Work of the Committee since the 2017 General Election Contents

1Constitutional Affairs

Constitutional Affairs

12.Since the 2017 General Election, under our constitutional affairs remit, the Committee considered:

Parliamentary Sovereignty and Accountability

13.Across the Committee’s constitutional inquiries several key themes have appeared. It is clear that the sovereignty of Parliament and accountability to Parliament remain the foundation principles which underpin the operation the UK’s constitution and system of government. As political culture and expectations have developed over time these principles have evolved, and the role of Parliament and in particular the House of Commons in the UK’s constitutional arrangements has changed in response. The ultimate authority of the elected House of Commons as the representatives of the people became established in the twentieth century. In more recent decades, the use of referendums to settle certain issues has also added an element of direct democracy, which presents new challenges. This poses important constitutional questions for how the institutions of governance in the UK adapt to this, and to future, changes.

14.Our report Authorising the Use of Military Force examined how the conventions around the use of the royal prerogative to authorise the use of military force have adapted to changes in political culture and expectations.8 While it has long been the practice of governments to ensure the will of the House was supportive of decisions to take military action, since the decision to seek prior approval for military action in Iraq in 2003 the convention has become established that the Government is expected to seek prior authorisation for the House of Commons before taking military action, subject to certain exceptions. The development of this convention reflected the fact that the government of the day derives the legitimacy for its exercise of the royal prerogative in this and other areas from commanding the confidence of the House of Commons. While the Government is given great discretion over how it uses executive power, it has always been the expectation that it acts in accordance with the will of the House of Commons. In recent years mechanisms and expectations such as the convention on military action have arisen to ensure that government actions have the democratic legitimacy of being the will of the House of Commons.

15.A common concern across our constitutional inquiries has been that a culture of mistrust that has, over a long period of time, become entrenched within the UK’s political system and in particular in the relations between Parliament and the Government. This lack of trust was evident and clearly intensified in the previous Government’s approach to Opposition day votes and resolutions, and in the Opposition’s decision to revive the motion for return using an Humble Address in order to gain access to information the Government was unwilling to provide, which we considered in our report on Status of Resolutions of the House. The Committee was clear that while the Government have considerable executive discretion to act, the essentially unlimited power of Parliament means the House of Commons is the ultimate arbiter, but we said that both Government and Parliament are expected to operate in good faith. The Committee cautioned that both Parliament and Government should be careful about taking actions which set precedents with long term effects in response to short term political pressures. It is unfortunate that this caution has not been fully heeded.9

16.We also found in Devolution and Exiting the EU, that the culture of mistrust has permeated the devolution arrangements. This was particularly exposed in both relations between devolved institutions and Whitehall, as well as in the relations between Whitehall and the various levels of local government in England, after the publication of the EU Withdrawal Bill in July 2017.10 It is clear from the inquiries that the lack of trust is an issue that has developed over number of years and cannot be addressed by any one simple change. Rather the issue of a lack of trust within the UK political system will require concerted institutional and cultural change, and through them, the development of understandings, norms of behaviour and friendships to underpin their effectiveness. We will consider how to continue to promote this work.

17.We have conducted these inquiries during a period when the UK’s constitution has been under increasing strain. This reflects some two decades of radical change, such as the introduction of devolution in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the Human Rights Act 1998, the establishment of elected Mayors, the replacement of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords with the Supreme Court, the increasing use of referendums, and the introduction of the Fixed Terms Parliaments Act 2011. The result of the 2016 EU referendum also represents a constitutional shock, challenging the prevailing view of the majority in Parliament. The present crisis is compounded by the lack of a majority government in the House of Commons. Our committee intends to take a more comprehensive look at the state of the UK Constitution and faith in our democracy in the next session.


4 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2017–19, Devolution and Exiting the EU and Clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill: Issues for Consideration, HC 484; Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2017–19, Devolution and Exiting the EU: reconciling differences and building strong relationships, HC 1485

5 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2017–19, A smaller House of Lords: The report of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House, HC662

6 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Fourteenth Report of Session 2017–19, The Role of Parliament in the UK Constitution Interim Report The Status and Effect of Confidence Motions and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, HC1813; Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Fifteenth Report of Session 2017–19, Status of Resolutions of the House, HC1587; Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Twentieth Report of Session 2017–19, Role of Parliament in the UK Constitution: Authorising the Use of Military Force, HC1891

8 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Twentieth Report of Session 2017–19, Role of Parliament in the UK Constitution: Authorising the Use of Military Force, HC1891

9 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Fifteenth Report of Session 2017–19, Status of Resolutions of the House, HC1587

10 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2017–19, Devolution and Exiting the EU: reconciling differences and building strong relationships, HC 1485




Published: 8 October 2019