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Newsletter 29 : 5 - TITANIC BILL TO SINK PARLIAMENT

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The government’s Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill intends to let ministers make up a law, and make it law, without taking it through Parliament first.1 The Bill is now set for its final reading in the House of Commons. And every Labour MP has so far voted for it.

'We were misinformed' says Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport. In a recent interview he is the first to break ranks and admit this. 'We accepted it at face value. It hadn’t been properly discussed. It didn’t emerge on the radar. We accepted the assurances that it was a deregulatory Bill, with no malign effects.' He was, he added, very unhappy.

To understand how someone like Flynn, a prominent Labour rebel, can be taken in, one must look at the saga of the Bill. Eight months ago no-one had heard of the 'Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill', because it didn’t exist. Instead, launched on July 20th 2005, was something described as a 'Bill for Better Regulation'. It would, said the Cabinet Office, 'speed up the Government’s Better Regulation agenda'. Behind the Bill was an independent body called the Better Regulation Task Force (BRTF). In its 2005 report - 'Regulation - Less is More' - the BRTF recommended that the government introduce a new Deregulation Bill.

The head of the BRTF was a businessman called Sir David Arculus, described in the Telegraph as a 'serial chairman'. He was enthusiastic about his influence on the government. 'I spoke to the Prime Minister and was delighted when he agreed to sponsor our report' Arculus said, in a speech to the Financial Services Authority in 2005. He had been equally delighted when the government accepted all the BRTF’s proposals on the same day their report was published. He was pleased to see the sudden emphasis Tony Blair had put on better regulation in a speech to the Institute of Public Policy. The idea of a new Deregulatory Bill for businesses was welcomed by everyone, apart from a few concerned about the idea of unregulated business.

Fast forward to January 2006, when the first warning rumbles could be heard about something called the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. They came from the commercial law firm Clifford Chance. This Bill would mean, warned their briefing to clients, that ministers would have the powers to create legislation with 'very little scrutiny'. Legislation which then, the briefing continued 'cannot be amended by Parliament.'

At the time, the Bill was getting its first reading in Parliament. It was being presented as the final version of the 'Bill forBetterRegulation'. Yet, in this version of the Bill, there was now no mention of deregulating business. And the word 'Legislative' had crept in from nowhere. Nevertheless, the Bill went through, untouched.

A month later, after the Bill had gone through its second reading in the Commons, some people outside Clifford Chance had actually read it. Bloggers, Cambridge lawyers and media commentators started metaphorically screaming. 'This is the Bill that will kill democracy'; 'This is Hitler!' 'This is Stalin!' The Lib Dems then came out openly against it. So did the Conservatives. 'What we have now', says Conservative MP Oliver Heald, 'is the wide, fast-track power to amend, repeal or introduce primary or secondary legislation by order for any purpose'.

Heald, backed by his party, has tabled several amendments to the Bill. The Regulatory Reform Committee, who have just finished scrutinising the Bill, have also tabled amendments. 'It can’t be right that Ministers be given such wide and general powers to make any primary legislation. We called for extra safeguards to be inserted into the Bill so we welcome the statement made by Jim Murphy' said the committee’s chairman. The statement made by Jim Murphy, the minister responsible for getting the Bill through Parliament, was simply that the government 'will consider the addition of further safeguards'.

As indeed, they might. It is possibly worth noting that, in local government, it is quite common to suggest an idea so outrageous that, after the expected outcry, the administration can gracefully back down – and get their original intentions passed without opposition. But here, this does not seem to be the case. According to Oliver Heald, when asked why the Bill did not contain the orginal recommendations concerning business regulation, Murphy replied 'We have wider ambitions than that'.

The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is an urgent topic. It is due for its third and final reading in the House of Commons around Easter. Over the last few days many more people have become exercised about it, largely because lawyers, journalists and bloggers have kept up the pressure. We now know that it has leapt from mere business deregulation to allowing a government to make up laws without parliamentary approval. We know that the few safeguards currently built into the Bill can be removed once the Bill is passed. 'We will just have to hope that they (the government) come to their senses and realise there’s a great deal of opposition out there', says Paul Flynn. Amendments or not, he will now be voting against the Bill this Easter.