On parliamentary sovereignty

111 Members of Parliament vote to take matters out of their own hands.

Yesterday, 111 Members of Parliament voted against parliamentary sovereignty. In speech after speech, and in the voting lobby afterwards, these MPs -- including 80 so-called Conservatives -- sent the clear signal that they thought Parliament was not competent to legislate on an important matter and so it should be left to others, by means of a referendum.

The foregoing paragraph is not altogether facetious. There is a great deal of muddled thinking about "parliamentary sovereignty" and part of this comes from it usually not being clear what this phrase actually means.

To begin with, the concept of sovereignty does not cover all the activities of Parliament. Resolutions of either House have no "sovereign" effect outside of the Palace of Westminster. Statutory Instruments passed by both Houses can be and sometimes are quashed by the Courts. Parliamentary debates and select committee reports are also not, in any meaningful way, "sovereign".

In fact the "sovereignty" goes to one specific activity of Parliament: the passing of primary legislation as "Acts of Parliament". But in strict constitutionalist terms, the Acts have this effect not because Parliament has passed a Bill but because they have been signed on behalf of the Crown (though not personally by the Queen).

And even then, these Acts are not always "sovereign". The Courts -- though rarely -- can disapply primary legislation when it conflicts with other legislation, perhaps most notably the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 which conflicted with the European Communities Act 1972. Some Scottish lawyers (including judges) have plausibly contended that the terms of the Act of Union 1707 mean that the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is not part of Scottish law. Moreover, one English Court of Appeal judge, Sir John Laws, has opined that there are fundamental common law rights which cannot be infringed even by primary legislation; 400 years ago another judge, Sir Edward Coke, said the same thing.

The correct position is subtle. As the recently retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Stephen Sedley points out in his excellent collection of essays (reviewed here), sovereignty actually lies in the combination of the "Crown in Parliament" and the "Crown in the Courts". Primary legislation only has the effect of "sovereignty" to the extent to which that is allowed by the Courts. Some lawyers would go so far to say that, in technical terms, "sovereignty of parliament" is merely a rule of statutory interpretation.

One does not have to go this far to see that "sovereignty of parliament" is a little more complicated than certain MPs seem to realise. Of course, one does not expect a certain type of MP to understand this: after all, those who call for the Human Rights Act 1998 to be repealed clearly do not grasp that this would simply mean an enlarged role for the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

If MPs genuinely do not want the United Kingdom to subject to European Union law, then it is open to them to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and related legislation. The solution to their apparent problem is entirely in their own hands. Without the 1972 Act, the Courts will have no legal basis to implement EU law. But the MPs won't do that, of course. It would mean taking parliamentary sovereignty seriously.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman. He also writes the Jack of Kent blog and for The Lawyer.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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