Constitutional conventions are an important features of the UK constitutional settlement. As the conventions are not exactly rules in the normal sense, it can on occasion be hard to know what they are and when they apply. In 2011, the then Coalition Government published a statement of Constitutional Conventions that had been drafted by the then Secretary to the Cabinet Sir Gus O’Donnell. Although the work had been started at the request of the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown MP, it was thought to be particularly helpful to guide the Coalition Government, led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The book was published in October 2011.
Recent events in the House of Lords – where a draft Statutory Instrument (which was designed, as part of the Government’s Welfare Reform plan, to cut tax credits to those in work) were not approved by a majority of the Lords, despite being approved in the House of Commons – have thrown a new spotlight on these conventional rules. (They have also reopened the wider issue of the composition of the House of Lords and whether or not it should become an elected body.)
The specific issue – relating to the approval of the Statutory Instrument already approved in the House of Commons – is to be subject to a review led by Lord Strathclyde.
This incident emphasises the point that while the process of government usually ticks over in a fairly ordered way, the lack of detail written rules can on occasion lead to considerable controversy.
The Cabinet Manual setting out the main laws, rules and conventions affecting the conduct and operation of government is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cabinet-manual