Royal Commissions Part One – “a subject wrapped in a haze of common knowledge”?

By: Colin Talbot

Discussion of Royal Commissions has resurfaced in the past few years. In their 2019 Election Manifesto, for example, the Conservative Party promised to set up a Royal Commission on the criminal justice system (they haven’t). They also promised a commission (not royal) on the constitution, democracy and rights (also not established).

More recently there have been several calls for a Royal Commission on the future of the National Health Service – by former Health Secretary Sajid Javid,  Simon Jenkins (Guardian 6th July 2023) and earlier Maurice Saatchi.[1]

So what are – or rather were – Royal Commissions? How do they differ (if at all) from what were called ‘Departmental Committees’? Why did they fall into disuse and is there really a prospect of, or point in, reviving them?

One of my predecessors as Professor of Government at the University of Manchester – the late W.J.M. “Bill” Mackenzie (1909–1996) – wrote memorably about pressure groups that they are “a subject wrapped in a haze of common knowledge”. A later scholar, T.J. Cartwright, thought this also applied to the subject of Royal Commissions – lots of people think they know what they were and whether or not they were a good thing. [2]  This ‘haze’ obscures the reality and leads many to mis-assess – for good or ill – Royal Commissions (and their close cousin ‘Departmental Committees’).

We have not had a Royal Commission in the UK since Tony Blair set one up on the House of Lords in 1999. Since their heyday during a period of very active constitutional and social reform in the nineteenth century, Royal Commissions as such went into steep decline as a policy institution.

Source: data from N Newson[3]

The decline accelerated during the twentieth century and if any government can be said to have delivered a fatal blow to Royal Commissions it was Margaret Thatcher’s: there were none during her reign (1979-90). Only three have happened since – one under John Major (Criminal Justice 1991) and two under Tony Blair (Care for the Aged, 1997 and Reform of the Lords, 1999). And while the New Labour Government had only two, since the Tories returned to power in 2010 there have been none – not even the one they promised in 2019.

Royal Commissions from Willian I to Tony Blair

William I’s Royal Mandate of 1085 leading to the creation of the Domesday Book is usually given as the first Royal Commission. Tony Blair’s 1999 Royal Commission on the Lords is currently the last – so they have ‘lived’ in the English/British system of government for almost a millennia.

The Domesday Book is also a good illustration of one frequent purpose of Royal Commissions – to establish the facts. But these Commissions have been used for many purposes over the past 900 years.

A House of Commons briefing on “non-statutory public inquiries” describes Royal Commissions thus: 

“Royal Commissions (RCs), like non-statutory departmental inquiries, are ad hoc investigatory or advisory committees, established by Government initiative and without statutory powers to compel the attendance of witnesses or the production of documents. Formally, they are established by the Monarch (hence the name “Royal Commission”) but the decision has, since the 19th century, always been taken on the advice of one or more senior Government Ministers.” [4]

An important facet of RCs is that they are independent of government, chaired and populated with a panel of external experts.

I would suggest there have been in practice three different broad purposes for RCs.

  • Investigatory RCs: these were more frequent in previous centuries and focussed usually on some incident or occurrence. This is the territory now occupied by Public Inquiries – especially since the Public Inquiries Act of 2005.
  • Constitutional RCs: these have focussed on constitutional reform issues such as the House of Lords; the Civil Service; Standards in Government; government of Scotland; and Local Government. Of the 34 RCs since WWII, 9 have ‘constitutional’.
  • Policy RCs: these have been concered with specific areas of public policy such as the press; taxation; mental health; the police; gambling; the NHS; and so on. Twenty-five RCs have been of this nature since WWII.

RCs and Departmental Committees

Several authorities (including a House of Commons briefing paper by G. Cowie) suggest that there is really not much difference between formal Royal Commissions and what Cartwright calls departmental committees (DCs). These are established by government, either as a whole or by individual ministers. They are also ad hoc, non-statutory and in the words Cowie:

“Functionally, RCs are almost – and in some cases exactly – the same as an arm’s length departmental “review” of policy. Both RCs and independent reviews look at a policy area. They then report their evidence, conclusions and recommendations to a Minister. 

The Minister then decides to what extent and when those findings are to be published and implemented. 

Usually, Royal Commission reports are published as Parliamentary papers. The main difference between an RC and a departmental review is that there is a greater expectation, generally, that the former will be published. There are many examples, however, of policy reviews being published even though they lacked the prestige and formality of a Royal Commission, for example, the Independent Review of Administrative Law.”[5]

Departmental committees, reviews or commissions are an important element in the policy making system simply because there are so many of them. For example, between 1945 and 1969 there were 640 such committees, as compared to 27 Royal Commissions. Although Cartwright only saw 332 of these 640 departmental committees (around half) as being significant enough to analyse alongside RCs. But they still outnumbered RCs by a factor of 12 to 1.

Unfortunately, there is no more recent analysis available of DCs, but it is quite clear that, unlike RCs, they have not fallen into disuse.

“Taking Minutes and Wasting Years”?

The haze surrounding Royal Commissions (and DCs) suggests that they are usually a way for governments to ‘kick an issue into the long grass’ or as Harold Wilson wittily put it to “take minutes and waste years” (in spite or because of this he set up 10 during his periods in office). They are also generally seen as ineffective – even if they do produce timely products they are rarely acted upon.

Serious analysis suggests a much more mixed picture. True, RCs tend to be slow – usually taking between 2 and 4 years to conclude. And it often takes several more years for their recommendations to make it into policy or law, if they do. But the latter cannot be blamed on RCs or DCs. And it is worth noting DCs are usually slightly faster and more effective.

Cartwrights’ analysis of RCs and DCs shows just how influential and significant a part of the British policymaking system they have been. They fill an ‘innovation gap’ where the traditional mechanisms of government policymaking are inadequate. They are, in his view, an extremely flexible method for ‘fixing’ policy problems.

My own suggestion would be to separate the second and third purposes identified above – to have two distinct mechanisms for considering constitutional change and non-constitutional policy problems.

Another advantage of both RCs and DCs according to Cartwright is their ability to ‘open up’ the policymaking process to the public and to allow for greater deliberation. Contemporary ideas around citizens juries or deliberative polling could play a role here?

Finally, thought needs to be given to how Royal Commissions and/or Departmental Committees can feed back into the formal policymaking and constitutional change processes more effectively. Linking them to less partisan avenues like Commons’ Select Committees or Joint Committees of both Houses might be one option?

This is something I hope to return to in future posts.

Colin Talbot.

Colin is Emeritus Professor of Government, University of Manchester. He also has relationships with the Cambridge Judge Business School and the Federal Trust. Colin has worked extensively with all levels of British government and public services, including being an advisor to two House of Commons Select Committees and appearing as an expert witness over two dozen times in both Houses of Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh Assembly. He has also advised more than a dozen other governments, from the USA to Japan.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.

[1] Maurice Saatchi, An NHS Royal Commission: From Fighting Fires to Lasting Settlement, Centre for Policy Studies, February 2017  

[2] T J Cartwright (1975) Royal Commissions and Departmental Committees in Britain. Hodder & Stoughton.

[3] N Newson (2020) Royal Commissions: Making a Comeback? House of Lords Library Briefing Paper. 23 April 2020

[4] G Cowie (2022) Non Statutory Public Inquiries, House of Commons Library Briefing,

Number SN02599

[5] Cowie, ibid