Lib Dem MP David Haworth has a piece worthy of widespread attention in last Tuesday's Times but it seems to have bypassed most people including me until now. The government have apparently proposed a bill that would allow ministers to change any law without recourse to Parliament.
"in an almost deserted chamber, the Government proposed an extraordinary Bill that will drastically reduce parliamentary discussion of future laws, a Bill some constitutional experts are already calling “the Abolition of Parliament Bill”.
A couple of journalists noticed, including Daniel Finkelstein of The Times, and a couple more pricked up their ears last week when I highlighted some biting academic criticism of the Bill on the letters page of this paper. But beyond those rarefied circles, that we are sleepwalking into a new and sinister world of ministerial power seems barely to have registered.
The boring title of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill hides an astonishing proposal. It gives ministers power to alter any law passed by Parliament. The only limitations are that new crimes cannot be created if the penalty is greater than two years in prison and that it cannot increase taxation. But any other law can be changed, no matter how important. All ministers will have to do is propose an order, wait a few weeks and, voilà, the law is changed...
Looking back at last week’s business in the Commons, the Bill makes a mockery of the decisions MPs took. Carrying ID cards could be made compulsory, smoking in one’s own home could be outlawed and the definition of terrorism altered to make ordinary political protest punishable by life imprisonment. Nor will the Human Rights Act save us since the Bill makes no exception for it.
The Bill, bizarrely, even applies to itself, so that ministers could propose orders to remove the limitations about two-year sentences and taxation. It also includes a few desultory questions (along the lines of “am I satisfied that I am doing the right thing?”) that ministers have to ask themselves before proceeding, all drafted subjectively so that court challenges will fail, no matter how preposterous the minister’s answer. Even these questions can be removed using the Bill’s own procedure. Indeed, at its most extreme, in a manoeuvre akin to a legislative Indian rope trick, ministers could use it to transfer all legislative power permanently to themselves...
The Government claims that there is nothing to worry about. The powers in the Bill, it says, will not be used for “controversial” matters. But there is nothing in the Bill that restricts its use to “uncontroversial” issues. The minister is asking us to trust him, and, worse, to trust all his colleagues and all their successors. No one should be trusted with such power.
As James Madison gave warning in The Federalist Papers, we should remember when handing out political power that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm”. This Bill should make one doubt whether they are at the helm now."
Thanks to Michael Froomkin for the link.