tax devolution for all three devolved governments (if not the English city-regions), we learned nothing about how this fiscally devolved UK will work. We got a new, updated edition of the Statement of Funding Policy (the seventh in all and the first since 2010) , but that remains essentially the operations manual for the Barnett formula it always was. Nothing substantial about the framework for managing devolved finances has been altered, despite recommendations for this from a variety of bodies including the Bingham Centre Constitutional Review, the Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s recent report on The Implications of Financial Devolution to Scotland and committees in all the devolved legislatures.  The devolved governments remain as entangled in the UK system of public finance as they ever were.

What the Treasury could and should have done was put the basis for devolution finance under the Conservatives on a clear and transparent footing, in particular by:

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Filed under Conservatives, Devolution finance, Intergovernmental relations, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Whitehall

Legislative consent for the Trade Union bill?

In a speech at the SNP conference in Aberdeen, Grahame Smith of the STUC has apparently argued that the impact of the Trade Union bill currently before the UK Parliament is such that it requires legislative consent from Holyrood under the Sewel convention – ‘a consent that I am confident would not be forthcoming’, so in reality a veto on the bill at least for Scotland. The bill is unsurprisingly under heavy criticism not just from the STUC but also the Greens and Rise. The UK Government does not believe that the bill needs legislative consent, however (see Annex A of the Explanatory Note, available here; the bill itself is here as a PDF document).

Constitutionally speaking, it’s hard to disagree with the UK Government’s view. Industrial relations and trade union law, like employment law more generally, remains a reserved matter under Head H1 of the Scotland Act 1998, beyond the powers of the Scottish Parliament. The criteria for legislative consent under the Sewel convention are set out in Devolution Guidance Note 10 on Post – Devolution Primary Legislation affecting Scotland (available here as a PDF). Consent is not needed for bills which do not apply to Scotland at all; which apply to Scotland but ‘relate to’ reserved matters and do not alter Scots law on non-reserved matters; or which contain provisions applying to Scotland and relating to reserved matters, though they may make incidental or consequential changes to Scots law on non-reserved matters.  Consent is only needed if the bill ‘contains provisions applying to Scotland and which are for devolved purposes, or which alter the legislative competence of the Parliament or the executive competence of the Scottish Ministers’.

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Filed under Legislation, Northern Ireland, Policy issues, Scotland, SNP, Wales, Westminster

The Bingham Centre devolution review: the UK at a constitutional crossroads

This post also appears as a guest post on the Centre on Constitutional Change blog here, the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog here, and the Institute of Welsh Affairs blog ClickonWales here.

The impact of the Scottish independence referendum has been wide-ranging. It raises a number of questions about how the UK works as a whole and its territorial constitution, as well as ones about Scotland.  But for all the importance and urgency of these issues, they have not yet been subject to any wide-ranging or sustained scrutiny.  A new report from the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, available here, seeks to change that and look at what issues the UK as a whole will need to address in the coming months and years.  The review commission has been chaired by Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC, and its membership is here and remit is set out here.

The Commission’s starting point was to consider the implications of the piecemeal, ad hoc approach to devolution taken so far.  Its view is that this has reached the end of its road.  The knock-on effects of the Smith Commission proposals for Scotland mean that this now creates serious constitutional difficulties beyond Scotland.  A more systematic view, considering the UK as a whole, is badly needed.

The first big recommendation to address that is a Charter of the Union, to be passed as a Westminster statute with consent from the devolved legislatures, and setting out key principles for the working of a devolved union.  These draw on what already applies – they include such principles as respect for democracy, the rule of law, autonomy of each government and comity and respect for each other in their dealings with each other.  Subsidiarity and social solidarity are also key principles for the Charter of the Union.

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Filed under Conservatives, Devolution finance, English questions, Northern Ireland, Publications and projects, Scotland, Wales, Westminster

Devolution, territorial politics and the general election

This post also appears on the Constitution Unit’s blog, here. has a number of other election-related posts which are well worth reading.

It is hard to think of a general election that has ever been so freighted with questions about the UK’s territorial constitution. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the outcome of the 2015 election, and actions of the government that takes office after it, will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup. This post considers what the manifestos tell us about what the various parties propose to do and how they propose to do it, when it comes to the reshaping of devolution arrangements across the UK, and then discusses some of the issues that will loom larger after 7 May.

The pro-UK parties

The 2015 manifestos contain a welter of devolution-related commitments. Those in the three pro-UK parties (Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour) are all strikingly similar, though not identical. For Scotland, all commit to implementing the Smith Commission’s recommendations, and to retaining the Barnett formula. (Interestingly, they do not commit to the UK Government’s white paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, raising the possibility they could scrape off some of the barnacles that paper puts on the Smith proposals). Labour want to go further in a ‘Home Rule bill’ in unspecified ways, though it appears that wider scope for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on welfare matters is key to it. These commitments rather resemble those made by the same three parties in 2010 about the implementation of the Calman Commission’s recommendations, though with Labour somewhat breaking ranks with the two governing parties.

There is also similarity when it comes to Northern Ireland: endorsement of the peace process and commitments to support it, along with the economic rebalancing package agreed as part of December’s Stormont House Agreement. For Conservatives and Lib Dems, this includes support for sustainable public finances, welfare reform and corporation tax devolution subject to adequate progress being made on financial matters. Labour’s commitments appear to embrace similar policies, but are confusingly worded. They say they will: Continue reading

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Filed under Conservatives, English questions, Labour, Lib Dems, Northern Ireland, Plaid Cymru, Scotland, SNP, UK elections, Wales, Westminster

Bingham Centre review of devolution in the UK

For the last few months, I’ve been working with the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law on a major inquiry into devolution and how it should develop, from the point of the UK as a whole. The starting point has been constitutional: what sort of constitutional system has emerged given the fragmented nature of the process of devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and across England. Our committee has been chaired by Professor Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC, Director of the Bingham Centre, and includes such figures as Professor Linda Colley, Gerald Holtham, Sir Maurice Kay, John Kay and Philip Stephens of the FT. (Full details of the committee are here.) Adam Tomkins and I have acted as advisers to the committee.
We’ll be publishing the report on 20 May, with a launch at Middle Temple Hall, and have a number of important recommendations for how the UK should work which we hope will shape the actions of the incoming UK Government, whatever political complexion it may have. Key to these is the need now to think about devolution as affecting the UK as a whole, and what the nature of that Union is – not unitary, but not federal either. No new government can afford to ignore these issues, or fail to try to tackle them.

UPDATE: Anyone wanting to come to the launch should email Sandra Homewood on s.homewood[at] to confirm their attendance. 

UPDATE, 21 May:  The report, A Constitutional Crossroads: Ways forward for the United Kingdom, can now be downloaded here as a PDF file.

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Filed under Devolution finance, English questions, General, Northern Ireland, Publications and projects, Scotland, Wales