The unseemly haste to introduce fixed term parliaments - Thursday 16th September 2010
Following five hours of debate, the Coalition’s Fixed-term Parliaments Bill received its second reading on Monday 13th September and was passed with a government majority of 288. A long-standing policy of the Liberal Democrats, fixed-term parliaments have become a central plank of the Coalition’s plans for constitutional reform.
How it works at present:
- The UK does not have fixed term Parliaments and the only requirement is that Parliament must be dissolved after five years.
- In reality, it is the Prime Minister who decides when to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. (Constitutionally, the dissolution of Parliament is a prerogative power of the Queen who exercises that power on the advice of the Prime Minister. Theoretically the monarch has a discretion as to whether or not to grant a request for dissolution by the Prime Minister.)
- Current constitutional practice requires a government to resign or to seek a dissolution if it loses a vote of no confidence
Considerable discretion is allowed because there are no clearly defined parameters as to what constitutes a vote of no confidence. Even the inability to pass statement legislation could be construed as such.
What the Bill does:
- Provides for fixed days for parliamentary general elections every five years, ordinarily the first Thursday of May - so the next general election would be held on 7th May 2015.
- The Queen would lose the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament and dissolution would occur automatically (intended to curtail the ability of the Prime Minister to call a snap general election).
- Earlier dissolution of Parliament and therefore the triggering of a general election would occur in the event of:
(a) a vote of no confidence in the incumbent Government (passed by a simple majority), followed by a fourteen day period during which no other Government receives a vote of confidence from the House.
(b) a vote for immediate dissolution passed by a two-thirds majority of all MPS, including vacant seats - 434/650 or 400/600. (The two thirds majority replaced an original proposal for a vote of 55%, which caused a furore amongst politicians and commentators alike).
- A mid term dissolution would reset the clock, so that the next election would follow five years later (unless dissolution occurred within one year of a general election).
What the Bill doesn't do:
- Make clear what constitutes a vote of no confidence. Determining whether there had been a vote of no confidence would fall to the Speaker, who would issue a conclusive certificate as to whether a no confidence vote has been carried or not.
- State whether there will be a change in the current relatively flexible method for determining which votes will trigger a change of Government.
According to Jack Straw these uncertainties risk “opening up the possibility of a lame-duck Administration and constitutional limbo”.
Constitution making on the hoof?
During the debate in the second reading, the Coalition faced accusations by Bernard Jenkin of “constitution making on the hoof”. The legislation has received no pre-legislative scrutiny and, like its sister bill on Alternative Voting and boundary changes, it is being rushed through Parliament.
the ... Committee which considers a proposal for new legislation should satisfy itself that legislation is genuinely needed and ...meets the required standards of preparation and explanation and satisfies the principles of good legislation
despite the welcoming of this recommendation by both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives at the time.
Commentary and debate on the bill to date sheds no light as to the reasons for curtailing the necessary scrutiny of a bill which makes profound changes to our constitution:
- April 2010
- In their manifesto the Liberal Democrats pledged to[i]ntroduce fixed-term parliaments to ensure that the Prime Minister of the day cannot change the date of an election to suit themselves The Conservative manifesto contained nothing specifically on fixed-term parliaments, but did contain a pledge to makethe Royal Prerogative subject to greater democratic control so that Parliament is properly involved
The emphasis, therefore, appeared to be on a desire to limit the power of an incumbent Government to trigger an election on a date to suit itself.
- Start May 2010
- The move to fixed-term parliaments appeared as the ConLib Coalition’s first pledge for ‘political reform’ in their post-election Coalition Agreement, which promised to provide for the “dissolution [of Parliament] if 55% or more of the House votes in favour”, apparently meaning that votes of no confidence would require a 55% majority of the House rather than the existing simple majority. This sparked a media frenzy. Critics feared that the Coalition sought to entrench their position in the Executive by linking fixed-term parliaments to a higher threshold of support necessary to cause dissolution.
- 14th May 2010
- Sir George Young MP (Con, Leader of the House) explained that the higher threshold for votes of no confidence makes it harder for the prime minister to call a snap election for his partisan interest and instead ensures that the decision is in the hands of MPs
David Cameron said I’m the first Prime Minister in British history to give up the right unilaterally to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament. This is a huge change in our system, it is a big giving up of power.....but I believe that it is a good arrangement to give us strong and stable government
- 25th May 2010
- In a Commons debate Christopher Chope alluded to the subtle change in background to the Bill, saying the Prime Minister is giving up his constitutional right to request a Dissolution, and I can understand that that is very important-a matter of honour between himself and the Deputy Prime Minister. It means that the Prime Minister cannot pull the rug from under the coalition, but why do we need legislation or, indeed, a motion to achieve that? Surely the Prime Minister's word is sufficient.
- 5th July 2010
- In a Commons debate Nick Clegg informs the house that the 55% first suggested will be changed to a two thirds majority. The proposals for a vote of no confidence and dissolution "should make it absolutely clear to the House that votes of no confidence and votes for early Dissolution are entirely separate, and that we are putting in place safeguards against a lame-duck Government being left in limbo if the House passes a vote of no confidence but does not vote for early Dissolution."
- 15th July 2010
- Nick Clegg tells the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform "The closer we looked at it (the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill) given its constitutional importance we thought it better and more proper to move to legislation on a quicker timetable". The logic of curtailing scrutiny because of constitutional importance is unclear.
- 22nd July 2010
- Fixed Term Parliaments Bill published and first reading. The 55% threshold had been withdrawn and the new provisions, summarised above had been introduced; there was no debate on the first reading of the Bill and the explanatory note does not explain the reasons for the changes from the proposals as set out in the Coalition Agreement.
- 13th September 2010
- Second Reading of the Bill passed with a government majority of 288 despite serious criticism from both Labour and Tory MPs. Chris Bryant, amongst others, argued against the 5-year term, Chope criticised the move away from a new PM necessitating a new election and Bernard Jenkin complained that the power to dissolve Parliament by a simple majority was being taken away from MPs. Clegg defended the Bill against claims that the courts could intervene in dissolutions and insisted that it is "not about the internal dynamics of this coalition".
What difference could the legislation make?
Several other jurisdictions (including the USA, New Zealand, Australia and Scotland) successfully employ fixed term parliaments, although the fixed term is often four years, rather than five.
- it could remove the allegedly unfair advantage currently held by the incumbent Prime Minister of choosing a favourable date;
- it could prevent a period of uncertainty which can impact the government and the economy in the months preceding an anticipated general election when the precise timing is not known;
- it may lead to more coalition governments, since an administration losing a vote of no confidence would prefer to find a partner rather than call a general election;
- the Prime Minister could try to circumvent the rules by engineering a vote of no confidence in his own government to force an election;
What Needs further debate
- Whether the term should be four or five years. Professor Hazell has pointed out that a five year term is long by comparison with most other parliamentary systems and is not reflective of the length of UK Parliaments since the second world war, most of which have lasted less than 4 years.
- How the five year programme will interact with other electoral cycles in the UK.
- The implications of a dual threshold for the early dissolution of Parliament - an ordinary majority and the super majority. This could give the incumbent government a latent advantage (the current Tories would only need to muster less than 4% further support to be able to change Government without an election.)
- The definition of a confidence motion and the possibility of the Speaker being involved in controversy.
- The new 'super' two-thirds majority vote for immediate dissolution is easily capable of being blocked by any party holding more than 33% of the votes in the House. In no general election since 1900 has the party forming the government or the principle party in a coalition achieved less than 41% of the total number of MPs.
- The abolition of the Queen's prerogative power will make the new system less flexible than the existing system, with the potential for unforeseen consequences.
- The immediate impact on the current Parliamentary session. The Coalition has announced the cancellation of the next Queen’s speech, and therefore a two-year Session running until May 2012, without providing for debate of this issue.
Why the hurry?
Unless the Coalition partners are secretly expecting their pact to fall apart in the near future, it would seem that this Bill relates to matters which are unlikely to come to a head within the next year or two, so it might have been assumed that there was ample time for consideration and debate.
In response to questioning on the day of the Bill's publication, the Leader of the Commons argued that an absence of pre-legislative scrutiny was inevitable, a natural consequence of the amount of legislation introduced in quick succession in the first term of a new Parliament with a new Government.
In contrast, the Chairman of the Commons' Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, wrote to the Deputy PM condemning the Government's legislative timetable, which denied them “any adequate opportunity to conduct this scrutiny". Unlike the Voting Systems Bill, which has an intended date for referendum looming, Graham Allen
complained that “it remains unclear at present why this [Fixed Term Parliaments] legislation is regarded as so urgent."
Mark Harper, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, committed the Bill to the House for its second reading with the promise that at Committee stage “any Member will be able to raise their concerns on the Floor of the House”, indicative of the continued controversy surrounding the provisions of a Bill whose principle enjoys cross-party support. Indeed Jack Straw has put “absolutely on the record” that Labour will reconsider their support of the legislation at its Third Reading if their concerns with the provisions of the Bill are not addressed.
Put simply by the Shadow Deputy PM, there is yet to be any serious explanation as to "why the Government are bolting it”.
Parliamentary material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO on behalf of Parliament
Tue, 28th February 2012
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Mon, 20th February 2012
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Thu, 2nd February 2012
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Mon, 16th January 2012
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Wed, 2nd November 2011
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Tue, 25th October 2011
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Mon, 24th October 2011
Today the government published the Cabinet Manual, heralding it as 'the ultimate user's guide to government'. It brings together a range of sources and aims to give a descriptive account of the procedural arrangements of the executive.
Fri, 21st October 2011
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Tue, 4th October 2011
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Mon, 19th September 2011
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Thu, 15th September 2011
As Harriett Baldwin's Private Member's Bill is defeated at it's Third Reading, the government announces plans to create a commission to find a solution to the long-standing debate.
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Tue, 13th September 2011
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Thu, 18th August 2011
The Scotland Bill faces its second reading with the Lords' return in September. But does it get to the heart of the devolution debate?
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Tue, 9th August 2011
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Thu, 26th January 2012
An archive of all regular bulletins
Tue, 9th August 2011
Downing Professor of the Laws of England at the University of Cambridge, and contributor to "The end of the peer show?", Sir John Baker sets out his view on House of Lords reform.
Thu, 21st July 2011
The Lords Constitution Select Committee concludes that the current variable treatment of constitutional proposals is unacceptable. It argues that there should be a “clear and consistent process” applied to all cases of “significant constitutional change”.
Tue, 19th July 2011
A debate at the LSE this week launched The Constitution Society's publication of a collection of responses to the draft bill on Lords reform from distinguished academics, peers and MPs.
Fri, 22nd July 2011
Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, and contributor to "The end of the peer show?", Mark Harper sets out the government's view on House of Lords reform.
Tue, 28th June 2011
The House of Lords significantly amended the European Union Bill during its third reading in the Upper House last week. Peers used this last opportunity to amend the Bill to demonstrate their unwillingness to accept its controversial proposals.
Mon, 6th June 2011
Dr Robin Archer of the LSE has explained the lessons the UK might learn from examining the history of the Australian Senate. The insights he offered, in an interview with The Constitution Society, are of particular interest in light of the government’s new proposals on Lords reform.
Thu, 2nd June 2011
On May 17th the government introduced its House of Lords Reform Draft Bill in the Commons and the Lords. The Draft Bill suggests a move to an 80% elected upper house, with the remaining members appointed by recommendation of the Prime Minister. The new House of Lords would be made up of 300 members, with the 240 elected members sitting for 15-year terms.
Sat, 7th May 2011
The electorate has resoundingly rejected a proposal to introduce a system of alternative voting. The fall out will be the deferral of electoral reform for another generation and the political manoeuvring which underpinned the referendum is unlikely to have done anything to improve public perception of the integrity of politicians and our political system.
Wed, 18th May 2011
The Constitution Society’s evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee’s inquiry into Constitutional Reform was published on the 13th of May 2011 (link). The Society used agreed principles of Good Government to assess the quality of the legislative process behind the recently enacted Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Act (which led to May 5th’s referendum).
Fri, 13th May 2011
Elizabeth Truss, Member of Parliament for South West Norfolk, has called for councils to be “more free to take their own decisions”, warning that an excessive concern for equality between local government bodies disempowers British communities. Ms Truss made the case for a stronger localism in Britain during an interview with the Constitution Society.
Tue, 26th April 2011
Alan Renwick of the University of Reading explores the arguments around the AV referendum.
Mon, 18th April 2011
Chris Nicholson, Chief Executive of the liberal think tank Centre Forum, explains his reasons for supporting a move to the Alternative Vote at the forthcoming referendum.
Tue, 12th April 2011
Lord Kinnock recently spoke to The Constitution Society about his support for AV and his reaction to the negativism of the no campaign in the lead up to the referendum on May 5th. Here we report his thoughts.
Wed, 6th April 2011
A collection of resources to help you make up your mind ahead of Thursday's referendum.
Tue, 5th April 2011
Former Chair of the Labour party Baroness Hayter defends First Past the Post ahead of next month's referendum on the Alternative Vote.
Wed, 6th April 2011
Former cabinet minister Peter Hain MP explains why he supports the yes to AV campaign.
Fri, 6th May 2011
The AV referendum ballot papers are being counted. We show you the latest figures.
Wed, 13th April 2011
Links to The Constitution Society's Briefing papers on AV. We explain what it is and how it might affect our political system? We also report on our findings when we commissioned YouGov to ask 2000 people what they thought.
Mon, 17th January 2011
Direct links to briefing papers produced by The Constitution Society.
Fri, 25th March 2011
As more of the Government's legislative programme reaches the Lords, we consider the implications of Coalition for the Upper Chamber.
Tue, 1st March 2011
In the context of Thursday's Welsh vote on broader legislative independence, we consider the genesis and implications of the wave of referendums currently planned for the UK.
Fri, 18th February 2011
Cameron and Clegg have stated their cases for and against AV. The public now has 10 weeks to decide the future of the electoral system.
Fri, 11th February 2011
We take stock of the changes made to the Voting System Bill during its epic scrutiny session in the Lords.
Mon, 17th January 2011
We assess the progress made in a century of debate on reform of the House of Lords. Are we any closer to knowing what we want from a reformed Upper House and are we sure we know how to achieve it?
Thu, 17th February 2011
Almost seven months after being introduced in the Commons, the Voting Systems Bill has received royal assent in time for the May 5th referendum.
Tue, 25th January 2011
This month's meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Constitution hosted a fascinating discussion on the Cabinet Manual. Despite broad consensus on the potentiality of the document, the merits of its implications could not be agreed.
Wed, 2nd February 2011
A promised "package of concessions" at report stage has permitted the Voting System Bill to conclude its marathon committee stage debate in the Lords.
Mon, 31st January 2011
Facing their 17th day of programmed discussion of amendments to the Voting System Bill, the Lords for the first time face a guillotine on debate.
Tue, 25th January 2011
The Government yesterday afforded the European Union Bill a further day of debate in the Commons but critics argue it that the Government continues to curtail proper scrutiny.
Wed, 5th January 2011
The infinite questions on Lords reform left unresolved by a century of debate.
Tue, 21st December 2010
Following the publication of the Draft Cabinet Manual, the Constitution Society talks to the experts.
Fri, 17th December 2010
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Fri, 10th December 2010
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Fri, 3rd December 2010
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Thu, 25th November 2010
Constitution expert Meg Russell makes powerful plea for Government to reform appointment policy or face "serious damage" to the House.
Fri, 26th November 2010
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Thu, 18th November 2010
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Fri, 19th November 2010
Simon Hix, Professor in the Department of Government at the LSE, has criticised Government proposals to hold a referendum on AV in an interview with reconstitution.org.uk.
Tue, 16th November 2010
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Mon, 8th November 2010
From the perspective of proposals to "reduce and equalise" parliamentary constituencies, we probe the ties between the Government's broader programme for constitutional reform.
Mon, 25th October 2010
Harriett Baldwin, Conservative MP for West Worcestershire, speaks to ReConstitution about her private members’ Bill, seeking to find a solution to the issue commonly known as the ‘West Lothian Question’, and the future of constituency boundaries.
Mon, 1st November 2010
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Wed, 6th October 2010
Results of our specially commissioned YouGov poll on AV and the referendum. 2548 people were asked various questions about their voting intentions and their understanding of voting systems generally. They were also asked to give their reasons; with surprising results.
Fri, 13th August 2010
Although people tend to talk about Alternative Voting as if it is a single concept, there are in fact many different variants on the AV system. Our briefing paper gives a clear explanation of the AV system currently proposed by the Government, together with worked examples.
Thu, 7th October 2010
The Constitution Society (TCS) commissioned YouGov to carry out an on-line poll to gauge public opinion on a broad range of issues around electoral reform and the government’s referendum proposal. 2548 people were asked various questions about their voting intentions and their understanding of voting systems generally. They were also asked to give their reasons. The survey produced some surprising results .
Thu, 21st October 2010
An archive of agendas and resources from previous meetings of the APPG on the Constitution.
Fri, 20th August 2010
Following the Electoral Commission's confirmation of funding rules for the AV referendum campaign, we look at how this interesting campaign might evolve, and whether either camp is advantaged from the start.
Fri, 30th July 2010
A Bill is currently before Parliament to propose a referendum on electoral reform and boundary changes. To date, none of the main political parties has given reasons why a change from our First Past the Post system of electing members to the House of Commons ought to be changed to a system of Alternative Voting. We examine the implications of a change in voting system and look at some of the, perhaps unforeseen, consequences of the changes which the Bill proposes.
Looking for that special someone: the enduring relationship between politicians and special advisers
Thu, 29th July 2010
We take a look at special advisers, often thought of as a recent phenomenon. However closer examination reveals that special advisers have been around as long as politicians.
Sat, 17th July 2010
On 15th July 2010 Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister became the first witness to the newly-formed Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. The committee cross-examined Mr Clegg both on the timing and content of reform proposals.
Sun, 11th July 2010
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Sat, 24th July 2010
In a further valuable contribution to the burgeoning debate on constitutional reform in general, and the codification of the British constitution in particular, a group of constitutional experts led by Stephen Hockman QC and Professor Vernon Bogdanor have called for a holistic approach to the constitution. In a paper published by JUSTICE, the group analyses the questions which need resolution before any moves can be made towards the creation of a codified constitution.
Fri, 2nd July 2010
Prompted by the recent publication of a book on the subject by Richard Gordon QC, the PR consultancy SPADA recently sponsored a debate on whether the UK now needs a written constitution. Read more, or watch a video of the debate in full.
Wed, 16th June 2010
The Rt Hon John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons outlined his vision of a revitalised chamber of the House of Commons. The new Parliament has seen an encouraging number of new faces in the House taking an active interest in the business of the Chamber. But what will it take to sustain that enthusiasm and reinvigorate debate in the House?
Mon, 7th June 2010
Both the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru have stated that they intend to exploit the hung parliament to their own advantage, once again putting the spotlight on the 'English question' - that Scottish and Welsh MPs may vote in Westminster on issues that affect only England, whilst English MPs have no say in relation to the deliberations of the Scottish parliament or the Welsh assembly. We look at whether there will ever be a solution to this problem.
Sat, 29th May 2010
Amid the calls for electoral reform and the coalition government's promise to put the Alternative Voting system to a referendum, we look at what difference a change to the voting system would make. Is democracy in the voting or the counting?
Tue, 18th May 2010
The European Union has been criticised in the past for failing to develop a more effective foreign policy, but the External Action Service is supposed to bring new cohesion and coherence to this area of European cooperation. However, the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Baroness Ashton, has already run into opposition to her plans and, although a compromise has been struck, the road ahead scarcely looks any easier.
Wed, 12th May 2010
The negotiations leading to the formation of the new coalition government have turned, in part, on the question of electoral reform. A matter of such constitutional importance should, it is argued, form part of a wider review of the constitution and should not be used merely as a political bargaining chip. Will sufficient time be given to consider the implications of change before reforms are pushed through?
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Thu, 6th May 2010
Peter Lloyd questions the provenance of the recently disclosed 'Cabinet Manual'. Amid suggestions that the manual might form the basis of a written constitution, he questions whether it should be for a civil servant to generate the first draft of such a fundamental document.
Sat, 1st May 2010
In a letter published in the Financial Times this week, members of The Constitution Society and the Better Government Initiative outline four basic principles of good government that could improve the legislative process. The principles are difficult to fault, and could be implemented without legislation, but the question will remain whether there is any incentive for politicians to change the way that they behave.
Tue, 13th April 2010
At a debate of the Society of Cogers on 19th April 2010, Nat le Roux, Chairman of the Trustees of the Constitution Society, argued that our problem may not lie with our constitution itself, but rather with the conduct of our politicians. He suggested that the single biggest problem of contemporary democracy - is that all politicians are terrified of losing power, because the lesson of the last 30 years is that once you’ve lost power you don’t get it back for a generation.
Mon, 26th April 2010
In an article published for the first time on the ReConstitution website, Professor Dawn Oliver argues that we should resist political pressure to reform the House of Lords by making it an elected body. She proposes abolishing the House of Lords and starting from scratch by the creation of a wholly appointed Commission for Executive Scrutiny, with proposals which chime with views expressed by Lord Bingham.
Thu, 4th March 2010
The head of the Civil Service is warning Gordon Brown not to leave Number 10 if it is unclear who has won the upcoming election. Sir Gus O’Donnell told MPs that it is “the Prime Minister’s duty not to resign” until a successor can be found.
Wed, 21st April 2010
Will the problems with Parliament be solved by the retirement of many of the worst expenses offenders and an influx of new MPs? There is a perceptible mood for change amongst voters, but will altering some of the personnel be enough to restore confidence in both Parliament and the ‘constitution’ of the United Kingdom?
Wed, 7th April 2010
Campaigners are expressing their dismay, as the government’s legal commitment to hold a referendum on reforming the electoral system looks set to be scrapped as part of the ‘wash up’.
Mon, 29th March 2010
Legendary anti-corruption campaigner Martin Bell is spearheading a campaign to make the ‘wash up’ more transparent. Mr Bell is criticizing the process, which takes place during the final days of a parliament to try and get as many of the remaining bills finished as possible, as a “stitch-up by and for the main political parties”.
Wed, 17th March 2010
A senior government minster has laid into David Cameron’s plans to reduce the number of MPs should he get into power.
Mon, 15th March 2010
The controversial libel judge at the centre of a storm over the development of privacy law in the UK has hit back at his tabloid critics. Justice Eady, who rose to notoriety after punishing the News of the World for publishing intimate photos of Formula 1 boss Max Mosely’s private life, accused tabloids of having a vested interest in stunting privacy for financial gain.
Wed, 10th March 2010
A senior Tory is expressing her support for an elected House of Lords. Margot James, a vice-chairwoman of the Conservative party, made the announcement during an interview with Reconstitution where she claimed the current system was “out of kilter”.
Mon, 8th March 2010
Academics are calling for “immediate assurances” from the government that it will implement the recently agreed Wright reforms before the end of this parliament. Dr Meg Russell of the UCL Constitution Unit warned them “this is the timetable the Commons voted for and party leaders must work together to honour that.”
Tue, 23rd February 2010
The parliamentary reform movement is split over whether the proposed Wright Reforms go far enough.
Mon, 1st February 2010
Better Government Initiative launches major report.
Mon, 1st February 2010