What's The Problem?
The boringly-named Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is in fact a very dangerous piece of legislation. It grants any minister the ability to amend, replace, or repeal existing legislation. The frightening thing is this: they would be able to make major changes to the law without Parliament being able to examine it properly, taking away the ability of Parliament to meaningfully represent the citizens of this country.
The only limitations are that the changes may not:
- impose new taxes,
- create new criminal offenses with a sentence of more than 2 years,
- authorise forced entry, search or seizure, or compel the giving of evidence,
- modify the bill itself or the Human Rights Act.
This means that if a minister got up in a bad mood, he could decide to make laughing in public punishable by 2 years in prison by amending the Serious Organised Crime Act. Or if he was late to work, he could arbitrarily do away with speed limits by amending the Road Traffic Act.
More worryingly, the minister involved can amend almost any existing legislation; nothing is protected. So, as was pointed out in The Times by 6 law professors from Cambridge, a minister could abolish trial by jury, suspend habeas corpus (your right not to be arbitrarily arrested), or change any of the legislation governing the legal system, with the only exceptions being the bill itself and the Human Rights Act.
That's 700 years of democracy and the rule of law, thrown away in a heartbeat. What's left of the Magna Carta, the foundation of just about all modern democracies, would be finally gone, and our Parliament, which has influenced democratic systems all over the world, would just be a footnote in history.
What Is It For?
Ministers claim that the bill is needed to allow them to cut down on red tape, to help eliminate unnecessary regulation and bureaucracy without having to go through the full Parliamentary process, thus speeding up the whole process and making it more efficient.
However, the limitations in the bill do not adequately restrict it only to that use. It can be used to change almost any legislation. Moreover, the government has actually rejected amendments that would have limited the power of the Bill to an acceptable level.
The government has referred to the protection provided by the "rigorous safeguards" that are built into the bill. However, these are in fact far from rigorous. The only safeguard is that the minister who is making the order should be convinced that:
- the policy objective intended to be secured by the provision could not be satisfactorily secured by non-legislative means;
- the effect of the provision is proportionate to the policy objective;
- the provision, taken as a whole, strikes a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of any person adversely affected by it;
- the provision does not remove any necessary protection;
- the provision does not prevent any person from continuing to exercise any right or freedom which that person might reasonably expect to continue to exercise.
These are vague at best, and seeing as only the minister involved has to be satisfied with the answers, these safeguards give no protection at all. Even senior government figures have called the safeguards "inadequate".
The Bill also allows ministers to give the power to pass laws to other individuals, who are not necessarily ministers. This delegation means that unelected officials, or even people outside government, could easily end up with the power to make laws that bind us all.
For instance, an order could be passed that allowed police superintendents to retrospectively create new offences, which could be punishable by up to 2 years' imprisonment. This would make policing "more efficient" as it would avoid losing cases on legal technicalities. The Bill is unclear on whether these delegated orders would have to go before Parliament at all!
We Have Their Word
When presenting the bill, Jim Murphy MP, who seems to have the job of getting this bill passed, said:
This is not enough. The current government can promise not to abuse its power all it likes, but can it speak for every government that will exist after it? If the bill should not be used for "controversial reforms", then that limitation should be written into the bill. As it stands, the bill can modify any existing legislation, without exception.
Do you trust the current government with that kind of power? Even if you do, do you automatically trust every future government with that same power?
On top of all its problems, the bill is being rushed through Parliament very quickly. This bill has massive significance for the constitution of the UK, and yet Parliament will had only two days in which to debate it during its Report stage and Third Reading.
The bill completed Report Stage and Third Reading without many of the necessary amendments even being debated, so this bill is in serious danger of going all the way without being stopped!