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25 October 2011updated 27 Sep 2015 5:37am

On parliamentary sovereignty

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

By David Allen Green

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).

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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.

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