One of the consequences of Brexit has been to crowd out from political discourse much discussion of further UK constitutional reform.
The irony is that the UK constitution, unwritten as it may be, will have to adapt to take account of post-Brexit arrangements. Our departure from the EU, and the disapplication of EU Law and its replacement with the new concept of ‘EU Retained Law’, as set out in the EU Withdrawal Act 2018, will require new processes, and structures, to be created within the United Kingdom.
And yet, very little thinking has been done about what this all means for the British constitution, and specifically for relationships between the four nations that make up our Union.
We will face these challenges sooner than we think. And with nationalists in different parts of the United Kingdom seeking to use Brexit uncertainty for their own political ends, it is important that unionists have a coherent response.
What has become clear is that there are areas of responsibility previously exercised at an EU level, for example on agriculture or the environment, which in terms of the devolution settlement would normally fall to the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly to be exercised. However, there is a clear shared interest in certain decisions in these areas being taken in future on a common UK-wide basis.
I believe that our departure from the EU provides the impetus to introduce important governmental and constitutional reforms to create a ‘quasi-federal’ future for the four nations of the Union.
In practice, there are four key reforms that I believe are required to strengthen the UK constitution post-Brexit:
- A new Statute or Charter of Union. This new Act of the UK Parliament would declare the creation of a quasi-federal state, and provide in law for the UK’s intergovernmental machinery.
- A new Senate representing different parts of the UK. The House of Lords as it currently exists should be abolished and replaced with a new Senate, or Upper House, representing different parts of the UK, predominantly if not entirely elected, and fulfilling the role both of a revising chamber and as a counterweight to the House of Commons.
- A new UK Council of Ministers. The establishment of UK Common Frameworks requires the replacement of the existing Joint Ministerial Committee system with a new UK Council of Ministers, representing component parts of the country.
- A new English Grand Committee. In the absence of significant further devolution or moves to federation within England, there is a need for England as a whole to be represented within the new UK Council of Ministers, with representatives elected by the English Grand Committee.
This package of reforms could, together, address a number of current issues.
First, it modernises the UK Constitution, and allows it to adapt to the new situation that has been created following our departure from the EU, and the disapplication of EU law.
Second, it delivers the long-awaited and overdue reform of the House of Lords, giving a better balance to the UK Constitution and protecting the interests of the nations and regions furthest from London.
Third, it allows the people of England for the first time a proper voice within the institutions of the UK, distinct from that of the UK Government, which also has to have a wider consideration for all the Union’s component parts.
Fourth, it addresses the continuing concerns that exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and also are growing in many parts of England – about an over-centralised state where, despite asymmetric devolution over a period of two decades, there is still pressure for more power to be passed down from the centre.
Taken together, these proposals modernise and strengthen the UK constitution, and help us adapt to the post-Brexit world. Simply carrying on as we are is not an option.
Murdo Fraser’s paper Our still United Kingdom – A ‘quasi-federal’ future? was published on 22nd April by Bright Blue
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When I took up my post as the RSPCA’s Chief Executive in August, one of the first documents in my in-tray was a briefing about how Brexit will affect animal welfare. I suspect for many people, they have never simply thought about how Brexit impacts animal welfare. When asked, 80% of the public said they do not want to see welfare standards watered down.
But with 80% of our welfare laws made in Brussels, of course Brexit hugely impacts animal welfare. And for no animals is this more true than for farm animals.
Brexit is the defining event for farming and farm animals in the UK in a generation. Last month MPs debated the Government’s suggested independent agriculture policy. Amazingly this was the first debate on agriculture policy since 1947, before many of the current intake of MPs were even born, although one MP followed his grandfather in discussing the policy. Since 1973, it’s been the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that has defined British farming.
No matter how you voted, we can all agree that the CAP has not delivered the best outcomes for British farmers and farm animals. Why? Because as its name suggests, it is common to 28 countries but is not specific to any of them. It remains a policy that spends 80% of its money – your money – solely on ownership of land. The more land you own, the more money you get. You are not even expected to produce much, and only have to comply with the baseline legal standards.
The CAP has certainly not delivered animal welfare in the UK. Although funding for animal welfare has been around since 2007, budgets are tiny: 0.5%. In England, no funding has ever been provided for animal welfare schemes. It’s not surprising that in England the CAP has resulted in negative impacts on both the environment and animal welfare. By failing to support higher welfare systems it creates conditions allowing more intensive, lower welfare farming methods to flourish.
Brexit allows us to move away from this approach, tailor our own agricultural policy based on our own world-leading animal welfare standards and properly recognise and encourage British farmers who want to follow better systems for their animals.
The Government’s new approach to farming, set out in the Agriculture Bill, is a system based on public money for public goods; public goods which crucially include animal welfare. A first, big step forward. In some areas, British farmers already farm to some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, but in others they have fallen behind. They need a leg up to make improvements to their farms to deliver higher standards of animal welfare.
They also need the consumer to know this which is why we support – and the Government are looking at – mandatory labelling of how our chicken or beef got to our plates. We know this works. Mandatory egg labelling has made a huge difference to the numbers of free range eggs as consumers vote with their wallets.
We can do so much more. Brexit also provides us the opportunity to deliver this on a wide range of issues, including banning live animal exports, improving how we slaughter farm animals and reducing the times taken to transport animals from the farm to the slaughterhouse. No longer will our hands be tied by European rules. I hope that the Government is prepared to seize this opportunity with both hands. The signs are good so far that they are.
However, Brexit is not all sunlit uplands for British farmers and their animals. It will only work if we ensure we are not undercut by cheaper imports produced from less humane standards – in other words we need to keep our high standards, not lose them to other countries. The great unknown that is our future trading relationship with the rest of the world. As we approach B-Day it is absolutely essential that any future trade deals the UK strikes keep our standards intact by not allowing cheap, less humane imports to undercut our farmers. We must approach trade deals with the same standards we enforce domestically. We must ensure that these trade deals have language in them relating to animal welfare. We cannot allow the drive to become an international trading nation to undermine our animal welfare standards and threaten the livelihoods of British farmers. And it’s not just us saying this. Voices from across British agriculture – including the NFU – agree.
It’s been heartening to hear ministers from across Government commit to protect our animal welfare standards as we leave the EU. They must now deliver on these excellent intentions. High welfare standards will be an integral part of the appeal of British food and vital to the British competitive farming. The animals, farmers and consumers alike demand it.
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