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Blair’s latest enabling bill: turning Parliament into a rubber stamp

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:31 pm on 5 March, 2006.
Categories democracy and the rule of law.
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In my previous two articles, I provided an overview of the Abolition of Parliamentary Scrutiny Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill and considered the scope of the Parliamentary orders which can be issued under the bill. I now consider the procedure for passing these orders and the implications they have for the role of Parliament and its ability to scrutinise legislation.

In order to understand the likely impact of the bill it is worth considering how Acts of Parliament are currently created. As things are now, once the government publishes a new Bill, the odds are stacked in its favour. The government dominates the House of Commons, and thus dominates the committees and can get its way, most of the time, on procedural matters. Even getting opposing amendments tabled and voted upon requires a head of steam to be built up, and getting them properly debated, let alone passed, usually requires the governing party to be split and/or to have a small majority.

The government also pushes through so much legislation each year it is impossible for an MP to keep up with it all. Thus MPs will tend to specialise on a few bills (if they care), and otherwise act as lobby fodder — they won’t make decisions independent of their party whips unless there’s an extremely controversial measure that splits one or more of the parties or it an area they care about.

The end result is that much legislation ends up guillotined with amendments falling by the wayside, and much of the original bill having been undebated and possibly unread by most MPs.

Then in the House of Lords, the government has less of an advantage — even though Lords are appointed, they are appointed for life and can thus be independent. Plus currently the government do not have a majority of peers. However the Lords can be overruled by the Parliament Act and will tend not to oppose manifesto commitments outright. So whilst they sometimes manage to propose some modest improvements to a bill, and sometimes insist on those, the government can override them if determined or will accept improvements, knowing it mostly got its way.

To stop or even just merely modify a bill requires a head of steam to be built up, which requires both time and detailed scrutiny of the bill (to deal with the obfuscation and lies governments will come out with and to devise effective amendments and ensure they get voted on). I.e. the system is already badly flawed and could do with more power returning to Parliament at the expense of the executive.

Nevertheless it does take several months for legislation to pass through this process, it does get scrutinised by Parliamentary committees and debated several times by both MPs and peers and the government is forced to make it case repeatedly. The process, despite its flaws, does enable improvement of government legislation and occasional rejection of legislation proposed by the government.

However, with this bill, the government are proposing a general power to legislate via statutory instrument (they’ve already got such powers in specific areas due to earlier legislation). With a statutory instrument, each House gets only 1 vote (and possibly not even that if the negative resolution procedure is used), there is no opportunity to put forward amendments and the time for considering the draft order is strictly limited, in this case to 40 days or 60 days. This means there will be precious little scrutiny and very little chance to merely improve legislation let alone to oppose it outright. Even if the super-affirmative procedure is used, amendments aren’t tabled — the government can simply put down a revised order and thus decides what representations shall be listened to and how they should be catered for.

At best, the government decides whether to revise an order and what revisions to make, not Parliament, and then only if the super-affirmative procedure is being used. Parliament can either say yes or no, and the government might give Parliament a second chance to say yes or no to new proposals if it feels like it.

The end result if this bill becomes law is clear. The government will tie MPs up with some unimportant Acts of Parliament whilst pushing the meat of what it wants to do via statutory instruments.

Parliament will become even more of a rubber-stamp than now, easily manipulated by the government, whilst anyone wishing to oppose the statutory instruments(SIs) will have their work cut out because they’ll only get a couple of months at most from the publication of the SI to getting the SI stopped, and that’s assuming they hear about it.

Already thousands of SIs are passed each year with very low visibility and scrutiny (it’s rare for an SI to even be mentioned in any but the most obscure parts of the media).

This government intends to enable just about any legislation to be passed in similar circumstances and in doing so will nominate the resolution procedure to use (negative, affirmative or super affirmative) in each case. Given its ability to manipulate Parliament, this will mean determining which procedure is used in the vast bulk of cases.

It will be rule by decree with a Parliamentary facade.

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