Cabinet Office Minister Jim Murphy has published the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill 2006 looks to be another sneaky attempt by the Executive branch of Government to further weaken the role of Parliament.
Why does the NuLabour Government hate the idea of full public consultation and of detailed scrutiny by Parliament so much ?
This Bill adds to the already strong case for a law which imposes criminal penalties on any Government Ministers, civil servants and lawyers, who dare to use words like "any" or "all" or "every" in a Bill or Order or Regulation, without qualification, caveat or restriction of unlimited powers.
Similarly, by law, no Act of Parliament should ever be worded so that it could be interpreted to give the power to amend itself (not the same thing as normal Secondary Legislation), without new Primary Legislation and full, detailed scrutiny by Parliament.
This Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill fails these simple constitutional safeguards.
There is far too much old, outdated and unecessary legislation on the Statute Books and amongst the vast number of Secondary Legislation Orders and Regulations, including sections of legislation which have never been Commenced by an Order.
The Government should set itself a target of getting rid of as much of this confusing junk as possible every year.
The way they should do it is by devoting at least one Primary Legislation time slot a year to a new Bill.
They should firstly have a full public consultation, on the list of the proposed laws and regulations which they hope to repeal, together with full background details, of the existing costs, the estimated number of times the questionable legislation has actually been used in recent years, and any references to similar, more modern legislation.
They should then publish a Draft Bill for it to be scrutinised in detail by Parliamentry Joint and Select Committees.
They should also publish a full, detailed Regulatory Impact Assessment, including detailed cost / benefits estimates, to be scrutinised in detail by Parliamentry Joint and Select Committees.
Then they should publish a full Bill, which will hopefully have all party support by then, to be passed into law.
That is not what the NuLabour Government, and presumably some officious cabal of Civil Servants and lawyers is proposing to do.
What they are planning to do is to try to do this all "by Order", or "in the opinion of a Minister", yet still give the power to create new laws and regulations, without proper detailed scrutiny by Parliament, to a Minister.
There are, of course, some alleged "safeguards" e.g. no new taxes can be created via this proposed Bill, but, incredibly, new criminal offences can be created, provided that the penalty is no more than 2 years in prison !
Oh how generous of them ! That means that they will be able to create arbitrary laws and regulations which do carry a criminal penalty, but without proper Paliamentary approval.
What is to prevent the powers demanded in this Bill, from being used, for example, to amend existing terrorist legislation, to broaden the definition of terrorism, which already carries a life sentence ?
Instead of proper Parliamentary approval of such amendments and repeals of laws, the Government is proposing, yet again, the evil concept of a "super affirmative procedure", an untested procedural trick which they are also trying to use in the controversial Identity Cards Bill.
This means that, yes, both Houses of Parliament will have to vote to accept an Order, but they will not have any opportunity to debate any amendments, like they would with a proper Bill. Therefore any Government with a working majority will simply be able to "rubber stamp" any such Order through Parliament.
Except, of course, that, as has been pointed out in the Identity Cards Bill debate, nobody actually knows what will happen if say the Commons votes for such a "super affirmative" Order, but the Lords does not.
Incredibly, the section of the Bill on "consultations", does not mention any need to consult with the general public, only with "bodies" or "persons" at the whim of Minister.
Why should we trust any of the current or future Ministers with such arbitrary power ?
This all feels like a replay of the non-debate which happened over the controversial Civil Contingencies Act 2004 Part 2 Emergency Powers, where the Government repeatedly refused to exclude any "core constitutional Acts of Parliament", such as Magna Carta 1297 , the Bill of Rights 1688, or Habeas Corpus, or even the European Communities Act 1972 etc. from being subject to amendment or repeal under Emergency Regulations.
In the end, even the Civil Contingencies Act ended up with the dubious fig leaf, that it could not be used to amend or repeal the Civil Contingecies Act itself (e.g. to extend a period of Emergency indefinately) or the Human Rights Act (which already has huge loopholes for "national security" or "public health" etc).
However, the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill does not have even those "safeguards", and, if passed as it stands, would give a Minister the power to amend or repeal or replace any or all legislation, and even the Common Law as well.
Surely the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill must be specifically excluded, in the text of the Bill, from being able to be used to amend itself, or any of the other "core constitutional" Acts, including the Civil Contingencies Act or the Human Rights Act ?
Surely this Bill should only be used to repeal outdated, legislation and if any replacement legislation is required which involves criminal penalties, then that should be properly debated as part of a full Bill and not done "by Order" ?
Will Parliament stand up to the Government on this Bill ?