Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Move along, please, there's nothing to see here


Many weeks ago, I wrote to my ex-MP, Andrew Slaughter, about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill which I've posted about before. Well, here's a thing: I finally got a response out of the man. It took him four weeks but, be fair, he's a busy man: according to his newsletter, he's been doing important things like attending a production of West Side Story by the "Priory Centre’s Descendants project at Acton Town Hall" and watching Fulham beat Chelsea.

Anyway, I'm glad to say he has lost none of the condescending tone he has so successfully mastered in his newsletters. "I am pleased to be able to tell you that your fears are groundless," he informs me (any of my female readers hear the much-used expression "don't worry your pretty little head about it" coming through in an undertone?). He goes on:
While I can understand how, on the face of it, the Bill may appear to grant ministers an autonomy that no believer in democracy could tolerate, I believe that on closer scrutiny, it will become apparent that the bill has one main aim, which is to cut down on expensive red tape, and does not relinquish Parliament's vital power of veto on the Government.
This is the line the government's been plugging since the bill was introduced: oh, it's all about cutting red tape, it's really boring, it's just procedural, it's to make life easier for business, come on, move along. This is what the magician calls 'diversion', insisting you look at his right hand while his left hand is substituting your deck of cards for his loaded deck.

Slaughter continues:
During the passage of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, the Government gave a commitment that it would not use the order making power to implement “large and controversial” measures. Jim Murphy, the Cabinet Office Minister, told the Regulatory Reform Committee that the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill would not be used to implement “highly controversial” measures. The Government has suggested that what is controversial at one time is not necessarily controversial at another time, so the degree of controversy associated with a particular proposal would need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. However, it has “reiterated its commitment not to use Order powers to deliver highly political measures, such as amendments to terrorism law or the Parliament Act".
Oh, well, that's all right, then. The government has promised not to do anything controversial with the Bill. That's OK - we trust this government, don't we? And we trust all governments likely to come after it, don't we?

Here's where things get really unsettling:
In essence, this Bill will be used to save time and huge amounts of public money, by removing the obligation for Parliament to go through the motions of "debating" and passing into law non-controversial measures.
Look how he phrases it. "Save time", "save money". How nice - they're doing us a favour, really, aren't they? Removing all that debating, the very thing that Parliament exists for - scrutinising government legislation, having a free and open discussion, the people's representatives holding the government to account for the laws it proposes to introduce. Any measure can be controversial, "Andy". Virtually all laws passed either involve spending public money or proposing transgressions of the law and the punishments for them; many laws involve both. To hide behind the noble-sounding defence of "cutting red tape" is an attempt to distract attention from the other things you'll be cutting: parliamentary scrutiny, freedom of information, government accountability.

Slaughter next ropes in one of his colleagues, as if to spread the blame:
I happen to be a member of the Regulatory Reform Committee, whose job it was to scrutinise this Bill and report to Parliament. The Chairman of the Committee, Andrew Miller MP, says that, "This Bill must be scrutinised with particular care. Our report recognises that there is widespread support for removing redundant regulation and costly red tape. But the problem many people will have with Part one of this Bill, as drafted, is that it provides Ministers with a wide and general power that could be used to repeal, amend or replace almost any primary legislation. That can't be right. We need extra safeguards. What we've done in our report is to recommend extra safeguards to be put into the Bill, which, if accepted, would, I believe achieve the Government's objectives in a manner acceptable to Parliament."
That all sounds very sensible, doesn't it? Problem is, "recommendations" do not safeguards make, if I can put it that way. And Miller has hit the nail on the head: "it provides Ministers with a wide and general power that could be used to repeal, amend or replace almost any primary legislation. That can't be right." You're damn straight, it's not right, Mr Miller. And what makes you think the government, in its determination to have its own way over ministers, MPs and the general population, cares two hoots about your recommendations?

Slaughter's brief conclusion is:
I hope you will agree that I have thought about this bill carefully; and that the outcome should be that with the afore-mentioned safeguards, I should vote for it.
Er, no.


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