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Recent Constitutional Reforms




 

The current Labour government, elected in 1997, re-elected in 2001 and 2005 has made much constitutional reform, with some yet to come into effect. The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law has granted citizens specific negative rights and given the judiciary some power to enforce them. The courts can encourage Parliament to amend primary legislation that conflicts with the Act by a "declaration of incompatibility", and courts can refuse to enforce or "strike down" any incompatible secondary legislation. Any actions of government authorities that violate Convention rights are illegal, except if forced to by an Act of Parliament.

Recent reforms have also decentralized the UK by setting up devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Devolution has challenged the tradition of the UK being a centralised, unitary state, which indeed it never was since Scotland and Ireland (until 1801) always had separate governments or legal systems. Some commentators have stated the UK is now a "quasi-federal" state.

These reforms have undermined the concept of Parliamentary sovereignty somewhat, even though Parliament could still abolish the devolved assemblies and repeal the Human Rights Act. In reality, such action would be unprecedented, unpopular and therefore extremely unlikely, so these restrictions on the legislative power of Parliament are effectively permanent for the time being.

The passing of an unprecedented Freedom of Information Act has challenged the traditional British notion that governments should not disclose too many details of its operations.

The government has shown a desire to abolish the position of Lords Chancellor, a position which unusually combines executive, legislative and judicial power, in conflict with the notion of the separation of powers. This however has been defeated in the House of Lords. A further apparent breach of separation of powers, the presence of Law Lords (members of the judiciary) in the House of Lords will be removed by moving the Lords to the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom by 2008. Ironically separation of power was a concept described by the French philosopher Montesquieu, after analysing the contemporary British constitution, which reflected the way in which the constitution actually operated. He didn't necessarily anticipate a separation of offices, but was rather describing the separation of functions.

Summary of Labour's proposed and implemented reforms:

 

Referendum on the electoral system to the House of Commons. Mentioned in a 1997 manifesto, Jenkins Commission submitted a recommendation for electoral reform in 1998. The government appears to have abandoned this proposal.

The creation of the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with their own direct elections, after holding referendums.

The creation of an assembly in London and the introduction of directly elected mayors. Referendum held in London and in many towns to assess support for an elected mayor. This was not a devolved assembly like Scotland and Wales, however, but rather a revival of the county council-like Greater London Council which had been abolished in the 1980s.

The beginning of a process of reform of the House of Lords, including the removal of all hereditary peers (initially except 92 representative peers).

The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law by the passing of the Human Rights Act 1998.

The passing of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The passing of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, creating the Electoral Commission to regulate elections and referendums and party spending to an extent.

Constitutional Reform Act 2005

Reform of the position of the position of Lord Chancellor

The removal of Law Lords from the House of Lords to a new “Supreme Court” by 2008.

 

 


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