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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Running repairs: How can we restore trust in our institutions?

Whitehall (Credit: A.P.S. (UK) / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

Few watching the Covid inquiry would dispute that the country’s institutions are in need of renewal. Lord Wallace reviews a major report on what might be done

The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto promised “to look at the broader aspects of our constitution” and to “set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”. 

Four years later, polls show that public trust in Westminster politics has sunk to a level lower than any other OECD democracy except the United States – and the idea of a commission on the constitution has disappeared without trace.

Largely unnoticed by Westminster politicians so far, the Institute for Government (IfG) and Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute have filled the void. An advisory panel that included Sir Robert Buckland, Sir David Lidington, Dame Clare Moriarty, Baroness Hale of Richmond, and Baroness Smith of Basildon oversaw the publication of 18 expert papers on topics such as constitutional entrenchment and parliamentary sovereignty, civil service/ministerial relations, the regulation of political finance, the implications of a different voting system for the United Kingdom, and the “erratic evolution of the British constitution” since 1997.  

Its most immediate and practical proposals are to entrench the role of the ‘constitutional guardians’

The final report is deliberately gradualist in approach. It notes the challenge that Boris Johnson’s espousal of popular sovereignty (as a justification for unchecked executive power) posed to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. It regrets that the conventional constraints that held together the UK’s unwritten constitution have been undermined. But it rejects a move to a written document. 

Its most immediate and practical proposals are to entrench the role of the “constitutional guardians” that have grown up in recent decades – the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, the Electoral Commission, and others – and to establish a parliamentary Joint Committee on the Constitution, supported by an independent Office for the Constitution, constituted in the same way as the National Audit Office. 

Its first task should be “to restate the UK’s core constitutional principles”, and submit its draft for endorsement by both Houses, to become a document with a status parallel to the Nolan Principles of Public Life. Acts the committee and its supporting office have designated as constitutional would be protected from implied repeal.  

The IfG and University College London’s Constitution Unit have provided in parallel a catalogue of measures for Rebuilding and Renewing the Constitution (July 2023) to guide any incoming government. It is divided into “quick wins”, “moderate changes” and “larger more controversial reforms” that would take extended parliamentary time and require wider public engagement. 

Quick wins include enhanced scrutiny of key public appointments. Moderate changes include an effective cross-party Commons Business Committee, and a consolidation of electoral regulation and law. Larger more controversial reforms include a transformation of the second Chamber, and changes to the electoral system. 

The underlying aim would be to redress the balance between the executive and Parliament, while also strengthening the autonomy of the courts and the civil service. 

The focus is on Westminster and Whitehall, in contrast to Labour’s Commission on the UK’s Future (December 2022), which focuses on shifting power and accountability out of London to nations, regions and local government, to rebuild public trust and hold the union together.

British voters are watching and hearing the Covid inquiry spell out the chaos and lack of accountability of central government in a national emergency. Public confidence in our political institutions is being shaken further by these revelations. After the coming election, no incoming government will be wise to ignore the public mood. The IfG has provided ample material for new ministers to draw on. 

Lord Wallace of Saltaire is the Liberal Democrat Cabinet Office spokesperson in the Lords

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