Sir John Elvidge APPG Meeting On Scottish Referendum

The latest meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the British Constitution was honoured to have as its main speaker, Sir John Elvidge, former Permanent Secretary to the Scottish government 2003 – 2010.

Sir John opened the discussion of the issues surrounding the upcoming independence vote by: firstly laying out what he believed were three misjudgments about the nature of constitutional change relating to it, secondly stating what he believed were the two most interesting judgments the UK government has made in its wrangling with the independence movement, and finally outlining the most difficult decision the Scottish government has to consider and get right in this process. Following his introduction, the distinguished guest fielded questions from a room full of parliamentarians and interested observers on the nature of the upcoming referendum, its most important developments so far, and where it might go in the future. 

 Topics discussed included:

  • The calculated risks taken by both governments in framing how the referendum will take place.
  • The extent to which voters’ decisions will be driven by emotional and idealistic notions tied to culture or hard-headed economic reasoning.
  • How the SNP plans to deal with fiscal issues of social security spending and its investment in renewable energy.
  • How important the UK’s continuing EU membership is to Scottish voters.

  And perhaps most intriguingly…

  • The continuing future of ‘DevoMax’ as an alternative option to a Yes/No decision.
  • What a close-margin outcome to the vote could mean for the future of Scotland, independent or not.
  • The possible future of the Orkney, Shetland, and Western Isles if the rest of the country decides to vote Yes.

The full audio recording of this meeting can be found here to listen to or download along with a host of other APPG podcasts.

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13th August 2013

Britain and Europe: Past. Present. Future?

On the 18th of July, the Constitution Society and the European Parliament Office held a panel discussion entitled ‘Britain and Europe: Past. Present. Future?’ with four high-profile speakers: Mary Honeyball MEP, Bill Cash  MP, Dr Andrew Blick and Sarah Ludord MEP. The event looked both at the history of Britain’s relationship with the EU and also the future of our constitutional ties to that union. 

James Hallwood, Associate Director of The Constitution Society, opened the event by explaining that ConSoc is an independent, non-party educational foundation that works to promote informed debate about constitutional reform.  He  went on to explain that the night’s event was part of Young People and the Constitution (YPC). This is an initiative from The Constitution Society that aims to educate the politicians, civil servants and lawmakers of the future in the workings of the British constitution. 

Dr Andrew Blick, lecturer in Politics and Contemporary History at King’s College London, began the discussion, looking at Britain’s historical relationship with the EU. An island state with a long tradition of independence from the mainland, Britain unlike Europe, has a tradition of Common rather than Roman law, and as such parliamentary sovereignty can be hard to reconcile with EU legislation. Dr Blick notes however that the British constitution has seen a degree of ‘Europisation’, in particular holding more referendums as a means of decision making (a decidedly more European tradition). Suggesting that such Europisation may be symptomatic of a lack of confidence in parliamentary sovereignty, Dr Blick concluded by suggesting that parliamentary sovereignty is not, in fact, taken seriously in Britain – not even by Eurosceptics.  Read more ›

Young People and the Constitution – EU event on iPlayer

The latest event in the Young People and the Constitution series was a panel discussion on the topic of the EU and its relationship with the British constitution – held on Thursday 18th July. With the title Britain and Europe: Past. Present. Future? the event looked at the history of Britain’s relationship with the EU and also the future of our constitutional ties to the organisation. 

Chaired by our Associate Director, James Hallwood, with a panel of differing opinions but equally high expertise on the matter, the seminar addressed an audience of young people as well as diplomatic staff and journalists. The session was filmed by the BBC and first broadcast on Saturday 20th July. 

Dr Andrew Blick, Mary Honeyball MEP, Bill Cash MP, and Sarah Ludford MEP completed the panel – each offering 10 minute contributions on their thoughts of Britain’s history and future with the European Union. We are indebted to the European Parliament Information Office for hosting this event. 

The discussion avoided polemic and broad brushstrokes in favour of reasoned argument and a sound knowledge of the constitutional history of this complex relationship. 

An abridged film of the event can be found on iPlayer here

22nd July 2013

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Freedom of Information – The Ultimate Tool for Transparency?

From everything from hospital ‘blunders’ to personalised number plates, one finds the Freedom of Information Act used to explore a variety of previously undisclosed areas. Many have celebrated the Act, which allows the public to request information from government and public authorities. In 2005, five years after the Act was passed, Jack Straw told parliament that the Act had ‘profoundly changed the relationship between citizens, and the media on the one hand, and the Government and public authorities on the other’. The Freedom of Information Act has seen, often via media investigations, government and public officials held accountability, with a public right to check figures, analyse wastage or read the facts themselves. However despite such praise, the Act has come under criticism from others, who cite wide exceptions, high costs and the power of the ministerial veto.

The Freedom of Information Act has its roots in the likes of Clement Freud’s 1978 ‘Official Information Bill’. Whilst this may have been discarded due to the 1979 election, it showed the support for ‘open government’.  Thereafter, a number of freedom of information bills were presented, unsuccessfully to the house, alongside the passage of specific bills, such as the Data Protection Bill in 1984. These can be seen to culminate in the Freedom of Information Bill, which was given royal assent in November 2000.

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Professor Michael Keating speaks about Scotland’s future

Professor Michael Keating is currently writing a paper for The Constitution Society on the important topic of Scotland’s future after the independence referendum in 2014. We will be launching his piece along with responses from CentreForum, the Fabian Society and ResPublica at the party conferences.

In the meanwhile, Professor Keating was kind enough to join us for a quick talk on the issues facing Scotland and her relationship with the rest of the UK. Click here to watch the video.

Professor Keating is the Chair in Scottish Politics at the University of Aberdeen and a key voice on the topics of devolution and nationalism.

The Constitution Society looks forward to launching this timely piece of research in Glasgow at Liberal Democrat party conference, before taking it to Brighton and Manchester platforming the groundbreaking work before Labour and Conservative party conferences respectively. 

Two distinguished recruits for The Constitution Society Advisory Board

The Constitution Society is pleased to announce the addition of Sir Malcolm Jack and Sir Thomas Legg to The Constitution
Society advisory board. 

Sir Malcolm Jack (top picture) was Clerk of the House of Commons from 2006-2011 and is the co-author of our latest report, on Parliamentary privilege. Sir Malcolm is the editor of the current, twenty-fourth, edition of Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice as well as writing and lecturing on constitutional and historical subjects.

 

Sir Thomas Legg (bottom picture) was Permanent Secretary of the Lord Chancellor’s Department and Clerk of the Crown in Chancery. Sir Thomas has led three inquiries, most famously into the MPs’ expenses scandal. As well as The Constitution Society, Sir Thomas plays an active role in the Better Government Initiative

Both Sir Malcolm Jack and Sir Thomas Legg bring an excellent range of skills and experience to our organisation. The Constitution Society looks forward to working with them to further our call for an informed debate on constitutional issues.

Constitutional legislation is ‘qualitatively different from other types of legislation’ – PCRC reports

The Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) has published its report  on legislative standards [1]after an eighteen month inquiry. 

Graham Allen MP, Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

The Constitution Society welcomes the report as an important contribution to the campaign for a general improvement in the quality of legislation. [2] We especially endorse the fourth of the report’s five key recommendations:  that a test for identifying constitutional legislation should be agreed between Parliament and the Government.

In evidence to the Committee in 2012, the Society argued that constitutional legislation should be distinguished from ordinary legislation for three reasons[3]:

-        Constitutional legislation is the architecture of the state. The elements of the constitution are unavoidably interconnected, so an alteration in one part of the building can have unforeseen consequences in other parts.

-        Most major constitutional legislation has an effective presumption of irreversibility.

-        A practice has arisen under the current government of employing ‘manner and form’ restrictions where a piece of legislation passed by an ordinary majority imposes restrictions on future Parliaments regarding how that legislation is to be implemented or repealed.

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Is it time to codify Parliamentary privilege?

There is little understanding of the concept of Parliamentary privilege outside Westminster. The term tends to arouse suspicion: privilege is against the spirit of the times – it smacks of unfairness and elitism. It did not help when some of the MPs prosecuted for fiddling their expenses a couple of years ago tried to base their defence on the doctrine of privilege (the Supreme Court gave that argument very short shrift [1] ). So why should MPs be exempted from laws which apply to everybody else?

The most important aspect of Parliamentary privilege is freedom of speech in Parliament which derives from the 1689 Bill of Rights. It is a right which can be justified on simple functional grounds: MPs cannot do their job unless they can speak freely without fear of being prosecuted or dragged through the courts by wealthy litigants. For that reason it is essential to maintain Parliamentary privilege, something that is recognised in all modern, democratic constitutional systems.

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Rt Hon John Bercow MP launches ‘Young People and the Constitution’

The Constitution Society was delighted to host the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon John Bercow MP, as he spoke to an audience of young people on his role in the British constitution chaired by our Project Manager, James Hallwood.

As patron of YPC, Mr Bercow spoke of the importance of neutrality and some of the changes he has brought to the Commons, as well as several more he would like to implement. 

On the British constitution, Mr Bercow explained that he believed that traditions and practices that work should never be got rid of for the sake of ‘reform’ – but when there is a case for change he supported looking at what could be done. 

The audience put some interesting questions to Mr Bercow. The Speaker’s answers offered what he said was an “honest politician’s views” and that he avoided “sitting on the fence” despite his neutrality. For instance, Mr Bercow voiced support for same-sex marriage, suggested Britain was best placed to remain in the European Union, rejected a call for separation of powers, and advocated the doctrine of Parliamentary Supremacy as remaining potent and relevant.

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The Constitution Society launches new report: Parliamentary Privilege – Evolution or Codification?

The Constitution Society’s latest paper – Parliamentary Privilege: Evolution or codification - will be formally launched tonight at a dinner for select guests. However the PDF is now available to download here. The authors are Richard Gordon QC, and Sir Malcolm Jack, former Clerk of the House of Commons.

Parliamentary privilege is vital to the effective running of a modern, democratic Parliament and free speech in Parliament is still a crucial component. Today an over-powerful judiciary could be considered Parliament’s main ‘adversary’. In modern times the context, within which parliamentary privilege works, has changed greatly.

This paper examines how best to convince the public that parliamentary privilege remains essential to a twenty-first century parliament. It considers options such as principles legislation on the issue or leaving things alone. It considers the Government’s Green Paper on Parliamentary privilege and asks how real is the danger of judicial activism in the affairs of Parliament and whether that danger is increased or diminished by a new statute.

For any queries on the paper or the launch please email James Hallwood via james@constitutionsoc.org.uk