Coalition Reforms 2010-15

The Coalition government 2010-2015 had an ambitious constitutional reform agenda- this was unusual since conservatives are not traditionally in favour, but their leader David Cameron was unusual in being a reformer, however bringing the rest of his party with him would prove difficult.

The coalition agreement between the two parties, which launched the new government in May 2010. Areas of agreement included openness to further devolution to Scotland and Wales and to parliamentary reform, including a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords.

Failed because of party disagreement: Plans for a mainly elected House of Lords were dropped after a rebellion by 91 backbench Conservative MPs. The Liberal Democrats, who were the more committed of the two parties to a democratically chosen upper house, retaliated by blocking the implementation of legislation designed to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. The effect would have been to produce a smaller number of constituencies, of more equal size, so that that all votes would have had more equal value across the country. Labour claimed this was a form of gerrymandering since it favoured the Conservatives.

· Electoral reform failed to win a referendum.: A referendum was held in May 2011, The Conservatives campaigned strongly to retain first past the post, while the Liberal Democrats argued for the adoption of the Alternative Vote (AV), only to see their proposals rejected by 68 per cent of those who voted. This was a major disappointment for the Liberal Democrats, because a central aim of joining the coalition had been electoral reform-. They had wanted the proportional Single Transferable Vote system, but had opted for AV under pressure form the conservatives.

· A British Bill of Rights: The Conservatives wanted to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, however the Liberal Democrats were enthusiastic supporters of the act. This meant no agreement could be found. The Conservative manifesto at the 2015 general election pledged to revisit the issue, but it did not appear in Theresa May's first Queen's Speech- since Brexit now dominated the political agenda.

· Devolution:

A referendum was held in Wales in March 2011 on proposals to grant further powers to the Welsh Assembly. This resulted in the Assembly receiving direct law-making power in all of the 20 policy areas that had been devolved to it, without the need to consult Westminster.

The Scottish Parliament received more powers under the 2012 Scotland Act, including borrowing powers, the right to set its own rate of income tax and control over landfill tax and stamp duty. In September 2014 a referendum was held in Scotland on proposals for independence, resulting in a 55 per cent vote to stay in the UK. In the course of the campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron and the leaders of the other main UK parties pledged to grant more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

The Liberal Democrats demanded constitutional reform as part of the price of agreeing to support the larger Conservative Party.

· David Cameron portrayed himself as a modern prime minister on the 'liberal wing' of the Conservative Party.

· There was widespread public disillusionment with, and suspicion of, politics in the UK. The reforms were an attempt to restore public confidence in politics.

· Both coalition parties had criticised the outgoing Labour government for failing to complete its reform programme. They therefore, made a virtue of completing the reforms started by Labour. The Table below shows the proposals of the coalition government. Note that these were the 2010 proposals.

In 2009 the House of Commons Reform Committee, chaired by Dr Tony Wright, recommended a series of procedural changes aimed at restoring the Commons’ authority over its own affairs and improving backbench MP’s ability to scrutinise legislation effectively.

In 2010 the incoming coalition government implemented some, but not all, of the recommendations of the Wright report. The two most important reforms were:

    • Election of members and chairs of Select Committees by secret ballot

    • The establishment of a Backbench Business Committee

With the introduction of election by secret ballot in 2010, the party whips can no longer influence the appointment of Select Committee members or, importantly, their chairs. There is no doubt that the authority and legitimacy of Select Committees have grown in consequence, to the point where some ambitious MPs now see the chair of one of the more influential Committees as an attractive career goal, as an alternative to ministerial office.

England — English votes for English laws (EVEL): As a concession to English opinion, the Conservative government that took office in May 2015 offered a solution to the West Lothian Question. Under 'English votes for English laws' (EVEL), if a measure that concerns only England (or England and Wales) comes before the House of Commons, it can pass only with the approval of a 'grand committee', consisting solely of English (or English and Welsh) MPs. The measure was used for the first time in January 2016, to pass a housing bill without the involvement of Scottish MPs.

· The Fixed Term Parliaments Act, 2011: This ended the prime minister's historic power to choose the date of a general election by establishing that a new parliament must be elected on a fixed date, at five-year intervals. An earlier contest can be held only if two-thirds of MPs vote for one, or if a prime minister loses a vote of no confidence and fails to form a new government within a 14-day period. This reform suited the interests of both partners in the coalition by giving the government a guaranteed period in which to implement their programme, free from speculation about the date of the next election.

Reform of the House of Commons: The coalition implemented reforms recommended by a committee chaired by Labour MP Tony Wright, which reported before the 2010 general election. Chairs of House of Commons select committees, which scrutinise the activities of government departments, were to be chosen by MPs, rather than have their selection influenced by the party leaders. A backbench business committee was created, which chooses topics for debate, including some proposed by the public in e-petitions. The first such debate was triggered by people seeking justice for the 96 Liverpool football supporters who died in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

The West Lothian Question refers to the perceived imbalance between the voting rights in the House of Commons of MPs from Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland constituencies and those of MPs from English constituencies following devolution.

It has been so-called since Tam Dalyell, the former MP for West Lothian, famously raised the question in a debate on devolution to Scotland and Wales on 14 November 1977.

· Recall of MPs Act 2015 : This was a response to the fact that voters had no legal means of removing scandalous MPs who refused to resign their seats. It means that if an MP is sentenced to a custodial sentence, or is suspended from the Commons for more than 21 days, a by-election is triggered if at least 10 per cent of constituents sign a recall petition.

Probably the most significant constitutional change did not happen under the Coalition but as the result of a promise made in the election campaign which followed it. David Cameron promised to hold a referendum on the membership of the EU if he won the election.