Working to make government more effective


Royal commissions are outdated and will not deliver real change

With the last royal commission ending 19 years ago, a new government should look elsewhere for solutions to complex policy questions.

With the last royal commission ending 19 years ago, Marcus Shepheard argues that a new government should look elsewhere for solutions to complex policy questions.

The 2019 Labour manifesto promises not one, but two, new royal commissions. One would look at how to “develop a public health approach to substance abuse” and the other would focus on bringing health and safety legislation “up to date”.

Both subjects deserve serious attention. But there is a good reason why there hasn’t been a royal commission in nearly 20 years: they do not have a record of success when it comes to big policy questions. There are, however, better ways to tackle such questions.

A royal commission is not the answer to complex questions

The last royal commission was in 2000. Led by Lord Wakeham, the commission into House of Lords reform ran for a year and culminated in a report containing 132 recommendations. This process led to further public consultations, a government white paper and even a new Whitehall department, the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

Further changes followed. The upper house's legal appeals process moved to the Supreme Court, created in 2005; peers are now permitted to resign.

However, only a handful of those 132 recommendations were ever implemented, and the House of Lords remains entirely unelected and broadly unrepresentative.

Most royal commissions have taken a lot of time to achieve surprisingly little 

Changing policy is a difficult process. This is especially true when it involves tackling issues that are complex or emotive, or that cut across government. Royal commissions have a poor track record of building consensus both within Parliament and among the public – key to shifting policy – and have also gained a reputation for being ponderous exercises. As Labour’s own shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, once admitted, they offer governments a way to “kick a problem into the long grass”.

After nearly two decades, there are also questions about how a royal commission would operate. There is scant institutional memory of what the process looks like, so a Labour government would be resurrecting an old name but creating new structures and systems.

Parliamentary commissions are a better way to develop policy

The 2012 Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (PCBS) was convened in the wake of the financial crisis and the LIBOR scandal to “assess the lessons learned for corporate governance and government policy.” This group took lessons from the earlier Turner Commission, which proved to be a successful way to address pension reform.

The PCBS was a success for several key reasons. It worked at pace, publishing four reports between December 2012 and April 2013. It was composed of parliamentarians from across the parties, drawn from both the Commons and the Lords. As such, it was well placed to understand the politics of the issue and could serve as an advocate for its findings within Parliament. Its chair, Andrew Tyrie, was a highly respected MP who could command the attention of other politicians.

Royal commissions, on the other hand, tend to be made up of academics and non-parliamentary experts, and only a few politicians. This makes it harder to develop and deliver solutions that can survive the parliamentary process and lead to lasting change. While the authority of a royal commission’s findings derives largely from the expertise of its members, a parliamentary commission can draw on the same expertise, to the same benefit, while also making use of experienced parliamentary staff.

The PCBS also engaged with the public ahead of making its recommendations. This should be a central feature of any major review, but past royal commissions have been criticised for a closeted and remote approach. A focus on public engagement, perhaps in the form of citizens’ assemblies or juries, would be an improvement on previous royal commissions.

The way government tackles big questions is always evolving

Inevitably, and rightly, government is constantly evolving the way it attempts to address big questions. The statutory public inquiry replaced the older ‘tribunals of inquiry’ as the best way for a government to investigate serious failures that concern the public. New investigative approaches, such as the independent panel, have also since emerged to work alongside, or potentially supplant, the public inquiry.

Rejecting proposals of a royal commission into drug reform or health and safety policy is not to reject the importance of those issues. But why should a government resurrect this more-or-less extinct process when newer and better ways to develop policy are available to it?

Once upon a time, royal commissions were the way that governments answered big questions. It is clear that their time has passed.

Political party
Institute for Government

Related content