Royal commissions have fallen out of use over recent decades, but they could be set to make a return.

There have been no new royal commissions since Tony Blair established the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords in 1999. However, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2019 election promised to set up a royal commission on the criminal justice system within the first year of government. The manifesto also contained a separate commitment to establish a constitution, democracy and rights commission, although it is not yet clear what form this commission will take.

A royal commission is a type of committee appointed for a specific investigatory or advisory purpose. The Queen appoints its members on the Government’s advice. Governments have often appointed royal commissions to address high-profile social concerns, issues that may be controversial, or matters of national importance. Royal commissions typically work by gathering evidence and producing a report. It is then up to the Government of the day to decide how to respond and whether to act on any of the recommendations.

Royal commissions have fewer powers than public inquiries established under the Inquiries Act 2005. The Act gives statutory inquiries explicit powers to compel witnesses to give evidence. In contrast, royal commissions in Australia and New Zealand have statutory powers similar to those under the Inquiries Act 2005.

Royal commissions have a long history, though their frequency has varied over time. Nearly 400 royal commissions were established between 1830 and 1900. This fell to 145 in the twentieth century. None were set up in the 1980s and only three in the 1990s. Commentators have suggested that over time, governments came to prefer other bodies or forms of public inquiry rather than royal commissions.

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