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Labour’s constitutional proposals: Report on the Commission of the UK’s future

What the Brown Commission recommendations for constitutional reform say and what they mean.

Gordon Brown, Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar present plans on how a Labour UK government would redistribute power throughout the UK
Gordon Brown, Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar present plans on how a Labour UK government would redistribute power throughout the UK

Where have Labour's constitutional proposals come from?

In 2020, Keir Starmer tasked Gordon Brown with producing plans to “settle the future of the union” and devolve “power, wealth and opportunity” throughout the nation. Brown established a commission on the UK’s future which included Labour councillors, MPs, Peers, legal experts and academics.

The commission published a report in December 2022. It set out 40 recommendations for constitutional change in the UK, covering rights, devolution within England, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, intergovernmental cooperation, and reform of the House of Lords. Labour leader Keir Starmer said the report proposed “the biggest ever transfer of political power out of Westminster and into the towns, cities, and nations of the UK”.

What case does the report make for change?

Perhaps surprisingly, the report starts by laying out the economic problems, such as stagnant productivity and high regional inequality, facing the country. While economic and constitutional questions are often viewed as separate, this report makes the case that many of the UK’s problems – both economic and democratic – can be explained by the centralisation of power at the heart of our constitution. It, therefore, proposes constitutional reforms which will – it argues – provide solutions to deep seated problems. It also claims that the proposals will address low levels of trust in politics and political institutions in the UK.

What recommendations does the report make?


What does it say?


Constitutional principles

“Renewing the Purpose of the United Kingdom”

The report argues that there should be a clear constitutional statement setting out the purpose of the British state. This would include social, political, and economic functions.

The report proposes a legal requirement to ensure political decisions are made as close to the people impacted by them as possible. It argues there should be constitutional requirements for the central government to respect the autonomy of local government and to rebalance the UK economy to ensure that investment and prosperity should be spread equally across the UK.

The report also proposes creating constitutionally enshrined social rights. These would include rights to free healthcare and education, a right to receive social welfare and not live in poverty, and rights to adequate housing.

Putting constitutional principles in law may be legally fairly straightforward. But ensuring they are respected and adhered to will require broad-based political and public support – or these laws could simply be repealed. The Labour Party will need to build on the commission process to generate wide-spread buy-in.

The proposals to enshrine social rights in the UK constitution would be a major constitutional development. Protections of rights and liberties have existed for centuries, but rights to things such as housing and education have little precedent in the UK. Some of the rights suggested, such as to free education and access to healthcare, are common in constitutions around the world. However, many of the countries with such constitutional provisions do not always deliver them. Like constitutional principles, enacting social rights would likely remain a political question as much as a constitutional one. Enshrining such rights would likely prove politically contentious, not least because they would open a great deal of government policy to judicial review.

Devolution within England

“The Right Powers in the Right Places”

There is a strong commitment to devolution within England, including through the legal requirements outlined above. The institutions to which power will be devolved will include the existing mayoral combined authorities. In other areas, partnerships between local authorities will be encouraged, which will receive devolved powers and budgets, similar to combined authorities. Although a mayor would not be a requirement, the mayoral model is clearly favoured, and the London model is seen as a long-term vision for effective accountability.

These local partnerships would also be encouraged to come together in regional groupings, with their scope determined by local leaders who will pool powers. Their development will be gradual and overseen by the Council of England (see section 4) and yearly progress reports to parliament.

The precise powers to be devolved to local partnerships could include skills, further education, job centres, and cultural spending. These would be accompanied by three-year block grants. There is also a commitment to neighbourhood-level devolution, including police hubs in each community, a community right to buy local social infrastructure, and the use of deliberative democratic processes.

The report also proposes a new procedure to allow local government to initiate ‘Special Local Legislation’ in the UK parliament, with a role for a reformed second chamber. It also proposes putting the civil service on a statutory basis and relocating 50,000 officials and key agencies and bodies outside of London.

The creation of new subnational institutions in the form of local and regional partnerships represents a continuation of the existing approach, where Local Enterprise Partnerships, combined authorities, and devolution deals were all delivered by central government encouraging local authorities to join together. While this model avoids the problematic optics of Whitehall officials drawing up local government maps, there are also major disadvantages. Firstly, this is a very slow process: the government’s current trajectory is expected to take a decade, while the report suggests an even slower timeline. Secondly, the risk of some places being stuck in protracted disagreements over boundaries and remits is hard to avoid. Finally, the regional partnerships will add another layer of complexity to an already complex set of arrangements in England.

The report promises to devolve a range of powers that largely continue the trajectory set out in the Levelling Up white paper, though there is a more significant step in the proposed devolution of Jobcentre Plus. Where the report offers more fundamental change is in relation to the funding of local government, especially the commitments to three-year block grants and to wind down competitive funding arrangements. This represents a major change that will strengthen the autonomy of local institutions. Another major step comes in the rights of local institutions to take powers from the centre, but they are required first to show their capabilities and capacities, which tend to only develop once the powers have been acquired.

A statutory basis for the civil service builds on IfG recommendations and will help clarify the unclear accountability between ministers and civil servants. The review’s target of moving 50,000 roles would more than double the current target of 22,000 by the end of the decade.

Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

“Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in a Reformed United Kingdom”

The central proposal on devolution to the nations is for a reformed second chamber to have the power to block the UK Parliament from legislating in devolved areas without the consent of the devolved new legislatures. 

The review does not propose the devolution of significant new powers to Scotland or Wales, with modest proposals to allow Scotland to sign international agreements in devolved areas, and youth justice powers for Wales. The review also supports the devolution of powers within Scotland, though recognises that such a policy remains at the discretion of the Scottish parliament. There is also a commitment to extend the parliamentary privileges of members of the devolved legislatures.

There is far less on Northern Ireland politics. The review states that Labour remains committed to devolution in Northern Ireland and makes the restoration of devolved government there a priority.

The aim of the proposals is to provide a degree of constitutional protection for devolved powers; during the Brexit process the UK parliament was able to override the Sewel convention on a number of occasions.

The expansion of Scottish government foreign capabilities will allow the Scottish government to promote Scottish national interests in partnership with international stakeholders, but its impact will remain limited. The report stops short of total devolution of police and judicial powers to Wales, which has been a key ask of the Labour Welsh government.

However, the commission’s proposals are surprisingly light on issues related to the Union, and perhaps intentionally silent on the process for triggering an independence referendum in any of the UK’s constituent regions, with Brown stating publicly that there will be no future referendum in Scotland.

Lastly, given the political paralysis in the wake of debates over the Northern Ireland protocol, it is perhaps surprising that Labour has not proposed any solutions in this area.

Intergovernmental cooperation

“Securing the Benefits of Cooperation”

The report proposes a “solidarity clause”, placing an obligation on governments to work together in the interests of the public, and the use of joint policy initiatives.

It sets out plans for new structures for meetings between governments that are protected by legislation. This includes a Council of the Nations and Regions, for prime ministers and first (and deputy first) ministers to meet, a Council of England for regional leaders and a Council of the UK which would combine the two. All would be supported by an independent secretariat and a new dispute procedure.

The report also proposes reforms to Westminster and Whitehall to take account of the fact that in some areas they act for England only. These include a cabinet committee to deal with English issues, a committee of all English MPs to debate England-only legislation, and a proposal to have a minister for each region of England. It also proposes more regional representation on UK-wide departments and public bodies. It also suggests a greater role for the devolved leaders in the development of trade policy.

Over the past five years, Brexit and constitutional differences have seen the relationships between the governments of the UK come under increasing strain. The return of powers from the EU and the coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted the need for greater coordination in devolved areas like health and the environment. These proposals seek to address that by creating a duty for them to work together, and suggest the creation of new structures to help.

Many elements of the recommendations, including more jointly owned meeting structures, reforms on the secretariat and dispute resolution mechanisms are already being implemented following the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Relations review in January 2022. These proposals build on this work, reinforcing structures through legislation, but do not represent a radical departure from the current approach.

One thing that is new is the proposal to include English regional leaders in formal intergovernmental meetings. This is welcome, especially in the context of the other proposals for greater devolution within England.

Standards and ethics

“Cleaning up Westminster”

The report sets out various ways to improve how ethical standards are upheld in government. It makes pledges to better enforce rules around donations to political parties and greater transparency of government business. It also proposes that parliament would have new powers to set out codes of conduct for government, and calls for the creation of a new Independent Integrity and Ethics Commission which would investigate potential breaches of these codes.

The report calls for the public to have a greater role in overseeing the rules that politicians are bound by, proposing a citizens’ jury to assess how well the standards that apply to both ministers and MPs are functioning and whether the system should be changed.

The report also reiterates an existing Labour pledge to create a new anti-corruption commissioner, to “investigate and prosecute” corruption in public life.  

The report seeks to build on recent scandals around ethics and behaviour in government to make the case for fundamental reform. Labour’s big proposal is for an “Independent Integrity and Ethics Commission.” This organisation, which has already been committed to by deputy leader Angela Rayner, would investigate potential breaches of an updated ministerial code. Overall, as well as greater enforcement of standards rules, the proposals by Labour would represent a shift of power from government to parliament, which Labour has said should have the ability to approve both the ministerial code and the cabinet manual, and have oversight of the Information Commissioner’s Office to enforce greater transparency over government.

While Labour wants parliament to set the ministerial code, they still accept that the prime minister will remain the ultimate decision-maker on what sanctions any minister who is found to have broken the code would face. Their proposal that these arrangements would be overseen by a citizens’ jury would remove even more power from the government.

The new organisation would work with all the governments in the UK (and be appointed with the approval of each of the parliaments). How this organisation would work in practice – and how it would cooperate with other bodies, like the police – is not fully clear.

House of Lords reform

“A New Second Chamber for a New Britain”

The report proposes that the House of Lords should be replaced with a new second chamber called the Assembly of Nations and Regions. This new chamber would, like the current House of Lords, not play a role in government formation, have a say on taxes and spending, or be able to reject legislation. Unlike the current second chamber, it would not be able to delay legislation for a parliamentary session.

The new assembly would, however, be able to amend legislation and conduct scrutiny, have a role in overseeing ethics, and be given specific powers to safeguard the constitution. It would be a chamber with a role to specifically consider the views of the nations and regions of the UK. The new chamber is also proposed to be directly elected and composed of around 200 members.

The chamber would be given new powers to reject legislation that relates to “constitutional statutes”. These would be constitutional laws, principles and conventions that are pre-defined. The Supreme Court would have a role in deciding when this power is engaged. The House of Commons would also have some power to override this veto, but the exact mechanism is not set out.

The report suggests that the new chamber will be directly elected, and that it will be a chamber of the nations and regions. There are questions around what this means in practice, and if regional and national representation will be proportional or not. Many of the proposed representative functions of this chamber are reliant on the report’s other proposals being enacted.

The safeguarding of the constitution is a welcome role for the second chamber, and would create a new mechanism for constitutional entrenchment which has long been a challenge in the UK’s uncodified constitution. Although the report has suggested some principles that might be included, such as the Sewel convention and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, there would need to be a process of deciding what exactly constitutes a “constitutional statute”. This could be a tricky, and potentially contentious, task.

Proposals to reform the second chamber will need to be approved by parliament, including the current House of Lords, with several former governments having failed to deliver on commitments to reform. A future Labour administration will need to think carefully about its plan for implementation alongside its proposals for reform.

Plan for implementation

“Conclusion and Next Steps”

The report proposes a series of consultations with both stakeholders and the public; the latter described as a ‘ground-up conversation’ where the party will ‘co-author’ reforms. It states the aim that no part of the country is left behind, ignored, or silenced.

The report states that the recommendations are designed to be delivered within one parliamentary term in response to what it argues are the immediate challenges facing the UK. And it is clear that the preparation work for these changes will need to begin immediately. Beyond suggesting consultations, and an emphasis on public engagement around the UK, it is light on the detail of the form this may take, although one option raised is a series of citizens’ assemblies.

Given the report’s ambitious proposals for constitutional reform it is welcome that the Labour party intends to consult the public. Building political and public support for these proposals may also increase the chances of them succeeding.

If the deadline of achieving these reforms in one parliamentary term is to be met then the preparation must start soon. This means that consultations would be organised by the Labour party, not the UK government, which will have implications for the resources available and the potential reach of such an exercise.

Citizens’ assemblies have been used elsewhere – such as in Ireland – to tackle big constitutional issues, but there are significant costs attached. A ‘ground up conversation’ doesn’t have to mean a citizens’ assembly, and there are other successful models of public engagement, for example citizens’ juries, online discussion forums and hybrid deliberative forums. But Labour will need to be mindful of the perceived legitimacy of these exercises if it wants to gain public buy-in, and make sure to reach non-Labour members or voters.

With contributions from Rebecca McKee, Milo Hynes, Jack Newman, Steph Coulter

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