Hannah White and a team of IfG experts weigh up the key recommendations set out in the Commission on the UK's Future report, which has been launched by Labour leader Keir Starmer and former prime minister Gordon Brown.
Many might see constitutional and economic questions as entirely separate, but the Brown commission motivates its constitutional recommendations by pointing to economic failings – stagnant productivity growth for the last decade and large geographic inequalities that have persisted for far longer. It argues that economic failings in England in particular are at least partly a result of a constitutional settlement that is not working with powers too centralised and local government too weak.
In this, and on its proposals for civil service reform, the Commission shares much of its diagnosis with the Conservative government, raising the possibility of bipartisan agreement on priorities. Where the Brown Commission diverges is on its radical proposals for reforming the House of Lords and ideas for strengthening ethical standards in public life – where Rishi Sunak has yet to respond to the numerous proposals on the table.
1. Like the current government, Brown sees decentralisation as key to reducing regional inequality
The arguments made by the Brown Commission about the connection between economic failings and the constitutional set up of the UK will be familiar to those who have read the government’s Levelling Up the United Kingdom white paper published in February. What is striking is how far the two major parties have a shared diagnosis for England’s regional inequalities and broader economic struggles.
The report contains some important proposals for how a future Labour government would push power away from Whitehall and Westminster, especially within England. Powers will be devolved to metro mayors and local government over skills, employment support (including responsibility for Job Centres), transport, infrastructure and aspects of net zero delivery such as EV networks. This is sensible, and in line with recent Institute for Government research that found that existing devolution deals are piecemeal and constrained, limiting the ability of local leaders to develop joined-up economic plans.
There is quite a bit of agreement, too, on the solution. There is a commitment to reform the funding system, moving towards block grants that consolidate funding streams from different parts of Whitehall, enabling local leaders to allocate resources flexibly and in line with local priorities. This too could bring about a genuine shift of power, although it is similar to what the current government has already promised as part of its levelling up agenda.
Both the white paper and the Brown commission highlight the importance of high-productivity clusters to drive regional economic growth. And the Brown commission’s proposals to decentralise more policies around skills and transport and to provide more flexible funding match (somewhat vague) commitments in the white paper too. Whether the Brown commission’s recommendations lead to much more radical proposals than the current government’s – both in terms of the powers that will be decentralised and which areas can access them – will depend on how they are interpreted and implemented by Labour.
It is welcome that the Brown commission looks at where powers sit and how policy is made – these are critical ingredients to get right and have held UK regional policy back for decades. However, more decentralisation is not a silver bullet to deliver better outcomes, so this will need to be just one part of a broader economic strategy.
2. Scotland and Wales would get some extra powers and stronger constitutional protections
For Scotland and Wales, the extra powers on offer are more limited – unsurprising given the far deeper devolution settlements that already exist. Scotland gains the ability to enter international agreements in relation to devolved policy areas. Responsibility for probation and youth justice will be devolved to Wales – though this does not go as far as the Welsh government call for full policing and justice devolution.
Labour’s plans will also offer a form of constitutional protection to the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The new upper chamber at Westminster will be able to block legislation that affects devolved matters that has not gained the consent of the devolved institutions. This could be an important change – although if the reformed upper chamber agrees with the Commons, then this protection may not be as meaningful as expected.
3. Brown agrees with the government’s civil service reform plans and wants to go further
The commission makes three main recommendations on the civil service. First, it adopts the Institute for Government’s proposal to improve accountability by introducing a new statute for the civil service. That would entrench the permanence and impartiality of the civil service, while better defining the objectives and responsibilities of officials and ministers. It would also, if properly designed, enhance government capability to deal with long-term problems. Second, also reflecting IfG recommendations, Brown wants more civil servants with experience outside Whitehall, and to slow down the merry-go-round of civil service staff turnover. And finally the commission is urging more ambition in relocating civil servants out of London – upping the target to 50,000 (half of all civil service jobs in London) from the government’s existing 22,000.
It is striking how much Brown’s civil service plans overlap with what Conservative ministers have been trying to do. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s plans identified confused accountability between ministers and civil servants as a problem. They asked Lord Maude to look into solutions – though his review’s conclusions have not yet been published and he may fall short of recommending a statutory answer. Opening up Whitehall is something governments of both colours have been trying for 50 years, while making limited progress. Relocating officials has been a priority since 2019. Arguably Brown goes further – given what he recommends about decentralisation his plans will presumably mean not only shifting central government roles outside the capital, as per the government’s plans, but turning jobs that would have been filled by civil servants in London into ones done by local and regional governments across the country. But all this shows that there is room for long-term, perhaps even bipartisan, civil service reform. Mix Michael Gove’s Declaration on Government Reform with this part of Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future, and there might just be an opportunity for a serious effort to rewire and improve how the government works.
4. Brown wants parliament and the public to play a stronger role in enforcing ethical standards
The commission has big ambitions for improving standards in public life, aiming to shift government away from marking its own homework. It calls for stronger enforcement and investigation of new and existing rules on party finances and reiterates certain pre-existing Labour positions, such as the establishment of an Independent Integrity and Ethics Commission, which would bring together the roles of various standards watchdogs, and the appointment of an anti-corruption commissioner.
The Brown Commission goes further though, particularly in the role they envisage parliament playing in overseeing standards. Whereas now the ministerial code is issued by each prime minister in their own name, and most public appointments are made by government without parliament having a right to veto them, Labour want parliament to approve both the ministerial code and the cabinet manual, and to be able to approve key appointments. Coupled with their suggestion that the Information Commissioner’s Office should be overseen by parliament, these changes would represent a strong transfer of power for upholding standards from the executive to the legislature. The Commission seeks to take further power away from the government by proposing a citizens’ jury that would monitor the enforcement of standards for MPs and government ministers, and report each year on whether the system needs strengthening.
5. A new second chamber is key to entrenching Brown’s proposed constitutional reforms
It is in its plans for the House of Lords that the Commission’s proposals diverge most dramatically from the policies of the current government. As well trailed, the report sets out plans to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected second chamber; an Assembly of regions and nations. In some areas the report suggests the powers of this new upper house should be weaker than those of the House of Lords, removing its ability to delay ordinary legislation – although it would still be able to propose amendments. But it also recommends that the Assembly be given new powers to protect the constitution, enabling it to block legislation that altered key constitutional statutes – including the devolved settlements – and giving the supreme court a role in determining whether this power has been engaged. The plans not only propose a new House of Parliament, but a new method of constitutional entrenchment, which as we have noted in our own review of the UK constitution is a key challenge of the UK constitution.
Where the report is less prescriptive on the exact composition of the new chamber. It proposes that it be smaller, around 200, and elected on a regional basis but leaves the method and proportions for decision at a later point. The report ends with a commitment to consult widely; given the challenges previous governments have faced reforming the House of Lords a key determinant of the success of these plans will be whether Labour succeeds in building cross-party and public consensus for this major constitutional reform.
(How) can the House of Lords be reformed?
Our event exploring current proposals for reform and how it could be achieved.Watch the event