Constitutional processes following a general election - Justice Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. In the light of speculation that the forthcoming general election could result in a House of Commons where no one party has an overall majority—and independent study of the implications of such circumstances[1]—we agreed to hold an evidence session on how constitutional principle, provision and practice apply after general elections.

2. We are publishing this short report in order to make available all the evidence received, oral and written, and to respond to the invitation of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, for us to comment on the draft chapter of the Cabinet Manual being developed by the Cabinet Office which deals with elections and government formation.[2] We welcome the publication by the Cabinet Office of that text for consultation.[3] We were grateful for sight of this draft prior to the Cabinet Secretary's appearance before us. We note his intention to publish a more finished version in time for the forthcoming general election.[4]

3. The steps that have to be taken after a general election, and the roles and responsibilities of the Prime Minister, the Sovereign, the Civil Service and other key actors, are not widely understood. They need to be clear, and clarity is particularly important when the election results in a situation where no one political party has an overall majority in the House of Commons.[5] Our aim was to shed a little more light on this aspect of the UK constitution and to ascertain what preparations were being undertaken within the Government to address the different possible outcomes.

4. The Cabinet Secretary told us that: "in terms of the Civil Service, people ... have not seen many changes of administration and they have certainly not seen a hung Parliament situation. So can we assume that the Civil Service is up and ready for this? No."[6] He told us he wanted to put this chapter before the Committee "because it is hugely important that we get some clarity ahead of an election ... I would want to try and get this finalised before the start of an election campaign." He added that "in the absence of commands otherwise" he would be following the principles set out in the finalised chapter up to and following the forthcoming election.[7]

5. We were very grateful to Lord Butler of Brockwell and Lord Turnbull of Enfield, former cabinet secretaries;[8] Professor Robert Hazell, Director, Constitution Unit, UCL, Peter Riddell, Senior Fellow, Institute of Government, and Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government, Oxford University,[9] for participating in the session. We were also grateful for the submission, by Professor Hazell and Mr Peter Riddell, of memoranda on the codification of constitutional practice drawing on international comparators.[10] The session was concluded by oral evidence from the Cabinet Secretary.[11]

6. The evidence we have gathered is published as part of this report, including the draft chapter on elections and government formation made in public by the Cabinet Office on 24 February.[12]

1   See, for example, No Overall Control?, Hansard Society, 2008 and Transitions-preparing for changes to government, Institute for Government, 2009 Back

2   Q 87 Back

3   Ev 23-27 Back

4   Q 97 Back

5   Ev 28, paras 1.1-1.2 and Qq 31, 62, 63, Q 65 [Riddell], and Qq 78, 87 Back

6   Q 87 Back

7   Q 95 Back

8   Qq 1-58 Back

9   Qq 59-86 Back

10   Ev 28-49 Back

11   Qq 87-[end] Back

12   Ev 23-27 Back

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