Sunday, February 19, 2006

Bypassing Parliament

The Westminster System has often been called an "elective dictatorship" on account of the dominance of the legislature by the executive. However, despite this dominance, laws must still be approved by Parliament, and the executive doesn't always get what it wants (or at least, has to pay a price for doing so).

In the UK, that's all about to change. A bill currently before the British Parliament - the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill - would grant sweeping powers to Ministers to legislate without Parliamentary approval or oversight. They could do this on any topic, with few limits. Such legislation could not create new criminal offences with a penalty of more than two years imprisonment, compel the giving of evidence, or allow police to forcibly enter people's dwellings without warrants, for example. However, this allows wide scope for legislation; according to a group of legal experts writing in The Times, it would allow the government to

  • create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred, punishable with two years’ imprisonment;
  • curtail or abolish jury trial;
  • permit the Home Secretary to place citizens under house arrest;
  • allow the Prime Minister to sack judges;
  • rewrite the law on nationality and immigration;
  • “reform” Magna Carta (or what remains of it).

And even the weak limits mentioned above can be bypassed on the recommendation of one of the UK's (unelected) Law Commissions. The only thing absolutely forbidden is raising (but not lowering) taxes - which is revealing about what the Blair government thinks is important.

The hallmark of democracy is that laws are made by the legislature - not the executive. While democratic systems allow delegated legislation, this is only on very narrow subjects, and only with the express approval of the legislature. This bill, if passed, would delegate virtually everything, and remove utterly the prospect of Parliamentary scrutiny and democratic accountability. In short, it would effectively remove democracy itself. It cannot be allowed to stand. Unfortunately, this being Britain, it probably will be.

(Hat tip:


Also see Marcel Berlins in the Guardian. He calls it the "Henry VIII" law.

Posted by Rich : 2/20/2006 01:40:00 PM

As an ex-Pom, I get a horrible sinking feeling whenever I read stuff like this (which is far too often these days). Blair originally came to power promising progressive constitutional reform, and to begin with things looked promising given the devolution of powers to Scottish and Welsh assemblies. Then came the backsliding (eg. refusal to countenance an elected upper house, rejection of a more proportional electoral system for the Commons) and now this.

The most depressing thing about it is that the British public will no doubt sleepwalk into the twilight of their democracy with anaesthetised indifference. I can hardly bear to watch.


Posted by Anonymous : 2/20/2006 07:32:00 PM

The reason why this kind of legislation is so dangerous, is not just that the current administration may abuse it....but that it creates powers for all future regimes, whose purposes and character we cannot know.

The trouble with letting the ends justify the means, is that those means tend to outlive their original ends.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/20/2006 07:52:00 PM