Political Reform

In May 2010, as David Cameron and Nick Clegg emerged from six days of tough negotiations and stood together as coalition partners in the Downing Street Rose Garden. The pre-election expenses scandal had spurred politicians of all parties to adopt a reforming tone and advocates of political reform were full of hope. The Coalition Agreement was equally full of promises for widespread change, the price extracted by the Liberal Democrats before joining the new Government. Nick Clegg’s much vaunted once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape Westminster appeared to have arrived.

But halfway through the Parliament, many of these reforms have been all but abandoned. While the Coalition has achieved a number of small-scale reforms, the biggest pledges have all fallen by the wayside. The Liberal Democrats’ long-held dream of electoral reform was put to the public in a nationwide referendum; however the Alternative Vote system that Nick Clegg had previously derided as a “miserable little compromise” was rejected by some margin. Moves to make the House of Lords an elected body have also collapsed. Proposals put forward by a committee, again lead by Clegg, were derided as unworkable by both sides of the House, with the Labour Party uniting with rebellious Conservative backbenchers to stop the plans progressing through the Commons. The Conservatives have also lost out, as their Coalition partners denied them the reform of constituency boundaries that many Tories saw as both an essential reform and key to the party winning a majority in 2015.

The Coalition’s initial zeal for reform has died away. Plans to improve the accountability of the political system have been quietly scrapped, including the idea of open primaries to select candidates and plans to allow local referendums on issues of importance to communities. Recall elections for unscrupulous MPs, seen as a key pledge prior to the last General Election, are also likely to be dropped. Indeed, the Government’s initial proposals were criticised as being so weak that they might actually damage the electorate’s faith in politics further.

However, this isn’t to say that the Government has totally failed on reform. Indeed, the Coalition has had many successes on less high profile issues. For instance, the Fixed-terms Parliament Act 2011 is a fundamental constitutional change.  The establishment of the Backbench Business Committee and the continued adoption of the Wright Reforms have breathed new life into Westminster too, as the increasing power of Select Committees and the backbenches has shown. The Civil Service Reform Plan introduced by Francis Maude, if it works, may also improve the way Whitehall works.

The biggest political reform of all may be out of the Government’s hands. The upcoming Scottish independence referendum will have a major effect on the progress of devolution, whatever the result. With the additional possibility of further devolution to the Welsh Assembly in future, reformers may begin to look away from Westminster in the hunt for real change.


Progress against the Coalition Agreement

Pledge: We will establish five-year fixed-term Parliaments. We will put a binding motion before the House of Commons stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, we will legislate to make provision for fixed-term Parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55 per cent or more of the House votes in favour.

Status: Done – The Fixed-terms Parliament Act was passed in September 2011 and the date of the next election, providing the Coalition survives, has been set as the 7th May 2015.

Pledge: We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.

Status: In progress - The Government legislated and held the Alternative Vote Referendum, which overwhelmingly chose to maintain the First Past the Post system. However, following the Prime Minister’s decision to drop plans for a mostly elected House of Lords, the Liberal Democrats have so far blocked the passage of legislation to change constituency boundaries.

Pledge: We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10 per cent of his or her constituents.

Status: In progress – Despite the Conservatives’ support for the idea in the wake of the expenses scandal, progress on introducing recall elections has been slow. The Government published a draft Bill proposing a mechanism for such elections in 2011. However, pre-legislative scrutiny described the Bill as being so weak that it might actually damage confidence in politics. The Government has chosen “to take the proper time to reflect on this policy and determine its future direction”. Nick Clegg recently suggested on his LBC radio phone-in programme that legislation allowing the recall of MPs will be laid before Parliament before the next general election.

Pledge: We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election

Status: Not achieved - The Government attempted to introduce proposals for reform of the House of Lords; however, they were met with opposition from all sides of the House. When Labour joined forces with Conservative rebels to defeat the Programme Motion for the Reform Bill, the plans were dropped. Since then, the Government has appointed new Peers on an almost unprecedented scale.

Pledge: We will bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full – starting with the proposed committee for management of backbench business. A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.

Status: In progress - The Coalition has implemented a number of the Wright reforms, including elections for Select Committee Chairs and the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee. However, Leader of the House Andrea Eagle announced on 16 May 2013 via Twitter that establishing a House Business Committee will not be proceeded with.

Pledge: We will reduce electoral fraud by speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration.

Status: Done - The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which received Royal Assent on 31 January 2013, contains provisions for individual voter registration.

Pledge: We will establish a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question’.

Status: Done - The McKay Commission was established in January 2012 to examine the consequences of devolution on the House of Commons. It published its report in March 2013, and the Government is considering its response.

Pledge: We will prevent the possible misuse of Parliamentary privilege by MPs accused of serious wrongdoing.

Status: In progress - The Government published a Green Paper on Parliamentary Privilege in April 2012 which is currently being considered by a Joint Committee, chaired by Lord Brabazon of Tara.

Pledge: We will cut the perks and bureaucracy associated with Parliament.

Status: Not achieved - The Government passed responsibility for MPs pay and perks to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). IPSA have published an initial report, but they do not expect to introduce a new package for MPs until at least the 2015 election.

Pledge: We will consult with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) on how to move away from the generous final-salary pension system for MPs.

Status: In progress -  IPSA published a report in January 2013 analysing the responses of a consultation on MPs’ pay and pensions. It will publish details of the new package in autumn 2013, though the new system will not take effect before the 2015 election.

Pledge: We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years. These funds will be allocated to all political parties with seats in Parliament that they take up, in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last general election.

Status: Not achieved - The Mid-Term Review states that this will be reviewed in light of the (failed) constituency boundary reforms, and little to no progress has been made. As the boundary charges are almost certainly not going to go through, all-postal primaries seem likely to be abandoned also.

Pledge: We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament.

Status: Done - The Backbench Business Committee now considers any petition which reaches 100,000 signatures on the Government e-petition website, and allocates Parliamentary time to appropriate petitions.

Pledge: We will introduce a new ‘public reading stage’ for bills to give the public an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation online, and a dedicated ‘public reading day’ within a bill’s committee stage where those comments will be debated by the committee scrutinising the bill.

Status: Done   A ‘public reading stage’ was piloted on the Protection of Freedoms Bill and the Small Charitable Donations Bill . In January 2013, the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley MP, announced that the Government would not introduce a public reading stage for all bills, but would assess the best way to open up each piece of legislation to the public on a case by case basis.  The Children and Families Bill 2013 was the first bill to have a full public reading stage, which closed on 26 February 2013.

Pledge: We will improve the Civil Service, and make it easier to reward the best civil servants and remove the least effective.

Status: In progress - Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, has attempted to push forward some reform of the Civil Service, as the Civil Service Reform Plan has shown. However given some of the public declarations from Ministers about the Civil Service’s “Yes Minister” attitude, the Government is  yet to be fully satisfied with the performance of the Civil Servants in their employ.

Pledge: We will reform the Civil Service Compensation Scheme to bring it into line with practice in the private sector.

Status: Done - The Civil Service Compensation Scheme was reformed in December 2010.

Pledge: We will put a limit on the number of special advisers.

Status: Done - Changes to the Ministerial Code introduced in May 2010 limited the number of special advisers. With the exception of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Secretaries of State may appoint two special advisers and other Ministers attending Cabinet may appoint one, at the discretion of the Prime Minister.  David Cameron and Nick Clegg, however, have more special advisers than their Labour predecessors.

Pledge: We will introduce extra support for people with disabilities who want to become MPs, councillors or other elected officials.

Status: Done - Former Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone introduced a £2.6 million fund in July 2012 to help cover the additional costs faced by disabled people who want to run for Parliament or in local council and Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

Pledge: We will open up Whitehall recruitment by publishing central government job vacancies online.

Status: Done - Vacancies have been published on a central website since October 2011.

Pledge: We will publish details of every UK project that receives over £25,000 of EU funds.

Status: In progress - The UK Government now publishes details of UK-wide funding received from the Common Agricultural Policy and English recipients of money from the European Social Fund, the European Regional Development Fund and the European Fisheries Fund. The EU itself publishes figures from research and innovation funds. However this is not total coverage.

Pledge: We will give residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue.

Status: Not achieved – Legislation to fulfil this pledge was introduced in the Localism Bill, however it was dropped due to opposition from Peers.

Pledge: We will stop plans to impose supplementary business rates on firms if a majority of the firms affected do not give their consent.

Status: In progress - Measures to allow for this were included in the Localism Act 2011, but its effectiveness in practice has yet to be established.

Pledge: We will give residents the power to veto excessive Council Tax increases.

Status: In progress - Following consultations, measures to allow for this were also included in the Localism Act 2011, but its effectiveness in practice has also yet to be established.

Pledge: We will continue to promote peace, stability and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland, standing firmly behind the agreements negotiated and institutions they establish. We will work to bring Northern Ireland back into the mainstream of UK politics, including producing a government paper examining potential mechanisms for changing the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland.

Status: In progress - Despite consultations and working groups discussing ways to improve and rebalance the Northern Irish economy and additional funding for security services, the situation has not seen much improvement. Northern Ireland’s economic performance remains sluggish and reliant on the public sector and there has been increasing concern over the security situation as a number of dissident republican groups have become more active. A decision on whether to devolve setting the corporation tax rate to Northern Ireland has been postponed to 2014 over concerns about its potential effect on the Scottish independence referendum.

Pledge: We will implement the proposals of the Calman Commission and introduce a referendum on further Welsh devolution.

Status: In progress - Further Welsh devolution was agreed following a referendum in March 2011. Various aspects of the Calman Commission’s recommendations have been implemented, however a clearer picture of Scottish devolution will not be available until after the independence referendum.

Pledge: We will review the control and use of accumulated and future revenues from the Fossil Fuel Levy in Scotland.

Status: Done - The Coalition agreed the future of the Levy with the Scottish Government in November 2011.

Pledge: We recognise the concerns expressed by the Holtham Commission on the system of devolution funding. However, at this time, the priority must be to reduce the deficit and therefore any change to the system must await the stabilisation of the public finances. Depending on the outcome of the forthcoming referendum, we will establish a process similar to the Calman Commission for the Welsh Assembly. We will take forward the Sustainable Homes Legislative Competence Order.

Status: In progress - The Silk Commission on Devolution in Wales was appointed in October 2011, however its final report will not be available until spring 2014.

Pledge: We will make the running of government more efficient by introducing enhanced Departmental Boards which will form collective operational leadership of government departments.

Status: Done - Enhanced Departmental Boards have been adopted. Under the leadership of Lord Browne of Mandingley, the Government’s Lead Non-Executive Director, around 60 leaders from the private and public sector have been appointed as Non-Executive Directors.