Thursday, April 13, 2006


Abolition of Parliament Abolished?

At the risk of sounding sceptical about our honest, forthright Government, I’m waiting to see the details of exactly what the redrafted Bill will say before I cheer that the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is no longer a danger. It’s reported that the junior minister in charge of this most stealthily authoritarian piece of legislation is climbing down. Well, sounds good, but as the recent Tory-fooling ‘compromise’ over ID cards proved, it’s what the Bill does that matters, not the warm gushy noises.

As it stands, this is more dangerous than any other bill in my lifetime – not because it does terrible things on its own, but because it empowers ministers to do any terrible thing they like (and not just ministers, but any ‘person’ they nominate). Though it’s said to be about ‘relieving regulatory burdens’, rather than allowing ministers to change minor regulations, it allows ministers to change any law at all without any reference to Parliament – for a bill about ‘regulation’ rather than ‘legislation’, one could be forgiven for being suspicious when the former word appears just once in the existing Bill, but the latter, er, nineteen times. Until today, it had just two restraints – that it would not be used for ‘controversial’ issues (worthless, as the only person empowered to decide that safeguard is the minister exercising its power), and that it can’t be used to impose new taxes or to create new criminal offences with a sentence of more than two years (so, banging people up for 700 days for standing against the Labour Party is fine, then). The trouble is, the power to amend any legislation doesn’t exempt the Bill itself – so in theory, five minutes after it receives royal assent, the responsible minister could decide to change ‘two years’ to ‘two hundred years’. See why people are worried?

One thing that would make what's become known as the Abolition of Parliament Bill slightly less scary is if it contained a list of the only categories of legislation it could amend, but I doubt the government will want to give up toys that good. A less powerful but still useful option would be to explicitly exclude both the Bill itself and some of the most vital legislation (let’s say on holding elections and on powers of other branches of government, for a start). The trouble is, the government has already rejected amendments to exclude such uncontroversial legislation as (hat-tip to Liberty Central):

Act of Settlement 1700
Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001
Bail Act 1976
Bill of Rights 1688
Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919
Church of Scotland Act 1921
Civil Contingencies Act 2004
Claim of Right 1689
Constitutional Reform Act 2005
Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
European Communities Act 1972
Freedom of Information Act 2000
Government of Ireland Act 1920
Government of Wales Act 2006
Government of Wales Act 1998
Habeas Corpus Acts 1679 to 1862
House of Lords Act 1999
Human Rights Act 1998
Identity Cards Act 2006
Immigration Act 1971
Local Government Act 1972
Magna Carta 1215
Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975
Ministers of the Crown Act 1975
Northern Ireland Act 1947
Northern Ireland Act 1998
Official Secrets Acts 1911 to 1989
Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949
Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986
Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984
Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005
Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Act 1706
Public Order Acts 1936 to 1986
Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000
Representation of the People Acts 1981 to 2002
Scotland Act 1998
Security Service Act 1989
Statute of Westminster 1931
Succession to the Crown Act 1707
Terrorism Act 2000
Terrorism Act 2006
Union with England Act 1707
Union with Scotland Act 1706
Welsh Church Disestablishment Act 1914.

So I’m taking their conversion to limiting the power of the bill with a pinch of salt until a U-turn on all that for starters.

Reports suggest they want to give a select committee the power of veto, which does sound like a major step forward, though I’d be happier if, say, one-third of any select committee could refer it to the whole House (never mind that – how about one member?). And will this be a new select committee charged purely with overseeing orders under this legislation, because I suspect that’ll be more than enough to keep it busy? Still, at least it gives Parliament something to do if the rest of the Bill survives, as Parliamentary debates and votes wouldn’t be worth much any more.

I’m hoping they mean what they say. It’s a hope that this Government often disappoints, but it happens occasionally. But until there’s concrete evidence that the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill can only be used to alter uncontroversial regulations, remember not just that this Government has a record of abusing power disgracefully – which it does – but that, even if we had nothing to fear from them, they have a habit of putting legislation on the statute books that they may never misuse, but that their successors could do anything they like with. Liberalism in practice is about the control of arbitrary power more than any other single objective. This bill has power you wouldn’t trust to a saint, and no guarantee that the people who inherit it won’t be devils. Is the danger receding? Don’t trust that it is.

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