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.
It’s intriguing to see various senior figures from the New Labour era call for a return to something much more like new Labour to revive the Labour Party. Those figures seem to overlook how responsible New Labour’s politics and legacy are for the mess Labour now finds itself in. (On the nature of that mess, I agree with quite a lot of what Paul Mason says here; it is very clearly a structural problem caused by the collapse of an electoral coalition, not just a question of policy detail or leadership.)
New Labour helped create the mess, at least in its territorial dimension, in two particular ways. First, its political economy depended on getting London to generate large tax revenues to pay for redistributive benefits and much of public services in the rest of the UK, and satisfying those already owning property in London through a property boom. This has left a lasting and damaging legacy by creating or at least magnifying huge inequalities and resentments arising from different regional economies and levels of prosperity. (In technical terms, it sought to use a huge vertical fiscal imbalance to redress horizontal inequalities. What actually happened was that those horizontal inequalities increased.)