This post is about whether Brexit requires legislative consent from the devolved legislatures, particularly the Scottish Parliament, and what that consent relates to – whether the whole process of Brexit, or only aspects of it. It argues that the English and Welsh High Court’s judgment in the Miller case ( EWHC 2768 (Admin)) on the use of prerogative powers alters the position significantly, and that the implication of that judgment is that the consent of at least the Scottish Parliament is needed for the triggering of Article 50. Whether that will be the case depends, of course, on what the UK Supreme Court has to say when it comes to give its ruling on the issue early next year.
Apologies if this seems like a long and technical discussion of legislative consent. But while there has been much discussion about the need for legislative consent – mainly, Scottish assertions that Holyrood’s consent is essential and can therefore be used to block the UK’s departure from the EU, contradicted by various UK politicians including Theresa May, David Davis and Jeremy Wright – there hasn’t been much analysis in terms of the rules that govern the Sewel convention. (There’s a detailed discussion of that HERE.) As a result there is a great deal of confusion about what does and does not require legislative consent. In fact, the rules are quite simple.
- Legislation which affects devolved functions requires consent – by convention for Northern Ireland and Wales (until the current Wales bill comes into effect), and by statute for Scotland. (One might call this the ‘policy arm’ of the convention.)
- Changes which alter the legislative competence of the Parliament or the executive competence of the Scottish Ministers also require legislative consent, by convention. That applies whether the change removes functions from the devolved legislature or executive, or confers new functions on either of them. (This can be called the ‘constitutional arm’ of the convention.)
- As a convention, it is not justiciable before the courts – but the statutory arm of it is. Otherwise, the UK Parliament remains sovereign, something explicitly stated in all the principal devolution Acts.
- In any event the convention contains an exception so that in some circumstances it may not be binding – the convention only applies ‘normally’ – though no-one can have a clear idea what that exception really means.
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.
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.)
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:
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’.
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.
This post also appears on the Constitution Unit’s blog, here. Constitution-unit.com 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
Filed under Conservatives, English questions, Labour, Lib Dems, Northern Ireland, Plaid Cymru, Scotland, SNP, UK elections, Wales, Westminster
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]binghamcentre.biicl.org 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.
In a speech on Friday launching the Conservative Party’s ‘English manifesto’, David Cameron apparently proposed an ‘English rate of income tax’, on which voting in Parliament would be limited to English (or non-Scottish) MPs. (There’s also Telegraph coverage here and BBC News coverage here.) There’s not much detail about this – Cameron’s speech isn’t available on the Conservative Party website, nor is the ‘English’ manifesto. But from what we can tell of it, this proposal raises a lot of questions.
The first question is whether this is a move beyond the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment for a veto for English MPs (or English, Welsh and Northern Ireland) MPs on non-Scottish income tax decisions, after the Smith Commission proposals are enacted. This proposal caused quite a stir when it was first announced, back in December 2014, and raises the hackles of Labour and other parties (and see also here), but it’s not actually new. This may just be a rhetorical shift, using heightened language to get news coverage for an old story, but if so it has been publicised in remarkably insensitive terms: what the Conservatives are proposing is not an ‘English rate of income tax’, but relates to Wales and Northern Ireland as well. This may be an attempt to curry favour with English voters, but England is not the only part of the UK it affects.
The second question is what this proposal relates to: the Scottish rate of income tax which is due to come into effect in April 2016, and on which a decision will need to be taken this autumn, or the Smith Commission proposals? The latter probably won’t come into effect until April 2018 at the earliest, so this will not be something that could be put in place for England very quickly, or would need to be. If the former, it implies very quick action indeed – and it’s hard to see a rationale for excluding Scottish MPs from voting when only the Scotland Act 2012 powers are in effect.
I’ve a report out today on the procedural aspects of intergovernmental relations. This was commissioned by the UK Changing Union project through the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, and can be found on their website here. Today was also the day when the plenary Joint Ministerial Committee met; it agreed, among other things, a full-scale rewrite of the Memorandum of Understanding. As this post argues, such a rewrite is overdue.
Intergovernmental relations are key to making devolution work effectively. The Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly all operate in a wider context of governance across the UK, and how their functions overlap with those of the UK Government (and other governments) is vital for all four governments and all UK citizens. The Smith Commission’s recent report pays a good deal of attention to the need to ‘scale up’ intergovernmental co-ordination as part of the package of further devolution.
The UK Government is not very interested in managing intergovernmental relations, however. It put in place an attenuated under-institutionalised set of mechanisms in 1999, and has allowed that to weaken or fall further into disuse since then. The key institution is the Joint Ministerial Committee. Plenary meetings of that ceased altogether between 2002 and 2008; they have been more or less annual since then, but are characterised by grandstanding rather than productive work. The JMC’s ‘Domestic’ format has nearly ceased to function, as so few policy issues concern more than one devolved government. The only established format of the JMC which does meet regularly, and does more or less what it was expected to, is the EU format which helps formulate the UK ‘line’ for major EU Council meetings, though there are problems even there. In reality, most intergovernmental issues are bilateral, but with few exceptions they are dealt with in an ad hoc, casual way, out of sight of public or legislatures, and many important issues slip through the net.