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Exploring the Constitution

What constitutional changes have we seen?

Major changes were made to Britain’s constitution in the 19th and early 20th century in order to make it more democratic, such as extending to the vote to the whole of the adult population and removing the absolute veto of the House of Lords over legislation approved by the House of Commons.  From 1930 until the 1970s, though, there was little interest in Constitutional change and academic writers and politicians mostly saw the way that the British Constitution was flexible and gradually changing as nearly perfect.  From the 1970s, there was increasing concern that the Executive was too powerful, that the voting system was unfair, and that individual rights were not clearly protected and there was pressure from Scotland for a new constitutional settlement. In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher was not interested in constitutional reform but,while in opposition, ideas developed within the Labour Party and discussion took place among a wide range of groups in Scotland about what form devolution could take.

Labour Reforms

The Labour Government after 1997 carried out a number of major constitutional reforms:-

-        Labour was committed to devolution for Scotland.  A range of Scottish organisation and political parties had formed a Scottish Constitutional Convention, in 1989, and put together proposals for devolution.  Once in power, Labour held referendums in Scotland and Wales on devolution and with a large majority in Scotland and a tiny majority in Wales, people voted in favour.

The Scotland Act 1998 set up a Scottish Parliament at Holyrood with powers over a wide range of policy areas such as health, education, housing and transport and a Scottish Executive with a First Minister.  There was a power to vary national income tax rates, though this has never been used. Other areas such as foreign policy and energy were reserved for the UK Government to decide. A mixed system of first past the post and proportional representation was chosen as the electoral system and this made it difficult for any party to gain a majority in the Scottish Parliament. Labour/Liberal Democrat Governments ran Scottish Government until 2007. Some other powers over policy areas and taxation have now been given from Westminster to Scotland. The SNP took over the Scottish Government in 2007 and proposed a referendum on independence, which Cameron agreed to. The referendum rejected independence but during the campaign the British party leaders agreed a new and major devolution of powers to Scotland. These are being discussed by the political parties within the Smith Commission.

-        The Government of Wales Act 1998 set up a Welsh Assembly responsible for a similar set of powers to that of the Scottish Parliament but with a need for approval for legislation from Westminster and no powers over taxation and no clear Government structure.  The electoral system was the same as for Scotland and has produced, at different times, Labour Governments and Labour in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and with Plaid Cymru.

Despite the narrow victory in the 1998 referendum, demands for further devolution grew and the Government of Wales Act 2006 gave the Welsh Assembly legislative powers and a separate Welsh Executive.

-        Northern Ireland had its own Parliament from 1921 until 1972 but the Government it produced was entirely Protestant and, after violent conflict began in the late 1960s, it was replaced by direct rule from London. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 led to the creation of the New Northern Ireland Assembly which gained powers similar to the Scottish and Welsh bodies.  A proportional voting system was used so that there was a Unionist majority but fair Nationalist representation.  The unusual feature of the settlement was that the Executive which runs Northern Ireland was to be power-sharing between the two communities so that both Unionists and Nationalists would hold ministerial positions and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, one from each community, would have equal powers.  Cross border institutions were also set up to recognise the interest of the Irish Republic in what happens in Northern Ireland. The decline of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party led to the breakdown of power-sharing but the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 and new legislation brought the less moderate Democratic Unionist Party and nationalist Sinn Fein together in the Executive.

-        The House of Lords in 1997 consisted of a large number of hereditary peers who provided a Conservative majority and life peers, mostly ex- House of Commons politicians or people who had been eminent in a range of areas such as medicine or diplomacy, appointed through the political parties.  Labour removed all except 92 hereditary peers in 1999, those remaining resulting from an agreement with the Conservative leader in the Lords to get the legislation through.  A thorough reform of the Lords was promised but has never taken place because of disagreements between and within the parties over whether the new body should be elected, appointed or a mixture of the two. An independent Appointments Commission was set up to vet new appointments but Prime Ministers have still used the system to get supporters of their party chosen.  With these regular additions to its membership, the Lords is now the largest legislative assembly in any democratic country.

-        Britain had no clear set of human rights though there has been equality legislation and the common law has a general presumption in favour of the liberty of the citizen.  The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the set of human rights of the European Convention of Human Rights, drawn up by Western European nations in 1950. The British courts would now apply these in all cases coming to them which challenge the decisions of public bodies and could declare that existing laws were incompatible with the Act.  This preserves the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty but, in practice, Parliament has changed the law in these cases. All new Bills, when they are introduced into Parliament, would have to have a statement that they were in conformity with the Human Rights Act.  Judges now apply new and more stringent tests, derived from the European Court, for Government decisions to be lawful and these have entered the common law and so may be applied to all cases.  A more active judiciary has led to high profile conflicts with Government Ministers over decisions, especially in relation to immigration and asylum.

-        The Freedom of Information Act 2000 creates a right for anyone to ask a public body for particular information. Some areas, such as that related to national security, are exempt and the public body can decide that the public interest in not disclosing the information is greater than the public interest in disclosing it.  Information can be refused if it is too expensive to collect and ministers can veto a release, which has been done very occasionally, but, for example, to prevent publication of Cabinet minutes related to the decision to invade Iraq and letters by Prince Charles to Government ministers.  Applicants for information can appeal to an Information Commissioner if they are refused.  Over 100,000 requests are now made each year, though some are by journalists and firms. Requests by people about information held about themselves is covered by the Data Protection Act 1998.

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