Category Archives: UK Parliament

How did the June 2017 General Election take place given the passing of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (2011)?

Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights protected the political class. This included guaranteeing frequent elections.

Despite Britain having an uncodified constitution, which is reliant on a variety of sources, it cannot really be doubted that Statute Law is the dominant source of the UK constitution. This is because it is the source on which constitutional change is primarily bought about. This has been true since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which cemented the notion of a limited monarchy. Indeed, the Bill of Rights of 1689 recorded in Statute the requirement for parliamentary Freedom of Speech and Frequent Elections.
But what does the term ‘frequent’ elections mean? In the United States, the Constitution clearly outlines that a Presidential Election will take place every four years and Congressional Elections take place every two years. However, in Britain, Parliament could only be dissolved by the monarch (although, this was increasingly on the advice of the Prime Minister). In 1715, Parliament passed the Septennial Act. This said that Parliament would automatically be dissolved if seven years had passed since it was assembled. The Parliament Act of 1911 reduced this period to five years. However, although these pieces of legislation set a maximum amount of time before elections, they did not indicate when the next election would be. This is because Prime Ministers could dissolve Parliament before this point as one of their Royal Prerogative Powers.
This gave enormous power to Prime Ministers, who could plan for an election before the
opposition, as only they knew when it would be called. When a Prime Minister called an election suddenly it was called a ‘snap election’. This could give a Prime Minister a huge electoral advantage, although not all used it particularly well. A notable example of this is the case of Gordon Brown. Tony Blair resigned after 10 years as Prime Minister in 2007. His Chancellor, Gordon Brown, replaced him.
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Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007, after ten years as Tony Blair’s Chancellor of the Exchequer

Although he had become PM, he had not faced a leadership challenge within the Labour Party. Some people believe that this lack of a mandate limited him. He also had a surge in the polls upon becoming leader. People expected Brown to call a ‘snap election’. Had he done so he would almost certainly of won a slim majority. Instead, he dithered and failed to call an election. This is despite opinion polls suggesting Labour would win. Gordon Brown’s image of a decisive leader was shattered, starting with a particular session of PMQ’s on 10th October 2007:
This was one of the most one one-sided Prime Minister’s Questions of all time. It was a humiliating episode for Gordon Brown and, looking back, may have been the beginning of the end of his premiership. In May 2010, when the election was called, the Conservatives were the largest party, albeit without an outright majority.After the 2010 election, with no clear majority for any party, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition.  To do this, they agreed to the Coalition Agreement.
Clegg and Cameron

The Coalition Agreement was reached between David Cameron and Nick Clegg in May 2010

 

Essentially, this was a compromise on the policies of the two parties. There were numerous elements of constitutional reform proposed–including the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was passed in 2011. It was a relatively simple piece of legislation. It guaranteed that an election would be held every five years, beginning in 2015.
However, there were two provisions that allowed for an early election to be held:
  • A Vote of No-Confidence in the Government could still trigger a General Election.
  • A General Election could be called if a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons called one.
To many, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was a cynical piece of electioneering. Some suggested the Lib Dems were simply ensuring that they could not be kicked out of the election by the time the Parliament finished in 2015. On the face of it, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is a major piece of constitutional reform. However, events in 2017 showed how limited it is. After becoming Prime Minister in 2016, Theresa May promised there would be no early election. She consistently said that there next election would be in May 2020. However, looking at polling numbers that suggested a significant majority would be won if an election was held, she was persuaded to call one.
Snap Election

Theresa May was persuaded by her advisors to call an early election for June 2017, which she did despite the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (2011)

In reality, it was quite simple to do. Despite the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the Prime Minister could use her authority to ensure that Conservative MPs voted for an early election. Although a two-thirds majority was required, and therefore Labour also needed to vote in favour, in reality what could they do? If they voted against, they would look weak, look as if they were running scared and therefore lose credibility. In the end, the House of Commons voted for the election by 522 to 13 votes! However, the subsequent election did not go as the Prime Minister had planned.
So, in summary, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act may appear to be a major constitutional change which limited the Royal Prerogative, but in reality, it is still easy for a incumbent government to call a General Election when they want to hold it.

Why was Devolution in Northern Ireland so hard to achieve and is it in crisis?

Blair

With a parliamentary majority of 1979, Tony Blair was able to push through a radical constitutional reform agenda – which included devolution

Within two years of become Prime Minister in May 1997, Tony Blair had achieved his aims of devolving power across the United Kingdom:

The Scotland Act, 1998 – This created a Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament (often referred to as Holyrood) is elected using the Additional Member System. The Government is led by the First Minister.

The Government of Wales Act, 1998 – This created a Welsh Assembly and Welsh Executive (it is now called the Welsh Government). The Welsh Assembly is elected using the Additional Member System. The Government is led by the First Minister.

The Northern Ireland Act, 1998 – This created a Northern Irish Assembly and Northern Irish Executive. The Northern Irish Assembly (often referred to as Stormont) is elected using the Single Transferable Vote system. The Northern Irish Executive is co-led by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in a unique ‘power-sharing’ arrangement.

Greater London Authority Act, 1999 – This created a Greater London Assembly and a directly elected London Mayor for Greater London. The Assembly is elected using the Additional Member System.

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What are the so-called ‘Henry VIII Powers’ and why are they a controversial part of the Brexit Debate?

As part of her accession to the European Economic Community (now the European Union) on 1st of January 1973, Britain agreed to accept the supremacy of European Community Law over UK Law. This was later further confirmed by the Factortame Case of 1989.

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The Law Lords, then making up the supreme court of the United Kingdom, confirmed the precedence of EU Law over UK Law in the Factortame Case of 1989.

Since Britain joined the European Union thousands of EU Directives and Regulations have been implemented into UK Law. Indeed, since the EEC was formed in 1958 it is estimated that there have been over 80,000 items of EU Law, most of which has had to be incorporated into the legal system of the Member States. In Britain, some of this implementation has been done by Primary Legislation (Statute Law). However, most has been done by Secondary Legislation (Statutory Instruments). The statistics below illustrate this:

  • Between 1993 and 2014, 231 Acts of Parliament were passed that implemented EU obligations.
  • Between 1993 and 2014, 4,263 Statutory Instruments were enacted that implemented EU obligations

Source: House of Commons Library

These are both significant figures, especially when it is considered that they only run back to 1993, many Acts of Parliament and Statutory Instruments relating to the EU will predate these. EU Directives and Regulations may be wide-ranging, dealing with issues as diverse as food packaging standards and privacy standards.

What this means is that whilst the question of the ballot paper the June 2016 Referendum was quite straightforward, the complexity of putting into practice its results is hard to comprehend and is also very controversial, due to the Government’s plans to use so-called “Henry VIII Powers”.

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The English King of 1509-1547 has been mentioned in debates over Brexit more than most would have imagined!

The Henry VIII powers are named after the English King who reigned from 1509-1547. In 1539 the Proclamation of the Crown Act was passed. This gave any proclamation by the King the full force of law. In the post-reformation period, Henry VIII wanted to ensure he could quickly quell any Catholic rebellion in England.

Contrary to popular belief, laws are not passed by Parliament alone and never have been. A Law is simply an accepted action that regulates the Government. Therefore, in the UK Law is passed in a variety of ways:

Statute Law – This is law passed by Parliament. As Britain accepts the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, this is the supreme form of Law in the UK.

Common Law – This is also known as ‘Judge Made’ Law. These are legal decisions made in court cases that are then used in future cases, thereby forming legal precedents.

Royal Prerogative – The Prime Minister retains the power to act without the direct consent of Parliament through her use of the Royal Prerogative. These are powers that traditionally belonged to the monarch but are now exercised by Ministers. These are a legacy of absolutist monarchs, like Henry VIII.

Statutory Instruments – Government business is far too complex for every single decision that needs to be made going through the legislative stages of the House of Commons and House of Lords. Therefore, the Government has the power to implement legislation through Statutory Instruments that have been pre-authorised by Parliament.

As outlined previously, Britain’s membership of the European Union is made up of thousands of pieces of legislation, some of it Primary (Statute Law) and some of it Secondary (Statutory Instruments). The job of the Government and Parliament post-Brexit is to decide which of these thousands of pieces of law need integrating into UK Law, which need to be amended to fit into UK law and which should be repealed entirely from UK Law.

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Whilst Ministers make the policy decisions on what to include, it is Senior Civil Servants like Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, who have the unenviable task of transposing EU Law into UK Law.

To do all of this via Statute Law would be a mammoth task and would tie up Parliament for years to come. The Government therefore propose making many of these changes using the so-called Henry VIII Powers – via Statutory Instrument – not via full parliamentary procedures. This would enable it to be done efficiently and quickly. However, it would also mean it could done without the level of parliamentary scrutiny that many think is necessary. Currently, the Conservatives do not have a majority in Parliament and rely on the support of the DUP in a ‘confidence and supply deal’. Any attempt to circumvent Parliament in implementing Brexit is unlikely to be easily accepted – especially as one of the prime selling points for Brexit was bringing sovereignty back to the UK Parliament.

The issue of the Henry VIII Powers, is a good example of the arguments over the reality of where sovereignty lies in the British political system. Is Parliament truly sovereign, or is there, as Lord Hailsham said, an elective dictatorship?

 

Types of Government and Confidence and Supply

A Government is formed in the UK when the Queen invites a member of the House of Commons to form a Government. It is by convention that a Prime Minister comes from the House of Commons and is the leader of the largest party in the House. This is because as Prime Minister they need to be directly accountable to the people’s elected representatives. As such, the last Prime Minister to govern from the House of Lords was the Marquess of Salisbury in 1902.

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The Salisbury Convention

Robert_Gascoyne-Cecil_1947

One of the most important sources of Britain’s uncodified constitution are conventions. These are unwritten agreements which are usually followed. Britain is one of only four countries across the globe with an uncodified constitution. Constitutions from countries in which they are codified are usually formed at the end of a revolutionary period. For example, America’s codified constitution of 1787 was written at the end of the revolutionary war in which America gained independence from Britain. Another example is Russia which implemented a codified constitution in 1993, after the fall of Communism. Unlike these countries, Britain has not had a revolution since the age of enlightenment, during which liberal democracy and constitutionalism became engrained in western thought. Instead, rather than being revolutionary, the UK constitution is evolutionary – more layers have been added through time, rather than undergoing a fundamental restructuring.

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