The UK constitution is in urgent need of reform after a tumultuous period in politics exposed weaknesses that have damaged both public trust and the country’s international reputation, a major review has found.
A joint report by the Institute for Government and Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy said “further injury” had been caused by a series of scandals involving ministers and MPs, including those holding the highest offices being found to have broken the law.
The 18-month review was supported by an advisory board including former Conservative ministers Sir Robert Buckland and Sir David Lidington, shadow leader of the House of Lords Baroness Smith of Basildon and former Labour Mayor of Liverpool Joanna Anderson.
The report highlighted that the UK is an outlier internationally, with the constitution lacking “a central, codified source” and resting on the concept of parliamentary sovereignty.
This means there has been a historic reliance on “self-restraint from political actors rather than legal checks”, it added.
However, recent events were said to have tested the effectiveness of these arrangements, with the vote to leave the European Union leading to division over the appropriate balance of power between governing institutions. This was reflected in the UK Supreme Court ruling to set limits on executive power after Boris Johnson attempted to prorogue Parliament in September 2019.
The report also highlights that the UK Government made decisions without the consent of devolved legislatures, raising questions over “the nature of the territorial constitution”.
Mr Johnson’s “misdemeanours” were highlighted as conduct that raised questions over ethics and integrity in politics in recent years.
The report said: “Boris Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament, disregard for the Ministerial Code, willingness to break the law while in office and misleading of parliament were all examples of a prime minister who, in the words of his cabinet secretary, believed he had ‘a mandate to test established boundaries’.
“Not all of his misdemeanours were unprecedented; but his premiership shone a light on existing problems within the UK’s governing arrangements, and heightened the concern that there has been a steady erosion of the tacit norms on which government in the UK rests.”
The report added that within the wider global context of “deepening public suspicion of governmental institutions and heightened political polarisation”, events over the last decade “have placed the UK’s constitution under immense strain, underlining the urgent need for serious thinking about the nature and trajectory of the UK’s constitution”.
Mr Johnson’s conduct was cited as an example of the behaviour a number of “constitutional actors” who showed a willingness to push the boundaries of the constitution and raising questions about the adequacy of checks and balances to “constrain political power”.
As a key example, the report cites ministers’ previous willingness to override international law over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Despite senior civil servants resigning, interventions from former prime ministers and concerns expressed by the international community, the legislation passed the House of Commons in just over a month, with not a single rebellion from the Conservative backbenches.
Among several factors that have contributed to “the weakening of a sense of self-restraint in relation to constitutional norms on the part of government and politicians”, the report said “questions of constitutional process and propriety have often been seen as secondary to broader policy aims”.
A series of recommendations for change include establishing a new parliamentary committee on the constitution. This should have the power to delay legislation and creating an independent Office of the Constitution to the support the new committee in the way the National Audit Office supports the Public Accounts Committee.
The review also said Parliament should have a more extensive scrutiny process for new constitutional bills to ensure proposals are “thoroughly tested and attract cross-party support”, alongside clarification on the role of the civil service and strengthening its capacity to give constitutional advice.
Integrating public engagement through citizens’ juries and assemblies was also recommended.
Director of the Institute for Government, Hannah White, said: “Some governments enter office with a manifesto commitment to constitutional change, others find the temptation to tinker with the constitution comes upon them.
“Our recommendations are intended to ensure that any politician considering changing UK the constitution is supported with robust advice, and to ensure that the UK constitution is changed only with appropriate consideration and public support.”
Co-director of the Bennett Institute, Mike Kenny, said: “One of the key issues that this Review has explored is how to get more public engagement in discussions about the principles and norms underpinning our public life.
“There is a growing imperative for government to take much more seriously the challenge of ensuring that citizens’ deliberations become a regular, integral part of the processes of making and examining constitutional change.”