Skip to main contentCambridge University Reporter

No 6470

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Vol cxlvii No 36

pp. 659–685

Report of Discussion: Tuesday 13 June 2017

A Discussion was held in the Senate-House. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Geoffrey Ward was presiding, with the Registrary’s deputy, the Senior Proctor, the Senior Pro‑Proctor, and five other persons present.

The following Report was discussed:

Report of the Council, dated 22 May 2017, on the provisions concerning the initiation of Graces and of amendments to submitted Graces by members of the Regent House (Reporter, 6466, 2016–17, p. 542)

Dr G. A. Reid (St John’s College):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I make two points for the consideration of the Council concerning its Report on the provisions concerning the initiation of Graces and of amendments to submitted Graces by members of the Regent House:

1. Provision ought to be included to prevent the University from being presented with a Grace that has been initiated, or amended, by members of the Regent House in a form that, if approved, would be unlawful. That might occur if approval would result in an Ordinance or Order contravening any provision of the Statutes, contrary to Statute A II 1, or in action by the University contravening the general law.

The current provision permitting the Council to publish a Report giving reasons for its decision to withhold authorization and recommending the Regent House to approve its decision does not suffice; for the Regent House (which is not a body competent to determine the lawfulness or otherwise of any decision) might reject the Council’s advice. Nor is the Council itself really the right body to determine lawfulness, for its role under Statute A IV 1 is essentially an administrative one.

An internal judicial mechanism should be made available for the Council to invoke, similar to those currently involving the Vice-Chancellor, the Chancellor, or the Commissary, under sections 1, 2, and 3 respectively of Statute A IX. The interests of any other person in challenging unlawfulness are sufficiently met through an application made by him or her under Statute A IX 1 in the event that the allegedly unlawful Grace is approved.

2. Special provision ought to be made in relation to a Grace to make an amending Statute that is initiated, or amended, by members of the Regent House. The approval of such a Grace cannot contravene Statute A II 1 (since it modifies, rather than conflicts with, the provisions of the Statutes). However, it could potentially result in action by the University that contravenes the general law or offends against public policy as perceived by the Government. Either House of Parliament has power, under the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923, to present an address praying Her Majesty to withhold her consent to an amending statute; but it would be very much better for the reputation of the University if that did not occur.

This point was simply not addressed when provision was first made, in 1994, for the initiation and amendment of Graces by members of the Regent House. However, things have moved on since then. The Colleges agreed in 2008 they would send to the Privy Council Office proposed amending statutes before approving them in order to enable consideration at an early stage. Maybe the University has adopted a similar procedure. The advantage of consultation is obvious. However, the detail of how it is to be managed in the context of proposals relating to amending statutes generated by members of the Regent House presents a number of challenges because the Privy Council Office would not normally expect to deal with speculative enquiries from members of the University at large, and because it has to be circumspect in how it frames any advice that it gives in view of the fact that it has itself no policy-forming role under the 1923 Act, but to a degree acts as a conduit for its own consultation with other governmental bodies. Those are matters for the Council to consider and deal with.

Professor A. W. F. Edwards (Gonville and Caius College):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I have a parental interest in these provisions since they were introduced into the University’s constitution in 1994 by the efforts of Professor T. J. Smiley (Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy) and me in the aftermath of the Wass Syndicate on the government of the University.

The Wass Syndicate had neglected to comment on the several submissions to it that the Regent House should have the power to propose Graces and amendments. Indeed the Memorial signed by 194 members of the Regent House calling for the establishment of the Syndicate had itself observed that one of the reasons for the existing unsatisfactory position was

the absence from the University Statutes of any procedure for members of the Regent House to put down motions and amendments.

When Sir Douglas Wass replied to the Discussion on the Syndicate’s proposals (by letter to the Vice-Chancellor) he produced the old saw ‘that it is always open to individuals to initiate Graces and submit them to the Council’. Attempts to do so have always failed. In 1979 fifty-one members of the Regent House signed a request to the Council to put a Grace in connection with the Academical Dress regulations. The Registrary replied

The Council decided not to promote such a Grace since this would imply that a majority of the Council favoured a particular outcome to the ballot.

Similarly, the 50-member Grace now with the Council arose because the Council had refused a request for a vote on the age-limit for the Regent House.

When this question of the power to put a resolution by Grace was raised at an informal discussion in which members of the Syndicate answered questions about their Report, one of them defended their view, saying that the ultimate sanction would be for the Regent House to dismiss the Council. After an astonished silence a voice from the back of the room said ‘How can we do that if we cannot move a resolution?’

I am no authority on the new Statutes of 2014, but if the intricate problem identified by the Council has its origins in the earlier post-Wass statute changes devised by the Statutes and Ordinances Revision Syndicate then I must accept some of the blame, for not only was I a member of that Syndicate, but one who took a particular interest in the drafting of these new powers for the Regent House.

Today’s Report is rather opaque as to what is going on, but I welcome the effort of the Council to sort it out. My only comment is that I regret the use of the word ‘authorization’ as a replacement for the word ‘sanction’, used in this context in the 1856 Act which created the Council. Every Grace had to be sanctioned by the Council until the Wass changes. The Statutes and Ordinances Revision Syndicate then brought together all the Conduct of Business material into a new Statute A,VIII and substituted ‘authorization’ for ‘sanction’. I do not recall any discussion of the change and cannot now think of any reason for it. Unless the Council can think of one I suggest we revert to ‘sanction’ – ‘the action of rendering legally authoritative or binding’ (OED).

The 1856 Cambridge University Act relieved the University of the hopeless task of trying to run itself according to the 1570 Royal Statutes of Elizabeth I. The old Caput was replaced by an elected Council of the Senate,

which shall consider and prepare all graces to be offered to the Senate, whether proceeding from individual members of the Senate or from syndicates; and no grace shall be offered to the Senate without the sanction of the major part of those voting upon it in the Council.

The Senate retained its power as the legislative and executive body, acting through Graces proposed by the Council. But the members of the Senate could not propose Graces or amendments to Graces. They were no more empowered than in the days of the Elizabethan Caput.

Machiavelli defined a corrupt constitution as one in which only the powerful are able to propose measures. I will use the rest of my time this afternoon to trace the history of the evolution of the right, subject to certain safeguards, of the Regent House to move Graces and amendments. I quote from my remarks in this House thirty-five years ago on 8 June 1982 on The Report of the Council of the Senate on the regulations for the conduct of business, adding some glosses:

  The central paradox of our constitution is that the members of the governing body of the University – the Regent House – may not move resolutions or amendments. As Dr John Baker [later Professor Sir John Baker, QC; Emeritus Downing Professor of the Laws of England] reminded us in the discussion of the Report on the holding of ballots which the Council have now withdrawn, this peculiar fact lies behind some of the disputes which led to the Council commissioning the Report prepared by the Master of St Catharine’s [Professor Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer], Professor Sir James Beament, Professor Gareth Jones [Downing Professor of the Laws of England], and me.

  When the last Royal Commission was sitting, in 1920, a group of senior members describing themselves as ‘The Committee of Younger Cambridge Graduates’ sent a memorandum to the Commissioners asking (amongst other things) that the proposed Regent House should have the power to move resolutions and amendments. Amongst them were E. D. Adrian [later Lord Adrian, Vice-Chancellor and Chancellor], H. A. Hollond [later Rouse Ball Professor of English Law], J. M. Keynes [John Maynard Keynes], A. D. McNair [later Lord McNair, President of the International Court of Justice], and many others destined to become Professors, Heads of House, and Vice-Chancellor. They were not, indeed, the first to note the need to remedy this defect of the 1856 constitution, for in 1909 Dr Jackson had observed, in a Discussion on the Constitution and Government of the University, that he himself did not know anything of University affairs until the year 1865, but by that time it was perfectly plain that their young constitution had rather serious defects. He added, somewhat ruefully, that for forty years he had desired to see constitutional reform in the University.

  The Royal Commission agreed with the young reformers and recommended that ‘suitable facilities should be afforded for discussion and amendment of controversial proposals in the [Regent House], on lines similar to those already provided for in the case of [Oxford’s] Congregation’. Parliament concurred, and by the 1923 [Universities of Oxford and Cambridge] Act instructed the Cambridge Commissioners to ‘make statutes and regulations for the University in general accordance with the recommendations contained in the Report of the Royal Commission …’.

  That the Regent House is today prevented by statute from moving resolutions and amendments therefore not only makes it unique amongst governing bodies, but is contrary to a recommendation of the last Royal Commission, endorsed by Parliament. It is also prejudicial to the proper distribution of power in the University; as the Franks Commission informed the University of Oxford: ‘as we have indicated several times in our argument, this power to move a resolution from the floor is the sanction to inhibit abuse of power in a system of delegated responsibility’.

  Why, then, I asked, has this long-recognized defect in our constitution not been a source of real concern until recently?...

I went on to answer this question, quoting and amplifying the explanation offered by Maynard Keynes.

It took until 1994 and the efforts of some of us in the wake of the Wass Syndicate to remedy this defect in the 1856 and subsequent constitutions.

I am glad to see the Council proposing the elimination of any looseness of drafting. I imagine the Grace will not be opposed.

Professor G. R. Evans (Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History), read by the Senior Proctor:

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, a principal reason for the invention of Special Ordinances was to avoid the delay caused by having to await Privy Council approval of any change of Statute, after the Regent House had given its own. The idea was that by making something no longer a Statute, that time could be saved. Cambridge’s Statutes expressly make the Regent House the ‘governing body’ of the University,1 a provision which was too important to be thus demoted. It is also the legislative body and of course it retains control of the creation of Special Ordinances, as was pointed out when they were introduced.

However, the arrival of this new level of domestic legislation can certainly make it confusing for anyone who wishes to look up particular rules. The Statutes still have the highest-level domestic laws governing the Regent House. Certain details of the Conduct of Business in the Regent House have now moved to Special Ordinance, though a number of points linger on in the still unreformed Ordinances.2

A chief power of the Regent House, second only to its power to say no to recommendations put to it by Council, is the right to initiate legislation. It is that which is at issue in the Report being Discussed. It is easily forgotten that this was an innovation of the Wass Statutes, in acknowledged imitation of the Oxford provision.

The Report we are discussing rightly puts back into Statute provision which had been moved down a layer to Special Ordinance A (i) 5–7 in July 2013. However, it is not all to go back into Statute. One clause is to be restored to Statute level (Statute A III 4), with part of the requirement kept in Special Ordinance.

The Regent House shall have the power of initiating Graces to the Regent House and of initiating proposals for the amendment of a Grace already submitted to the Regent House but not yet approved, as prescribed by Special Ordinance. (emphasis added)


the final sentence of Statute A VIII (c) (Statutes and Ordinances, p. 10) [is to] be amended so as to read:

    All Graces submitted require the authorization of the Council; the Council may withhold that authorization in circumstances as prescribed by Special Ordinance.

Amendments are not uncommon and Regent House-initiated Graces do happen (twice this year). The Special Ordinance provisions include protections, especially that if the Council elects not to submit the Grace (or a Regent House-initiated Amendment) to the Regent House for approval it must:

  publish a Report giving reasons for its decision to withhold authorization and recommending the Regent House to approve that decision. If such approval is not given, the Council shall, not later than the end of the term next following, submit the Grace or amendment to the Regent House.

My point may be stated very briefly. If the priceless possession of academic democracy, exclusive to Oxford and Cambridge not only as a historical legacy but as a living system, is not to die away from disuse it has to be reasonably easy to find the rules governing its exercise. No one who has lived and worked in either university in recent decades can fail to have noticed the diminishing general awareness of the way their own or the other University’s democracy works. Even those of us with an active interest in the two constitutions can find it challenging to locate the piece of legislation sought. I am not sure the present modest adjustment, though welcome, is going to help much with that.