Abolition of Parliament: it was wrong then and it’s wrong now

Back when Tony Blair was Prime Minister Labour tried to get through Parliament sweeping powers to change the law without requiring full Parliamentary scrutiny. Then Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth was one of those who led the charge against this, writing in The Times:

The Government proposed an extraordinary Bill that will drastically reduce parliamentary discussion of future laws, a Bill some constitutional experts are already calling “the Abolition of Parliament Bill”.

A couple of journalists noticed, including Daniel Finkelstein of The Times, and a couple more pricked up their ears last week when I highlighted some biting academic criticism of the Bill on the letters page of this paper. But beyond those rarefied circles, that we are sleepwalking into a new and sinister world of ministerial power seems barely to have registered.

The boring title of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill hides an astonishing proposal. It gives ministers power to alter any law passed by Parliament. The only limitations are that new crimes cannot be created if the penalty is greater than two years in prison and that it cannot increase taxation. But any other law can be changed, no matter how important. All ministers will have to do is propose an order, wait a few weeks and, voilà, the law is changed.

David HowarthThe combination of a coalition of bloggers and the work of David Howarth was primarily responsible for turning this from an obscure issue of complaint into a significant political headache for the government – and to see the proposals defeated.

But now we’ve got a mini re-run heading our way, courtesy of the Public Bodies Bill. What it proposes isn’t as bad as what Labour proposed back then, but the same principles still apply. It’s been heavily criticised by a Lords committee and the issue picked up by some bloggers so far, including Liberal Conspiracy:

The Public Bodies Bill – which abolishes as many quangos as possible – gives ministers astonishingly leeway to amend all legislation.

The House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee could not be clearer in its latest report that this goes much too far, and would be an important weakening of Parliament.

The Committee considers that the powers contained in clauses 1 to 5 and 11 as they are currently drafted are not appropriate delegations of legislative power. They would grant to Ministers unacceptable discretion to rewrite the statute book, with inadequate parliamentary scrutiny of, and control over, the process … The Bill confers powers on Ministers to make very significant changes. All orders under the Bill may amend or repeal any Act of Parliament and are thus Henry VIII powers. Orders under the Bill may even amend or repeal Acts of Parliament which have not yet been passed by Parliament (clause 27(2)).

The idea of giving the government the power to repeal an Act which has not yet even been passed is deserving of a Yes Minister plot, and it’s no wonder that both LabourList and Dizzy Thinks have also highlighted what is wrong with the proposals.

They’re right; the legislation should not pass in this form.

The underlying motivations for the proposals are far from all bad – a desire to get a move on with getting rid of unnecessary regulation. But in the haste to try to do the right thing, corners can be cut, mistakes made – and there is always the temptation to slip in more through the back door. That is why the concerns about the Public Bodies Bill expressed by the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee are right.

The good news is that Liberal Democrat and other peers are not exactly lining up to give this legislation united unqualified backing in the Lords, and the government is also (to its credit) talking about making changes to the proposals. With the right public pressure the legislation can be made right.

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7 Comments

  • This legislation must be stopped – I’m glad the LDs in Parliament are working to oppose it. What about the LDs in government?

  • This may be a first the Government actually listening to alternative viewpoints and amending rushed legislation.

    In it’s current form it removes far too much democratic accountability and openess of process and must be stopped.

  • Patrick Smith 19th Nov '10 - 6:45pm

    The critical last part of David Howarth`s expose` to the Times 21/2/06 re `Abolition of Parliament’ is in the caveat of James Madison in the `Federalist Papers’, who advised the first US Congress- we should remember when handing out political power that,

    `enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm’.

  • this is more like it…

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Nov '10 - 2:05am

    I swear somebody goes around and adds this rubbish to every tenth bill that gets presented to Parliament. Then it promptly gets thrown out again in committee. Who keeps doing that?

  • Peter Chivall 20th Nov '10 - 11:26pm

    Sir Humphrey of course! With 5 years to the next Election and fewer likely reshuffles, Sir Humphrey with have a lot of time to get ‘his Minister’ to do his bidding. ‘Henry VIIIth’ powers are a gift to the Sir Humphreys of this world.

  • tonygreaves 24th Nov '10 - 9:48pm

    In the case of the Bill it is not a quesiton of “adding rubbish to every tenth Bill”. The whole Bill is bad – there is nothing else in it other than the framework for ministers to abolish, merge, modify constitutional arrangements of, modifiy funding arrangements of, modidfy or transfer functions of, or authorise delegation by public bodies or offices. (Quangos).

    It is incredibly lazy legislation which seriously undermines the role of Parliament. There are lists of hundreds of bodies that will or may be dealt with affected in this way ranging from obscure committees to bodies like National Park authorities, the Environment Agency or the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

    The only real hope for changing this atrocious Bill is in teh House of Lords where it has now started its Committee Stage.

    Tony Greaves

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