Constitution Unit influence
The Constitution Unit’s policy influence has been long and deep, especially in the implementation of Labour’s early constitutional reforms, including devolution, House of Lords reform and the Human Rights Act. This influence continued with reports arguing for a new Supreme Court, legislated for in 2005, and paving the way for the legalisation of quotas for women. Senior members of the Unit regularly act as advisers to parliamentary committees, public commissions, and give evidence in public to such bodies. The Unit’s work is regularly cited in government documents, parliamentary debates and the media.
The Cabinet Manual
Our 2009 report on Hung Parliaments was sent in draft to the Cabinet Office which led them to produce a new Cabinet Manual, and to publish before the election the key chapter on Elections and Government Formation. That codified for the first time the conventions on how the Queen decides whom to appoint as Prime Minister. It is up to the parties first to work out who can command confidence in the new House of Commons, and the Queen then invites that person to form a government. The new guidance also made clear that in the meantime Gordon Brown remained in office as the incumbent Prime Minister. But – under a new convention proposed in this report – he led a caretaker government, which could not take decisions which might tie the hands of future governments. Another new development recommended in the report was that the civil service supported the opposition parties in their negotiations, which they would not have been prepared to do at any previous election. As a result the election and subsequent negotiations and process of government formation went much more smoothly than might otherwise have happened. Robert Hazell also gave evidence to the Commons Justice Committee about the draft Cabinet Manual. He was also invited to give evidence to the Lords Constitution Committee and the Commons Political and Reform Committee about the new coalition government’s reform proposals.
Backbench Business Committee
Natascha Engel MP is Chair of the Backbench Business Committee
Another example of the Unit’s policy influence was on House of Commons reform. Following the MPs’ expenses crisis, MP Tony Wright wrote to Prime Minister Gordon Brown proposing the establishment of a new committee to look at wide-ranging Commons reform to help restore public confidence in parliament. This letter specifically cited Meg Russell’s House Rules report as an example of the kind of reforms that could be introduced. In June 2009 Brown announced the establishment of a Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, with Tony Wright as chair. Meg Russell was appointed as the committee’s specialist adviser. The committee’s report was published in November, calling for a number of important reforms. Consequently the newly-elected Commons for the first time elected chairs of its select committees in cross-party secret ballots (as originally recommended in Russell’s report) and select committee members in party ballots. These moves greatly weaken the control of party whips, and potentially greatly strengthen the select committees. But perhaps the most important change was the establishment of a ‘Backbench Business Committee’ to manage a newly created slot of ‘backbench business’ allowing backbench MPs to collectively set the Commons agenda and forcing votes, if necessary, on the topics of their choosing. It was agreed in the new parliament, and the Backbench Business Committee has now been created. Collectively this package of Commons reforms has been cited by The Times as the most important since the creation of departmental select committees more than 30 years ago.