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Tag Archives: British constitution

So-called Article 61 of Magna Carta – and the so-called right to rebel

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Protesters who occupied Edinburgh Castle have claimed they are doing it under “Article 61” of Magna Carta – in reality Chapter 61. This, they would presumably argue, offers a “right to rebellion” against the monarch. Of course that is nonsense, not least because Chapter 61 was an agreement between King John and his magnates – the barons whose rebellion led to the signing (or rather sealing) of Magna Carta in 1215. It was an acceptance that those barons could rebel – or temporarily abandon their fealty to the monarch – but return to the fold without loss of their feudal estates once the issue at hand was resolved. It was not a carte blanche for hoi polloi to rise up and seize royal castles.

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Can Boris Johnson defy a commons vote of no confidence?

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For those British MPs wanting to stop a no-deal Brexit, the options are running out. Among  avenues apparently blocked, according to some, is a motion of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s government. The prime minister’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, has declared it is too late for such a motion to halt Brexit on 31 October. Even if he loses a motion of no confidence, Johnson can, according to Cummings, refuse to make way for a new Prime Minister and stay on until he decides to have a General Election – probably during or after Brexit on 31 October.

Meanwhile, the bad news for the ant-Brexit proponents of the “government of national unity” is that, even if Johnson follows correct procedure and quits, it is Jeremy Corbyn who should most likely be invited to set up a new government, not a cross-party coalition. There is no parliamentary mechanism for such a coalition to take power unless it is led by Labour.
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Is Jeremy Corbyn’s no confidence vote ‘stunt’ a bigger deal than he realises?

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Could Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn inadvertently stumble into achieving what he has so far balked at even attempting: bringing down the Theresa May government? He has tabled a “symbolic” motion of no confidence in her personally while shying away from a motion under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 that could actually produce a general election.

He may not realise it but his motion could actually bring down the Government – if enough Tories become desperate enough to ditch May and put Brexit on hold.

Corbyn said the motion was to “put pressure” on May to name a date for the “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal – and when she did name a date, he pressed on regardless. This vote has certainly been spun as merely symbolic: that’s how the Guardian saw it , presumably after talking to Labour sources:

“The form of the motion is such that it would not lead to a general election or even the ousting of Theresa May if she were to be defeated – rather it would amount to a symbolic defeat of the prime minister.”

Coincidentally, though, a week earlier, a report from the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee was released here (pdf) on the very subject of confidence votes in the House – with this dire warning: “Any clear expression of ‘no confidence’ could topple Government”. Read the rest of this entry

Parliamentary boundary changes: Liberal Democrats fight for the moral low ground

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On the face of it, the Liberal Democrats, in seeking to veto boundary changes in revenge for lost House of Lords democratisation, have deserted their preferred moral high ground for low politics. The legislation to equalise voters in each constituency and reduce Commons constituencies from 650 to 600 was duly passed by Parliament and the Boundary Commission is doing the work to produce the new set-up by the next election in 2015. (Note: since publication we have actually had two elections under the old system – and who knows, could have another shortly …)

Liberal Democrat opposition to the outcome will involve standing against the will of Parliament as expressed in that legislation, countering the crucial independence of the Boundary Commission and, paradoxically, Lib Dem ministers undermining what is in effect their own legislation.

Given their illiberal and undemocratic stance in their opposition to equalisation of constituencies and reduction in parliamentary seats, do they have any strong moral argument to justify it?

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Theresa May’s immigration rules expel the rule of law

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The UK Government has instituted a remarkable constitutional innovation that redefines the concept of the rule of law. It has declared that the Government can tell judges how to interpret legal rules governing executive actions when those actions are challenged in court.

This is the implication of guidance attached to the new Immigration Rules laid (briefly) before Parliament and coming into force on 9 July 2012.

Home Secretary Theresa May has set out new rules on immigration but, crucially, severely curbed judges’ rights to interpret those rules in the light of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. She has done it on the basis of a misreading – or perhaps, more accurately, a misrepresentation – of case law on the immigration issue.

Since the Immigration Rules are not statutory (they are issued by the Government rather than passing through the full legislative process in Parliament) they can be struck down by courts if not in conformity with the European Convention. Article 8(1) says: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” It is blamed by the government for preventing the deportation of undesirables, including criminals or potential terrorists, if they can claim a “family life” in Britain. This has irritated the current and previous Governments for years.

Notoriously, even the fact that a foreign man and his British girlfriend co-own a cat was once adduced to enhance a non-national’s “family life” credentials under Article 8 – at least according to Mrs May. Read the rest of this entry

Lady Neuberger condemns Constitutional Reform Act 2005 amendments in Crime and Courts Bill 2012

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Lady Neuberger has described as “a disgrace” the plans to put the Secretary of State for Justice on the commission appointing the President of the UK Supreme Court and the Lord Chief Justice.

Placing a government representative on the panel would breach the constitutional division of powers between the political executive and the judiciary, she said (reported here). She joins the chair of the Lords Constitution Committee, Baroness Jay, in criticising the plan set out in the Crime and Courts Bill 2012.

The Bill has important amendments to Britain’s Constitutional Reform Act 2005 that reduce the independence from the Government of judicial appointments in various ways.

In particular the Secretary of State for Justice (aka Lord Chancellor) is to sit on the appointment commission for the President of the Supreme Court (while the sitting president himself would be removed) and on the appointment commission for the Lord Chief Justice; there is to be a new requirement that he be consulted on other senior judicial appointments; whole sections of the 2005 Act on judicial appointments procedure are to be removed; powers to decide how to replace those sections are given to the Secretary of State; as are powers to decide the make-up of the Judicial Appointments Commission (with a view to increasing the proportion of lay members compared with judicial members); the Secretary of State will have the power to repeal or amend those sections.

It is intended that the 12 Supreme Court justices should become a “maximum” of 12 (or full-time equivalents) with the Secretary of State deciding exactly what number is required.

There are also amendments intended to increase diversity such as provision for part-time judicial posts and a “tipping point” provision whereby diversity requirements can come into play if two judicial candidates are deemed of equal merit.

According to the Home Office publicity the bill will “reform the judicial appointments process to promote greater transparency and improve judicial diversity”.

What it nowhere mentions is that it will bring the Lord Chancellor into a direct role in appointing the President of the Supreme Court and Lord Chief Justice. The ancient title of Lord Chancellor, once the highest judicial figure in the land and ranking after princes of the blood and the Archbishop of Canterbury, now hides the face of a purely political ministerial appointee, the Secretary of State for Justice, currently Kenneth Clarke. So the result (and intention) of the legislation is to gain a political handle on judicial appointments, taken away from the political realm by the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act.

The public statement (see below) makes no mention of this. Nor does it mention that in future the Lord Chancellor will be given powers to change the judicial appointments procedure at will (with minimal and passive oversight by Parliament).

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Judicial diversity: Lords call for positive discrimination and targets

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The Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice should be under an obligation to encourage diversity in Britain’s judicial appointments – and targets for women and ethnic minority appointments should be set if diversity is not improved within five years, according to a House of Lords Committee.

Minorities should be given priority when the choice of appointee is between equally qualified candidates, says the report by the Lords Constitution Committee. Dubbed the “tipping point” procedure by the Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, it would utilise Section 159 of the Equality Act 2010 which allows an element of positive discrimination where candidates are equally qualified. It cannot be used for judicial appointments, some argue, since judges must be appointed “solely on merit”, according to s.63 (2) of the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act (as explained here).

‘We do not consider that the concept of merit should be narrowly focused on intellectual rigour … a more diverse judiciary can bring different perspectives to bear on the development of the law and to the concept of justice itself’ Lords Constitution Committee

The committee’s report wants changes in the career structure for the judiciary as well as in work conditions – allowing more part time working and careers breaks as well as encouraging non-barristers to apply for higher judicial posts. The committee, in a series of hearings (all reported on Alrich’s Weblog), has heard calls for a more structured career option for judges, drawing on the skills of lower tier tribunal judges and chairs as well as advocates and also putting in place formal appraisal procedures and career development. Retirement age for Court of Appeal and UK Supreme Court judges should rise to 75 in part to give opportunities later in life to those who haven’t followed a conventional career.

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The holy alliance to capture the British constitution

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The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, have joined the holy bandwagon, declaring Britain is a Christian country and, as Grieve put it, those denying the fact are “absurd” and “ignoring both historical and constitutional reality”. The British constitution has once more become the battleground for a religio-political struggle. History is being rewritten to dismiss secularists from the temple of democracy.

Cameron took his lead from Baroness Warsi, who returned from a spiritual sojourn in Rome in 2012 to start her crusade against “militant secularism”. Faith is good, so good that the Queen that same year dedicated her Jubilee to rebranding the Protestant Established Church as an umbrella organisation – with her responsibility in it redesignated as “a duty to protect the freedom of all faiths in the country”.

And Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, has claimed Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights as Christian documents – along with other good things such as the abolition of slavery, industrial legislation and “reform of the nursing profession”. Secularists have nothing to do with great beacons of British humanity and liberty, was his implication.

Well, up to a point, he’s not wrong. Christians were indeed instrumental, for example, in campaigning against slavery – just as Christians were deeply involved in the African slave trade.

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Ken Clarke gets his Henry VIII clause into judicial appointments

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We need to talk about Ken – in particular the UK Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke’s dangerous delusion that he has – or should have – Henry the Eighth powers.

As it happens, Clarke would make a rather good Henry VIII. Imagine Good King Hal as a bluff genial figure in the Carry On Henry mould, like the cigar-chomping Sid James, or perhaps with a bit of edge to him, something a little more like the Charles Laughton version – jovial but ruthlessness. Imagine, too, a man who by his proclamations can sweep away whole areas of constitutional law.

For this is what Clarke intends in his (as yet putative) Constitutional Reform (Reform) Act 2012 – the Act he is working up to “reform” the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act. This, for the first time in our history, enshrined separation of powers in our constitution – that the judiciary should be independent from the Executive and from Parliament.

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Ken Clarke defends plans for government role in judicial appointments

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The Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, has defended his proposals to give the government a bigger role in appointing senior judges, saying it would help in the important relationship between the executive and the judiciary.

Speaking at the 12th hearing of the House of Lords constitution committee into judicial appointments, he said: “I am in favour of no political patronage in appointments,” adding that his consultation paper, published late last year, makes it clear the Lord Chancellor would not take a direct role. “But with the [appointment of the] Lord Chief Justice and the President of the Supreme Court, there should be greater involvement of the Lord Chancellor because the executive should have more influence in that, but not a decisive one.”

The proposal is for the Lord Chancellor (now Secretary of State for Justice, Clarkes’s preferred title, he revealed) should sit on the panels appointing the two senior roles.

He said: “The one absolutely immoveable thing is that we appoint on merit … The second thing that I regard as absolutely immutable is the independence of the judiciary. No suspicion of political patronage should come back.” He added: “We now have a system that makes it absolutely clear that it is independent of the political sphere.”

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