Constitutional guardians

Think tank: Institute for Government

Author(s): Maddy Thimont -Jack; Jack Pannell

November 10, 2022

This report from UK think tank the Institute for Government looks at the UK’s complex ecosystem of institutions, individuals and organisations that uphold the constitution.

MPs and ministers must do more to protect and bolster the checks and balances that uphold the UK constitution – or risk damaging public trust in the governance of the UK and core democratic principles. The report maps out the UK’s complex ecosystem of institutions, individuals and organisations that oversee, monitor and uphold different parts of the constitution. It identifies three types of guardians that have an important role to play: Core guardians: the key branches of government Auxiliary guardians: who advise those within core institutions Tertiary guardians: individual advisors, public bodies or committees that uphold the constitution The report with the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy paper finds that an increasingly polarised political environment – following the 2016 EU referendum – has put pressure on these guardians’ roles and led to a weakening of checks and balances.

Recent strains – such as scandals over government ethics and standards or controversy surrounding public appointments – have revealed how the UK constitution can be bent – though, so far, not broken – while also highlighting the vulnerability of constitutional guardians to government interference, funding cuts or having their advice ignored. It warns that when constitutional guardians are exclusively accountable to those whose homework they are marking, there risks being either a chilling effect on how those roles are performed or increasing executive interference. With the events of recent years also highlighting where improvements can be made, the report sets out a series of principles designed to strengthen the constitutional ecosystem: All constitutional guardians should be underpinned by statute – with legislation establishing that these bodies should exist – unless there is a clear reason why this would hinder their operation. The relationship between constitutional guardians and parliament should be strengthened, with ministers and MPs paying closer attention to the role guardians play. Constitutional guardians should be able to initiate and publish the results of their own inquiries, with a statutory duty placed on the government to respond to these published reports where they make recommendations for change..”