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A group of leading constitutional experts has warned that badly behaved politicians are running roughshod over, and violating, constitutional norms.
The United Kingdom Constitution Monitoring Group (UKCMG) believes there is evidence of a desire on the part of some who operate in the UK political system to wholly bypass democracy.
This group consists of leading constitutional experts, including former permanent secretaries of the civil service, professors of public law, and a former lord chief justice of England and Wales.
It warns that, while elements of an oversight system have been demonstrated to work in recent months, challenges to these systems have had damaging consequences.
Worryingly, the authors of the report believe that this is not just unique to the UK and is part of a much wider international trend.
The Government told Byline Times that it takes the responsibility for upholding the UK’s constitutional settlement seriously.
The report’s editor, Professor Andrew Blick of King’s College London, said the period it covers “saw senior politicians, including a former Prime Minister, being found to have violated basic constitutional and ethical principles”.
The UKCMG’s research covers the period between January and June this year and highlights seven primary areas of concern, alongside the behaviour of dozens of individuals.
These spanned the Boris Johnson Lords nominations, issues with the Illegal Migration Bill, the introduction of mandatory voter ID, and breaches of the Ministerial Code.
It highlights how a number of holders of high office in the UK have all been found by official inquiries to have seriously failed to live up to appropriate expectations. Despite subsequently leaving their posts, their accompanying statements to varying degrees failed to accord due respect to – or positively denigrated – the processes concerned.
The Government restated that all ministers are subject to the Ministerial Code. However, the authors found that “this tendency for senior politicians established clearly to have transgressed standards to fail properly to accept such outcomes and to question the procedures that have been found against them is constitutionally objectionable”.
On the 94 peerages Boris Johnson dished out, the report found that the trend of making the appointments to those who have rendered political service or financial support to Johnson and the Conservative Party had accelerated under his tenure.
The Government pointed out how all nominations to the Lords are subject to independent vetting by the House of Lords Appointments Commission for proprietary.
But Professor Blick added: “That it is possible to inquire into and condemn such transgressions is heartening. However, the response of the individuals concerned tended to be to challenge the process rather than accept the outcome. Pressure on standards in public life, and many other aspects of our system, remain a serious cause for concern.”
The Illegal Migration Bill became an Act of Parliament in July 2023, just outside of the UKCMG’s reporting period. But the group has still highlighted serious concerns with it. This is because consent was not sought from the devolved governments, and the Act removes or reduces legal checks over decisions of the Home Secretary to remove an individual, who arrived in the UK illegally, from the country.
It also places the Home Secretary under a duty to remove those arriving illegally in the UK. The Government told Byline Times that it needs the legislative framework to deliver on Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” and clamp down on those abusing the system.
A Home Office Spokesperson added: “The Illegal Migration Act will ensure people who come here illegally won’t have their asylum claim considered in the UK and instead can be detained and swiftly removed.”
Another area of concern for the UKCMG is the introduction of voter ID. The Government has said it has faith in local authorities to implement the change, while continuing to deliver a secure and robust election process.
But the authors state: “There is now clear evidence of voter ID having significant negative consequences on the numbers voting, especially among particular groups. Research conducted by the Electoral Commission found that at least 0.25% of those who attempted to vote in the English local elections were prevented from doing so under the new ID rules.”
This percentage figures amounts to around 14,000 voters. But that number is likely to rise considerably at a general election. Evidence suggests that the real number of those unable to vote was higher because of “data quality issues”.
In addition, polling carried out for the Electoral Commission of non-voters in the English local elections suggested that there were more people still who did not attempt to vote because of the need for ID.
A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “The vast majority of voters in the polling station – 99.75% – cast their vote successfully at the local elections in England in May.”
The report also looked at the continuing lack of an executive in Northern Ireland, failures in intergovernmental relations, and the degradation of the Sewel Convention.
Throughout the reporting period, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) sustained its refusal to participate in the Northern Ireland Executive, denying Northern Ireland democratically accountable government at devolved level.
The Government said it is the priority of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to see the return of locally elected, accountable and effective devolved government.
The UKCMG found that the lack of an executive in Northern Ireland was undermining the peace process and removes a level of democratic accountability in a way that is of “considerable constitutional, democratic and material detriment” to the country.
Moreover, the authors of the report believe it is “entirely inappropriate for civil servants to be required to make decisions about spending reductions” in Northern Ireland.
‘Them and Us’
Baroness Drake, Chair of the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee, said the report highlights a number of issues, many of which her committee has been monitoring throughout the year.
Under the Sewel Convention, the UK Parliament is “not normally” able to legislate without the relevant devolved nation having passed a legislative consent motion.
Baroness Drake said this had been a particular area of concern and that “the committee has been keen to ensure the Sewel Convention is adhered to and has warned that secondary legislation should not be used as a means to circumvent it”.
She added: “The committee has also produced reports on the roles of the Lord Chancellor and the law officers, the Cabinet manual and the constitutional position of senior civil servants. The committee has followed the progress of voter ID since the Elections Bill was passing through the Lords: we have recently launched an inquiry into the use of voter ID in the May 2023 local elections and lessons to be learned for future elections.”
A Government spokesperson added: “The Government takes seriously its constitutional role and responsibility for upholding our unique constitutional settlement. We have committed to publishing in this Parliament an updated version of the Cabinet manual, setting out our constitutional conventions and practices.”
In response to the findings, former Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy, said: “Politics isn’t working and government politicians believe there is one rule for them and one for the rest of us. Fortunately, there is a simple way to restore order to the chaotic government we have seen in the last few years: introduce a fair and proportional voting system to make sure everyone’s vote counts and everyone’s voice is heard.”