This past Thursday week, Parliament debated a bill so astonishingly brazen in its constitutional effect that you would be forgiven for thinking that we were moving towards a dictatorship. The executive branch is trying to gain the power to make and amend laws by order. Why aren’t people outraged by this?

The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill begins like this:

A Minister of the Crown may by order make provision for either or both of the following purposes—
  (a) reforming legislation;
  (b) implementing recommendations of any one or more of the United Kingdom Law Commissions, with or without changes.

Translation: a Minister may make, amend or repeal legislation independently and at any time, without reference to Parliament. We’re talking about statute, common law: anything. For protection, the Bill sets a number of conditions that must be met before such action can be taken. Who decides whether these provisions are met? The Minister, of course. You could not make this stuff up.

The Government claims that this Bill will remove red-tape and increase efficiency. Clifford Chance, the world’s largest law firm, disagrees, referring to its ‘Henry VIII’ powers:

…the Bill “usurps the power of Parliament”. In a briefing to clients, it says the only red tape that the Bill would remove is “the red tape of Parliamentary scrutiny for primary legislation”.

The problems with this proposal are so blatantly obvious that I feel silly pointing them out. Our liberty is based on a 800-year-old parliamentary democracy that has been evolving since the Magna Carta. People fought and died to wrest arbitrary powers from the monarch and imbue them in a democratically-elected Parliament. Why on earth would we want to take this retrograde step?

Even if one accepts that the present occupants of Downing Street would only use this power to do good (which is a subjective nonsense anyway), who’s to say that future governments wouldn’t use it to more sinister ends? You’ve all read 1984, right?< In related constitutional news this week: there is talk in Whitehall of scrapping yearly local council elections, which are apparently considered “inefficient”. Well, I’m sure that Stalin found elections pretty inefficient as well.

This is all pretty depressing stuff. Even more depressing, however, is the public and media attention which the story has received. A footnote on BBC News, a (powerful) comment piece in The Times. This story deserves blanket coverage. However, even if this was more widely reported, I can’t help but wonder if anyone would take any notice.

The unfortunate side-effect of modern Britain’s economic prosperity is that it instills in people a worrying nonchalance: a 61.28% turnout is, to me, a sad indictment of the political complacency in which modern Britons live. Most of the students I live, work and play with seem entirely unconcerned with national politics, and I sympathize, to an extent. To those outside of the Westminster village, it can seem so terribly distant; its effects diluted, if felt at all. This is an unfortunate (even dangerous) naivety. Politics is as relevant to every day life as it has ever been. Just as there is more to the world than the campus bubble, so there is more to politics than tuition fees: students need to shake off their political apathy.

I’m not making this up. The British government is proposing – under the auspices of cutting bureaucracy – give itself the power to make and change laws without reference to Parliament, while also discussing cancelling elections.

This is too important to ignore: people need to wake up.

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2 Comments

  1. Dan
    May 31, 2006 at 22:08 — Reply

    Aren’t Parliament’s powers in Statutory Law unlimited anyway? From the little I know about Statute, Parliament can pass an Act whenever they see fit, what’s the difference between whether an individual minister passes it or summoning the entire court who will probably fall asleep/not care anyway? I imagine that was the idea behind the reform, but yes it seems a little rash to seemingly give an individual minister this power. Are these Laws contestable – as in those Laws formed when the State delegates its power to other bodies, or do they remain – as with the rest of Parliamentary Acts – uncontestable?

    Dan – The Designosaur

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