On Wednesday, MPs approved the legislative proposals put forward by the UK Government in last week’s Queen’s Speech. The constitutional bills proposed suggest that the Government will continue to undermine checks and balances to the detriment of the UK constitution.  

By Joanna George
Research Associate, University of Cambridge

The Queen’s Speech and the State Opening of Parliament – this year conducted by the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge as Counsellors of State on special permission from the Queen – is a significant date in the UK Parliamentary calendar. It marks the end of the current parliamentary session and the beginning of a new one (2022-2023). During the speech, which is drafted by the Government but presented by the Monarch, we discover the Government’s legislative agenda for the upcoming session. Notably, this year’s speech announced 38 new bills – the highest number of bills announced for a parliamentary session since 2005 – with several looking to be constitutionally controversial.    

Firstly, and in light of the second anniversary of the UK leaving the EU, a new “Brexit Freedoms Bill” aims to ‘enable law inherited from the European Union to be more easily amended’. Such a sweeping statement suggests that, as with existing legislation allowing laws to be amended in the light of Brexit, there are likely to be expansive powers enabling Ministers to change the law via delegated legislation – a point recently criticised by two House of Lords committees.

Whilst many EU laws were incorporated onto the UK’s statute books via delegated legislation when the UK was an EU member state, the European Parliament and MEPs provided an adequate scrutinising function to ensure that the laws enacted were fit for purpose. If the Government is serious about reclaiming parliamentary sovereignty – which the Attorney General claims claim  is what ‘the British people voted for’ in the Brexit referendum – then allowing MPs to take up their core function of revising legislation with sufficient time would prevent the Government from constitutionally (and politically) contradicting itself in the long-term.  

Secondly, a new Bill of Rights ‘will restore the balance of power between the legislature and the courts’. But the rhetoric surrounding this piece of legislation (that the Government will ‘ensure the constitution is defended’) is concerning. It implies that it is the Government’s sole role to defend the constitution when in fact authority for this power is also shared with Parliament and the Courts. The Government’s tendency to question and react to scrutiny that it disagrees with – such as the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller II , or threatening to politically blackmail MPs who fail to support the Prime Minister in response to the partygate scandal – suggests promotion of executive sovereignty over principled constitutional norms and standards.

Concerns over the ‘delicate balance’ required for the UK constitution to function was highlighted by the Joint Committee on Human Rights where it has warned that the Bill in its current form risks causing legal confusion and weakening human rights protections in the UK. The extent to which these concerns are realised will depend on the details contained in the Bill, the text of which is not yet available.  

These two key constitutional bills foreshadowed in the Queen’s Speech form part of a broader constitutional picture. One part of that picture is comprised of a further Bill mentioned in the speech — namely, the Public Order Bill, which will extend police powers in relation to protests, with potential implications for the exercise of the right to protest.

Beyond the Queen’s Speech itself, it was announced shortly after the speech that the Government plans to depart from some of the arrangements that are set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol, which concerns the position of Northern Ireland following Brexit. The Protocol forms part of an agreement between the UK and the EU that is binding on both parties under international law. The UK Government claims that it will be possible for it to make the changes it considers necessary without breaching international law. But in any event, such a move is likely to be constitutionally disruptive both within the UK and diplomatically disruptive internationally.   

In particular, the willingness of the UK Government to (as many see it) decline to honour its obligations in international law raises questions about the Government’s commitment to the rule of law. While that would be highly problematic in any circumstances, it is arguably especially problematic at a time when the UK is seeking to play a central role in leading the international response to the unlawful war that is being waged against Ukraine. If the Government is to succeed in departing from arrangements currently set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol, this will require the enactment of an Act of Parliament that, along with the Bills set out in the Queen’s Speech itself, will form part of the Government’s legislative agenda over the coming year.

Constitutional occasions such as the Queen’s Speech provide a useful moment at which to take stock. The picture painted by this year’s Queen’s Speech might be said, from a constitutional standpoint, to be concerning. Among other things, it indicates a willingness to weaken the legal protection of human rights, to undermine the critically important right to protest, to confer wide Brexit-related powers on Ministers to change the law, and (arguably) to legislate in a way that will put the UK in breach of its international obligations as set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Viewed alongside the Prime Minister’s recent claim that ‘liberal lawyers’ may scupper the Government’s plan to transfer some asylum-seekers to Rwanda, the impression is created of an agenda that views with suspicion institutions that constitute a counterweight to the Government. From a populist perspective, such an agenda may make sense. But from a constitutional perspective, it is arguably very concerning. That there are parts of our constitutional system which limit, check and hold to account the Government is not evidence of a problem: it is an indication that the system is working.  

Copyright House of Lords 2022 / Photography by Annabel Moeller. This photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.