Opinion: do Parliament’s laws really need Royal Assent in 2013?

Queen Elizabeth IIThe country needs to save as much money as it can. Anything we can save will help the government to balance the books.

A small but wasteful activity is the requirement for Acts of Parliament to receive Royal Assent. Many people may believe that a Bill becomes law when it is passed by both Houses of Parliament. But it is a requirement for every Bill to go before the Queen and receive her approval.

Royal Assent is usually granted a few weeks after the Bill is passed by Parliament. It is presented to the Queen in an elaborate ceremony; her Assent is conveyed back to Parliament by Black Rod at the prorogation.

In theory, Royal Assent is a veto. The Queen can refuse to give Assent just as the President of the USA can veto a Bill passed by both Houses of Congress. But, in reality, Royal Assent is a formality.

Today, if a British monarch even suggested they might block Parliament’s will by withholding Royal Assent there would be Parliamentary and public outrage. This has been the political reality for centuries. Royal Assent has not been refused since 1708 when Queen Anne refused Assent for a Bill about the militia in Scotland. George IV threatened to refuse Assent for Catholic emancipation (a great Gladstonian cause) but backed down in the face of Parliament’s clear will. George V took legal advice on withholding Assent from the Ireland Bill in 1911 but quickly and publicly announced he would not do so. He could see that a monarch thwarting Parliament’s will would destroy the monarchy’s legitimacy in the eyes of most people.

When Parliament legislates on issues of conscience a monarch can be put in an awkward position. In modern times Belgium lost a king who abdicated rather than sign Assent to a Bill that conflicted with his religious beliefs. The monarch is the one person who cannot have “a free vote”.

The times is long overdue to scrap the requirement for Royal Assent and let a Bill becomes an Act when it is passed by Parliament. It would save money by eliminating unnecessary ceremony and whatever civil service and Parliamentary time is taken up by facilitating Royal Assent. The cost of Royal Assent is unpublished. You would not think it is much, but state activity you expect to be cheap always seems to cost a fortune. It might be hundreds of thousands, it might be tens of thousands. Even if it was £1, it is £1 we should save and put into health, education, defence or anywhere it can do more good.

* Antony Hook is MEP Candidate for the South East and has practised as a barrister since 2003. His website is here.

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37 Comments

  • Richard Church 5th Apr '13 - 1:52pm

    Abolishing Royal Assent would weaken the monarch’s authority as Head of State and raise more questions as to the role of a hereditary monarchy in a democratic state. It would lead to further questions over the royal prerogative, her role as the head of the established church and other antiquated that significant powers and priveleges that go with the monarchy.

    So let’s do it.

  • We shouldn’t need royal assent for legislation. But then we should have an elected head of state, like a democracy.

    But then again our parliament is half appointed and half pseudo elected under a system that bears naff all resemblance to democracy. So no-one involved in producing British laws really has any great legitimacy.

  • Seriously find something important to worry about, perhaps how to communicate the importance of Europe to British businesses, farmers and fishermen. That would probably save more than a £1 making sure we stay in Europe.

  • Haha Richard, Love it. Definitely scrap Royal Assent and the Monarchy!

  • Last time we got rid of the monarch, we wound up with Cromwell. Who thought he was hand-in-glove with God and was a Puritan. Who didn’t go in for fun much. And then, very democratically, he was followed by Son of Cromwell. And then it all got even more messy than it had been, till the country decided it had had enough and would like a king back, please. (I may have simplified the details a little here!).
    Beware what you wish for!

  • Stephen Hesketh 5th Apr '13 - 7:43pm

    The cost/saving is of little relevance. The much larger question is should a constitution not have a better system of checks and balances against the potential abuse of political, legal or military power than that offered by an unelected, non-representative hereditary monarch?
    What use would such a head of state be if, in the hour of crisis, the monarch was not of the calibre or popularity of the present Queen?
    To be honest I’m not sure if an elected political president would be much better except if you get a bad one you are not lumbered with him or her for life and that is not a question likely to be answered in a line or two here.

    To me something that modern democrats should be able to agree upon is that our Parliament must be more representative of the electorate – PR seems to offer a much better safeguard against political extremism than the potentially blind hope that the monarch of the day would not give royal assent to this or that Bill – but also that in the 21st Century, Parliament should rid itself of much of the frankly stupid traditions, protocols, bowing, tights, buckles, the fossilised use of Norman French etc that permeate much of its every day procedures.

  • Stephen Hesketh 6th Apr '13 - 8:38am

    Indeed I have. I have also seen and heard evidence of tradition that actually serves no purpose and undermines the true value, accessibility and functioning of the very institution it purports to support.

    I would suggest that although something of a spectacle (take that either way), it is hardly likely to endear Parliament to the general electorate. We sometimes wonder why the structure of British society is so resistant to meaningful change when we have all this rubbish at its political heart. The use of Norman French is a nice reminder to the various peoples of these islands of being subjugated by the Normans after 1066 and that many land ‘owners’ can still trace their lines and wealth back to this point.

    No human institution is perfect but surely you are not suggesting that any truly proportional electoral system is not a better safeguard against the election of a dictator than FPTP?

  • Stephen: I don’t think this bit of pageant (which I doubt most ‘ordinary people’ have heard of anyway) makes any difference as to how they view Parliament. I suspect expenses scandals, ‘Posh boys out of touch’ etc etc have coloured views a lot more.
    Given the success of the Jubilee celebrations last year vs, say, the turn-out for the PCC elections, how much higher do you think the monarchy’s stock is right now than politicians’?

    Someone pointed out that that constitutional monarchies rather seem to dominate the top 20 of this list
    http://country.eiu.com/article.aspx?articleid=1080324092
    Not entirely sure who the Economist Intelligence Unit are, but it makes interesting reading.

  • David Wilkinson 6th Apr '13 - 9:26am

    Replace the Queen with a elected God Fearing military madman who wages war on anyone , what’s Tony doing these days?

  • ” Just the parliamentary time of the Norman French being read back to the Lords must cost a lot. ”

    That’s open to question – all the staff and peers are already there. The buildings are open and being used for other things. If you average it out then the cost of one minute in the Lords is probably a signficant sum. But to suggest you can save that amount of money by scrapping what happens in one of those minutes is logically flawed.

    By extending your argument we could save a considerable sum by only having two or even one reading for each bill. Or even doing away with a second chamber altogether and only having one legislative chamber.

  • There is a logic to what you are saying.

    But the same could be applied to all sorts of things. Should we put a single penny into the National Theatre or even the entire arts budget until every social aim is fulfilled? Should we have an embassy in Mongolia, should we have armed forces at all (not just Trident. Should councillor allowances be abolished if there are any deprived children in the area?

    Just imagine what we could get if we sold off the Palace of Westminter like we did with London Bridge, cut the number of MPs to 50 and put them in a small hall in Dover.

  • British politics needs a complete and comprehensive reform. Centuries of patching things up in an effort to evolve a monarchy into a democracy has left us with a system that makes no sense and benefits no one.

    For a proper democracy you need to separate out power into an executive, a legislature and a judiciary. The executive and legislature need to be voted for separately and need to be kept in separate spheres of influence. The executive needs to be unaffiliated to any political party and have the power of veto. The legislature needs to be completely bicameral and both houses need to be representative of the people. We also need our own Bill of Rights to make sure certain liberties can never be infringed upon.

    The voting system needs to be changed so that the two-party monopoly, drastically and forever slanted into Labour favour during the Blair and Brown years thanks to gerrymandering, which should also be made illegal, is smashed so that people can really have a say in who governs them and what they do. Manifesto’s need to be legally binding, so MP’s can’t suddenly decide they know better than the political geniuses of the Enlightenment and believe that they can limit free speech for example, or do anything else wholly undemocratic or anything which the people gave their consent for. MP’s need to be held accountable for their actions far more easily than a vote every 5 years, the possibility of being sacked much like anyone else in a job would help, and any undeniably major change not specified in a manifesto must be voted on in a referendum.

    This is how to get a functioning democracy and give power to the people of Britain for the first time in history, rather than a traditional upper-class ruling elite who dominate the political parties or for an unelected monarch to have an influence on the political agenda of the country.

    I am not royalist by any stretch of the imagination, but until we have wide-sweeping political reforms, including an elected executive, I would rather have at least a token check on the seemingly unlimited power of the Commons than no check at all.

  • Chris Nelson 6th Apr '13 - 4:22pm

    As much as I dislike the idea of a royal veto, in practice I very much doubt that changing it is worth the bother – since as you say, the veto is in practice never been used in the last 300 years and almost certainly never will be.

    As far as cost goes, we pay for the Queen to receive state papers anyway – as well as the wages for the Royal Household – so they may as well do something constitutionally useful for their money. And as far as parliament goes, as Lord Greaves points out, the parliamentary process for receiving royal assent is all of two lines:

    Clerk of the House of Lords: “What is Her Majesty’s opinion on the Finance Bill?”
    Black Rod: “La Reine Le Veult” (the Queen wishes it)

    Black Rod would still be employed if it wasn’t for this process, so we wouldn’t save on his/her wages either.

    What’s more almost all political systems – be they republican or monarchial – have a system whereby, in theory at least, the Head of State signs legislation. In many of those systems – including some presidential systems – the head of state is actually obliged to sign, with no actual discretion on the part of the Head of State to refuse, so we’re not exactly unusual.

    So if we were to bother changing it at all – perhaps as part of a broader written constitution – my preference would be simply to make the Queen’s obligation to give assent a statutory obligation rather that just one of constitutional tradition, so that the current system is entrenched in law. But if it ain’t particularly broke, I don’t really see the need to fix it.

  • James Hurrell 6th Apr '13 - 4:25pm

    A system of assumed consent would be a good halfway point. The Monarch is informed but need take no action unless they wish to intervene. Still keeps Monarch as head but removes unnecessary ceremony.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Apr '13 - 10:18pm

    Please do not assume that King Charles the Third will behave in the same way as Queen Elizabeth the Second.

  • Julian Tisi 6th Apr '13 - 11:18pm

    A really interesting idea, but I disagree with it. Ultimately the real question here is – do we wish to have a constitutional monarchy? The symbolism is important if we are happy about having a constitutional monarchy.

    My own opinion is that while there is an enormous amount wrong with our constitution – the electoral system, the unelected House of Lords and so on – the monarchy is one thing that I believe works – for Britain at least.

    I recognise fully that if we were setting up a new state – Ruritania perhaps – we would surely not start by setting up a monarchy then limiting and defining its powers. But for Britain, with its history, I believe the monarchy works. Why? As Bagehot suggested, the fundamental difference between a republic and a constitutional monarchy is that in a monarchy, one swears allegiance to a person who represents the country but is above politics. In a republic, one swears allegiance to something abstract, like a flag or a potentially divisive political president.

    One final comment – Richard Church: while I disagree, I absolutely loved your comment!

  • The article suggests that royal veto has not been used for 300 years but this is not so. The following article was released in the guardian on 15Jan2013 suggesting that thebut was lost amongt the horsemeat scandal the following day.

    http://m.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/jan/14/secret-papers-royals-veto-bills

  • We’re Lib Dems so I don’t think you’ll find many of us disagreeing that we need to update and modernise our constitution, but it’s frankly bizarre to cloak this modest proposal to do away with the need for a final signoff of a law by the head of state with the debate over how to balance the nation’s books. I fail to see even how this would save any money, even the £1 mentioned by the author.

  • So let me get this right: it is an anachronism for laws to be signed off by our head of state, currently a Constitutional Monarch, who has the right of veto which is rarely exercised; but it is okay for the head of the USA, currently the President to have similar role and right of veto?

  • @ Gail Bones

    I quite agree, LibDems are seen as people who get very excited about silly things that don’t matter and no one cares about (many people see PR for the commons, or house of lords reform as these) but with this proposal I clearly fits that bill.

    A relative of mine describes th LibDems as people that obcess with free chewing gum. This proposal certainly paints that picture.

    The massive public overspend (deficit), the massive public debt mountain, the competativemess of the UK economy, the over taxing of the poor (low tax and NI thresholds), the country sleep walking out of the EU, the abuse and neglect of patients in the NHS (MidStaffs), British personell dieing in Afganistan.

    Hey screw all that we care about the admin process of bills gettign signed… !!! Seriously?

  • @Anthony Hook

    Yes I do know that the UK and US heads of state obtain their office by different means. Yes the Presidential veto can be overturned by both houses of Congress approving a Bill with a two-thirds majority, perhaps there may be a case for the UK to do similar.

    The query/point I was raising was that if it is constitutionally appropriate for the head of state in a democracy to sign-off laws or veto them – which you imply in the article is okay, they why not another? To me how the respective heads of state gained office is irrelevant, either there is a democratic constitutional requirement or there isn’t.

  • Helen Dudden 9th Apr '13 - 2:56pm

    Must we keep changing everything? there is no good reason to make changes for the sake of it.

    As someone who reads law, it is how things have been for many years. I believe in the law of this land and democracy and freedom we most certainly have.

  • Craig Nelson 14th Jul '13 - 1:15am

    The application of the Royal Assent is presumably done by a copy of the bill being taken to Buckingham Palace, applying some wax and signing it. I think there may be a method of giving royal assent if you’re outside the country – I’m not sure. Cost – the petrol to take the bill back and forth, the cost of the wax, some pieces of paper and some ink. Possibly the cost of a cup of tea while doing it.

    In a Monarchy the Monarch signs the bill. If you had a President they’d do it (different countries have different rules about whether there is a veto or not – in the US a Governor or President can veto unless carried by 2/3; in France Presidents have tended not to veto laws they disagree with and in Monarchies therei s usually an accepted convention that there is no possiblity of veto). Its role is to certify that the Bill is carried nd all stages are completed. It’s a certification role which takes the bill definitively outside the political arena – important when you have people saying laws aren’t proper statutes if using the Parliament Act (itsef passed using the Parliament Act). And so on.

    So at the margins it has a role; I don’t think it costs anything in reality and if the Queen didn’t do it then someone else would have to.

  • Charles Wilson 18th May '14 - 2:11pm

    Her Majesty The Queen reigns by popular consent, with polls regularly showing support around the 80% mark. A level that an elected Head of State would never achieve. More importantly, what differences does the actual Head of State make? Surely we should be more concerned about the checks and balances within the system, the fairness of our elections and representatives (e.g. who voted on the Coalition Agreement, Lib Dems??? And, why do we have Bishops in our Parliament?). Further still, do we really believe that our system is fair? With capitalism, the banks, cuts, etc., are our politicians actually doing anything, or are in they pockets of capitalists? If we were to get rid of the Monarchy, it should be as part of a wider plan to make the world a better place. Removing it from our Constitution as an institution in isolation is a waste of time and money – mere lip-service to a pretend democracy. Get on the real debates – WHEN ARE WE TAKING CONTROL OF OUR ECONOMY AGAIN? WHEN WILL WE HAVE ACCESS TO EDUCATION AGAIN? WHEN WILL YOUNG PEOPLE BE ABLE TO GET ON THE PROPERTY LADDER? What a waste of time debating a ceremony that is almost a parody of our customs yet strewn with respect for our national identity and hard-working Head of State…

  • William Gladys 26th Jan '15 - 2:41pm

    Oh for goodness sake just get rid of it.

  • Namita Sharma 11th May '17 - 9:07pm

    Royal Assent is a check on the balance of powers in this country; even if it’s only a formality usually, if there is an act that parliament tries to pass that is deemed terrible in some way, that is one check that would stop it. The Judiciary is the only other and case law in and of itself has limits that are unequal to that of Parliament in this scenario. So, we need Royal Assent as ‘the last say’.
    If anyone tries to counter that Parliament is reliable and wouldn’t try to overstep it’s legal and constitutional powers – just look at Brexit (for/against, not the point here): there was a step before putting the vote to the public, that the House of Commons missed. So they overstepped. And nothing stopped them really, though a legal firm took them/some representative figure to court (which the HoC lost) – but what happened?

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