MPs and ministers must do more to protect and bolster the checks and balances that uphold the UK constitution - or risk damaging public trust in the governance of the UK and core democratic principles, says a new paper by the Institute for Government and Cambridge University's Bennett Institute.
Published today, Constitutional Guardians maps out the UK's complex ecosystem of institutions, individuals and organisations that oversee, monitor and uphold different parts of the constitution. The paper identifies three types of guardians that have an important role to play:
- Core guardians: the key branches of government
- Auxiliary guardians: who advise those within core institutions
- Tertiary guardians: individual advisors, public bodies or committees that uphold the constitution
The new IfG/Bennett paper finds that an increasingly polarised political environment - following the 2016 EU referendum - has put pressure on these guardians' roles and led to a weakening of checks and balances. Recent strains - such as scandals over government ethics and standards or controversy surrounding public appointments - have revealed how the UK constitution can be bent - though, so far, not broken - while also highlighting the vulnerability of constitutional guardians to government interference, funding cuts or having their advice ignored. The paper warns that when constitutional guardians are exclusively accountable to those whose homework they are marking, there risks being either a chilling effect on how those roles are performed or increasing executive interference.
With the events of recent years also highlighting where improvements can be made, the new IfG/Bennett Institute paper sets out a series of principles designed to strengthen the constitutional ecosystem:
- All constitutional guardians should be underpinned by statute - with legislation establishing that these bodies should exist - unless there is a clear reason why this would hinder their operation
- The relationship between constitutional guardians and parliament should be strengthened, with ministers and MPs paying closer attention to the role guardians play
- Constitutional guardians should be able to initiate and publish the results of their own inquiries, with a statutory duty placed on the government to respond to these published reports where they make recommendations for change
Jack Pannell, IfG researcher and report author, said:
The approach of recent governments may or may not be normal practice or represent a broader cultural shift, but it is a concerning trend. Protecting the UK constitution is not just about big-ticket reforms but ensuring the entire eco-system of guardians is able to function properly. Too many of these guardians lack sufficient independence to push against a government that seeks to test constitutional boundaries. It is vital that the tertiary guardians in particular are protected and strengthened.