Labour Reforms 1997-2010

The aims of Labour's Reform Programme

Old Labour New Labour 

Modernisation. Institutions such as parliament, the executive and the civil service were using outdated and inefficient procedures that demanded reform.

Democratisation. Participation in the political process would be encouraged through electoral reform and greater use of referendums.

Decentralisation. Decision-making powers would be devolved to new institutions in Scotland and Wales, with the role of local government also being enhanced.

Rights. The rights of citizens would be strengthened and safeguarded.

The Labour government elected in 1997 had an ambitious reform programme. After 18 years in opposition,  they pusehed through  a range of constitutional reforms that were more far-reaching than anything attempted by governments for generations. Since the end of the Labour government some of these reforms have been developed further.

Why did this period see such extensive reform?

The Labour government party had a huge 179-seat majority in the House of Commons and so felt it could push through the reforms with minimal opposition. It was almost inevitable that such a large project could not be completed, but the government did implement a high proportion of its proposals by the time it lost office in 2010.

Pressure for reform in the 1990s

The New Labour Party was sympathetic to the idea of constitutional reform as part of its plan to modernise British institutions. Previous Labour governments had carried out political reforms, such as extending the vote to 18 year olds in 1969 and attempting to pass devolution for Scotland and Wales in 1979. However, it had been primarily concerned with economic and social issues. New Labour was more open to demands from pressure groups such as Charter 88 (later renamed Unlock Democracy), who wanted more open democracy and stronger guarantees of citizens' rights. Before winning a large independent majority in the 1997 election, Blair expected that he might need support from the Liberal Democrats, who were also committed to constitutional change — particularly reform of the first­ past-the-post electoral system. Too much of the British political system has been seen as undemocratic. The prime targets have been the unelected House of Lords and the unrepresentative electoral system.

The Conservative governments in the 1980s had  no interest in constitutional reforms. This had helped to build up pressure for change, especially in Scotland, where the population felt ignored by a distant government in London. Scottish opinion rejected a number of Conservative policies. For example, the unpopular poll tax had been trialled there in 1989 before its introduction in England and Wales. Scots nationalism, grew steadily in popularity and reform was seen as a means of heading off independence. 

Accusations of corruption or `sleaze' in the Major governments and Conservatives Party in the 1990s also helped to create a climate of opinion where the health and integrity of traditional institutions were questioned.

 During the 1980s there had been fears that the rights of citizens in the UK had been consistently eroded. In fact, the process could be traced back to earlier periods, but the Labour Party concentrated on what had occurred under the Conservatives. In addition, Labour wished to bring the UK more into line with European practice in constitutional matters.

There was a general desire to bring the UK Constitution into line with the rest of Europe, all of whose states have special arrangements to protect individual rights. The increase in the powers of the police and the courts that had occurred in the 1980s and 1990s was now seen as a major threat to our rights. The UK government had been brought before the European Court of Huma Rights (which seeks to enforce the convention) more than 50 times since 1966 and had lost most of the cases.  Labour placed a new emphasis on the principle that citizens have responsibilities to their communities and to the country as a whole. In return for these responsibilities it was believed that rights should be better understood and safeguarded.

Changes under Labour, 1997-2010

The Labour governments focused on five major areas of reform.

· House of Lords reform: The government of 1997 wanted to reform the House of Lords quite radically, but

had to move in two stages.

1 The first stage was the removal of the hereditary peers and their voting rights. In other words, there would be an all-appointed chamber of life peers and Church of England bishops. There was some obstruction to this and the government had to compromise with the peers by allowing 92 hereditary peers to retain their seats.

2 Stage two was to be an elected, or partly elected, chamber. However, this ran into more obstruction and a lack of political consensus. The measure was, therefore,  taken off the agenda.

Although the House of Lords Act 1999 did reduce the number of hereditary peers to 92, the House of Lords threatened to use its powers to obstruct and delay reform. It was in return for the Lords’ compliance that the government left a number of hereditary peers in place. 

The effect:

The removal of most hereditary peers also gave the Lords a more 'modern' appearance. The majority of its members were now life peers, who were supposed to have been appointed on grounds of merit, reflecting a wide variety of fields of activity, including politics, business, the trade union movement, the arts and the military. No political party now enjoyed a dominant position in the Lords. From 2000 a House of Lords Appointments Commission nominated a proportion of peers who were not linked with a party. However, the prime minister and other party leaders continued to make nominations on party political grounds, and no agreement was reached on making the Lords either wholly or partly elected, so it continued to lack democratic legitimacy.

· Electoral reform: Various forms of proportional representation were introduced for elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly and European Parliament. However, although the government commissioned a report into the system used for Westminster, chaired by Roy Jenkins (former Labour Cabinet minister, subsequently a Liberal Democrat peer), no action was taken. Supporters of proportional representation concluded that, having won a crushing victory under the old system, Labour had no interest in changing arrangements for Westminster.

· Devolution: Devolved bodies were created for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland following referendums in 1997-98 in these parts of the UK. Labour's devolution reforms were a pragmatic package, designed to damp down support for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) and to bring together the conflicting unionist and nationalist factions in Northern Ireland. Demand for devolution in Wales was always weaker and the Welsh Assembly did not gain comparable powers to those of the Scottish Parliament.

The government had no answer to the so-called 'West Lothian question': the anomaly that Scottish MPs at Westminster were able to vote on purely English matters, yet English MPs had no influence over issues devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Another source of grievance for England was the persistence of the Barnett formula, devised by Labour minister Joel Barnett in 1978, long before devolution. This determines relative levels of public spending for the component parts of the UK on the basis of population. It means that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland receive more spending per head of population than England.

An attempt to set up elected regional assemblies in England was abandoned after the only area in which a referendum was held to test public opinion, the North-East, decisively rejected the idea in 2004.

·  Human Rights: In 1998, the UK Parliament passed the Human Rights Act, which many saw as the most significant development in the protection of human rights in the UK since Magna Carta. Its provisions came into force in 2000.

The Act incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. The convention was made binding on all public bodies, including the government. All UK courts have an obligation to enforce the convention whenever it becomes relevant in any case coming before them. This act incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK statute law, enshrining rights such as those to a fair trial, freedom from slavery and degrading treatment, and respect for privacy and family life. All future legislation had to be compatible with the ECHR. Judges could not strike down laws that were incompatible with it but could highlight such legislation for amendment by Parliament. The limitations of the Human Rights Act were demonstrated by the government's decision to 'derogate from' (declare an exemption from) Article 5, which gave individuals the right to liberty and security, in cases of suspected terrorism. The introduction in 2005 of control orders, which allowed the authorities to limit the freedom of movement of such individuals, highlighted the unentrenched nature of the act.

Judicial Reform 

To enhance the protection of rights and to clarify the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers  the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act led to the establishment, 4 years later, of a Supreme Court as the highest court of appeal in the UK for civil cases, and (except in Scotland) for criminal cases. Previously senior judges known as the Law Lords, sitting in the House of Lords, had performed this function. 

The Act also greatly reduced the role of lord chancellor — removing the roles as head of the judiciary and speaker of the House of Lords. This further served to enhance the separation of powers, with the lord chancellor (now ‘Justice Secretary’) no longer taking a lead in all three branches of government.

Until 2005 the head of the judiciary was a Cabinet minister, the Lord Chancellor. In what was seen as a breach of separation of powers, he could also sit as a judge in the UK’s highest court. The CRA removed the Lord Chancellor as head of the judiciary, handing that responsibility to the Lord Chief Justice in line with an agreement struck in the Concordat of 2004. The CRA also created a new Supreme Court, and established the Judicial Appointments Commission. 

The creation of the Supreme Court was aimed to achieve a clearer Separation of Powers between the legislature and the judiciary. The Court has its own building, the Middlesex Guildhall, on the other side of Parliament Square, separate from Parliament. When the Supreme Court was created eleven of the twelve Justices of the Supreme Court were recruited from the previous top judges (the “Law Lords”). Though they retain their titles they cannot sit or vote in the House of Lords. Future recruits will not be given peerages. 

Judicial Appointments :The creation of the Judicial Appointments Commission sought to increase the independence of the judiciary by establishing an independent body to oversee the appointment of judges. The JAC has been praised for increasing the diversity of the judiciary, with more women and ethnic minorities appointed to senior judicial positions since its creation.

The JAC is made up of 15 Commissioners, including the Chairman, including the Lord Chief Justice, the President of the Supreme Court, and seven non-lawyers appointed by the Lord Chancellor. The Commission is responsible for advertising vacancies, shortlisting candidates, and making recommendations to the Lord Chancellor for appointment. The Lord Chancellor is required to follow the Commission’s recommendations, except in exceptional circumstances.

However:Most Justices of the Supreme Court have been privately educated and attended Oxford or Cambridge universities, and these rarefied experiences could make them ill-suited to interpreting the law in a contemporary setting. In short, some critics have argued that the privileges and prejudices of their class hinder the justices of the Supreme Court from maintaining judicial neutrality. Men also dominate the Supreme Court. In 2022, Lady Rose was the only female judge on the Supreme Court. The role of the Supreme Court 

Have the 2005 changes strengthened or weakened judicial independence? 

The government also retains some political influence over the appointment of Justices of the Supreme Court. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 merged the position of lord chancellor with that of justice secretary. The justice secretary, who does not need to have a legal background, is a member of the cabinet. Despite this, the selection committee for new Justices of the Supreme Court must pass their recommendations to the justice secretary, who can request further information and retains the right to reject a nominee. This power would only be used in exceptional circumstances and only one nomination can be rejected, but it does show how there is not a complete separation of powers in the UK.

Critics of the Supreme Court suggest that, in cases concerning the government, the court risks being pulled into major political disputes, which could compromise its neutrality. This was particularly the case over Brexit, as well as in major decisions involving the interpretation of human rights legislation. In 2019 the then justice secretary, Liz Truss, failed to defend judges when they were being vilified in the right-wing press for allegedly frustrating Brexit. However, the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the law and so has an obligation to determine the legality of government decisions, especially when they are contentious.

How well are Rights protected in the UK? 

Government Accountability : Freedom of information

In 1997 Britain was unusual in not having a citizen’s right to obtain publicly held information . Most other democracies had some form of freedom of information legislation.. Accordingly the Labour manifesto had a commitment to introduce such a measure. However, when the legislation,  appeared in 1997, proved to be a disappointment to civil rights campaigners. 

The Freedom of Information Act gave citizens the right to see information that is held about them by public bodies including government, schools, medical bodies and other institutions of the welfare state.  This right was also protected by the  Data Protection Act 1998.

The Act  also gave the right to see documents and reports that are held by government and its agencies. This was the most challenging for governments because it represented a real cultural change towards a culture of open government and away from a long tradition of government secrecy, because the public now had the right to see inside the inner workings of government. The media and Parliament and pressure groups would have much greater access to information. 

The final  Freedom of Information Act 2000 was not as strong as had been hoped and many critics felt that the Labour government had lost its enthusiasm for open government when it was the government.  a watered-down version of similar

The security services were exempt, while the rest of government was given a key concession. In most other freedom of information legislation  governments have to justify any reason for suppressing information. In the UK version the government had the right to conceal information if it feels it might prejudice the activities of government. In other words, the onus is on the citizen had to prove that a document or other information should be released.  An Information Tribunal was also set up. The tribunal can rule on what information can and should be released. Since the Act was passed the tribunal has proved to be more sympathetic to freedom of information than was expected..

In 2008 a request under the Act mled to the exposure of details of expenses claims made by revealed widespread abuse of the expenses system. 

Devolution to regional and local government

In London Labour created a new directly elected mayor with power in areas such as environment and transport. The latter resulted in the introduction of a congestion charge for motorists entering central London. These changes also saw the creation of a London Assembly, a body tasked to scrutinise the mayor’s actions.

Outside of London, all local authorities were obliged to reform their political management, and chose between a  cabinet model and directly elected mayor. In 2014 it was announced that a Mayor of Greater Manchester would be created as leader of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, subject to new primary legislation. In 2017 elections were held for Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, the, Tees Valley, West of England and the West Midlands as part of the devolution deals allowed by the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. The delayed election for the Sheffield City Region followed in May 2018. 

Electoral reform

On electoral reform for Westminster Labour failed and by 2010 FPTP was still in operation. The 1998 Jenkins Report, which was an  Independent Commission on the Voting System established by the Labour government a year earlier, recommended replacing the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system used in elections to the Westminster Parliament, with a hybrid system known as alternative vote plus (AV+).   But this did not happen.