Constitutional change in an era of incrementalism
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Marc Bloomfield
Description: PLP
In Public Law Project’s (PLP’s) April 2021 Legal Action column (page 20) we gave a flavour of the range and scope of constitutionally significant events occurring under the present government. From important bills such as the Nationality and Borders Bill and the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, to reviews such as the Independent Review of Administrative Law, the Independent Human Rights Act Review, and the Review of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, to continuing tension about the Northern Ireland Protocol (CP 346, Cabinet Office, December 2020), to multiple stories surrounding the integrity of the Ministerial Code, there remains rather a lot going on.
Later, in the September 2021 issue of Legal Action (page 6), we indicated that, in light of the scope of developments, PLP would be launching a constitutional reform tracker ‘to assist in the ongoing debate on the constitutional dynamics of this period’. We are now pleased to be able to introduce the UK Constitutional Reform Tracker.
The tracker is a tool designed to keep users up to date with constitutionally important events and to identify significant patterns and trends in those events by categorising them according to constitutional issues and sub-issues. PLP has worked closely with the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at Oxford University, the Constitution Unit at UCL, the Institute for Government and the UK Administrative Justice Institute in the development of the tracker, and is grateful for their input and assistance.
What does the tracker do?
The tracker does two important things and is the first resource of its kind to do so. First, it provides a chronological description of constitutionally important events under the current government, specifically, from 24 July 2019, when Boris Johnson became prime minister, up to the present day. As noted in PLP’s previous columns, the current reform trend is not limited to primary legislation. Among other methods, changes are being made via statutory instrument and attempts at change are being pursued through public speeches and rhetoric designed to nudge the senior judiciary in a more restrained or deferential direction. Therefore, the tracker records not only Acts of Parliament but also statutory instruments, policy papers, parliamentary reports, ministerial statements, government speeches, public appointments, breaches of conventions, administrative practices, and key public law cases from the High Court and above. This way, constitutionally important events that may otherwise have been missed are recorded in one place.
The second important feature of the tracker is to make every entry searchable by various tags and sub-tags. This feature will help users understand not only what is going on in terms of individual changes, but also the interrelationships between events, so that important trends and patterns over time can be seen. Currently, the major tags are: ‘elections and voters’; ‘parliament’; ‘courts’; ‘ethics, standards and integrity’; ‘human rights and equality’; ‘devolution and the union’; ‘civil service and public sector reform’; and ‘rule of law’. Each entry may have multiple tags depending on crossovers in the event.
Entries are also identifiable with a range of sub-tags for users with more specific interests in these general themes. For example, the ‘human rights and equality’ theme contains sub-tags including: ‘LGBT’; ‘race’; ‘national security’; ‘terrorism’; and ‘freedom of expression’.
Beyond themes such as these, given the importance of coronavirus to many constitutional developments, users can also search for entries related either generally to ‘coronavirus’ or for specific stages of the crisis, eg, ‘first lockdown’ and ‘roadmap out of lockdown’. The full list of searchable tags and sub-tags is accessible on the website, with a detailed explainer on how to use the tags also available.
Limits of the tracker
At this stage, the tracker’s focus is on constitutional developments produced by central government and responses to this, such as litigation, criticism by the speaker of the House of Commons, and parliamentary reports. Independent developments produced by the devolved nations or by other public or private bodies are not within the immediate ambit of this project.
While this is a substantial piece of work, no claim is made that the tracker is yet fully comprehensive. We are developing it on an ongoing basis and welcome feedback for future improvement and user-friendliness. Nevertheless, the tracker can act as a helpful platform for identifying the range of activities that will be useful for public lawyers to know about, and for fostering further understanding, debate and analysis on this important subject. Whatever one’s constitutional area of interest, we hope the tracker will prove to be a valuable research tool, drawing attention to developments that may have otherwise gone unnoticed and highlighting patterns that may otherwise have been only semi-visible.

About the author(s)

Description: Lee Marsons - author
Lee Marsons is a research fellow at Public Law Project.
Description: Mustaqim Iqbal - author
Mustaqim Iqbal is a research assistant at Public Law Project.