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UCL Constitution Unit

The UCL Constitution Unit is an independent think tank and research centre which specialises in constitutional reform. It has undertaken research on every aspect of the UK Government's constitutional reform programme, including:

  • the Human Rights Act
  • devolution
  • reform of the House of Lords
  • referendums
  • new voting systems
  • the new Supreme Court
  • Church and State
  • constitutional watchdogs
  • freedom of information
  • parliamentary reform.

The UCL Constitution Unit's research reports include:

Putting Goats Amongst The Wolves

This report explores the appointment of ministers from outside Parliament, the experience of such ministers, and issues of accountability to Parliament.

This study set out to explore the arguments for appointing ministers from outside
Parliament, and to study the experience of such appointees. It also looked at the
overseas experience, in countries where such appointments are more common.

The study found a wide range of views and experience. A few of these new UK ‘outsider’ ministers were regarded as successful, and several as failures. Most were given little or no induction. Some felt that too much emphasis was placed on the parliamentary role. Many were critical of the lack of clear delegation or objectives.

The overseas experience of 'outsider' ministers also proved less distinctive than generally supposed. Many of those appointed from technocratic backgrounds turned out to have significant political experience as well, at local and regional level, or as party officials.

The study concluded that:

  • There were no special problems of accountability at Westminster, since all suchoutsiders were appointed as junior peer ministers and so became accountable to theHouse of Lords. 
  • The government’s plans for an elected second chamber would put an end to thepractice of appointing outsider ministers to the Lords. Outsider ministers, ifappointed at all, would have to be wholly ‘outside’ Parliament.
  • In these circumstances, each House would need to devise procedures for holding suchministers to account, and the Commons might find it harder to deny a platform toministers who asked for it.

Fixed-term Parliaments

This report considers the significance of such a constitutional change of fixed-term parliaments and the key issues to decide in introducing fixed-term parliaments. 

Fixed term parliaments remove the Prime Minister’s power to decide the date of the next election. They should create greater electoral fairness and more efficient electoral administration, and enable better long term planning in government. Their potential disadvantage is a loss of flexibility and accountability.

The report sets out the key issues to decide in introducing fixed-term parliaments:

  • the length of the fixed term;
  • how to allow for mid term dissolution;
  • how to reform the prerogative powers of dissolution and proclamation.

The report also considers mid-term dissolutions of fixed-term parliaments, including no confidence motions and investiture votes.

It concludes that:

  • The fixed term should be four years, not five (in common with other fixed-term parliaments).
  • To avoid clashes with devolved or European elections, general elections should be held in October.
  • The power of proclamation should be reformed so that the Electoral Commission is put in charge of the election timetable, and the date for first meeting of the new parliament is set by the outgoing Speaker.
  • It is very difficult to entrench the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. A future governmentand parliament can always amend or repeal it. It will create a norm, not a rigidconstitutional rule.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat agenda for constitutional and political reform

 This report provides an analysis of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat proposals for constitutional reform as set out in the coalition government agreement.

The briefing considers:

  • Management of the coalition
  • Fixed-term parliaments
  • Referendum on electoral reform, and smaller House of Commons
  • Reform of the House of Lords
  • Reform of the House of Commons
  • Devolution
  • Europe: Treaties, Referendums and Sovereignty
  • Electoral administration and regulation of political parties
  • Freedom of information and Transparency
  • British Bill of Rights

Making Minority Government Work

This report, published in December 2009, analysed the international experience of minority government to draw lessons for Westminster government in order to ensure both a smooth transition and an effective new government is as effective as possible.

The report summarises the recent experience in Canada, New Zealand and Scotland, and the historical experience at Westminster and draws out lessons for all the main actors who are involved in minority government, including:  Parliament, political parties, the Crown, and the media..

  • Lessons for the Prime Minister and government: A minority government cannot govern in a majoritarian way and must accept the likelihood of frequent parliamentary defeats. To avoid being blown off course, it must set out a clear strategy and set of long term goals.
  • Lessons for the civil service: There are many different possible combinations of minority and/or coalition government, including looser forms of partnership that may require relaxation of collective Cabinet responsibility. Serving a minority administration also requires a different set of skills, including closer monitoring of parliamentary developments and facilitation of inter-party negotiations.
  • Lessons for Parliament: Parliament can become stronger under minority government, but cannot make policy or force the government to do anything against its will. Parliamentary reform to reduce the government’s dominance of parliamentary business will not happen without a clear agenda and champion who can make it happen.
  • Lessons for opposition parties: Prepare before the election for negotiations immediately afterwards. It is difficult to co-ordinate ‘the opposition’ against the government, or to bring the government down, but opposition parties can influence government policy through bilateral deals.
  • Lessons for the Crown: There need to be clearer rules which explain that it is not the monarch’s role to form a government, or to facilitate negotiations. The decision to form a government must be arrived at by politicians.

Current research being undertaken by the UCL Constitution Unit is focusing on:

Coalition Government in the UK

The Politics of Judicial Independence

Parliament, including:

Freedom of Information, including:

  • FOI and Parliament
  • FOI and Local Government.

Page last modified on 25 oct 12 13:25