Legislating by consent: how to revive the Sewel convention


This report from UK think tank the Institute for Government looks at reform to the principle of legislative consent at the centre of the devolution settlement.

The future of the Union could be put at risk without reforms to the principle of legislative consent which lies at the heart of the devolution settlement. This report warns that passing UK-wide legislation in Westminster without the consent of the devolved nations risks undermining the stability of devolution, power-sharing in Northern Ireland, and even the Union itself. It recommends ways to repair this breakdown in trust, to hold UK ministers more accountable for decisions relating to devolution, and to reassure Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that Westminster does not intend to undermine the devolution settlements. The UK government insists that it will uphold the Sewel convention, under which Westminster does not normally pass laws in devolved areas without devolved consent, but the devolved administrations believe that Brexit has exposed the convention’s limitations and left devolution vulnerable to unilateral actions taken at Westminster. The UK government has already forced through two key pieces of Brexit legislation without the approval of all the devolved nations. The controversial UK Internal Market Bill is causing further tension over Westminster’s approach to legislating in devolved areas, and other Brexit-related bills mean further disputes are likely ahead of the 2021 Scottish and Welsh elections – at which Scottish independence will be one battleground. Both the UK and devolved governments are committed to making the consent process work, and committees of all five legislative chambers of the UK recognise the need to reform Sewel. The report says the governments of the UK should work together to reform and strengthen the convention.

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