European Union raises fundamental questions relating to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty

The Constitution of the United Kingdom is creaking.  Based on unwritten conventions and an ineffectual separation of powers the government fails to be truly accountable.  The House of Lords remains an anachronism and our membership of the European Union raises fundamental questions relating to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.  Discuss.

There are several arguments applicable to the context of the constitution of the United Kingdom (UK); the effect of the UK constitution not being composed of written or codified rules, the doctrine of rule of law as put forward by Professor Albert Venn Dicey in ‘The Law of the Constitution’ 1 and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty and the effects of the new Labour government’s encouragement of devolution, joining of the European Union (EU) and suggested reform of the House of Lords thereon.

lism, as in the United States.

The UK constitution is comprised of unwritten conventions and rules, though the Bill of Rights 1689 has provided the basis for the legislative powers of Parliament and common law for the powers of the Monarch. Dicey was of the view that the UK constitution, although being unwritten, was based upon the principles of the legal sovereignty of Parliament and the rule or supremacy of law. However, there is the argument that this form of constitution, being without legally enforceable guarantees cannot fulfil the definition of a constitution 2. 

Dicey’s view was that the rule of law stated that firstly, individuals could not be subject to a wide discretionary legislative power, that everyone would have the same fair treatment in the courts, and that as there was no written constitution, that constitutional law was the “result of the judicial decisions determining the rights of private persons in particular cases brought before the courts”.

1 [1885], 10th edition
2 Vernon Bogdanor in “Essays on British Government”: ‘The Politics and the Constitution’ (Dartmouth 1996)
3 [1933] 309-310

The United Kingdom does not have a codified constitution, unlike France or the United States, and this has a historical basis.  From the end of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century there was a push towards the principle of constitutionalism, that there should be limits upon the absolute power of government, as it was recognised that this was very dangerous if unchecked, and the revolution in France in 1789 and 1830, the appointment of an absolute monarch in Spain in 1812 and the establishment of the constitution of the Kingdom of Italy are examples of the wave that occurred at this time

This view was criticised by subsequent authorities such as W. Ivor Jennings in “The Law and the Constitution” 3, which stated that this view reflected Dicey’s political leanings as a ‘Whig’ resisting the discretionary power of the State. The problem with this theory is that it is not broad enough to encompass the modern principles of democracy in the United Kingdom, including the freedoms of the individual introduced by the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 set out in the European Convention in Human Rights (ECHR), and it therefore merely supplies a foundation to the notion of democracy

In the context of parliamentary sovereignty (Parliament in the UK being the supreme and absolute power) which has long been accepted as the fundamental doctrine of constitutional law in the UK, the purpose of a constitution is to limit such powers of government and divide powers amongst different bodies with a view to establishing a check on those powers, called the separation of powers

In the eighteenth century, there was a balance of powers of the King, House of Lords and the House of Commons in the United Kingdom, and at the time that Dicey advocated his views about the constitution, this balance of power was followed more avidly than in the present day, as the Monarch had considerable discretion to choose the Prime Minister, and the House of Lords had the same powers as regards participating in making of legislation as the House of Commons.  The Preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 removed the House of Lord’s power to veto legislation passed by the House of Commons, and since thereafter there has been no constitutional mechanism by which the House of Common’s supremacy can be challenged.

The new Labour government has proposed to reform the House of Lords with a view to making it more representative of the population, and the House of Lords Act 1999 excluded hereditary peers from membership, also a Royal Commission was established in February 1999 with Lord Wakeham as chairman with a view to make recommendations on a second chamber and the composition thereof.

The report, published in January 2000, made recommendations which were largely supported by the government in their White Paper 4, and it was stated that hereditary peers would cease to have any privileged rights of membership, the majority of members of the second chamber (comprising of up to 600) would be nominated by political parties to reflect the shares of the national vote, 120 of those members would have no affiliation to a political party and 120 would represent the regions and nations.

Some authorities consider that constitutional conventions are not of much worth in their role as fulfilling the principle of constitutionalism 5, but it is clear that some conventions are more followed than others. During the Ulster crisis of 1913-1914 George V thought about refusing the Royal Assent, but nowadays that would be almost unthinkable because of firm conventions limiting the powers of the Monarch, which have led to the evolution of a democratic society in the United Kingdom. Another convention which is always followed is the leader of the majority being chosen as the Prime Minster in government.  The conventions which are subject to the government’s discretion are those which apply to the relationship between the political executive, Parliament and the public.

4 The House of Lords - Completing the Reform: Cm 291
5 Bogdanor, (ibid)

Regarding the transfer of powers from Parliament to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the general principle is that British parliamentary sovereignty over the entire UK is legally absolute. However, since the election of the new Labour government, firstly the creation of the Scottish Parliament via the Scotland Act (SA) 1998 has been intended to strengthen the union between Scotland and the remainder of the UK by allowing the Scots to run their own domestic affairs with regard to local government, health, education, housing, economic development and transport. The UK Parliament retains authority over constitutional, foreign and EU affairs.

Although there has been a devolution of powers in this instance, it can be argued that the UK Parliament retains full sovereignty and supremacy, because the Scottish Parliament has been devolved via UK legislature, and at section 28(7) of SA 1998, it states: “This section does not affect the power of Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for Scotland”.

The Scottish Parliament was also approved by a referendum of the Scottish people, which was argued by Bogdanor 6 as being necessary to maintain the principle of constitutionalism with regard to Parliament’s transfer of powers. Furthermore, there are limitations upon the Scottish Parliament’s power to make legislation, as stated in section 29(1) SA 1998, stating that “an Act of the Scottish Parliament is not law so far as any provision of the Act is outside the legislative competence of the Parliament”.

In relation to Wales, the Government of Wales Act 1998 did not intend to give Wales the same amount of autonomy as Scotland, but the government’s White Paper on the Welsh Assembly, with regard to responsibility for domestic issues such as local government, housing, transport, health and industry lying with the Welsh Office, made the proposal for a Welsh Assembly to which most of such matters should be assigned, although it would not have any legislative power. There is obviously no devolution in this case of the UK Parliament’s legislative powers.

Regarding Northern Ireland, following the implementation of the Good Friday agreement in Belfast following negotiations amongst the late Mrs Mo Mowlam, Northern Ireland Secretary and other parties, the Northern Ireland Act (NIA) 1998 has been activated. The guarantee that the UK Parliament would not seek to alter Northern Ireland’s status without a referendum is stated in section 1 NIA 1998, following on from section 1(2) Ireland Act 1949 and section 1 Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, but as that guarantee has not been entrenched, Parliament could in theory alter Northern Ireland’s status without calling a referendum

However, the UK Parliament would be likely to recognise its obligations in this respect and abide by the convention to do this.  In fact, the result of the Good Friday agreement was that the majority of people in Northern Ireland should take the decision of whether to support a united Ireland with independent sovereignty or to continue the union with Great Britain (GB), and the New Northern Ireland Assembly was elected by virtue of the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, to deal with matters dealt with by the Northern Ireland Office departments; finance, agriculture, economic development, education, environment, health and social services.


6 (ibid) at 223-4

It should be noted that bills passed by the Scottish and new Northern Assemblies need to be approved  by Royal Assent, and that the new bodies will be subject to the control of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.  The Queen remains as the head of British government, thereby symbolising the unity of British sovereignty, and will approve the appointment of Scottish ministers, including the First Minister, who together with the Welsh Secretaries of the Welsh Assembly will need to swear the oath of allegiance to her.

With regard to devolution of legislative authority to England to appoint regional assemblies, there has not been any movement in this respect, and although the government could only consider this by holding a referendum as it would result in constitutional reform, the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 has established the agencies throughout England, which will deal with issues such as economic development, housing, investment and employment. The referendum in 1998 established the Greater London Authority, comprising of a London Assembly and Ken Livingstone as the elected mayor, and the issues dealt with include economic development, planning, public transport and topically, the London Olympic Games.

In relation to the UK government’s move into the EU, the Crown has, by virtue of the royal prerogative in foreign affairs, the power to enter into Treaties that bind the UK in international obligations, but cannot alter the rights of the people in the UK.  The UK originally joined the European Economic Community (EEC), now the European Community (EC) by virtue of the European Communities Act 1972, and all the legislative and executive power are vested in the EC organs, not those of the states.

From the case of R v Secretary of State for Transport, ex parte Factortame (No. 2) 7 the House of Lords noted, per Lord Bridge, that EC law had supremacy over the national law of states, including the UK. The general principle is that wherever British law conflicts with EC law, national legislation should not be applied. Consequently, there has been an amendment to the concept of parliamentary sovereignty in the UK, particularly since the incorporation of the principles of the ECHR into domestic law by the HRA 1998, and a significant area of legislative power has passed to the EC, although Parliament stills retains the authority whether to leave the EU, which is obviously will not occur with regard to the present government.


7 [1991] 1 AC 603

In conclusion, the devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can be argued not to have affected the position of the UK constitution in practice for the reasons provided, though these changes have brought about a change not seen since the end of the eighteenth century, as per Professor King 8. In particular, the legislative supremacy of Parliament has not been affected, and therefore it can be argued that devolution will not affect the UK constitution. The place of parliamentary sovereignty has also changed since the joining of the EU and the introduction of the HRA 1998, and further changes may occur in the future in this respect. There are attempts being made at reforming and modernising the House of Lords. In terms of sovereignty, it could be argued that the next step is federa

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