Have constitutional reforms since 1997 reduced government power?
Arguments in favour of this statement include:
- Devolution means power has been taken away from UK Parliament
- Human Rights Act gives more power for judges to assess laws and challenge government
- House of Lords is more willing to be assertive against government after hereditary peers reduced
- Creation of the Supreme Court has made the judiciary more independent
- Power to call elections has been removed from the PM
Arguments against this statement include:
- Power is still concentrated in UK Parliament, despite devolution (powers can be removed from devolved bodies)
- Human Rights Act is not fully entrenched and can be overturned by legislation
- House of Lords is still subservient to Commons, and can only delay bills
- Government may be more likely to last due to fixed term act, and this can be overridden anyway, as Theresa May showed in 2017
- Evaluate the extent to which constitutional reforms since 1997 have reduced government power.
- Your answer should include: Devolution / Human Rights Act / House of Lords / Supreme Court / Fixed-term / Parliaments
Debates on further reform
Should the House of Lords be elected?
Arguments in favour include:
- It would be more democratically legitimate, so has more of a right to make and challenge laws.
- It allows for more representation, for example by having elected representatives serving longer terms than MPs, perhaps chosen by a different electoral system
- The Lords would be more willing to introduce its own legislation, and could more robustly challenge bills from the Commons, so leading to better legislation
- It could properly check the power of the Commons, as it would have the right to do so
- There would be more effective restrictions on government power, as it would be less easy for the government to pass legislation
Arguments against include:
- Lords members can currently be chosen on the basis of their specialist knowledge and experience. This would likely be lost if Lords were elected
- It could lead to gridlock- if the Commons and Lords were in disagreement, it would not be clear which has priority. This would be especially problematic if the chambers were dominated by different parties. Therefore, the executive would find it harder to get things done
- There is no need to have two elected chambers. The Commons is elected, and has authority, and the Lords works fine as a revising and checking chamber
- Members of the Lords would rely on parties to get elected, making them more likely to be influenced by their party and less likely to think for themselves
- It would be harder to ensure that the Lords represents society- at the moment, Lords can be appointed on the basis on (for example) their gender or ethnic background, to give particular groups in society a voice. This could not be guaranteed if the Lords were elected
Should the Westminster voting system be reformed?
Arguments in favour include:
- FPTP is not proportional- the percentage of seats won by parties does not reflect the percentage of the vote they received. This is undemocratic
- FPTP creates lots of safe seats and wasted votes
- Governments currently win power with only 35-40% of the vote, so are not supported by most of the population
- It currently leads to few checks and balances on government power, as governments can easily pass legislation
- Under FPTP, power becomes concentrated too narrowly, and small parties do not get the level of representation their support merits
Arguments against include:
- Reforming Westminster elections was decisively rejected by the public in the __2011 __referendum
- FPTP gives voters a clear choice between two parties with distinct programmes for government
- Under FPTP, winning parties get overall majorities, so can fulfil their manifesto pledges without the need to compromise in a coalition
- FPTP allows for strong governments- governments have a healthy majority and can get things done
- FPTP allows for stable governments- single-party governments are less likely to collapse, so provide certainty and stability
- Extremist parties are unlikely to get a foothold under the current system
The role and powers of devolved bodies in the UK, and the impact of this devolution on the UK
England: The ‘West Lothian question’ has been partially addressed by the change to the passing of legislation. Following a second reading, a bill which involves England only can be vetoed and make no further progress if a majority of MPs representing English constituencies decide to. Also, an extended range of powers is being devolved to a range of city regions based on major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol, often led by a directly-elected Mayor. For example, Labour’s Andy Burnham was the first elected Mayor of Greater Manchester in 2017. This change has had the effect of strengthening the powers of regional governments of the UK.
Scotland: The Scottish Parliament has primary legislative powers over several areas. These include education, health, environment, law and order, and local government. It does not control foreign affairs, defence or the constitution- these are known as ‘excepted powers’. The Scottish Parliament also has tax varying powers- income tax can be raised or lowered by up to three pence in the pound. The Parliament has powers over all areas not specified as excepted powers.
Wales: The Welsh Assembly has primary legislative powers over a more limited range of areas than Scotland. These include education, health, social services environment, and local government. They do not have power over law and order, foreign affairs, defence or the constitution which, as in the case of the Scottish Parliament, are ‘excepted powers’. The Assembly has no tax varying powers, and does not have power over areas not specifically excepted, only those specifically devolved (unlike Scotland).
Northern Ireland: The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive has primary legislative powers over a similar range of areas to Wales, also including justice. Foreign affairs, defence and the constitution are ‘excepted powers’ which the Assembly does not control. The Assembly also has reserved powers over some areas which may be transferred in the future including some consumer, medical and transport matters, but has no tax varying powers. The Assembly has power over all areas not specifically excepted or reserved. As part of the power-sharing agreement, powers must be shared between parties, according to a formula that allocates cabinet seats proportionately.
What effects has devolution had on the UK?
Some significant changes have taken place as a result of the devolution of power to regional governments. For example, in Scotland, Scottish university students attending a Scottish university do not have to pay tuition fees, whereas they do in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Also in Scotland, there has been higher pay levels for teachers. The Welsh Assembly has introduced initiatives in childcare and has abolishes prescription charges. Some commentators have described devolution as ‘quasi-federalism’, whereby the UK now has many of the features of a federal system (where there is a division between central and regional governments). Devolution is certainly very-well established in the UK. This is perhaps because the devolved bodies were established through referendums (so had democratic legitimacy), the introduction of these bodies fuelled demands for more powers to be transferred to them, the rise in popularity of the SNP, the alliance of pressure groups and interests to the devolved bodies, and the gradual transfer of more powers to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly following the __2014 __Scottish independence referendum.