By-passing parliament: the blogs got there first

Until a day or two ago, few people in Britain were aware of a new Bill before parliament which, if passed, will give Ministers the power to enact new laws, primary legislation, on their own account without the inconvenience of having to get them approved by either House of what used to be our legislature — and they will also enjoy the power under the Bill to amend or even repeal existing legislation.  If they get away with this, they will get away with anything.  It represents the final stage in the process under which the executive has steadily gained complete control of the legislature. Once again we may have to look to an undemocratic, wholly nominated House of Lords to protect our constitution against the assaults of a rapacious and omnivorous government.  It’s true that the Bill imposes certain limits on ministers’ powers to enact new legislation or amend existing laws, and that it requires ministers to lay an explanatory Order before parliament when exercising the proposed new powers:  but it remains a wholly unconstitutional and unacceptable piece of work which parliament should throw out with anger and contempt.

Attention was first drawn to this extraordinary development in a couple of short blog items on 7 February, followed by a longer and more analytical piece in Owen’s Musings the following day.   It was a full week later, on 15 February 2006, that the alarm was sounded for the first time (as far as I can discover) in the national media by Daniel Finkelstein, in his Times column of that day.  The following day the Times carried an anxious letter about the Bill from six distinguished Cambridge law professors: we may hope that the debate and protests will now take off and that the government will be forced to think again.

I have sent the following message to Daniel Finkelstein to congratulate him on his pioneering role in this affair and to note the interesting time-lag between the blogosphere and the national media:

Dear Daniel Finkelstein,

Congratulations on breaking the news at national level of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill scandal in your Times article of 15 February.  The letter in today’s Times
from the six Cambridge law professors amply justifies your concerns and
should help to raise awareness of what is about to happen to our

This is just to draw your attention to a piece about the Bill
published on 8 February in a blog (my son’s, as it happens!) which
attracted some bloggers’ attention — see the comments following Owen
Barder’s original post.   In fact the alarm had been raised on the
previous day in another blog, and one more again, as the links in Owen’s piece confirm.  Yet another blog suggests a different angle on the issue.

This seems to me an interesting example of the time-lag between an
issue being broken and aired in the blogosphere and its appearance
rather later in the national media.  I wonder to what extent the
political commentators such as yourself monitor the blogosphere, or at
any rate the livelier and more alert political blogs (such as Owen Barder’s and my own!) for leads to news of fresh horrors emerging from Whitehall and Westminster?

I am putting a copy of this message on my own blog, partly to make the
useful links in it more widely available and partly as a tribute to
you for getting this out into the open.  As you said in your own
article, why on earth has this not been all over the front pages for

Yours appreciatively,

Brian Barder
16 Feb 06

As a minor tail-piece: we should savour and store away this latest misuse of the word ‘reform’ in the title of the Bill (the "Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill"), as if this attack on democratic parliamentary process can properly be described as a ‘reform’.  In the same way, the assault on the comprehensive principle in education is described as ‘educational reform’ and the proposal to change the electoral system so as to give the Liberal Democrats the permanent power to decide whether the prime minister shall be the Tory or Labour leader is described, even more widely, as ‘electoral reform’.  There’s something Orwellian about this. 


2 Responses

  1. Ronnie says:

    I’ve read the Bill.  I thought at first that it was going merely to give Ministers the chance to make minor and uncontroversial changes to existing legislation without having having to wait, perhaps quite a long time, for a window for an amending bill, difficult to get if the subject is not terrorism or public order; and to implement perhaps the more tediously technical recommendations of the Law Commission(s), coming as they do from a very respectable sourse and usually, I think, presented in "statutory" form.  T he Minister would first consult widely and honestly and present his draft, with his reasons, in an explanatory document, and his proposal like subordinate legislation generally would be subject either to negative resolution if enough MPs or Peers could arouse themselves to object or to affirmative resolution, not usually a hard task for the Whips.  The Bill however does not restrict the Minister’s powers to the technical or trivial but just about gives him carte blanche subject only to procedures designed for constrained, subordinate legislation.  In some, even perhaps most, instances he will merely have to wait forty days hoping that others will be too busy to n otice his proposal.  What I haven’t seen is which Mr Secretary is proposing this Bill.  Did somebody think first that it would be a good way to deal with small things and reduce the bueden on our legislators?  Did somebody add to this just to make sure that there would be no problems, or is it a careful attempt to get away from the restrictions – the stages and debates and votes – of Bill procedure.  Is this No.10?

    Brian writes:  It certainly has a strong smell of No. 10 about it.  Actually it may well have started life as a perfectly innocent device for enacting uncontroversial and technical improvements to existing laws, until the legal draftsmen and government lawyers started to suggest that it might be convenient to extend the scope of it slightly, with everyone pushing out the envelope bit by bit, until it matured into the monster that we have now.  And however innocent the intentions of the original promoters of the Bill, we may be sure that its sweeping powers will be exploited and abused sooner rather than later, if not by this government, then by a future one whose liberal credentials may well be even less reliable than this lot’s. 

  2. Daniel Finkelstein says:

    Thank you for your kind words Brian. I frequent the blogosphere all day every day and it was indeed a blogger (Tim Worstall) who first alerted me to the bill. D