The House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (the “PACAC”) is conducting a Call for Evidence as part of its inquiry (the “Inquiry”) in relation to the commitment in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto (at page 48) that the Government would establish a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission (the “Commission”).
According to the manifesto commitment, the Commission’s purpose would be to make proposals “to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”. The manifesto stated that the role of the Commission would be to examine: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. It appears the intention was that the Commission would also “update” the Human Rights Act and administrative law, as well as ensure that judicial review is “available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays”.
The Government subsequently announced that it had appointed a panel of experts to examine whether there is a need to reform the judicial review process and there was a Call for Evidence by the Government’s Independent Review of Administrative Law (the “IRAL”; see Public Law Notes updates of 3 August 2020 and 27 October 2020). As regards the remaining commitments, the Government has made no announcements about the form or timing of the Commission except in the Queen’s Speech.
The Call for Evidence seeks submissions on the form which the Commission should take, its main purpose and output, and any particular issues which should be a priority for the Government. This Call for Evidence gives members of the public the opportunity to have their say and influence the findings of the Inquiry.
Evidence to the Inquiry
Oral evidence has been given to the Inquiry by a number of individuals including Lord Sumption, former Justice of the Supreme Court, and academics.
The focus of the oral evidence given so far has been on what should be the priorities for the Commission. The suggestions covered a broad array of topics including (among others):
- The context of the reforms that the Commission would consider in that Brexit is “affecting the relationships between the different institutions in the Constitution” in any case and so it may be sensible to consider significant constitutional issues at this juncture;
- The opportunity to “rebuild public trust” in the institutions following the divisive Brexit debates;
- The electoral system;
- The House of Commons’ ability to control the legislative agenda;
- The implications of the Human Rights Act 1998;
- The separation of powers;
- The role of the public and how the public might be engaged with the Commission;
- Whether the Government is approaching the issues which the Commission will consider with an open mind.
The PACAC has not yet stated when the findings of the Inquiry will be published.
Selecting a tactical or strategic approach to constitutional reform
The New Labour Government’s constitutional reform programme in the 1990’s and 2000’s took what some have described as a “piecemeal” approach as it introduced devolution, enacted the Human Rights Act 1998; established a freedom of information regime and reformed the House of Lords. Given the pressure of COVID-19, the Government may find that it does not now have the time to consider constitutional reforms in the round. Therefore, there is a real possibility that this Government could replicate New Labour’s approach, by thinking about issues tactically and thus leaving some dissatisfied.
Evidence given to the Inquiry by Professor Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit at University College London, suggested that there has been a “sort of scattergun” approach by Government, including proposals such as moving the House of Lords to York; abolishing certain regulators or weakening their powers; and establishment of the IRAL. Further, there have been reports over the weekend that the Government is backing plans to reform the Supreme Court by reducing the number of Justices and renaming the institution. Lord Lisvane, a Member of the Constitutional Reform Group Steering Committee, has also suggested that the overlap between the Commission and the IRAL is “a recipe for unconstructive confusion”.
Lord Lisvane has rightly pointed out to the Inquiry the potential scale of the Commission’s remit:
“The daunting thing about what is proposed is the sheer size of the canvas. As soon as you start unpacking the individual elements they expand further. For example, how do you do Government and Parliament relations without looking at the devolution settlements? How do you do access to justice for—in the condescending phrase—ordinary people without looking at the structure and resourcing of the justice system and legal aid? As soon as you start looking in more detail, the sheer size of the task starts to increase. I think that that is going to be a major challenge…”
The Call for Evidence closes on 16 November. It will be interesting to see how the Committee’s findings fit with the remit of and any recommendations made by IRAL, which is due to report back later this year.