Lessons from the process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election - Political and Consitutional Reform Committee Contents


4 The Programme for Government

44. An initial coalition agreement was created by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties on 11 May, five days after the election.[54] Nine days later on 20 May, the Government published a more detailed document entitled The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, which outlined the Government's substantive policies.[55] On 21 May, the Government published the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform, an operational document setting out "the basis upon which the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Parties will jointly maintain in office Her Majesty's Government".

45. We are not concerned here with the content of the Programme for Government, but rather with its constitutional status. We may consider as part of a future inquiry the operations of coalition government, as opposed to the processes by which that Government came into being.

Status of the coalition agreement

46. It has been suggested that the coalition Government's programme for government lacks a popular mandate because it was created after the general election and therefore the electorate had no opportunity to vote on it.[56] According to Professor Blackburn, "its moral authority in terms of representing a democratic mandate for government is open to debate".[57]

47. However, the majority of our evidence does not suggest that the programme for government lacks legitimacy because of this.

48. We agree, for two reasons. The first is that, as submitted by Professor Dawn Oliver, Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law at University College London,

no government for many decades has won the votes of a majority of those who voted in an election, given the fact that most constituencies are won on three or four etc cornered fights and the winning candidate seldom wins a majority of the votes cast. Thus winning an election does not necessarily grant a government a 'mandate'.[58]

49. The second reason is that a coalition government has no opportunity to put its programme to the people. As Dr Catherine Haddon, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Government, told us: "I don't know how it would work in practicality. You can't then re-have the election on the basis of voting for the coalition agreement."[59]

50. However, there remains a distinction between policies contained in a coalition government's programme for government and those contained in a manifesto. Oliver Letwin agreed that a manifesto and a coalition agreement are:

completely different kinds of document... it is at least open to voters to read the manifesto and that some voters—maybe a higher proportion of those making up their mind than those already settled in their convictions—do read manifestos, or read summaries of manifestos, or read summaries of the manifestos in the newspapers and elsewhere. Therefore, at least I think one can say that some of the main lines of the manifesto probably have some influence on the outcome of a general election...The coalition agreement manifestly can't because it isn't in existence at the time of a general election. It is a totally different status of document.[60]

51. A policy contained in a coalition agreement does not have the same mandate as a manifesto pledge, except where the policy was reflected in the manifestos of both parties to the coalition. In the case of a pledge which was contained in one coalition party's manifesto, the popular mandate in support of it was not enough to give that party a majority. Where policies are included in a coalition agreement that were not included in the manifesto of any party to a coalition government, these carry the same authority as a non-manifesto policy adopted after an election by a single-party government.

52. This seems to us to have two consequences. The first is that a coalition government has a duty to ensure that Bills and other decisions which originate from policies in the programme for government are subjected to rigorous scrutiny by Parliament, and that Parliament is given sufficient opportunity to carry out this scrutiny. As Dr Ruth Fox from the Hansard Society told us,

given that [Bills originating from the programme for government] are not manifesto Bills, there is also, it seems to me, an onus on the Government in terms of bringing forward its legislation to ensure that it does so in a way that allows for maximum scrutiny of those issues.[61]

This sees parliamentary scrutiny as a form of compensation for a democratic gap.

53. We have previously expressed our commitment to pre-legislative scrutiny, especially for Bills of legal and constitutional sensitivity.[62] By its nature, the policies of a coalition government have not been endorsed by the people. This makes full pre-legislative scrutiny and proper consultation on those policies all the more important.

54. The second consequence is that Members of the House of Lords may not feel bound to apply the Salisbury-Addison convention to policies contained in a coalition government's programme for government.

55. The Joint Committee on Conventions published a report in 2006 which articulated the Salisbury-Addison convention as follows:

The Convention which has evolved is that:

In the House of Lords:

A manifesto Bill is accorded a Second Reading;

A manifesto Bill is not subject to "wrecking amendments" which change the Government's manifesto intention as proposed in the Bill; and

A manifesto Bill is passed and sent (or returned) to the House of Commons, so that they have the opportunity, in reasonable time, to consider the Bill or any amendments the Lords may wish to propose.[63]

56. The Joint Committee also recommended against attempting to define what constitutes a manifesto Bill.[64]

57. It is for individual Members of the House of Lords to decide whether to apply this convention to Bills which originate from the coalition Government's programme for government. We have sought the views on this matter of the Leaders of the main political parties in the House of Lords, as well as the Convenor of the Independent Crossbench Peers. However, we received a range of opinions from a number of witnesses and no definitive consensus has emerged.[65] Baroness Royall, Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition in the House of Lords, has argued that these cannot rightly be called manifesto Bills.[66] Robert Hazell argued in oral evidence that the convention actually applies to all government Bills.[67]

58. There is some academic debate as to whether the Salisbury-Addison convention continues to exist.[68] We will return to this issue in detail when we examine the Government's proposals to reform the House of Lords.

59. Doubts about the applicability and even existence of Salisbury-Addison, as discussed above, draw attention to the centrality of conventions to the operation of the UK political settlement, and the confusion that can sometimes surround them. This informality is associated with the un-codified nature of the UK constitution, another issue to which we shall return.

Internal Party Processes

60. We heard evidence about the Liberal Democrat party's internal "triple lock" arrangement for agreeing to a coalition (or other) arrangement.[69] David Laws described this as "a process of approval that required the parliamentary party, our federal executive, which is the sovereign party body, and ultimately a special conference having to sign off on the agreement".[70] We note that the Labour and Conservative parties do not have such an arrangement in place. It is for the political parties to decide if they wish to review their internal procedures in light of the events of May 2010.


54   Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition negotiations, Agreements reached, 11 May 2010 Back

55   HM Government, Our Programme for Government, May 2010 Back

56   For an example see Ev w1. Back

57   Ev w7 Back

58   Ev w1 Back

59   Q 149 Back

60   Q 114 Back

61   Q 157 Back

62   Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Second Report of Session 2009/10, Fixed Term Parliaments Bill Back

63   HC 1212-I (2005-06), Para 99 Back

64   HC 1212-I (2005-06), Para 113 Back

65   Ev w10 [Baroness D'Souza]; Ev w11 [Baroness Royall of Blaisdon] Back

66   Ev w11 Back

67   Q 156 Back

68   Ev 64 Back

69   Q 8 Back

70   Q 8 Back


 
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Prepared 28 January 2011