Royal Consent – If only I’d known 40 years ago

Chris Game

Queen

Photo credit: West Midlands Police – Royal Diamond Jubilee Visit

The Queen, I learned recently from my Murdoch Sunday newspaper, is “keen to hit her stride again” and indeed is already “ramping up for a very busy summer”.  Unsettling image, a ramping-up 95-year-old.  More personally, though, justification for not feeling too bad about airing a long-term grievance – for, as I’ll explain, I reckon she owes me.

This royal debt dates back to my pre-INLOGOV days, when, as mentioned in a name-dropping blog only quite recently, part of my 1970s was spent endeavouring to interest visiting American students from California’s Stanford University in the similarities and contrasts between their presidential government system and our constitutional monarchy.

Seminar exchanges would go something like this. You Brits call yourselves a constitutional monarchy, so you must have a constitution?  Yep – a set of the most important rules regulating relations between the different parts of the government and the British people.

But not written down?  Of course they’re written down, but in various forms: parliamentary statutes, judge-made laws, works by constitutional ‘authorities’, and what have become accepted conventions.

They’re just not ‘codified’, or fossilised, in an almost unamendable 1787 capital-C Constitutional document like yours – which, incidentally, says almost nothing useful about the US electoral system, political parties, or modern-day powers of its Supreme Court.

Britain’s uncodified, small-c constitution has enabled us, I’d suggest, to assimilate potentially huge changes without agonising for decades about whether and how to amend a capital-C Constitution.

Proof? The 19th Century metamorphosis during Queen Victoria’s reign from a real, if limited, executive monarchy to a virtually ceremonial one or effectively a republic: a state run by the people’s elected parliamentary representatives, but without a directly elected head of state.

[Literally parenthetically, I might add here that I genuinely can’t now recall how much of this stuff I actually believed and how much was pedagogical convenience. I don’t feel I’ve ever wholly supported the UK having an all-encompassing, written capital-C Constitution, as advocated recently for instance by the Lib Dems in their 2019 Manifesto (p.79), and for the Constitution Unit by QMU’s Prof. Douglas-Scott – not least because I’ve found it hard seriously to imagine it actually happening.

[I was, though, and think still am, in favour of something resembling what – in evidence to the (subsequently Conservative-abolished) Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform – Profs George Jones and John Stewart termed a more limited “constitutional settlement governing relationships between central and local government”, giving the latter constitutional recognition as an elected institution].

Back, anyway, to the role, and powers, of that ‘virtually ceremonial’ constitutional monarchy, with which, like most Americans, Stanford students had an almost insatiable fascination.

They knew before arriving that their Berkshire Thameside campus, Cliveden House, had been the country home of the 18th Century Prince of Wales, and staged the first performance of the even then embarrassingly patriotic anthem, ‘Rule, Britannia!’.

They quickly learnt about the Queen owning all the river’s ‘unmarked mute’ swans, having her own Swan Warden, driving without a licence and number plate, and – from glossy US magazines in those pre-Google days – dozens more “incredible powers you didn’t know she has”.

So much truer than I realised!  My role then, however, involved emphasising how most of these incredible powers – even, I guessed, recruiting Swan Wardens – were symbolic, and in practice exercised by others.

Some were easy. Supreme Governor of the Church of England: Henry VIII was certainly hands-on, but nowadays it’s a combo of the PM and Church leaders. Head of the Armed Services: Ministers and the Defence Ministry do policy, armed forces most of the fighting.

Opening and closing Parliamentary sessions, the Queen’s Speech, the Government’s legislative programme, creating members of the Lords – again, all determined by Ministers. Appointing the PM – yes, but following election by their party.

My biggest explanatory problem was Royal Assent and Consent.  Royal Assent is straightforward: the Sovereign’s purely formal agreement that a Bill, passed by both Houses of Parliament, be enacted as law.  Last refused, as all textbooks dutifully record, in 1708.

But check those same textbooks for Royal, or even Queen’s, CONsent, and you’ll be lucky to find much more than the 5-line paragraph graciously offered under ‘The Queen and Parliament’ on the www.royal.uk website: “It is a long-established convention that The Queen is asked by Parliament to provide consent (which is different to assent) for the debating of bills which would affect the prerogative or interests of the Crown”.

Long established maybe, but minimally publicised, discussed and understood. And there’s more. Should the Royals (Charles has a Prince’s Consent too) even suspect that something in any draft Bill might adversely affect their extensive prerogative rights or ‘personal interests’, they can potentially stop it even getting debated, never mind becoming law, and usually without leaving even a written record.

That’s why I reckon they owe me personally – as well as, obviously, all UK citizens (sorry, I forgot: ‘subjects’). Because, while I was wittering to Stanford students about Swan Wardens, none of this seriously important stuff was public knowledge, in the sense of being debated, questioned, researched, quantified, or featuring in even ‘British Constitution’ textbooks.

Instead, there was/is effectively – in both senses – an Establishment connivance, between the leaderships of successive, supposedly democratically accountable Governments and the Royals, to keep all significant details of Royal Consent from us mere voters, taxpayers and university lecturers.

Only quite recently has even its scale become public knowledge, thanks particularly to The Guardian newspaper’s research moles. While I might have guessed at there being maybe two or three Royal Consents a year, it’s actually some ten times that.

The Guardian excavators have compiled a wondrous database of 1,062 parliamentary Bills (and rising) subjected since 1952 to the Queen’s or Prince’s Consent – or ‘royal vetting’, as they put it – from that year’s Clifton Suspension Bridge Bill (no idea why) to the 2020 EU Future Relationship Bill (I’d guess Sandringham and Windsor farming subsidies). All of which the Royals had first go at influencing in their own interests.

One serious purpose of this blog is to draw even some minimal additional attention to this fantastic research base and potential teaching aid – albeit decades too late for me personally.  In 1975, though, I know exactly what I’d have done: given groups of five students a year’s worth, say 25, and asked them to research what in each case they reckoned the Royal Consent hoped to gain.

[The original version of this blog was written for the Birmingham Post, July 1st, 2021, under the title ‘Secrets of Royal Consent that you’ll never hear of’]

Photo

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Exploring corruption risks in local government planning decisions

Teddy Marks, Transparency International UK

Anyone who’s lived near or been involved in a major planning application knows they are a magnet for controversy and tension. This is exactly why the decision to grant or reject permission is given to local representatives – to ensure there is some form of accountability. Yet recent examples have shown how planning decisions can go wrong. Even without the existence of wrongdoing, the perceptions of impropriety can undermine millions, if not billions, of pounds of investment in new homes.

A new report from Transparency International UK, Permission Accomplished, sought to find out why these scandals have happened and how lessons can be learnt. To do this we began by reviewing 13 major cases where alleged or proven impropriety by councillors had affected planning decisions across England. From this, we identified three key areas of risk and how local authorities could mitigate them. Most of the proposals are based on existing recommendations from the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Committee on Standards and Public Life (CSPL).

To see how local authorities were applying these in practice, we looked at the policies and procedures of 50 councils (representing 15 per cent of English planning authorities) and scored them against our recommended good practice standards. To make sure we were being fair and consistent, we developed a scoring matrix from 100 (meets good practice) to 0 (poor), and invited councils to comment on their draft findings and methodology. We also subjected the results to robust internal review and a standardisation process to ensure we assessed all councils equally.

Worryingly, not one council scored higher than 55, and the average score was 38 out of 100. Clearly, local authorities have a lot of room for improvement.

So what are the main corruption risks facing councillors in planning decisions, and how have well have councils addressed them? I’ve provided some highlights below.

 

Councillors’ engaging external stakeholders

Putting forward one’s view is not in and of itself a bad thing, and is an important part of the planning process. But lobbying behind closed doors and providing excessive gifts and hospitality to decision makers are real red flags. At best, this can present the view of councillors in hock with wealthy developers. At worst, they can suggest complicity in criminal conduct.

Both Transparency International UK and the LGA propose local authorities require all meetings between councillors and developers (and their representatives) for major developments to be minuted and available for public inspection. Yet just 44 per cent of councils in our sample required this, and only 12 per cent explicitly stated that they be published. We also both recommend there should be an official present in these meetings, but only 30 per cent do this.

As for gifts and hospitality, councillors must be prohibited from accepting any that risk undermining the integrity of the planning process. Only 26 per cent in our sample had any such ban.

 

Managing conflicts of interest

Conflicts of interest occur where a holder of public office is confronted with choosing between the duties and demands of their position, and their private interests. Councillors are elected to serve the public, but some companies employ existing and former councillors to help them get planning consent. When councillors are employed to do so whilst still in public office, it can create a direct tension between their civic duties and private interests.

In a brief search, we found 72 existing councillors across 50 local authorities who are, or used to be, employed by companies working in the housing and/or planning industry whilst they were holding public office. Currently, 32 of these councillors across 24 councils hold critical decision-making positions; for example, as members of a planning committee.

Although some councils stopped councillors from acting as agents, not one had explicitly prohibited them from lobbying on behalf of paying clients or providing paid advice on how to influence councils.

 

Regulating councillors’ conduct

Weak oversight, especially when combined with poor codes of conduct and decisions with lots of money at stake, almost encourages misconduct. Yet local authorities do not have the legal right to suspend or disqualify councillors for serious breaches of the councils’ codes – a robust measure recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) and available to councils in other parts of the UK.

Additionally, while the majority of councils in our sample had proactive standards committees to provide oversight on councillors’ ethical conduct, 22 per cent of local authorities either had inactive standards committees or they didn’t have one at all.

 

Moving forward

Most councillors serve their communities with integrity, but our findings show that the existing system is open to the perception, and also the reality, of abuse. To mitigate these risks and strengthen democracy, we provide ten detailed recommendations in our report, which can be summarised into three key themes:

  • Increase transparency over councillors’ engagement with developers and their representatives to prevent the perception or reality of undue influence.
  • Tighten rules governing the conduct of councillors to protect the planning process from abuse for personal gain.
  • Strengthen oversight over councillors’ conduct to deter behaviour that would bring the integrity of the planning process into question.

 

 

Transparency International is the UK’s leading independent anti-corruption organisation:  https://www.transparency.org.uk/

Teddy Marks, Research Officer

Teddy joined the UK Anti-Corruption Programme in January 2020. His work focuses on corruption risks in planning and housing decisions both at the national and local level. Previously, Teddy interned at Transparency International’s Defence and Security Programme after gaining professional experience in political risk. He holds a Masters in International Relations at the LSE, and a Bachelors in Politics and Quantitative Research Methods at Bristol University.