The Constitution Unit


The Future of the Constitution: Constitution Unit Conference 2023

28 June 2023–29 June 2023, 10:15 am–7:00 pm

The Future of the Constitution: UCL Constitution unit Conference 2023

The Constitution Unit's Summer Conference took place online across 28 and 29 June with an agenda packed with fascinating panels and speakers

This event is free.

Event Information

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Edd Rowe – School of Public Policy

The UK has experienced significant constitutional turbulence in recent years, with widespread discussion of the proper relationship between government and parliament, the role of judges, the structure and future of the Union, and the enforcement of standards in public life. This has produced many different (and often diverging) diagnoses of the problems with the UK’s current constitutional arrangements. With a general election looming, the Constitution Unit’s 2023 conference turned from problems to solutions. What practical reforms might strengthen and improve the constitution? How could politicians pursue these reforms, and what obstacles might they face?

This conference brought together an impressive range of speakers, including parliamentarians, academics and commentators, to discuss the key issues facing the UK constitution, and what might be done about them.

It was organised by the Constitution Unit in partnership with the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law.


Day 1 - Wednesday 28 June


10:15am Introduction and Welcome to the Conference

Professor Meg Russell FBA – Director of the Constitution Unit, UCL

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10:20am-11:30am Parliament

The last few years have seen frequent controversy about parliament’s role, and the government’s openness to parliamentary accountability. Concerns have focused on parliament's ability to scrutinise primary legislation, delegated legislation, and international treaties, and on the role of the House of Lords. What are the proper scrutiny roles of MPs and peers? Do they have the opportunities and resources to fulfil these? If not, what reforms might be needed?


Thangam Debbonaire MP – Labour MP for Bristol West and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Professor the Lord (Philip) Norton of Louth – Conservative peer, and Professor of Government at the University of Hull

Dr Brigid Fowler – Senior Researcher, Hansard Society

Alexander Horne – barrister, and Visiting Professor at Durham University

Chair: Dr Tom Fleming – Constitution Unit, UCL

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12:30pm-13:45pm Devolution and the Union

Uncertainties over the UK’s future territorial politics are great. The SNP is in turmoil, and the UK government’s block on Holyrood’s gender legislation is being challenged in the courts. Labour’s Brown Commission has recommended major changes, and further proposals are being developed in Wales. Renewed devolution within England is on the cards. Is fundamental reform of the UK’s territorial arrangements needed? If so, what might this mean in practice?


Dr Anwen Elias – Reader in Politics at Aberystwyth University, and member of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales

Kezia Dugdale – Director of the John Smith Centre at the University of Glasgow, and former Leader of the Scottish Labour Party

Professor Michael Kenny - Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge

Chair: Professor Alan Renwick – Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, UCL

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Listen to the podcast version here 


14:30-15:45pm Courts and the Rule of Law

Relations between the political branches and the courts have been strained in recent years. Pushback against the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights has spilled over into determined attempts to ‘clip the wings’ of the UK’s own courts, with renewed interest in ‘ouster clauses' and attempts to repeal the Human Rights Act, against a steady drumbeat of complaint that courts have become too powerful in our constitutional arrangements. How can the damage be repaired? What should be the priorities of a future government interested in restoring the UK’s battered reputation as a rule of law-regarding nation?

Speakers include

Laura Farris MP – Conservative MP for Newbury and former practising barrister at Matrix

Emily Thornberry MP - Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, and Shadow Attorney General

Fiona Rutherford – Chief Executive, Justice

Chair: Murray Hunt – Director of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law

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Listen to the podcast version here 

Day 2 - Thursday 29 June


10:15-11:30pm Elections and Electoral Reform

Adopting a more proportional electoral system is opposed by the Conservative Party, and by the Labour leader, but attracts growing support elsewhere. Would such reform be desirable or practical, and what might be its consequences? What might politicians wish to consider regarding other aspects of our elections, such as the minimum voting age, voter ID rules, or the reform proposals of the Law Commissions? How might any such changes be delivered?


Cat Smith MP – Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood and former shadow minister for the Cabinet Office

Lord (Robert) Hayward – Conservative peer

John Pullinger – Chair of the Electoral Commission

Professor Sarah Birch – Professor of Political Science at King’s College London

Chair: Professor Alan Renwick – Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, UCL

Listen to the podcast version here

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Podcast coming soon! 

12:30-13:45pm Constitutional Standards

The issue of ensuring high standards of behaviour in public life remains high-profile following the Johnson and Truss premierships. Rishi Sunak pledged to lead a government of ‘integrity, professionalism, and accountability’ when he first became Prime Minister, while Labour has proposed an extensive overhaul to the UK’s system of standards regulation. What are the key problems in the current system, and what reforms could most successfully address them?


Lord (David) Anderson of Ipswich – Crossbench peer, and former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation

Dr Hannah White – Director of the Institute for Government

Jeremy Wright MP – Conservative MP for Kenilworth and Southam, former Attorney General and former member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Chair: Professor Meg Russell FBA – Director of the Constitution Unit, UCL

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Listen to the podcast version here


17:45-19:00pm Keynote Session – Implementing Constitutional Change

This final keynote session considered the practicalities of delivering constitutional change in the round, whether under the current government, or a new Conservative, Labour, or coalition administration after the next general election. What kinds of changes might be ‘quick wins’, and which might instead take longer to deliver? How is the balance to be reached between public consultation, parliamentary scrutiny and achieving desired changes? Two senior figures with huge experience at the heart of British government reflected on these challenges.


Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton – Labour peer, and former Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor

David Lidington – former Conservative MP for Aylesbury, and former Minister for the Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Lord Chancellor, and Leader of the House of Commons

Chair: Professor Meg Russell FBA – Director of the Constitution Unit, UCL

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Listen to the podcast version here