6 December 2016

Sewel: no "constitutional safeguard", just a "self-denying ordinance..."

By any reckoning, Richard Keen QC is an uncommonly political lawyer. Former Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, and now the UK government's chief adviser on Scots law, Ruth Davidson appointed him chairman of the Scottish Tories in 2013. While in office, he reportedly summoned the party's MSPs to his "small castle", and subjected them all to a dressing down for being useless. Some disgruntled parliamentarian, ungrateful for this advice, leaked the encounter to the media. This interlude seemed to do his political career no harm. When David Cameron secured his majority in 2015, and the Liberal Democrats were ejected from government, Keen took up Jim Wallace's vacant office of Advocate General for Scotland.

In that position, Keen appeared before the UK Supreme Court this morning, to speak to the devolved aspects of the ongoing Brexit case. We substantially knew what the Advocate General proposed to argue from his written argument, but the Justices afforded him an hour to expand on his points. We may hear from him again, in reply, after the Lord Advocate has made his submissions on behalf of the Scottish Government on Wednesday. 

Keen's message to the Justices was characteristically trenchant and forthright -- but you have to wonder whether it was politically wise. Keen's argument is essentially a simple one. Parliament is sovereign. Nothing in the devolution settlements changes that. Indeed, the Scotland Act specifically recognises that Westminster retains competence over foreign affairs, including EU negotiations. It also retains power to legislate concerning devolved matters. Parliament is sovereign. It can make or unmake any law: the Scotland Act is no exception.  

Where this gets controversial, however, is when we turn to the so-called "Sewel convention". Since 1998, Westminster has recognised that it will not legislate for devolved matters without the consent of Holyrood. What do we mean by devolved matters? Generally, this has been understood as (a) passing legislation which falls within Holyrood's powers, or (b) changing the legislative competence of Holyrood by adding or subtracting from its authority, by devolving more powers, or re-reserving powers which were once reserved. 

But this convention gave Holyrood very limited legal protection. In states with codified and entrenched constitutions, the central government does not have the power to abolish regional parliaments, or to intrude on their competencies. The courts would block any attempt to do so. Some people wondered: why should Scotland be any different? Shouldn't the permanence and privileges of Holyrood also receive some legal protection?

In the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, the Smith Commission report agreed that"the Scottish Parliament will be made permanent in UK legislation" and that the Sewel convention should be "put on a statutory footing". Both of these commitments were reflected in sections one and two of the 2016 Scotland Act.  But did these "constitutional protections" really make much difference? In the political domain, David Mundell and his colleagues made much of these concessions. The statutory recognition of Sewel and Holyrood's permanence were important, they said, meaningful.

That claim lies in ruins this afternoon, after Richard Keen's Supreme Court submissions. So what did he say? Characterising this statutory recognition of the convention as "a self-denying ordinance", Keen continued, it was only "a political restriction upon Parliament's ability to act, no more and no less than that" and in no sense any "qualification or inhibition upon parliamentary sovereignty."

This is all very well and good, you might well think, before 2016. From 1999 - 2016, Sewel was just a political convention. You didn't find it in any law. But surely the Scotland Act must make some kind of difference? Surely there was some point in including Sewel in the 2016 Act? If there wasn't, if the idea Westminster will not "normally legislate for devolved matters without consent" is just empty words, just hot political air, then why the devil did MPs do it? 

The same thought struck Lord Sumption during the hearing. "But it cannot be described as a purely political force once it is enacted in a statute?" he asked. "Do you submit its incorporation as an Act of Parliament makes no difference to its legal effect?" he wondered.

Richard Keen's answer was consistent with the orthodox logic of his submission - but it remains politically stark. Yes, he said. The statutory recognition of Sewel is of no legal significance whatever. "The correct legal position", he concluded, is that Westminster "is sovereign, and may legislate at any time on any matter."As Graeme Cowie observed in the comments at the end of my last blog, "anyone paying even the most superficial of attention knew sections 1 and 2 of the Scotland Act 2016 were weasel words."

That may be true of constitutional scholars like Graeme. But for ordinary folk who followed the passage of the Scotland Act through Westminster and Holyrood, who listened to David Mundell's defence of its provisions -- Richard Keen's uncompromising submissions today may come as something of an unwelcome surprise.

1 December 2016

"A quintessential matter of political judgment for Westminster..."

Last Friday, the Lord Advocate published the Scottish Government's intervention in the ongoing Brexit litigation before the UK Supreme Court. James Wolffe QC weighed in behind the Divisional Court's judgment, arguing that the royal prerogative cannot lawfully be used to trigger Article 50. But Scotland's senior law officer also ranged beyond that. He points to the Sewel convention, arguing that if Westminster legislates to withdraw the UK from the European Union, the Scottish Parliament must be consulted. 

The Lord Advocate isn't arguing that Holyrood has a veto -- but that the UK constitution now expects MPs to canvas the view of MSPs before legislating on devolved matters. Modern understandings of the Sewel convention generally recognise that it has two limbs. Firstly, that Westminster ought to seek the consent of Holyrood before changing Scots law on issues falling within the Scottish Parliament's purview, like health, or education, or family law.  And secondly, that any changes to the powers of the Scottish Parliament itself ought to take account of MSPs' views. The same goes for any changes to the power of Scottish Ministers, whether enhancing or curtailing their legal authority.

This afternoon, the UK government have published their counterblast against the Lord Advocate's submissions (and parallel arguments, made by the law officers of the Northern Irish and Welsh administrations). You could only expect Richard Keen and his colleagues to resist James Wolffe's arguments, but as Jonathan Mitchell QC tweets this afternoon, the UK government's legal answers have a "strangely tetchy" tone, "supercilious and ill-tempered". Seasoned barrister Sir Paul Jenkins couldn't "recall a case where the government thought it wise to descend to such rudeness", which he describes as "unnecessary and inappropriate." Jo Maugham QC characterises the submissions as "fantastically" so.

In a nutshell, they are that devolution is irrelevant to the issues before the Court, that foreign affairs is reserved, and that ""the devolution legislation cannot add to the arguments" in the case "in any material way." But perhaps most eye-catching, are the UK government's observations on the need to seek consent from any of the devolved legislatures. "The Court is being invited ... to stray into areas of political judgment rather than legal adjudication." They argue the Supreme Court "should resist that invitation."

So how do they reach this conclusion? While recognising that the statutes establishing Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff assemblies are "very significant pieces of legislation", they contend that the Sewel convention is not justiciable - which is to say, unsuitable for judicial decision-making. It is, they say, a "legal irrelevance", just a "political convention", and not part of UK constitutional law. In support of this view, they cite Lord Reed -- one of the justices who will hear this case, In 2012, in the Imperial Tobacco case, Lord Reed described the convention as a “political restriction on Parliament’s ability to amend the Scotland Act unilaterally" -- not a legal restriction.

And as far as this goes, this is a perfectly orthodox account of the status of constitutional conventions in the UK. They have generally been regarded as "rules of constitutional morality", rather than rules of constitutional law, susceptible to enforcement by the court. But where the UK government's case hits a potential wrinkle is that Westminster chose in 2016 to inscribe this convention on the face of the Scotland Act. They simultaneously "recognised" the "permanence" of the Scottish Parliament. 

While Lord Reed was absolutely right in 2012, that the Sewel convention was only a political restriction Westminster had undertaken to abide by, this isn't straightforwardly the case in 2016. The UK government's submission - strikingly - has nothing whatever to say about this change, and the impact it might have on their arguments about the justiciability and enforceability of the convention. Back in 2014, Professor Mark Elliott tacked up this informative article about the different potential legal effects of these innovations. In its legal papers, the UK government body-swerves these implications altogether.

So does the statutory recognition of Sewel change anything? Maybe. Maybe not. As a number of us pointed out at the time, David Mundell formulated this statutory recognition in a consciously sleekit way. The new Scotland Act recognised only that "the Parliament of the United Kingdom will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament." "Normally" isn't a word you encounter very often in statutes. "Must" and "may", certainly. But not "normally." 

UK lawyers, unsurprisingly, have hung up their wigs on these words. Referring to the Scotland Act, they suggest the convention "does not purport to prescribe an absolute rule." Its content is only that “Westminster would not normally legislate” And here is the kicker. They argue that:
"... whether circumstances are ‘normal’ is a quintessential matter of political judgment for the Westminster Parliament and not the courts. There are no judicial standards by which to measure such a question in the context of a political convention." 
You didn't hear this kind of reasoning - at least in public - when David Mundell was talking up the virtues of the new Act, invoking the idea of a "new parliament, new powers, and new partnerships."

For the UK government lawyers, we end with the orthodox Diceyan vision of the tyrannical patriarch, and the erratic father figure never needs to keep his word, or follow his own rules. Whatever forms of "legal recognition" or apparent constraints Westminster inscribes on its constitutional legislation, "the Westminster Parliament is sovereign and may legislate at any time on any matter ... any attempt to enforce the convention directly or indirectly would be a straightforward impingement on that sovereignty." 

Theresa May's legal counsellors may be resisting any attempt for parliament to take back control over Brexit, but they take Holyrood's subordination to Westminster for granted. For Richard Keen and his colleagues, power devolved is ultimately power retained, whatever political grace notes ministers write into the latest iteration of devolution, whatever our constitutional statutes anticipate and provide. And if the strident, haughty tone of this reply is anything to go by -- how very dare you argue otherwise.