Motion to Take Note
My Lords, we are debating two unprecedented reports from the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Never before have two committees acted in tandem to draw attention to a serious parliamentary problem. The number of noble Lords signed up to speak on a matter many would consider to be just a legal, technical, boring parliamentary issue is also unprecedented. The issues may be that, but when laws are passed without proper parliamentary scrutiny, they cease to be just technical, as they threaten the rights and freedoms of the individual. Both our reports express considerable alarm and criticise the increasing tendency of all Governments in recent years to adopt procedures that effectively bypass Parliament’s role in the legislative process.
Why are we reporting now? The Delegated Powers Committee and the Constitution Committee have drawn attention to the abuse of excessive delegated powers over many years. However, this time we did a comprehensive study and looked at these issues going back 90 years, and we found that the problems identified have been worsening over the last 20 years. The result of this trend has been an increase in the power of the Government at the expense of Parliament.
It is worth reminding the House and the Government that the committee members who drew up these two reports are not naive new colleagues. The combined parliamentary experience of our committee members is over 520 years, with some members having exceptionally long parliamentary careers. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, entered the House of Commons in 1966, and the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has 51 years’ experience of Parliament. That does not make us experts, of course, nor does it give us any moral authority over the Commons. It just means that some of us have seen these problems growing for a considerable time. Having reviewed the use of delegated powers over the last 90 years, we concluded that,
“a critical moment has been reached and it is now a matter of urgency that Parliament should … take stock, and consider how the balance of power can be re-set.”
Let us be clear that the reports and all our members accept that delegated legislation is absolutely essential; no democratic Government in the world can function without it. However, far too often primary legislation is just skeletal, with all the details filled in by secondary legislation, which may get little or no scrutiny at all. I shall let my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts set out the injustices caused by skeleton Bills.
Our Delegated Powers Committee report identified some other key issues and abuses. There is a completely inappropriate use of excessive Henry VIII powers. This, as your Lordships will know, is a 584 year-old device, which allowed the King to make and unmake any laws he liked by proclamation. That ancient power now rests with Ministers, who can use affirmative and negative resolutions to rewrite or abolish Acts of Parliament. Criticism of Henry VIII powers goes back to 1929 when the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart, criticised them in his book, The New Despotism. If he thought that it was a bit despotic then, I think he would struggle to find language pejorative enough to describe today’s legislation.
We all agree that Henry VIII powers are necessary at times. However, after the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, where many powers were appropriate, we saw that departmental lawyers were tacking them on to tiddly little Bills. Their only justification was, “just in case”—but just in case of what? If some new emergency arises, both Houses can pass emergency primary legislation in a couple of days. We have all had examples of that. However, we have had examples of Ministers taking the power not just to amend a current Bill and other related, relevant Acts, but any Act of Parliament passed from 1066 onwards. That is utterly unacceptable; any Henry VIII power should always be very narrowly drawn and use the affirmative procedure.
The other worrying and increasing abuse we saw was legislative sub-delegation of power, or tertiary legislation. We see Ministers able to confer power on themselves and delegate it to some other body, which may include a power to amend or repeal an Act of Parliament. These bodies have, of course, impeccable credentials; they may be royal colleges or learned institutes, but they can make rules and regulations which determine the fate of individuals by setting entry standards, fees and procedures. We quote quite a few examples in our report. These laws can have a big impact on citizens, are legally enforceable and Parliament may never see them. We say that conferring legislative sub-delegation of power is potentially a more egregious erosion of democratic accountability than a simple delegation to a Minister to make secondary legislation. We say that any sub-delegation or tertiary legislation must be limited and specific and its exercise must be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, even if simply by laying it before both Houses. There must also be a statutory obligation to consult all those affected, and the delegated powers memorandum should set out the full extent of the power, why it is necessary and how it will be constrained.
We drew attention to disguised legislation. Noble Lords may ask how legislation can be disguised. It comes in various forms. First, there is guidance, which departments call advisory and say that it need not be approved by Parliament. The Department for Education is a serial offender. When I challenged it, for example, on the guidance on the new school uniform legislation, the response was that it traditionally never set out its guidance before Parliament, so why on earth should it start doing it now? No matter how extensive, new or radical the guidance, the arrogant attitude was that the department and its stakeholders knew best and that we in Parliament should keep our noses out of it.
That leads to another excuse for not consulting Parliament. Departments say that they have very wide consultation with professionals, experts and stakeholders who know the subject matter, and are much better qualified to comment on the legislation rather than ignorant parliamentarians. As Adam Smith said,
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
I suggest that the same can be said of experts and stakeholders, whose common interest may not be that of the ordinary person.
The other rapidly increasing trend has been guidance which one “must have regard to”. To all intents and purposes, this is treated like statute law by those who must have regard to it. Noble and learned Lords will rightly say that it is not legally mandatory. One can disregard it, provided that one has had regard to it in the first place, and then come up with impeccable, judicial review-proof reasons for disregarding it. However, in reality, 99% of people and organisations will treat it as mandatory, because that is the impression given in the guidance. It is in the spin of the government press releases which accompany the guidance, and people are simply afraid not to follow it. That is legislation in disguise.
The final bit of disguised legislation that we encountered was guidance or rules which were called lots of fancy names to hide the fact that they should have been statutory instruments. We came across instructions called “determinations”, “protocols”, “directions”, “arrangements” and even “public notices.” The last one was dear old Henry VIII’s Proclamation by the Crown 1539 Act in a new form. However, this time the proclamation of the new law by the Treasury would be published in the Times and the London Gazette.
Noble Lords may ask why all this matters. It is not just some esoteric parliamentary debating point. The way in which our laws are made have profound effects on everyone in the country. Delegated legislation is essential to run the country, but it should be open, transparent, debated and not disguised. The excuse that excessive delegated powers are needed because Parliament cannot move quickly enough has been proved false on many occasions, not least by Parliament’s reaction to Covid legislation. However, our committee did not stop at pointing out what was wrong. We attempted to provide solutions.
We said that we must challenge the culture of Whitehall. Making laws is a democratic process, not just a functional legal exercise for clever lawyers in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. We called for the Cabinet Office Guide to Making Legislation to be rewritten. This is the bible that legal drafters have to follow. The part on delegated legislation was not fit for purpose and deliberately directed young drafters to follow the easiest way to bash through secondary legislation without Parliament considering it.
We drafted a revised guide which puts parliamentary democracy at the heart of decision-making when drafting laws and we set out some principles, the first of which is that our democracy is founded on parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law and the accountability of the Executive to Parliament. We said that, where any provision in a Bill delegates legislative powers, departments must satisfy themselves that the delegation is framed in a way that takes into account, to the fullest extent possible, the principles of parliamentary democracy, especially Parliament’s ability to scrutinise it.
So that is what we said. What have the Government done since we reported? Well, to be fair, they have rewritten the Cabinet Office guidelines and incorporated some of what we said, but it is not really in the form of instructions to the 50 to 60 drafters in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. It says that the Delegated Powers Committee has said, “Here’s some revised guidance, and here’s a copy of it”—but I suggest that there is a subtext that they can take it or leave it. They do not have to follow it. I say that because there is a complete failure in the guidance to understand this House’s concern about delegated legislation and powers.
Section E of this 120-page guidance document, on Bill handling in the Lords, has the wonderful opening line:
“The House of Lords is usually the more difficult House to take legislation through”.
It then lists various spurious reasons for the Lords being difficult. This first of these is:
“The Lords minister and Whip taking the bill through the House is less likely to be familiar with the subject matter of the bill and will require additional briefing.”
We can all chuckle but, quite honestly, I find that offensive and plain wrong. It was my experience in the Commons, and I see it here in the Lords, that Lords Ministers and Opposition spokespersons are usually more able than their Commons counterparts. The Commons can have four or five Ministers in a department to cover the whole brief, but the Lords Ministers are usually on their own, possibly with a Whip helping out on a few amendments, and have to master the whole departmental brief.
So I ask my noble friend the Leader to please tell the Cabinet Office to rewrite this bit of the guide, and explain that the House of Lords is more difficult because we care about parliamentary scrutiny, about excessive powers being given to Ministers and others, about hidden laws, about Acts of Parliament being overturned at the stroke of a ministerial pen, and about skeleton Bills with the details filled in later outside Parliament. It is called parliamentary democracy and that is the only reason both our Houses exist. So the guidance is still not good enough. I accept that much of it has to be technical, but if the 50 or so legal drafters follow it as currently drafted, we will not see any change and abuses will continue.
Just before Christmas, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, talking about the inappropriate delegated powers in the precision breeding Bill, said:
“It cannot be right for Parliament to abrogate the power. These Bills are drafted by parliamentary counsel. My conclusion from the debates we had earlier this year in January, and will have again next January on Government by Diktat, is that parliamentary counsel should be renamed ‘government counsel’. They are government employees located in the Treasury.”
Well, that is wrong: it is the Cabinet Office.
“They actually act against Parliament, because they constantly draft Bills, following instructions from Ministers, that remove powers from Parliament—not this House but Parliament—and give them to the Executive.”—[Official Report, 14/12/22; col. 713.]
The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel has a duty, in my opinion, not just to draft legislation which is clever and gives departments devious ways to change laws in future without coming to Parliament, but to draft laws with the maximum or appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny, so that everything which affects the liberty, livelihood and freedoms of the individual is debated or has the chance to be debated—or even seen —by Parliament. That is what is required and nothing less.
The abuse of delegated power is in effect an abuse of Parliament and an abuse of democracy. Our reports will, we hope, be a prompt to strengthen Parliament in the coming years: not the Lords over the Commons, but the legislature over the Executive. We have identified the problem, produced the evidence and offered the solution. We call on the Government to rise to the challenge of delivering real parliamentary democracy. That will be good for the Government, good for Parliament and good for all the people of the United Kingdom. I beg to move.
My Lords, my term of office as the chairman of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee comes to an end in a couple of weeks, but over the past three and a half years I have had the chance to see, at first hand, some of the ways that, almost imperceptibly, the Government have been gaining power at the expense of the two Houses of Parliament. It is that process that forms the background to our report, Government by Diktat.
We have just heard a very powerful speech from my noble friend Lord Blencathra, the immediate past chairman of the Delegated Powers Committee, our sister committee. I support entirely the points he made and the views he expressed. The DPRRC plays a vital role in drawing the attention of the House to the weaknesses in proposed legislation. However, once the legislation has gone through, its work, inevitably, is done. At that point, it is the SLSC that has to consider, examine and, where necessary, draw the House’s attention to the real-life consequences of what has been passed. The SLSC is supported by expert, informed and very hard-working staff, who will examine some 600 to 700 regulations every year. As my noble friend Lord Blencathra said, each of these binds on every citizen of the country as firmly as any primary legislation.
If I may use a cinematic analogy, the DPRRC takes a snapshot; the SLSC is a cine camera, recording the changes that go on week by week, month by month, as the regulations are brought forward. We have been concerned that our cine camera has seen yet more changes since the time we produced Government by Diktat. We have produced two subsequent reports: What Next? The Growing Imbalance between Parliament and the Executive, which we published in April last year, and then Losing Impact: Why the Government’s Impact Assessment System is Failing Parliament and the Public in October. While these two reports will come to be debated another day, they do provide important contextual background to the issues that concern us in Government by Diktat.
The concerns of the SLSC can be grouped into two primary pieces. The first is the growing misuse of secondary legislation. Secondary legislation should be restricted to what it says on the tin: issues of secondary importance. But, increasingly, this is not the case. My noble friend referred to the long-running saga of Henry VIII powers, but recent years have seen increasing use of what have become known as framework or skeleton Bills—or, perhaps more accurately, framework or skeleton clauses in Bills. As we pointed out in our report, these skeleton clauses are so devoid of content that they leave the real, practical application of the law to a ministerial pen or to regulation.
Now, again as my noble friend said, there are understandable reasons why regulation has to be used in various places. Particularly in the area of technology, the rate of change is faster than the rather stately pace of primary legislation can encompass. Regulation has to fill the gap. That is understandable and entirely reasonable. Less attractive is the impression that the intellectual heavy lifting required to think the policy right through has too often been avoided in favour of essentially making it up as you go along. Even more worrying is the possibility that Ministers do not even wish to have detail in primary legislation, because of the embarrassment if it proves that the wrong choice has been made: much easier to reset the policy direction by using secondary legislation.
Nobody in your Lordships’ House could reasonably argue that secondary legislation is as effectively scrutinised as primary. In part, this is a question of time—witness the number of regulations we have—but, much more importantly, it is a question of process. Secondary legislation is unamendable: it can be passed or rejected but it cannot be amended. For this reason, neither House has proved keen to press the button marked “reject”—and, on the very rare occasions where your Lordships’ House has pressed the button, we have had almost immediately the constitutional equivalent of full-scale nuclear war.
As issues coming through secondary legislation become more and more fundamental, I fear that the existing scrutiny procedures are proving less than adequate for the increasing weight placed on them. That is the summary of the SLSC’s worry about the big picture, but at the same time there are some disturbing short-term trends about the way the Government are increasingly casual about providing the information required under existing statutory provisions which is necessary to enable the House to scrutinise in sufficient detail and hold the Government to account.
There are two major areas. The first is impact assessments. I shall give the House some indication of what this means. Every regulation that has an impact of more than £5 million is supposed to have an assessment tabled at the same time as the regulation is tabled. I shall cite a practical example to give a bit of colour. The House will recall the controversy around the Government’s decision to require the compulsory vaccination of care home staff in the latter part of the pandemic. The wisdom or otherwise of that policy is nothing to do with the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, but the decisions that lie behind it are, and they are of such importance for the Committee to draw them to the attention of the House. The two essential issues were how many care home staff were likely to resign as a result of being forced to be vaccinated, either because they had religious views about it or, in the case of women, because they had worries about their fertility, and the long-term issue of the knock-on effects for the social care system and hence for the health service. When the regulations were laid on 20 June there was no impact assessment. We asked the Minister to attend our meeting on 13 July. He did, and we explained to him our concerns about the lack of an impact assessment. He agreed that there should be one and undertook to publish it. He did, on 9 November, four months later. In the event, by that point the policy was done and dusted.
The second area that we are very concerned about is that there is a statutory requirement for every regulation to be subject to a post-implementation review. In evidence to our committee, Christopher Carr of the Better Regulation Executive said that now only between 25% and 40% of regulations are so subject. Post-implementation reviews reveal what happened when hope and expectation met reality, and they surely have to be an important part of improving government performance and holding the Government to account.
Finally, and importantly, there appears to be absolutely no process for sanctioning Governments where their performance falls below what is statutorily required. Not only is this treating Parliament with disdain, but it is undermining confidence in the process of government more widely. As my noble friend Lord Blencathra said, providing opportunity for wider public scrutiny and challenge leads to not only better legislation but better accepted legislation.
So what needs to be done? It is no good just moaning on. There are two things the Government can do. First, they need to stop justifying the present procedures by claiming that this House has to approve all regulations. Technically that is true, but when the alternative is constitutional nuclear warfare, it is hardly a fair and open-minded decision. The Government should be more honest about this when they come to discuss these processes. Thy should also cease to claim that changing scrutiny legislation procedures would result in the whole work of government being gummed up. That is not right. Many aspects of the present procedure work perfectly adequately. What is needed is some form of triaging process to sort the sheep from the goats, the very important from the less important and the unimportant. About two-thirds of regulations that the SLSC examines are entirely technical. They are concerned with changing processes, upping fees or fines to reflect inflation and so on. There is no real concern as far as that goes.
Secondly, for the bulk of the remaining regulations, there needs to be a proper grip on process, the weakness of which I have talked about, so supporting documents and regulations are tabled in a timely manner and only in the most exceptional circumstances are regulations rushed through. That would have a sufficiently uplifting and effective result on this section to justify continuing with what we have at present.
Thirdly, for that small number of skeleton clauses, a new procedure needs to be developed. How might this work? I quote from the DPRRC guidance to Parliament:
“Skeleton legislation should only be used in the most exceptional circumstances. Where the government decides that such exceptional circumstances apply, the delegated powers memorandum should make an explicit declaration (“a skeleton legislation declaration”) that the bill is a skeleton bill or clauses within a Bill are skeleton causes.”
That should trigger a new scrutiny procedure to be agreed by the two Houses of Parliament, a process in which the House of Commons must play the leading role. As my noble friend said, this is not a Lords versus Commons issue and the Government must not be allowed to get away with that. This is about the legislature, the two Houses of Parliament and their powers vis-à-vis the Executive, the Government. For that new procedure to be effective, I have little doubt that there will need to be a power to amend.
We read frequently of a decline in confidence in our system of government to deliver effective, thought-through solutions. We are discussing today ways in which the system has been performing less well than it should. Within a few weeks, your Lordships’ House will begin proceedings on the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, by any standards the grandfather of skeleton Bills and Henry VIII powers. If I judge matters aright, there is a mood in your Lordships’ House to see whether this Bill can provide a focus point to discuss the various suggestions for improvement in scrutiny that have been made. I very much hope that His Majesty’s loyal Opposition and my noble friend the Leader of the House on behalf of the Government will be able to respond constructively to these concerns.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to take part in this debate. It gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to the outstanding leadership of the noble Lords, Lord Blencathra and Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, in bringing forward these reports. I also pay tribute to the clerks who deal with the scrutiny committees and have done tremendous service over the years, and I mention Christine Salmon Percival in this context. I am very much looking forward to hearing the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Prentis of Leeds.
I should say that, although I do not know where I fit into the 500 years’ scope, I have had the privilege of serving twice on the DPRRC and the SLSC. It has been a privilege, and a grim experience of watching the erosion of parliamentary control over a number of years. It is not as if this House has been colluding in this process. We had the Strathclyde report and the way the House and the committees responded to it. We have had the work of the Constitution Committee on delegated legislation, and now the Hansard Society has taken up the cudgels on behalf of rebalancing the power of Parliament. I declare an interest as a member of that advisory committee, as is my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton, who cannot be with us.
These reports strike a very different note. They take the long view in both directions. They look at the evidence and recommend a profound shift in the always precarious relationship between Ministers and Parliament which we have witnessed. They make demands for change from the Government that go far beyond the usual admonitions that they should know better and act differently. The DPRRC has been adamant that there must be no less than a return to the first principle that legislation must be explicitly founded on and reflective of the principles of parliamentary democracy, not political expediency.
These reports are fluent in the language of the barricades. We have never heard before the language of diktat, of denial of democracy, or such a stark warning to Parliament itself of what we are facing. That presents us as parliamentarians with a real challenge. A reset is long overdue. As it is, our role in this House is largely to pull the Government back from the brink, but it has become increasingly difficult to do that. There are skeleton Bills, where no analysis or interrogation of impact is possible; policy-making is banished from the face of the primary legislation; outcomes are buried in delegated legislation; and Henry VIII powers are a routine convenience defended on spurious grounds with frivolous explanations. Added to that, as my noble friend—and I will call him my noble friend—has explained, disguised regulation has emerged, with ingenious devices, ingeniously defended. Directions and guidance are used as a proxy for legislation, and Parliament is an exasperated but essentially impotent onlooker. If Parliament cannot understand, interrogate or challenge perverse consequences, how can we protect people and communities from bad laws?
It is therefore all the more disappointing that the Government have accepted the easy stuff—14 recommendations, but none that change the culture or challenge Ministers. This attitude of “take it or leave it” has been well explained by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. Guidance is not going to enable or empower the junior civil servant to stand up to a Minister who wants to do something quickly and does not want the bother of parliamentary interference. Since that response a year ago, not only has nothing changed but things have got worse this year. We have had the chaos of the Schools Bill; the summary powers set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill; the extraordinary powers under the Health and Social Care Bill; the landgrab of the levelling up Bill; and the extraordinary powers in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, to which we have already had reference, and all that that implies.
What is to be done if Parliament is to retain credit and purpose? I do not think Government will choose to do anything, other than perhaps to be aware of the danger of precedence. We have to take the initiative in this House as parliamentarians, and we are assisted in that in two ways. First, this is not a party-political issue; it affects both Houses, and it has arrested the attention of people outside this House who are concerned about the growing impotence of Parliament. The Hansard Society has made an excellent start in exploring how explicit principles for delegated legislation could be established, possibly by a new statutory instrument Act, for better processes to be created. We heard some of that—and that would inevitably, in my view, involve new procedures or avenues to involve the Government in thinking again. These might include stronger safeguards around legitimate claims of urgency and new joint processes for both Houses.
Parliament is in trouble. We need to be courageous and recognise the urgency of the situation we face.
My Lords, this is an extremely important debate and, as the Government by Diktat report says, we are talking about
“the principles of parliamentary democracy, namely parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law and the accountability of government to Parliament”.
The report says:
“In recent years, the balance of power between Parliament and government has shifted significantly towards the government, a trend that has been accentuated by Brexit and the pandemic.”
I recall the noble Lord, Lord True, in his previous position, declaring that Boris Johnson was accountable as Prime Minister to the British people rather than to Parliament, as ratified by both the 2019 election and the Brexit referendum—popular democracy against the alleged elitism of parliamentary democracy. I hope that, now we are on our second Conservative Prime Minister who has not been immediately ratified by the British people, the Leader of the House, with his customary flexibility, will now return to arguing that it is parliamentary democracy that supports a Prime Minister and a Government, rather than popular democracy as such.
I am worried about the extent to which a number of current Ministers have preferred a sort of permanent campaign to recognising that the hard business of government is worrying about detail and difficult choices, and that the devil is very often in the detail. We have talked about the problem of skeleton Bills. The DPRRC report says
“the principal aspects of policy should be on the face of a bill and only its detailed implementation left to delegated legislation”.
Some of us have been dealing with the Procurement Bill in recent weeks. The beginning of Part 2 is headed “Principles and Objectives”, and it states:
“A Minister of the Crown may publish a statement setting out the Government’s strategic priorities in relation to procurement … Before publishing the national procurement policy statement, a Minister of the Crown must … carry out such consultation as the Minister considers appropriate”.
That is as good a definition of a skeleton Bill as one could find.
The National Security Bill, with which we are currently dealing in Committee, has an entire part—Part 3—introduced in Committee in the Commons without pre-legislative scrutiny or very much detail at all on how it is to be implemented. The Minister in last night’s debate assured me that one needs to implement the possibility of guarding against threats to Britain’s national interest as strongly as against the Netherlands, China, Iran and Russia. I think it requires a little further scrutiny than it has so far had. We have heard from others already about what we expect with the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill.
I am concerned, as I think many of us are, about the declining quality of legislation coming into this House. The proper legislative process should start where necessary, with complicated Bills, with pre-legislative scrutiny, a Green Paper, consultation with stakeholders and early publication of draft secondary legislation and guidance. That has not happened with too many Bills currently before the House. There should then be post-passage scrutiny of secondary legislation, carefully undertaken as it goes through—and, if necessary, that draft secondary legislation should be sent back. We have to grapple with that one.
The likelihood of a change of Government in less than two years’ time should surely concentrate the Government’s attention on proper parliamentary government and the need for effective opposition in challenging Government as they go forward. Perhaps we can expect again cries of electoral dictatorship from the Conservatives as soon as they are in opposition. It is the role of this House to work to ensure that legislation is workable and easy to understand. I was struck in Committee last night by the ranks on the Cross Benches who knew a great deal more about national security and the intelligence services saying they did not understand parts of the legislation as currently framed. Legislation has to be clear and, as it goes through, command public consent, sufficient consent to last beyond the next change of Government. That is the role of this House as a revising Chamber, and that is what we should defend.
My Lords, I think it is fairly safe to say that the term “delegated legislation” will never make the headlines in the popular press or cause stirs of excitement on social media. But the irony is that this can have such an impact on the individual citizen. We could see that during the Covid-19 regulations, which had such an impact on individual people.
I first became aware of the shortcomings of the system when I became a member of the Delegated Powers Committee, and subsequently its chairman. I congratulate my immediate successor on bringing forth this excellent and powerful report, most powerfully presented by my noble friend. I hope it will really become a turning point in this endless worry about the extension of government powers at the expense of Parliament.
My noble friend made many points and, in a short speech, I will make reference to only two. The first is the shortcoming, as I see it, of inappropriate wide powers in regulations. Departments will often say that they will interpret them in X or Y way, but that does not mean that the powers are not there when they have long gone and may be interpreted quite differently. They seem to have a touching faith in their immortality, which has no basis in fact.
I will give one example of something being used differently. Let us go back to 2015 and the infamous tax credits amendment regulations, which had powers to alter financial arrangements. I am sure they were intended to deal with issues such as the erosion of inflation on the values, but instead they were used to cut money out as a cost-saving exercise. In my view, that was a change of policy that required and demanded primary legislation. We all know what became of that and the furore that existed, but my point is clear: such regulations can be used in quite different ways by different Administrations.
I will also touch briefly on guidance, which my noble friend dealt with very clearly. One of my worries, in addition to it being disguised legislation, is that it has different meanings in different Acts of Parliament, which means that it is extremely difficult to give it a general meaning that is accepted. That makes for unclear legislation, which in itself is totally wrong.
What are we to do about this? Unfortunately, we are in the hands of the Government of the day as to how seriously they take these matters. My hope is that my noble friend will take on board seriously the various matters that have already been mentioned and the more that no doubt will be mentioned in this wide-ranging debate. I would like to feel that certain measures could be taken immediately.
First, let us deal with the Guide to Making Legislation. We have already seen the faults in that. As a former schoolteacher, I would like to put a stroke through it and say, “Not good enough—start again”. And start again with the useful points made in the report, which sets forth the principles before dealing with the actual issues. The other point is that, at that early level, where we are dealing with particular matters, we should see that ill-considered Bills are not let out of the Cabinet committee that is supposed to oversee their readiness. Too often that does not seem to be the case, and it certainly needs help. What is more, I believe that where regulations are going to be important, they should be ready in draft at the outset so that they can be considered by the various committees of the House when the occasion demands.
I turn briefly to statutory instruments, and thank my noble friend for his introduction. At the moment we have a system that is, in my vulgar parlance, “swallow it whole or spit it out”. I believe there should be a third way of dealing with this, by asking the Government to allow a House that is unhappy with a statutory instrument the chance to think again. I see that my time is up, so I will resume my seat.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and I am glad she was not my teacher. I declare an interest as a current member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and a former member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. I too pay tribute to the staff of these two committees, who provide incredible support, week in, week out.
These two hard-hitting reports highlight the continuing and growing misuse of secondary legislation through unnecessary Henry VIII powers, skeleton Bills, and disguised and tertiary legislation. Together, they express real disquiet about what is going on. This is not surprising. As the titles of the two reports suggest, the concern about secondary legislation scrutiny goes to the very heart of the balance of power between Parliament and the Executive.
This is of major constitutional significance and, as we have heard, it has real, practical consequences. Effective scrutiny makes better law, but secondary legislation is not subject to effective scrutiny because, to be effective, scrutiny ultimately entails an ability to amend or at least to think again. This lack of effective scrutiny is the essence of the problem addressed by these two reports.
Of course, it is easy to see why nothing gets done. Parliamentary time is in short supply, the wider constitutional agenda is pretty full, and secondary legislation is seen as something for constitutional technicians. But above all, turkeys do not vote for Christmas, and Ministers are not going to fall over themselves to limit their own powers.
Let me try to remind the Minister why he might urge his colleagues to take a longer view. First, the current situation is a muddle and inherently unstable. Few understand the present complicated range of scrutiny processes and procedures, and the present all-or-nothing approach rests on a potentially fragile understanding, challenged in the past, that the Lords does not vote down secondary legislation. Secondly, the problem will not go away. Brexit and Covid have highlighted the problem, while the temptation to produce more and more contentious Bills seems insatiable. There is wide and growing concern, and not just in this Chamber. Thirdly, and most importantly, the issue is above all about public trust in our democratic system. As others in this Chamber so effectively remind us, we do well to recall the importance through history of the balance of power between Parliament and the Executive. We only have to look across the Atlantic to remind ourselves of the apparent fragility of even the strong democratic systems in a world of populism and social media.
What should the Government do? The very minimum would be to look again at the suggestions in these two excellent reports to make the existing procedures work more effectively. The government responses were disappointing and, in my view, short-sighted. I ask the Minister to spell out in detail why skeleton Bill declarations, a scrutiny reserve or more rigorous avoidance of disguised and tertiary legislation should not be pursued.
Beyond this, I urge the Government to review the whole question of how best to scrutinise secondary legislation, including the power to amend or think again. I suggest using as a starting point the current Hansard Society review, which is about to issue its preliminary findings. With his long experience of constitutional matters, the Minister is well placed to take a lead on this, perhaps by setting up a Joint Committee of the Lords and the Commons to consider a new secondary legislation Bill. Effective Commons engagement is crucial, despite the Strathclyde review on the balance of power between Parliament and the Executive—and not Lords versus Commons, as has already been pointed out.
This is a fundamental constitutional issue, with practical consequences for every citizen in the land. The present system is a mess and crying out for reform. It is surely time to act.
My Lords, as has already been noted by other speakers in this debate, delegated legislation is indeed a necessary part of the process, but I echo the concerns about the increasing use of skeleton legislation, Henry VIII powers, disguised legislation and tertiary legislation. I support these two excellent reports that look at how we might limit the use of delegated legislation and address the culture that is now taking it for granted. Both committees highlighted very valid concern about the transfer of power from Parliament, with clear democratic oversight and public scrutiny, to instead ruling by Executive edict.
The past few years have been turbulent times, although probably if anybody looked back over any decade in the life of this nation they would see that there have always been turbulent things happening. Therefore, I guess it is easy to understand why the Executive may need to respond in unusual and challenging circumstances with delegated authority. However, it is absolutely crucial that this is done sparingly and in a transparent manner. The Government’s response to the pandemic is the classic example of this. Of course, there are times when a national emergency will demand that we fast-track legislation, or grant broad delegated powers, but those should be exceptional and rare cases. The Government must always recognise the importance and value of parliamentary scrutiny. What is concerning, as is brilliantly highlighted in these reports, is that the Government’s widening use of delegated legislation is not limited to emergencies but is now being used routinely.
We were promised by this Government that we would “take back control” by putting power back into the hands of the British people through Brexit, but it looks as though the opposite is in fact happening. The DPRRC report has described Brexit-related Bills as some of the “starkest examples” of disguised legislation. A year ago, the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, who is speaking later in the debate, summed it up perfectly when he said:
“The real losers are our citizens.”—[Official Report, 6/1/22; col. 780.]
It is for them that we are standing here today, to appropriately scrutinise the laws that affect their daily lives. To take this away from them is to do all of us a great disservice.
His Majesty’s Government would be advised to think very carefully about the use of skeleton Bills, Henry VIII powers and so on, as they will have no grounds for complaining if a future Government of another political persuasion use the very same powers. If this becomes the norm, any Government will take it for granted that they can ignore scrutiny by Parliament. As a minimum, we need policies that have the support of both Houses and all parties and clear principles on what needs primary legislation and what can, in exceptional circumstances, be dealt with by delegated legislation. We also need to agree on more effective ways for Parliament to scrutinise things such as statutory instruments.
Parliamentary scrutiny is one of the core constitutional functions, and the Government need to have a willingness to be scrutinised, particularly on any matter relating to the rights of the individual: their privacy, security and right to speak or assemble. So, from these Benches, I reiterate our support for the recommendations of these reports and some of the interesting material that is now being produced by the Hansard Society—which we will need to look at when we have, I hope, more time and leisure—and express my grave concerns about the shifting balance of power from Parliament to the Executive.
My Lords, it was my very good fortune to have served for four years, under the noble Lord’s chairmanship, on the Delegated Powers Committee. It is currently my good fortune to be serving on the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. As the noble Lord reminded me, I have been here rather a long time; I have seen some dozen Prime Ministers come and go. Throughout that period, the one thing has driven me—and I think it has driven all Members of this House and the other—is the profound belief that parliamentary legislative scrutiny is vital to the whole issue of parliamentary democracy. It is an essential, integral cornerstone of our constitution.
The Delegated Powers Committee report is a very fine one. First, it is rooted in detailed research, and for that we must pay tribute to the staff who advised us. It is a very finely researched report. Secondly, it all draws upon something like two decades of experience that the Delegated Powers Committee has. I recommend that Members of the House look at Appendix 3 of the report, which lists more than 30 Bills that the committee has reported upon, drawing attention to what it considers to be inappropriate delegated legislation. The findings and recommendations of this report are rooted in the experience we have had, over nearly two decades, in scrutinising delegated legislation. Therefore, the findings of report are, in my opinion, irrefutable.
There has been a growing and dangerous development: the increasing use of delegated powers legislation, such as skeleton Bills; Henry VIII powers; the new devices the report describes in detail; mandatory guidance, which is a quasi-form of legislation; and, of course, most obnoxious of all, tertiary legislation. The House might remind itself what tertiary legislation allows a Minister to do. It allows a Minister to give power to unelected bodies, such as a quango, to amend or repeal an Act of Parliament—after all the efforts both Houses make, power can be granted to an unelected body to repeal or amend. That cannot be justified in any sense.
Unfortunately, I think the quality of this report was not met by the initial response of Ministers in their letter of 2 January last year. The letter was signed by the then Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House, the right honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg. Unfortunately, in the very first line of this letter he thanks the committee for its letter dated 23 November 2021 and copy of the SLSC’s report entitled Democracy Denied? He got the wrong committee: it was the Delegated Powers Committee that submitted this report, not the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. That shows some of the character of the response we had and it seemed hopelessly inadequate.
I hope now, with a new Front Bench and a new set of Ministers, that we will have a much better and much more reasoned approach to the issues, and these very useful and not excessive recommendations. They are practical, useful recommendations that will allow this House and the other House to fulfil their fundamental role of scrutinising legislation. As we say in pages 4 and 5 of our report, this is not an “esoteric constitutional” issue but:
“The way our laws are made can have a profound effect upon the lives of millions of citizens … parliamentary scrutiny is a cornerstone of parliamentary democracy … As our historic account of delegated legislation shows, there have been times when the government of the day have been impatient of parliamentary legislative constraints. … But Parliament rightly demands patience in fulfilling its most important role—the making of our laws”,
because that is in fundamental to the whole nature of our parliamentary democracy.
I invite the Minister, when he replies, to take a new look. I hope he will come to the Dispatch Box with a better response than we received a year ago from the previous Lord President. I ask my own Front Bench to endorse, in the strongest possible way, the powerful recommendations in the Delegated Powers Committee’s report.
My Lords, it is an honour to speak in this important debate. I thank noble Lords from across the House for having been so welcoming to me over the last few weeks. I especially thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, who is sitting next to me; she is not my mentor but probably my carer. I also thank my noble friend Lady Wheeler, of Blackfriars, and my noble friend Lord Lennie, of Longsands, for introducing me to this House. We go back such a long way, and I thank them for their friendship, support and wise counsel. I also thank the doorkeepers, the police and all of the staff, who have been so professional and patient with me; they are public servants at their very best.
Like many Peers before me, I am proud to hail from the city of Leeds, or, to be more precise, from the streets of inner-city Leeds, a close-knit working-class community, with neighbours living from day to day, working hard but still struggling—yet kind, warm, considerate and putting their families first. Apart from a few political scandals, now recorded for posterity by Netflix, they have a grudging healthy respect for our democratic institutions.
At that time, there was an education system centred on the grammar school. I was one of the fortunate few: I passed my 11-plus. I spent eight years at a grammar school, followed by a degree in history from London University and a master’s in industrial relations at Warwick, and my future was set. In weeks, I was with the public service union NALGO, which, in the 1990s, merged with NUPE and COHSE to create a new, progressive and democratic union, UNISON, with over 1.3 million public service workers and over 1 million women, so many of whom are low-paid, working part-time and without a voice. I have been part of that union for over 45 years, and it has been an honour and privilege to serve its members as their elected general secretary for the past 20 years, and to be their voice, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, with Governments of every political persuasion, from Margaret Thatcher to new Labour and the Governments of more recent Prime Ministers—far too many to mention. I think of those public service workers today, as we take part in this debate. They are the very people whom we applauded during the pandemic.
Obviously, I stand in awe of the overwhelming parliamentary experience of the eminent noble Lords who produced the two reports before us today; I can only add weight to their call to rebalance our Westminster Parliament. But I come at this from a different perspective because, until only a few weeks ago, I was on the outside, looking in. Like many others, I have seen the growing public distrust of our parliamentary systems, not only in the devolved nations but across the UK. The reasons are complex, but we ignore at our peril the extent to which a democratic deficit can call into question the institution itself.
I accept that worry about the increasing use of SIs is not discussed in hospital wards or council canteens. It will not be discussed in the supermarket, in the pub or around the kitchen table, especially while more people are once again struggling. So why does it matter? It matters because the growing trend of Ministers avoiding parliamentary scrutiny calls into question trust and confidence in the whole institution. It matters because, from my long experience on the Court of the Bank of England and other public bodies, I know that confidence in the economy is inseparably intertwined with confidence in our democratic traditions. It matters because skeleton legislation really could lead to government by diktat, with little place for scrutiny, oversight and improvement, which are the very hallmarks of this House. It matters because it affects our reputation across the globe, as the beacon of democracy. I know this all too well, as president of Public Services International, the recognised world body representing public service workers.
Our reputation is waning. The issues raised in these reports are important, and they speak to a possible deeper malaise in, and distrust of, our political system. Our democratic institutions and our processes matter, which is why I support the recommendations in both reports. I look forward to playing my part in taking those recommendations forward.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the maiden speech of my noble friend, who has been involved in the trade union movement all of his working life, as he said. He has had significant achievements within that career. I first knew of him when he was working on the merger, which he talked about, of very different public sector unions: NUPE, COHSE and NALGO. He subsequently became the general secretary of the merged union, UNISON. I know how difficult weaving together those different cultures, traditions and interests was and still is. To have maintained the confidence of those members for 20 years, as general secretary, is no mean feat. He championed the cause of those working across the public sector, but he never forgot the particular challenge facing low-paid women, ensuring training and support for career progression for very many of them. As general secretary, he oversaw several successful equal pay claims, which have been transformative for all women, whatever workforce they are in. So I am delighted that he has joined these Benches.
My noble friend could not have arrived at a more propitious moment. The future of public services absolutely is dependent on their workforce, and no one is better placed than he to understand the elements of a well-functioning, motivated and, yes, productive workforce. We would all do well to listen to what he has to say and to work with him to deliver those public services from their current crisis into what the public have the right to expect. His outstanding speech today gives us some idea of what we can expect and what we should be working on.
I come to the subject of this debate. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Hodgson and Lord Blencathra, for two outstanding reports, which were published at a particularly challenging time for democracy. They and other members are right that much of this will often be described as boring, technical and so on. However, these reports show just how wrong we are when that is what we think about these committees. They go to the heart of the rationale for much of Parliament’s work, and they are searing in their critique of the creeping imbalance between Parliament and the Executives, and the dangers of that.
I am not a member of either committee, so I hope I am allowed to stretch a bit further. The problem is exacerbated because the reports were published at a time when it seemed almost fashionable to question the institutions that traditionally hold up democracy. These institutions are part of the proper balance of power, holding the Executive to account. Of course, prime among those is Parliament, but we in this House lost good Ministers, who had responsibility for how the rule of law was exercised through the criminal justice system, because of their concerns around all of this. Parliament was prorogued because the Executive felt that they could not get their own way, and civil society—another important institution for holding the Executive to account—has too often been criticised for speaking truth to power.
We have seen in other countries how democratically elected leaders have questioned opposition and the very process of elections. That means that we have to recognise the fragility of democracy. We have a responsibility not just to defend parliamentary democracy but to strengthen it in this country.
Having listened to the previous speeches, I am reluctant to blame civil servants, parliamentary counsel, clerks and whoever else works with us when we are in government for all this, because at the end of the day it is politicians’ responsibility. We are responsible and we must be accountable. I remember that, when I first became Chief Whip, the principal private secretary said to me, “I work for you 51% of the time, and I work for the other parties 49% of the time”, reminding me that, in a parliamentary democracy, opposition and different views are important, and we must reflect them.
I wanted to make two other points, but my time has come to an end. We must find ways to strengthen pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny, and this House is particularly well placed to do that. I hope we can think about changing how we do things here with the Government to improve post-legislative, pre-legislative and legislative scrutiny. We owe that to the public we seek to serve. Unless we take that very seriously, parliamentary democracy will continue to be under threat.
My Lords, I have a simple question to add to this excellent debate: are we set up, as a Parliament of two Houses, to achieve increased parliamentary scrutiny of the ever-swelling activities and plans of the modern Executive? We all want to see that and are all striving to find ways to do so, as the noble Baroness has just reminded us.
In putting that question forward, I will use not my own words but those of my noble friend Lord Hill of Oareford, a former Leader of the House. On Tuesday, he asked
“does a session in front of the Treasury Select Committee amount to proper accountability? Is the TSC properly set up and resourced to provide proper scrutiny? Clearly, the answer to both questions is no.”—[Official Report, 10/1/23; col. 1346.]
My answer is also no. In fact, I extend that to most of our hard-working departmental committees, all working under present limitations as they are. If we want proper evaluation of the stream of statutory instruments, many of which are highly technical, we must recognise that that stream is bound to increase as regulation, the powers of regulators and things such as complex trade agreements become ever more fast-changing and require more rapid responses.
In the 1970s, some of us took the decision that Parliament, as it then operated, could no longer call the Government to account effectively or really examine their swelling powers—that was 50 years ago. After a prolonged debate and some experiment, the Select Committee system for each department that we have today was set up and the old, weak Estimates Committee system was swept away. That innovation, agreed by all sides in Parliament and fully supported by the Executive, of which I then happened to be a part, has done extremely well over 40 years and helped shed new light on—and, in some cases, sharply limited—the expanding executive activity and acquisition of powers which is going on all the time and worries us so much. However, in the digital age of far greater executive power and control which has come about since then—everything shifting and evolving ever faster—the parliamentary system of scrutiny, of both legislation and executive programmes, clearly needs further strengthening in many ways. My belief is that, to match that greater spread and depth of complexity, we need a far stronger committee system in both Houses.
The Hansard Society rightly questions whether our clumsy and antique system of negative and affirmative procedures—we have all lived through endless examples of those—really work any more. Do they have any teeth? My instinct is they do not. The Hansard Society also wants a sifting committee to decide which SIs should really be scrutinised in depth. I can see what it is thinking, but that really misses the point: the sheer complexity of government and the need to move ever faster to keep up, especially on the regulatory and trade fronts, requires much more specialised focus to sift those instruments effectively than anything that can be provided by one single committee.
Trade agreements are living and changing processes; they cannot be fixed arrangements nowadays. We need all departmental committees to have the resources and powers to go in depth into those matters because, in the modern conditions of the digital age, that is what is necessary. To plunge deeply and effectively into the executive powers being sought, establishing whether they should have proper scrutiny and of what kind, requires the sort of intense questioning from many sides that only a very well-resourced committee with real powers and good relations with the media and public can deliver. Our committees are underresourced for the modern age and underpowered, compared with the committees of any other Parliaments.
In my last few seconds, I add the reflection that the first power needed is one which most committees in most other free Parliaments in most other countries have: some control over the legislative agenda. To the best of my knowledge, we at Westminster, supposedly the mother of Parliaments, are almost the only Parliament in which the legislative agenda and programme is left almost entirely under strong executive control. That too should change.
My Lords, looking at these two excellent reports, I must confess to a feeling of helplessness. The phenomenon which the two committees analyse so tellingly is a familiar one and was most effectively criticised in the splendidly excoriating contributions of the chairmen of the two committees earlier in the debate. I declare that I am a former member of the Delegated Powers Committee and am about to come to the end of my term on the SLSC.
For many years now, the boundary between primary and secondary legislation has been moving steadily upwards, with matters of policy and principle, as has been said by many noble Lords, being increasingly included in secondary legislation, with commensurately low levels of parliamentary scrutiny. There are attendant risks: just look at what happened with the tax credits SI, which was an entirely self-inflicted wound. At the same time, the powers which Parliament is asked to grant Ministers to exercise, with little scrutiny, grow ever more extensive. We have the baneful Henry VIII powers, on which the noble and learned Lord the Convenor has waged unremitting war for some time but, I hope he will not mind my saying, without inflicting significant casualties. Those are bad enough, but when Ministers are given the power to amend not only any statute passed at any time but even the statute resulting from the very Bill under consideration, one must ask what value is to be placed on the legislative process as a whole.
Distinct from Henry VIII powers are the sweeping powers given to Ministers for barely specified purposes. As the reports point out, this means that, when the enabling legislation is passed, our fellow citizens may have little idea of what the law affecting them may eventually look like. I am extremely grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his reference to that earlier in the debate.
It is common ground that your Lordships’ House leads the way in the exacting process of scrutinising secondary legislation, and I am sure that I am not alone in finding it ironic that this House, so often the subject of naive proposals for reform, is so far ahead of the elected House in seeking to protect the interests of citizens in this way.
This afternoon, our focus is on secondary legislation, but I fear that this is symbolic of a deeper malaise in the legislative process as a whole. A previous Prime Minister used to describe proposals as “oven-ready”, but what we have to deal with is the half-baked. Even allowing for the chaotic uncertainties of the last couple of years, this is not acceptable.
Take the development of policy, for example. What happened—and this was well mentioned earlier—to the idea of Green Papers, followed by White Papers, followed by legislation? The former Leader of the House of Commons rather gave the game away in his letter of 24 January to the chairmen of the two committees, in which he said that
“there will invariably be times when greater flexibility may be needed when legislating, for example as part of an emerging policy response.”
No; legislate when you have agreed the policy, not before. Do not rely on delegated powers to rewrite—or write—the bits of the Bill that could not be settled before introduction. Do not try to solve business management problems by bolting together proposals which should be separate Bills. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is a current and indeed fairly dreadful example of the species. Try and plan for more Bills in draft—they will save you trouble in the long run and, incidentally, they can be a sensible way of settling on appropriate delegated powers.
On secondary legislation, it is frustrating that the Government could, if they wished, change things fundamentally as a matter of good practice. But, at the moment, we seem to be told that this is the way that things are done, rather than the more important question being answered of whether it is the way that things should be done.
I commend the work of the Hansard Society and declare to your Lordships that I am a member of its advisory panel. I hope that, when it reports, the Government will approach its recommendations in a positive and collaborative spirit.
Let us not deceive ourselves: delegated legislation is a real problem area, but it is not the only one. The legislative process as a whole needs a fundamental overhaul, but that would take a lot more than my five minutes—which I have already exceeded.
My Lords, I have the unenviable task of following the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, who is probably one of the most knowledgeable Peers in this House on procedure. It is always a pleasure, and with trepidation I will attempt to do so.
I joined this House in November 2014, and in 2015 I was appointed to my first committee, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. After three years, I moved to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, and next week, after a further three years, I will have my final meeting. With some trepidation, I wonder what my noble friend Lord Newby has in store for me next.
I say from the beginning that this is not a fight between this House and the other place. The crux of the debate today should be around the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. The pendulum swings one way and swings the other way, and it would seem from the flavour of the debate, and clearly from the reports, that the pendulum has swung predominantly towards the Executive. I am not saying that we do not need secondary legislation—in some circumstances it is necessary—but Parliament has at least a right to understand what powers are being delegated and for what purpose. Too many times the Executive ask for Henry VIII powers and skeleton Bills, usually in the “national interest” or a general emergency.
I remember a Zoom meeting that our Delegated Powers Committee had with Jacob Rees-Mogg during the pandemic. He was at home in his study, with tapestries and oak beams. It looked a bit like a grade 2 listed—the building, not Jacob Rees-Mogg. He was extremely supportive of this House and its scrutiny process. He said in correspondence following that meeting that skeleton Bills
“should not be used as a tool to cover for imperfect policy development”.
Perhaps the committees should ask for another meeting with Jacob Rees-Mogg to refresh their memories.
There is a Bill in the other place, on its way to this House—the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. Let me say at the outset that this is nothing to do with Brexit. This is about Parliament understanding what powers the Executive will be seeking to achieve through secondary legislation. That Bill is riddled; it is a walking skeleton coming this way. The principle and reasons for any delegated powers should be at the front and centre of the Bill. As they say up north, it should say on the tin what is in the tin. If you buy a tin of peas and open it and it is full of carrots, I think you would feel cheated.
The other problem is that, once delegated powers are agreed, it is very difficult to remove them. Once the Bill is enacted, Ministers can act with impunity—rightfully so when they enact the Bill; that is their business. But the Bill should be right before it is enacted.
When that Bill comes to this House, I will be gone from any committee that will consider it, but I am certain, following six years sitting on legislation committees, that delegated powers will be writ large throughout it. We must remember that, once given up, these powers cannot be reversed easily. They are precious and protect our freedoms, and the Executive must understand that Parliament is ultimately sovereign and will seek to protect those freedoms at all costs.
My Lords, this is our second shot at these excellent reports; we had a go almost exactly a year ago. It seems to me that our analysis of what flows from the extensive work that has been done has sharpened up. I find it quite difficult to know what to say after the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, with which I agreed 100%. Indeed, just before him, my noble friend Lord Howell also referred—and it is a good title—to the study of the legislative agenda. I think that that is where we have to be.
This is a very good prelude, but secondary legislation comes attached to and after primary legislation, and at the moment it is quite difficult to see how we will make much progress as the boundaries between primary and secondary legislation have, in my view, completely gone. They simply do not exist in the way that we understood them to exist.
When I think of the two Motions, I am not so sure about the Delegated Powers one, because it uses the word “power”. To me, that is not the right subject. The right subject is housekeeping. Are our Government and our Parliament conducting the housekeeping of our nation’s affairs in a proper manner? How much real power do they have to direct that housekeeping? I think it is better to think about it so there is not a great deal.
I want to make a point about the report from what I used to call the Merits Committee when I was on it. It refers to the efforts and the explanation of the efforts that the draftsmen have put into a piece of legislation and says that if, at the end of those efforts, the policy is not clear, the Bill must be “premature”. I would go further. There is always a possibility that the Bill was not necessary in the first place. What was the motive for putting it forward? Recently, the freedom of speech in universities Bill would be a good example of that.
When it comes to thinking about, for example, framework Bills and what the Merits Committee has said about the possibility that the legislation is not necessary, that is the end of the Environment Act. It is a catalogue of regulations and targets. As far as I can see, there is absolutely no way of evaluating how that Act is performing, because you will always get an answer back saying, “Well, as you know, most of it is to be done tomorrow and we’ll tell you in due process time”.
We have to then give one minute’s thought to the position of the Government. I think they might say, “We are having a very difficult time meeting democratic expectations if we are to be re-elected”. There are difficulties: climate change, biodiversity loss, freedom of speech issues, trans issues, mental health problems among teenagers, gambling addiction. Does any of us really think that we know how we would draft primary legislation to deal with this? Do we even think that, in all cases, primary legislation would be the relevant way of trying to cope with some of these issues?
I have one last thing to say. Please do not blame the parliamentary draftsmen. I think that if we were working with them, we would make exactly the same comments as we make about the staff of our own committees. I suspect that we are out of our depth, and that we need to find a way back to competent housekeeping.
My Lords, although he is no longer here, I would like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Prentis of Leeds on his maiden speech. He is going to be a powerful addition to this House, not least on behalf of the low-paid workers who he has represented so well over the last decades. I would like also to congratulate the two chairs who introduced this debate. I agreed with 98% of what the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said in his excellent speech—it is a very rare thing for me to agree with the noble Lord but I did agree with him. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, on his excellent speech. I served briefly under his chairmanship of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and it was admirable.
The issues being raised today are fundamental. In simple terms, they go to the question of whether we live in an “elective dictatorship”, as the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, claimed fifty years ago, or in a parliamentary democracy where Parliament is truly sovereign. The issues are as important as that, and they are increasingly urgent and compelling.
On Tuesday, we debated the Second Reading of the Financial Services and Markets Bill. Unfortunately, I was not able to speak in that debate, but the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, made the very good point that the Bill itself does not give us any indication of the fundamental policy changes that are going to be made as a result of it. It empowers those changes to be made but it does not tell us what they are going to be. This is fundamental. It is about whether we avert another 2008 banking crisis; how we regulate so that the work of the City, which in many respects is excellent, works for the growth of the whole economy; and many other fundamental questions. But many of these will be decided by the delegated legislation which the Bill empowers, not by the terms of the Bill itself.
Other noble Lords have mentioned the Bill coming forward on the repeal of retained EU law. It takes sweeping powers that will affect a wide range of subjects: the environment, the rural economy, social rights, consumer protection—all these things are potentially going to be revised by delegated legislation.
How do we deal with this? First, I would like to see Bills examined by specialist committees set up by this House, where we would have the power to call expert witnesses and propose amendments to delegated legislation. Secondly, I would like us to examine the convention in this House that we do not vote against delegated legislation. It seems to me that we have to have a mechanism whereby we can propose amendments to regulations. If the Government reject them ultimately, the House will obviously give way to the views of the Commons, but we ought to have the ability to do that.
When I suggested this to some of my colleagues, I was told by a very distinguished former Chief Whip of this House that it would threaten the viability of the next Labour Government—we can all guess who that was. I think he is wrong for two reasons. First, we need to fundamentally improve the way we make policy in this country. There needs to be more consultation and cross-party consensus. We need legislation that is actually going to last and make fundamental change. Secondly, if we are serious about the role of this House as a revising Chamber, how can we say that we are not going to concern ourselves with these crucial policy questions which are now going to be decided by delegated legislation?
I hope that the Government and the usual channels will consider these questions urgently. There are difficult trade-offs to be made, but we cannot allow the status quo to continue to exist.
My Lords, I express my profound gratitude to the noble Lords, Lord Blencathra and Lord Hodgson, and their respective committees for producing these two very important reports; they have done us a great service. I was so heartened by these reports that I was moved to speak today to support the excellent work they have done. I probably will not say anything new as so many points have already been made, but they are worth repeating or emphasising.
These reports, as we have heard, raise fundamental constitutional issues about our parliamentary democracy, the relationship between the Executive and Parliament, and the urgency of resetting the balance between Parliament and the Executive. They remind us that we are a parliamentary democracy and not a populist democracy. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee issued a stark warning that the balance of power between Parliament and Government has for some time been shifting away from Parliament, a trend accelerated by Brexit and Covid; it recommends that the balance be reset and not just restored to how it was before these exceptional recent events.
Both the committees were so concerned that they recommended regular House of Lords debates and monitoring, which I hope will happen. The gravity of their disquiet is palpable in these reports but, despite that, the Government’s response has been disappointing. Although some of the recommendations have been accepted, the Government’s response, I regret, did not illustrate much appreciation of the fundamental issues raised or the urgency of resetting the balance. That was so much the case that, in their subsequent reports, both committees stated that the examination of Bills introduced after their initial reports were published reinforced their findings.
I hope that the well thought-through recommendations of these reports will not be ignored or watered down, and that the work done by the Hansard Society with the involvement of Members of this House will also be taken seriously. I strongly agree with the recommendation that, in resetting this balance, what needs to be reinforced by the Government is that primary legislation and powers conferred by it should be drafted on the basis of the principles of parliamentary democracy, and that the threshold between primary and delegated legislation should be founded on the principal aspects of policy which should be on the face of the Bill, and only its detailed implementation left to delegation.
There are three further comments which I would like to make: the first is about Henry VIII powers. While I agree with points made by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, it is worth repeating the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in his excellent lecture in 2016:
“Save in a national emergency, only statute can repeal, suspend, amend or dispense with statute.”
The second issue is about the culture of Whitehall, which is not just the “Whitehall culture”; it is also about the leadership provided by political leaders. Parliament is seen as an irritant, a constraint which delays or obstructs business; the “getting business done” mentality, and seeing due democratic process as a nuisance, encourages inappropriate use of delegated powers. Guidance and manuals are important, but equally important is the understanding and appreciation of the fundamental principles of parliamentary democracy, which I fear is lacking.
As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said, parliamentary scrutiny matters. The making of laws affects citizens—their rights, their well-being, and their liberties. Our democracy is fraying at the edges, constant vigilance is necessary, and we have to safeguard every component of our uncodified constitution to ensure that there is no erosion or weakening of our democracy. We pride in promoting and teaching other countries about parliamentary democracy. If we behave in questionable ways it undermines our moral authority and international influence, which needless to say has much wider implications. Creating a culture where the fundamentals of parliamentary democracy are important is crucial.
My final point is about pre-legislative scrutiny, which I strongly support; I was pleased to see it highlighted in these reports. Although it is not mentioned in these reports, we should do more post-legislative scrutiny work too. In 2006 the Law Commission produced an excellent report on the subject and the then Government introduced post-legislative scrutiny. This House is ideally equipped for this work. I was pleased to be a member of a recent post-legislative scrutiny Select Committee which examined the Children and Families Act 2014 and highlighted areas where lessons could be learned; that experience has convinced me even more of how significant this area of work is.
I look forward to a positive and constructive response from the Minister.
My Lords, I too welcome both excellent reports. My starting point is that good law is a public good, most law emanates from the Executive, and Parliament’s role is to ensure that the legislation that they bring forward is justified and as well drafted as it can be. We need therefore to have in place the means to scrutinise and influence legislation, be it primary or secondary; the need to ensure secondary legislation is scrutinised effectively is well made in the reports before us.
We have the means of scrutiny but we do not follow through in influencing the Executive. That is the problem, and I argue that there are two reasons for it. One is well identified in the reports before us—it is the attitude of the Executive—and the other is to be found in this House. On the first, as the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee makes abundantly clear, the culture of the Executive is to see the delegation of legislative powers as a matter of political expediency. Ministers and officials have got so used to the convenience of employing delegated legislation that they not only neglect the fundamental principles detailed in the committee’s report but exhibit at times a rather lazy attitude to drafting. It is part and parcel of a wider attitude to Parliament, one borne in part of ignorance of Parliament.
The government response commits to the inclusion in the Guide to Making Legislation of the principles adumbrated in the committee’s report in order
“to remind departments, both ministers and officials and also the PBL Committee, of the constitutional principles underlying the relationship between Parliament and the executive.”
But why do they need reminding of something that should be ingrained as part of their culture? What is in the Government’s response is not so much a concession as an admission of a failure to comply with the provisions of Section 3(6) of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. In replying, could my noble friend the Leader of the House explain what other steps are being taken to ensure compliance with this statutory duty?
I turn to the second part of my thesis: namely, that part of the reason lies with this House. The committees produce valuable reports, but they are toothless if the House itself is not prepared to act. There is little point giving a committee the power to bark if the House is not prepared to bite. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said in Tuesday’s Second Reading debate on the Financial Services and Markets Bill, Parliament’s reluctance to reject SIs makes such power “purely nominal”. When an SI comes before the House, we debate it but then agree to it. A regret Motion may be passed, but that constitutes an expression of opinion—one that, as far as I am aware, is invariably ignored.
A Motion to reject an SI is deemed a fatal Motion. It benefits the Executive to use such language; it is misleading. Rejecting an SI is not akin to rejecting on Second Reading a Bill that comes from the Commons. Voting down a Bill kills it for the rest of the Session; voting down an SI kills it until the next day. The Government can simply re-lay it with the odd word changed. If we were to keep rejecting it, that might be a different matter, but simply voting down an SI when first laid is akin not to rejecting a Bill but to passing an amendment and inviting the Commons to think again. Rejecting an SI is to invite the Government to think again, which they can do and, if necessary, submit a fresh SI, accepting the points made by the House. Despite what some have claimed, there is no convention that we do not reject SIs. The House has asserted its right to reject SIs and on rare occasions has done so.
We will be effective in our work in respect of delegated legislation only if we have the political will to act. We have the power. We owe it to the two committees that have reported to be willing to exercise it.
My Lords, I wish I could say that it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. In a way, because of the nature of the subject and where we are, it is not—but it is a very necessary debate. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who has great expertise in this area. The House owes a great deal to him and to many others with knowledge far greater than mine. I congratulate the two chairs of the committees concerned on the way in which they produced the reports and introduced them. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Prentis of Leeds, who is not in his place, on his excellent maiden speech. I am sure he will play a very big part in the life of this House. His analysis of the loss of public trust in institutions is very pertinent.
When I reflected on the number of names down to speak in this debate, I found myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, who said earlier that it was a surprise—I took it as an encouragement. Today’s debate is just another example of the underlying issue of how we are governed. I personally think that this is the real importance of today’s debate, and the real importance of the subject. I am one of those who takes the view that the way in which we are governed is not good enough, and the content of these two reports well illustrates some of the problems. The more Members who take an interest in this the better, because something is going wrong. The balance of power between the Executive and the legislature has for some time been changing, to the detriment of the legislature—both this House and another place. The two reports help to explain how.
Both reports are excellent. I commend the Members, clerks and staff for producing them. I am tempted to say that these are also two excellent examples of titles of reports. When I first saw them laid out in the Royal Gallery over a year ago, I thought here are two committee reports that pull no punches. I am sorry that it has taken quite so long for us to debate them. However, that is a refrain that I have often heard in the short time in which I have been here.
The reports paint a picture of the erosion of parliamentary supremacy. Their analysis is broadly correct. When I ask myself how we have arrived at this situation, the answer is over quite a long period. I do not blame this particular Government, as much as some other noble Lords might, for the situation that we are in today, because all Governments are tempted by the easier life that they can have if their legislative objectives can be met by minimising the parliamentary scrutiny that would normally accompany and apply to Bills.
Our basic legislative process has the great merit of being able to change things. In the debate about secondary and tertiary legislation, part of the problem we face is that this House and Parliament as a whole do not have the ability to change anything. In the pressure cooker that is building up, something has to give.
I sometimes ask myself whether I am the only Member who sits here and thinks that the only way in which this or any other Government are going to pay any attention to this House regarding a statutory instrument is by voting it down. That would make people sit up and take notice. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, referred to it as nuclear war, and I can understand why he said that. It would be a great shock to the system. I am fully aware that this is one of the issues in which the interests of both Front Benches are greater and have more in common than those of the Front and Back Benches of each side of the House. One day, the Members opposite who I gaze at are going to be sitting on these Benches, and my colleagues will be sitting on those Benches. We all know that a future Government of a different kind will not want to feel that this House votes down an SI. That is all very obvious, but we must counter the insidious shift in the balance of power between the Executive and the legislature.
Looking back, we see that ever since the English civil war Parliament has been trying to gain, and has gained, powers from the monarch, resulting in the constitutional monarchy that we have today. But that is not the end of the story—far from it. Powers once exercised by the monarch are, in effect, exercised by the Prime Minister, and the balance of power has shifted to an Executive who increasingly find Parliament to be an inconvenience and not a partner.
I have read the Government’s response to the report and can therefore anticipate what the Leader of the House will say in his speech. I join others in saying that the Cabinet Office rules should be rewritten entirely in line with the reports. I say again that, whatever the future solution to some of these problems is, it lies in this House’s power to amend.
Finally, I do not know how much interest in our debate will be taken outside the House but I wish that a debate such as this could be livestreamed into schools, colleges and universities where politics is taught, because people need to know that the debate about our parliamentary democracy is live; it is still going on, not somehow fixed in aspic. On the contrary, the debate is a living thing and, for that reason, I very much commend these reports and welcome today’s debate.
My Lords, like the noble Viscount, I congratulate the two chairmen of the committees whose reports we are discussing. It seems that I have spent part of my parliamentary life following my noble friend Lord Blencathra. I was his Deputy Chief Whip and became Conservative Party Chief Whip when he ceased to be so. He was chairman of the Delegated Powers Committee and I took over the chairmanship when he ceased to be chairman earlier this year. I know from experience that, when my noble friend Lord Blencathra sets his mind to a specific topic, he will not let it go until he sees some success. That is very much part of what we have seen in the report we are discussing today.
We have had many excellent contributions today, all narrating some of the problems that we now face. These are not new problems. Indeed, I remember from when I first joined the Cabinet in 2010 my noble friend Lord Strathclyde lecturing us on the contempt which the House of Lords has for Henry VIII clauses and telling Cabinet Ministers to try to ensure that they were kept to a minimum. I had not heard of skeleton Bills; they seem to have been a development as time has gone on.
One of the reasons why we are where we are today—it has not been talked about much in this debate so far; perhaps there is a nervousness to talk about it—is Brexit. Brexit has fundamentally changed the way in which we legislate in this country. I was not in favour of Brexit, but I accept that I voted for the referendum, and we have to accept the results of that referendum. However, it has changed the pressure on government and on these Houses. A lot of legislation and regulations did not need to come to this House, because they were brought in by European directives. That has now gone. That is not being anti-Brexit; it is just a change in the situation. I think it is an issue which perhaps has been slightly overlooked in some of the grander issues that have come about.
I well remember being told initially that the most legislation you should expect to get through in one year was 20 pieces. The last Queen’s Speech to the House, read by the now King, included 31 pieces of legislation. The demand of getting legislation through both Houses of Parliament has put added pressures on us.
While I very much welcome the reports, which are right in their way, the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, referred to the Bill on EU legislation that is on the horizon and that we will be discussing. That will facilitate reforms for over 2,400 pieces of legislation, and most of it is going to be done through regulations and orders. That is not about the House of Lords wanting to be very awkward about something—it is the House of Lords asking whether we are getting scrutiny of legislation right, the laws that people live by in this country. That is one of the key issues which both Houses of Parliament need to address over the coming years.
The points made by my noble friend Lord Howell on what was done 35 or 40 years ago in setting up the new Select Committees were absolutely right. We have moved to a new situation, and we need to reflect that in the way the committees of both Houses work. One of the things that has happened in the House of Commons is that everything is timetabled, so there is not the detailed scrutiny that there is in your Lordships’ House. That is one of the things that I have noticed most notably since my arrival in this House.
These reports set us challenges, and they set the Government challenges. The Government need to reflect carefully on them, but should try to do so in such a way that it is not only the Government who take them forward but the House and the Opposition as well.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord McLoughlin. I agree with his important points about the legislative workload legacy of Brexit. I, too, thank my noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts and congratulate them on the forthright and formidable reports which their committees have produced. These are weighty documents. As the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, told us, they pull no punches. Indeed, as my noble friend Lady Fookes implied, they pack a powerful punch, showing once again the invaluable, dispassionate and uncompromised contribution of your Lordships’ House to the health and well-being of British democracy.
I will not pretend that I found the technical detail of the measures, devices and procedures that we are discussing easy to understand, but then I assume that is the intention. However, what is clear from the reports and the Government’s responses, as well as from the two committees’ subsequent expressions of disappointment with those responses, is the direction of travel. In short, we are moving in the wrong direction. The danger is that, until and unless the Government accept the need to rebalance power by returning power to Parliament, the Government—the state—will continue inexorably to accrue more power. This is not good for democracy, because rebalancing and returning power to Parliament is not simply a technical matter; it is surely fundamental to restoring public trust in the political process, as the noble Lords, Lord Janvrin and Lord Prentis of Leeds, in his powerful maiden speech, reminded us.
The right reverend Prelate, who is not in his place at the moment, spoke of taking back control. My position on Brexit was informed by whether the British people would be able to hold their Government to account for decisions affecting the minutiae of their daily lives. I never intended that my vote to leave should somehow be misinterpreted as a licence for the Government to assume yet more control over our lives. That is not to say, of course, that in repatriating powers which were surrendered by successive Governments to the EU through statutory instruments and similar unaccountable devices during our membership of the EU, Parliament should then obstruct the Government’s promise to complete that process by the end of the year. However, it does mean that careful consideration needs to be given to what I remember as a student my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth described as the delicate balance between the effectiveness of government and the consent of the governed. Accountability is central to that.
I suggest that, in addition to continuing to champion the recommendations of these two very important reports, your Lordships’ House has a crucial role to play in facilitating that greater accountability. My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford called for a stronger committee system. I wonder whether we could commission an examination of the impact of our committees in terms of government take-up of their recommendations, perhaps going as far back as 2015, including an analysis of what external stakeholders who have given written or oral evidence felt came out of it, in terms of their impression of the value of the inquiry and the committee’s recommendations, and what they thought of how the Government have responded.
Might that not be a pragmatic way, not only of this House showing that it is more than just a talking shop, but of Parliament and Government together demonstrating that we both recognise the need continually to earn the trust of the British people? We both have skin in the game here. That, ultimately, is surely what this is all about.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. The traditional way of ensuring that the executive powers are responsible for their actions and that they are accountable for their effects has been the scrutiny of government legislation during the process of its enactment. However, this way of handling the issues arising out of detailed regulations associated with parliamentary Acts is no longer possible. Insufficient time is available to scrutinise these matters in sessions on the Floor of the House or in Grand Committee.
Increasingly, the regulations are enacted in secondary legislation via powers granted in the primary Acts of Parliament. The scrutiny of the regulations has been assigned to standing committees of both Houses. In the Lords, the recourse has been to assign the task of scrutinising secondary legislation to two committees. The Delegated Powers Committee polices the boundary between primary and secondary legislation, and it is empowered to object to inappropriate delegations of power to Ministers. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee attempts, on a weekly basis, to scrutinise a plethora of instruments produced under those delegated powers. It is a committee of 11 members which is served by a highly competent secretariat. It is overwhelmed by its task, and is able to operate only by virtue of a sifting process undertaken by the secretariat that draws its attention to the most important or the most contentious of the instruments.
It takes time for the members of the committee to gain sufficient knowledge of the nature of the legislative processes that they must scrutinise, and to become familiar with the behaviour of the government departments from which the legislation emanates. The members are subject to the same rule as the members of other standing committees that limits their time on the committee to three years. By the time that they have gained a competence in these matters, they must move on. It should be noted that two-thirds of the current committee is due to retire shortly. This has been brought to the attention of the authorities that govern the membership of committees. The objection that these retirements are bound to prejudice the effectiveness of the committee has been met with the bland assertion that any 12 Members of the House who might serve on the committee should be as good as the ones whom they are liable to replace. This assertion speaks of an old-fashioned tradition of amateurism that dominates our politics.
The government departments doubtless find the scrutiny of the committee irksome but, if they are well appraised of our democratic norms, they are bound to accept it with good grace. However, there is tension, with both sides pushing against each other. The judgment of the two reports that we are debating today is that the Executive have pushed too far and that much of the secondary legislation amounts to government by diktat. Also, a Government who have been in power too long have become impatient with the processes of democratic scrutiny. They have tended increasingly to resort to so-called skeletal legislation, which gives Ministers unbridled powers to create administrative regulations where formerly they would have been expected to enact their policies via primary legislation.
There is also a widening gap between the mythologies of politics and the practicalities of public administration. Many in the Government take an atavistic approach to regulations, which they tend to see as infringements on personal liberties and as impediments to economic enterprise. This contrasts oddly with the Government’s increasing use of secondary delegated legislation. This negative attitude to regulation is common, and has fuelled the agenda of the proponents of Brexit to scrap the retained European Union legislation before the end of this year. The truth is that almost all of it will need to be replicated in British legislation, which will be a wholly unnecessary exercise that will pre-empt the resources of the Civil Service. The burden of the scrutinising committees will be markedly increased, as will the objections to the undemocratic administrative steamroller.
The reports from the two Lords committees call for changes within the existing framework that might serve to redress the balance between government and Parliament in favour of Parliament. I have to wonder whether these changes will be sufficient. It appears that something more radical is required to cope with the mass of secondary legislation and to bring it all under proper scrutiny. Perhaps committees could be appointed that monitor and scrutinise the secondary legislation that emerges from each government department, and they should alert the rest of the House to whatever they find to be amiss, with greater powers to hold them in check. The Commons already has committees that shadow each department. These might take a more active role in scrutinising secondary legislation. The advantage of having such committees in the Lords is that they would be further from the reach of the Government than their Commons counterparts. Therefore, they would be able to conduct a more critical and effective oversight of the legislation.
My Lords, in 2020 Dr Andrew Corbett from the defence studies department of King’s College London wrote:
“Coups happen in other countries—they are not something the public would ever expect in Britain.”
However, having listed some of the actions of Boris Johnson’s Government, he asked whether what he saw as an undermining of democracy amounted to “a very British coup”. While the Johnson Government’s apparent contempt for Parliament was signified most notably—but by no means solely—by the attempt to prorogue it, the rot set in much earlier. The two reports we are considering throw a light on the extent to which Parliament has been gradually undermined for years. Ernest Hemingway wrote that there were two ways of going bankrupt, “Gradually and then suddenly”. The same might be said of losing British democracy.
The titles of these two reports really say it all: Government by Diktat: A Call to Return Power to Parliament and Democracy Denied? The Urgent Need to Rebalance Power between Parliament and the Executive. I am very grateful for all the hard work that has gone into producing these reports, and to the two chairmen for their eloquent speeches today. They detailed the failings of delegated legislation to adhere to the principles of parliamentary democracy. This situation has not come about by accident. A determined Executive do not welcome scrutiny—even less so if it leads to opposition.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, was first to remind us of the 2015 battle over tax credits. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said that this was completely a failure of the Government’s making, through their trying to legislate on such a massive issue. Cutting vital tax credits to those who really need them should never have been attempted by statutory instrument. Nevertheless, the lesson that came through very clearly was that the Government did not wish to be asked to think again—and again. Threats to this House were hardly even veiled: if we were to continue to misbehave, we might have a very dicey future.
The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, explained that, while these reports go a long way in detailing what is wrong, the problem is much deeper. The threat to parliamentary democracy goes way beyond what is happening in our secondary legislation. The scale of the legislation coming through at the moment makes scrutiny impossible. The noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, explained that the demands of Brexit—whether one wanted Brexit or not—bring a huge legislative burden that is leading to things being rushed through. There is the scale of the Bills we are being presented with, as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said, which are half-baked—that is being quite kind. Then there is the weight of them; the Financial Services and Markets Bill runs to 346 pages. The levelling-up Bill runs to 408. It is what many would think of as something of a Christmas tree. It is a planning Bill with other little bits attached. Some of the little bits are quite interesting; it came as a surprise to me that some elected leaders of areas in this country could be known as governors in future. There are also other surprises in there, but very few seem to relate to levelling up—that will come later, much of it in guidance and secondary legislation.
One of the things that came through most strongly in these reports was the use of disguised legislation. To call anything mandatory guidance is, of course, as the reports point out, a complete nonsense. But “have regard to” is a very dangerous term. In particular, we saw in the Elections Bill the fact that the Electoral Commission must have regard to a statement coming from the Government setting out their strategic and policy priorities relating to elections. Now, that sounds—certainly to me—like interference with the Electoral Commission. This House was certainly concerned, but the Commons did not share our concern and so this chilling guidance is now in the Act. It will undoubtedly influence the way that the Electoral Commission, supposedly an independent body, behaves in future.
The report of the Delegated Powers Committee points out, quite rightly, that an instruction to have regard carries the implication that the guidance will be adhered to. So I ask the Leader of the House how he might respond should the Prime Minister ask him to have regard to the Prime Minister’s views on a particular issue: might we expect it to colour his thinking at all?
The democratic deficit that we now perceive may explain why, according to a report from the ONS last year, only 35% of people trust the Government of this country—one of the lowest ratings in the OECD. These reports propose some remedies which might go some way to addressing that democratic deficit. They deserve a better response than they have received from the Government, and so I think we should pay great attention to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and maybe be a little braver in future in making our views known.
My Lords, I would like to follow that by also looking at how we can be braver, in both this and the other House. Much of the debate today has focused on a call for the Government to mend their ways, but I would like to look at what Parliament itself can do. The key question I pose is whether the powers exercised by government have strayed beyond the founding concepts of our parliamentary democracy. There are wiser and more knowledgeable Members in this debate who have an exact understanding of these foundations, the history behind them, the royal prerogative and the nature of the powers transferred to the Executive.
However, I pose that the fundamental premise of our democracy must surely be that what Parliament has granted, it can take away or alter. The Government will undoubtedly argue that Parliament grants powers over secondary legislation by passing the primary legislation. However, the tools available at the primary legislation stage are very limited. My noble friend Lord Wallace, and many others, have cited the lack of policy intent which is described within the primary legislation. So what Parliament is usually left with is a choice between the affirmative or the negative procedure, perhaps occasionally throwing in the super-affirmative procedure, which is an infrequently used tool in the box. Following the premise that what Parliament can provide, it can also amend or take away, some solutions to the issues raised in these reports rest in the hands of Parliament.
I must say additionally, however, that there is a major impact on the Senedd, the Welsh Parliament, which is faced with secondary legislation in areas of policy it has powers over but has no way of making that secondary legislation itself and no veto over the powers that are made. This is particularly relevant to primary legislation enacted prior to primary legislative powers being granted to the Senedd, and where legislative consent Motions have been passed to permit Westminster to legislate on its behalf. There is some limited “consultation”, in inverted commas, with the Welsh Government, but there are no powers in the hands of the Senedd.
If we accept the fundamental premise of these reports, Parliament must take action to redress the balance. Obviously, any solution to this problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, has pointed out, must have the support of the House of Commons. It would be absurd for the unelected Chamber to assert democratic rights which do not have Commons support. This is some challenge because the Government rely on their majority in the House of Commons and will want to secure that majority for getting their legislation through unamended. To avoid the extent of that pull in the other direction, it would be sensible to focus on the small steps that lie behind the concerns expressed in these reports. To my mind, that means a sharp focus on the ability of Parliament to amend or require the Government to think again on matters contained in their proposed secondary legislation.
I very much value the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, about renaming a fatal Motion a “Motion to refer back”. Most organisations in this country will have policy motions before them—political parties do—which are referred back for further consideration. If we could make it absolutely clear in Parliament that that is our intent, there is no reason we should not refer back matters which this Parliament feels are inappropriate or need improvement or interpretation to be able to produce good law. The objective is to create one or two new tools in our parliamentary box that would allow us to deal with these matters and to lay them out.
The ability to amend is crucial as well. There are obviously some significant parts of secondary legislation where some amendment would make a difference and make it an improved law, so the ability to amend ought to be discussed with our colleagues in the other House as an important tool which would allow Parliament as a whole to do a better job of ensuring that legislation is fit for purpose and better law in general. The first small-scale reform process must be to create a dialogue within this House, within the House of Commons and between the Houses with the important step of taking forward a Joint Committee of inquiry so we can make these changes and make them stick. If we believe in the scrutiny powers of Parliament, we should not be afraid of amendment and making sure that Parliament takes action to address the balance in legislative powers.
My Lords, I thank both committees for these excellent reports. What is more, I thank them for making them readable. The DPRRC apologises for its report being full of parliamentary nomenclature and technical procedural explanations like some “esoteric constitutional essay”. However, I thank the committees for their clarity and making the opaque accessible. The start of chapter 2 of Democracy Denied?, explaining terms such as “Henry VIII powers” and “skeleton legislation”, is invaluable, and, in the spirit of the contribution of the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, I will be recommending both reports as must-reads far beyond Westminster.
I especially commend the committee consciously aiming to make the report comprehensible to the public. As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, explained, the issues raised are anything but esoteric and affect the freedoms and rights of every single person in this country. However, the public are not just objects of law changes; that is too passive a depiction. The report details a worrying shift in the balance of power. Evidence of the Executive’s power-grab is compelling, but when we demand that the Government be accountable to Parliament, we must also stress that Parliament needs to be accountable to the public. Too often in recent years the demos, the foundation of democracy, have felt that parliamentarians sometimes refuse to act on their wishes. If the Government promise the public that they will, for example, act to control borders but when they attempt to act the public see parliamentarians trying to block that action, does that not give the moral high ground argument to the Executive to breach convention to push through publicly supported laws? That is a warning to this unelected House about indulging in overreach, acting more as an Opposition than as a scrutineer, and using every tactic in the book to fight laws it does not like, even if the electorate do.
As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Prentis of Leeds, in his impressive maiden speech, outside this House there is a growing visceral distrust of Parliament per se. Conversely, I agree with the report’s concerns that when laws are delegated, the public are done a disservice and in turn are confused when some laws sail through without parliamentary challenge. An example already mentioned was when in lockdown the Government scandalously made it mandatory for anyone working in a care home to be fully vaccinated or be sacked. This happened with no risk analysis of the cost-benefit impact on the care sector, and there was nothing parliamentarians could do about it. Some 40,000 care workers were driven out of their jobs then, and now almost daily we hear discussed the crisis of care worker shortages and never acknowledge how bad lawmaking contributed to this disastrous state of affairs. No wonder the public are confused and disillusioned. This is why it is so important to shine a light on anti-democratic lawmaking processes. The shocking use of disguised legislative instruments should, in fact, be front page news.
I have a couple of thoughts on solutions. In the reports, Permanent Secretaries claim that increased use of statutory instruments is due to the competition for parliamentary time. Is not the solution here obvious? There should be fewer laws. To the Minister, I repeat the question posed by Lord Simon in a 1990 debate:
“to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will reduce the quantity and improve the quality of legislation.”—[Official Report, 31/1/1990; col. 382.]
I suggest that lawmaking has become a technocratic substitute for political leadership. Is this because politicians lack the imagination or moral courage to try to persuade citizens of the need for social change and instead rely on the law to compel it? So many laws feel unnecessary and performative—headline-grabbing responses to demands that something must be done.
As we enter Report stage on the Public Order Bill, we have, as many noble Lords have noted, a statute book full of legislation that could deal with the egregious aspects of modern protest tactics. The problem is that they are not being enforced, and more laws will not solve this problem.
By the way, the enthusiasm for creating new laws to tackle all and every issue is not just a weakness of the Conservative Administration. Often, the Opposition’s main demands on Government are even more laws, if different ones, or myriad amendments so detailed that they could constitute new laws in their own right.
On time constraints, why are so many Bills such enormous, complex, impenetrable tomes, containing everything bar the kitchen sink? Is this the attempt of politicians to micromanage every conceivable aspect of the public’s autonomous choices because they do not trust the voters? Such expansive Bills are often far removed from their original intent. The Online Safety Bill is a case in point: once conceived narrowly but importantly as protecting children, now so huge it represents an existential threat to the free speech of adults. This is a crisis not just of democracy but of our freedoms.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Fox.
I urge noble Lords to heed the words of John Adams:
“Remember, democracy never lasts long. … There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
We are in danger, as the two reports point out. The rallying cry in 2015 of those angered by so-called EU edicts urged people to vote to leave the EU to ensure lawmaking power returned to our sovereign national Parliament. Parliamentary sovereignty means that Parliament is superior to the Executive. This is a cornerstone of our constitutional system. Replacing the fear of EU edicts with the reality of edicts from one political party’s handful of Ministers is obviously attractive to current leaders but must be resisted. The Government are not synonymous with the state.
EU membership never actually removed or overrode the UK constitution. Parliament always had the power to repeal the 1972 legislation which took us into the EU, but ironically, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and these committees’ excellent reports have pointed out, not only has Covid legislation overridden some of our parliamentary scrutiny powers— this might be excusable on life and death, public protection grounds—but EU exit-related Bills have been at the forefront of those that seek to gather untrammelled powers to the Executive. Witness the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill or the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which is coming up, as so many noble Lords have mentioned.
Brexit has happened. I am not speaking about rejecting Brexit. This is about parliamentary sovereignty and our democracy. These are just the most egregious examples of proposals seeking to take away Parliament’s powers of scrutiny or amendment, replacing them with ministerial diktats.
There may be some confusion about the meaning of parliamentary sovereignty. Sometimes the term “parliamentary control” has been used, but I prefer to think of this as parliamentary protection of the public interest. Democracy is about representation of the people. Authoritarian dictatorship is about control of the people and transferring powers to an Executive. This vastly increases the risk that the rights of the minority could be trampled on by a narrow majority. I urge the Government to resist the attraction of acting with a cavalier indifference towards the concept of parliamentary scrutiny which is incompatible with the reality of parliamentary sovereignty.
These two excellent reports sound a much-needed siren of alarm that the UK is in danger of sliding into being governed by executive fiat rather than parliamentary scrutiny, as is our norm. It appears that the national interest is being aligned with the specific interest of the political party currently in power, rather than the wider national interests of the state.
We must not wait to look back on the past few years with the solemn regret of hindsight. Almost perceptibly, as so many have pointed out, the Government have been gathering powers to the Executive to override parliamentary scrutiny, putting us on a slippery slope towards an elected dictatorship and putting our country’s precious democracy under threat. Framework skeleton clauses in Bills, Henry VIII powers, disguised legislation, mandatory guidance—which the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, mentioned—tertiary legislation and the absence of impact assessments are all removing Parliament’s ability to protect the public against this authoritarian type of rule. If these trends persist, Parliament may have no role in scrutinising or amending the laws that citizens of this country are meant to live by.
In my view, it is our duty as parliamentarians to oppose this power grab, and I am enormously grateful to my noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Hodgson, and all the committee members and clerks of the DPRRC and SLSC, for their excellent reports and for doing just that. I urge my noble friend the Leader of the House to take seriously these concerns from so many colleagues on our own Benches, as well as all other parts of the House, and encourage a change of approach plus acceptance of these recommendations.
My Lords, I add my compliments to those of others in the House on the excellent maiden speech from my noble friend Lord Prentis.
I declare an interest as another member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, the first and only committee in the House on which I have had the honour to serve. I take the opportunity to praise the diligence and insight of the committee’s members, many of whom have spoken today, and of course the two wonderful chairmen of the committee in my time on it, the noble Lords, Lord Blencathra and Lord McLoughlin. I echo others in praising our superb clerk, Christine Salmon Percival, and her assiduous assistant, Louise Andrews. After 45 years of practice at the Bar myself, I specifically praise the counsel to the committee, James Cooper, Nick Beach and Che Diamond. Their wise and concise notes on legislation before the committee have been, and are, simply magnificent.
As to the issues raised in the two reports under consideration, to me there appears so far to be virtual unanimity across the House as to the principles that ought to apply and that are so often ignored. Since the publication of Democracy Denied?, and indeed Government by Diktat, I have sometimes wondered whether the committee is wasting its time in making recommendations, essential for democracy, which are so often ignored.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Stansgate that this is not a party-political issue. It arises from a fundamental tension between the Executive and Parliament. After all, as he mentioned, we fought the civil war on this very issue some 500 years ago. It seems that the current balance is still wholly unsatisfactory; it needs reregulation. I agree, of course, with the conclusions of both committees, perhaps captured by the first recommendation of the Hansard Society, which suggests:
“A new concordat between Parliament and Government, including a set of ‘Principles for Legislative Delegation’, to reset the boundary between what should go in Bills and what should go in SIs.”
I would add “and in tertiary and disguised legislation” as well, as described so impressively by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in opening this debate and set out in paragraphs 89 to 112 of Democracy Denied? I hope the Government will find time to reform along the lines proposed, whether by legislation or otherwise, to achieve the objectives desired on all side of the House.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the speech of my noble friend Lord Hendy, and to hear the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Prentis. I have been a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee since 2021, and it has been a great privilege to serve under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson.
As many others have said in this debate, at its heart this is a debate about the balance of constitutional power, and specifically the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. These two excellent reports chart the inexorable shift in this balance over recent years under Conservative and Labour Governments. In reading these two reports, there is only one conclusion to reach—that that balance has shifted decisively in favour of the Executive at the expense of proper parliamentary scrutiny. This is not a healthy shift. On one level, it undermines our democracy, it is not good for the law-making process itself and it has, from time to time, brought the law itself into disrepute, as we saw during the pandemic when extensive use was made of delegated legislation.
These two reports identify several problems with the process of making secondary legislation, all of which have been well referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Blencathra and Lord Hodgson. I want to highlight what I consider to be the greatest problem we are facing, which is the growing use of what has been termed “skeleton legislation”: primary legislation drafted in outline terms only and with all, or most of, the important policy details left to Ministers to determine by using their powers to make statutory instruments. Just in the past few weeks, we have seen some pretty good examples of skeleton legislation, with the Energy Prices Act and the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. Crucial areas of the legislation are left entirely to Ministers to determine, and Parliament has had—at the time of considering legislation—little detail whatsoever. The real operation of this legislation is going to be determined entirely by the regulations made under it. Our report refers to many other examples of this type of legislation, and many Members of this House have referred to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which is probably the best example of them all.
Much of this detailed legislation will become law, as I said, with little or no consideration by Parliament whatsoever. I fully understand and accept that Governments will want to use secondary legislation to implement many aspects of policy, and that makes absolute sense. However, if Ministers want to use these skeleton legislative vehicles, they really should be prepared to accept that this sort of power should be accompanied by enhanced levels of parliamentary scrutiny. To me, that is a reasonable quid pro quo. This could be done in a number of ways. Delegated legislation in skeleton Bills could be subject to the super-affirmative procedure, as the noble Lord, Lord German, suggested. That would allow an opportunity for Members to comment on draft regulations and suggest possible amendments. There is a more radical option: using the precedent contained in Section 27 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Under this provision, amendments can be tabled, in either House, to any statutory instrument laid under the primary Act. I am not aware that this has ever happened. I am not sure whether, under the 2004 Act, any regulations have been brought forward, but that is not the point. It is possible to devise greater scrutiny over ministerial powers to make secondary legislation—and, if you want a precedent, you can find one in that 2004 Act.
I know that the Government do not favour any kind of enhanced scrutiny. As they said in their response to our report, they do not believe that such skeleton Bills can be readily defined. I do not buy that argument, and I do not think that anyone in this House today buys it. I fear that this is a smokescreen for further foot-dragging. We all know a skeleton Bill in this House when we see one. It is not beyond the wit of both Houses to devise a sensible procedure to deal with this glaring deficit in how we currently make most of our laws. It was a great shame and a missed opportunity that the Government responded to these two reports in such a cursory and dismissive fashion. But it is never too late for a change of heart, because we will have to find another way of doing things if we are serious about preserving the role of Parliament in our democracy.
My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hutton of Furness, because he made some extremely perceptive and very good points, particularly in the context of skeleton Bills. The defining feature of this debate—and I have heard all of it—has been support for the two committees of your Lordships’ House and a very real concern that the balance of power in our country is getting out of kilter. I pay tribute to my noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts for their excellent and powerful speeches and, even more, for the reports that they have placed before us. It is indicative of government’s cavalier attitude towards Parliament that we have had to wait so long for this debate, and I deeply regret that.
When I entered the other place, way back in 1970, I was taken to one side, after taking the oath, by two very experienced parliamentarians: the late Sir Derek Walker-Smith and the late Sir David Renton, later Lord Renton. They said to me, “You are of course here as a Conservative Member of Parliament, and you will be expected to give general support to the Government, but that doesn’t mean agreeing with everything that they say. Remember”, said Sir David, wagging his finger at me, “it is the Government who are accountable to Parliament, not Parliament that is accountable to the Government.” I have tried to make that my watchword through the last 52 and a half years.
Certain messages come out of this debate. There is too much legislation. The question that should always be asked, before any Bill is introduced, is whether it is necessary. That is why it is so important—a number of colleagues have touched on this—that we should, as a matter of course, have pre-legislative scrutiny. We should also have post-legislative scrutiny, because we need to see how what we have enacted has impinged on the lives of our fellow citizens. The two Houses need to come together, because the fundamental flaw in parliamentary democracy in this country is that there is effectively no scrutiny in the other place: timetabling destroyed it. I was there when it happened, and I fought against it. Conservative spokesmen then said, “We’ll get rid of this”, but it was so convenient for the Executive that they did not get rid of it; they kept it. We will never have a true balance of power until there is proper scrutiny in the other place as well as this one.
In his excellent speech, my noble friend Lord Norton also talked about delegated legislation and our being rather afraid to use the power we have. That point was picked up by others; I think the noble Lord, Lord German, used the term “refer back” in his speech. We should have the courage to refer back to the other place delegated legislation that the Government have thrust upon us; we are not obliged to accept it. The Government are accountable to Parliament, but they will not be properly accountable to Parliament unless Parliament makes them so.
All these problems are not new; they are in a different guise. When I taught 18th-century history before I came to this place, I often talked about Dunning’s Motion of 1780, in which he said that the power of
“the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.”
If we substitute “Executive” for “Crown”, that is true today. We have to get a better balance and remember those very famous words that “the price of liberty”—of which we are the guardians and for which we are responsible—“is eternal vigilance”. There has been so much appalling legislation, to whose length the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, referred, put before this House in recent years that we should all be thoroughly ashamed of it.
This has been a good debate. It is an honour to take part in it and we are all deeply grateful to the two noble Lords who led it so brilliantly.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Blencathra and Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, on their excellent committee reports. They have exposed the two key constitutional concerns: that effective parliamentary scrutiny is being undermined by the way in which Bills are framed and that important policy decisions are increasingly being left to delegated legislation, thereby weakening parliamentary scrutiny and increasing ministerial powers.
Those concerns are shared by the Hansard Society and the Constitution Committee. In 2018, the Constitution Committee, chaired by my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton, published a report, The Legislative Process: The Delegation of Powers, which identified concerns that align with the conclusions in today’s reports. That report recognised that delegated powers are essential to the legislative process, allowing Parliament to focus on important policy decisions and leaving implementation detail to secondary legislation, but that the level of parliamentary scrutiny was increasingly contentious, evidencing a constitutionally objectionable trend for the Government to seek wide delegated powers that would permit the determination, as well as the implementation, of policy. For some, the determining factor as to whether to include a delegated power was whether Parliament would accept it, rather than any point of principle.
The report also emphasised that, where statutory instruments are used to give effect to significant policy decisions, without any genuine risk of defeat or possible amendment, Parliament is doing little more than rubber-stamping, which is constitutionally unacceptable. By working together, the Delegated Powers Committee and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee have shone a spotlight on what my noble friend Lady Taylor described as the accelerating and unhealthy
“trends in what … Ministers think they can get away with without properly consulting Parliament”.—[Official Report, 16/9/21; col. 1604.]
They have directed ministerial and parliamentary attention to the need to address
“the culture of using delegated legislation.”
The Constitution Committee continues to highlight constitutional concerns arising from weakening parliamentary scrutiny and enhanced ministerial powers in its reports on Bills brought to this House, which align in many instances with the conclusions in the reports before us today. In its report Brexit Legislation: Constitutional Issues, the committee took stock of all the Brexit legislation and criticised the powers therein for being too broad, too ill-defined and lacking in safeguards. A distinguishing feature was the extent of the delegated powers—skeleton Bills, with little or no detail on the policy or institutions to be created. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill required Henry VIII powers to facilitate the withdrawal and deliver legal certainty and continuity, but it granted Ministers
“far greater latitude than is constitutionally acceptable”.
The reports COVID-19 and Parliament and COVID-19 and the Use and Scrutiny of Emergency Powers highlighted the volume of SIs laid in response to the pandemic, the use of fast-track procedures, which severely limited Parliament’s ability to scrutinise and provide a constitutional check on the exercise of arbitrary power, and the blurring of the distinction between legislation and guidance.
The Sewel convention does not apply to delegated legislation, but it would be constitutionally questionable for Parliament to circumvent it by legislating in a way that intends delegated legislation to change devolved legislation in areas of devolved competence. This concern was highlighted in the committee’s reports on the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill and the Energy Bill. Guidance utilised as disguised legislation was highlighted in its reports on the Public Order Bill and the Health and Care Bill. It was reasserted by the committee in its reports on the Energy Bill and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that delegated legislation to create criminal offences is constitutionally unacceptable.
The Delegated Powers Committee and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee have had several exchanges with the Government on strengthening parliamentary scrutiny. Some progress has been made, but it is clear from the debate today that much more is needed. The governance of our parliamentary democracy is more important than ever, as has been stressed by many Members. One Government’s acts of expediency can be deployed by a future Government as precedent, taking us further down the road away from Parliament making our laws towards Ministers increasingly taking powers to change the rules and regulations.
Finally, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Prentis on his maiden speech. I am sure that he will be an asset to the House.
My Lords, these are two excellent reports; sadly, they are not the first. As the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, has just reminded us, the Constitution Committee expressed serious concerns in its 2018 report, The Legislative Process: The Delegation of Powers, about the use of statutory instruments to give effect to significant policy decisions. It identified the core problem as the absence of a genuine risk of defeat with no amendment possible, which I shall come back to.
During the pandemic, over 400 statutory instruments were made. The vast majority took effect with no scrutiny at all. Legal changes were often set out in guidance or announced in media conferences before Parliament had even had the opportunity to scrutinise them. I wrote papers about that.
In June 2021, the Constitution Committee, to which I and others gave evidence, reported in COVID-19 and the Use and Scrutiny of Emergency Powers. This identified serious weaknesses in the way a huge body of regulations was made. It pointed out that the Government are required to report, explain and defend their policies. When scrutiny is limited through the fast-tracking of legislation, or the extensive use of secondary legislation, essential checks on executive power are lost.
However, 18 months later, here we are again. What is to be done? I endorse the recommendations made in these splendid reports. Time is tight, so I will focus on four points. I acknowledge that delegated legislation is necessary. Modern society is complex and changes too fast. Government often needs speed, flexibility and adaptability if it is to serve society.
First, at the heart of the problem perhaps, as others have said, is the all or nothing principle. We must address this. We must at least make more use of the delayed affirmative procedure. Further, as others have said, the two Houses should work to introduce a convention and a mechanism whereby the other place may reintroduce a statutory instrument which this House has rejected, or send it back amended on the basis that it will not be rejected a second time. The elected Chamber will then prevail, but after consideration and after having heard serious debate in this House.
Secondly, sunset provisions should be used more frequently. These would clear undergrowth, make for cleaner regulation and lessen the burden on business.
Thirdly, tertiary delegation is dangerous ground. When I studied administrative law 50 years ago, the maxim was “delegatus non potest delegare”. It seems all that is gone. Not only is Parliament’s scrutiny lost—so is the oversight of the Minister. The Secondary Legislation Committee is absolutely right that, when a statutory instrument includes a delegation of power, the Explanatory Memorandum must provide a full explanation of why the power is needed and of its scope. In my view, this will make those in the Minister’s office show their reasoning. They will have to think about it first, like a judge does when he gives his reasons in court.
Fourthly and finally, I turn to statutory guidance. We have heard about this from others. The Department for Education’s website today says:
“Statutory guidance sets out what schools and local authorities must do to comply with the law. You should follow the guidance unless you have a very good reason not to. There is some guidance that you must follow without exception. In these cases we make this clear in the guidance document itself.”
In this way, statutory guidance has escaped all scrutiny. This morning, the Department for Education’s website listed—I have them here—53 unscrutinised statutory guidance publications for schools and authorities. Of course, there are practical reasons for this, but we really must look at this more carefully.
So I endorse entirely what my noble friend Lord Blencathra said on the issue of guidance. Something must be done. Let us take back at least a little control.
My Lords, I think this House should be extremely grateful to the two noble Lords who have introduced their reports today. Both of them have the joy of being experienced in both Houses. They bring years of dedication to public service, and here we have before us not large tomes of material but just a few poignant pages of the issues we have been discussing this morning and afternoon. I am not going to cover what has already been covered by other noble Lords, but I wanted to say to them, and to all Members who served on either of those two committees, my personal thanks, and I hope the thanks of all of us, for the dedication and commitment they have shown day after day on these committees.
I will voice my thoughts on one particular area. I had the privilege of being the Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means in the other place. I remember there was a procedure—certainly in the Speaker and myself talking, and I think the other deputies also—of having brought to our attention when and why the Henry VIII clauses were being used, so that we, who were sitting in the Chair, had knowledge of the situation. I have to say to my good and noble friend Lord Blencathra, that was longer than 20 years ago, and I think Henry VIII has the ability to last through the centuries. From my point of view, that is a typical example.
I also had the privilege of sitting on the Public Accounts Committee for some 12 years. It was all-party and the joy of today is that this is all-party. That committee had the benefit of the work of the NAO to scrutinise what had happened to certain pieces of legislation and to put before our committee what we thought Parliament should do about it.
We, almost every time, set a sunset clause, and I believe that is one of the fundamental areas that must happen in every single piece of legislation. I have read carefully the two letters from the Leader of the House in the other place, and it seems to me, reading them, that the sentiment of those letters is that there is a willingness not just to listen but to act. Maybe not to act on every dimension that was raised in the two reports, but it seems to me that the climate is there, and that is so important in life.
We are a parliamentary democracy, and we do all care. Many of us have stood in the other place looking after constituents, and we still care for what we do, because that is our primary role for being here in the first place. By “we” I mean the Commons and the Lords, and this is one time when the two really must get together. My noble friend on the Front Bench has a degree of sensitivity to the nuances of Parliament. We should look at the titles of these two documents. The one from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee is Democracy Denied? The Urgent Need to Rebalance Power Between Parliament and the Executive; and the other one is Government by Diktat: A Call to Return Power to Parliament. I look to my noble friend on the Front Bench to recognise the sincerity, the depth of work that has been done, and the real need for positive action on both these fronts.
My Lords, I welcome these reports, as I have welcomed reports produced by these two committees and the Constitution Committee before 2021-22. I particularly welcome the unequivocal language in which these reports are expressed; there is no way that anybody can misunderstand their meaning. I also welcome the support on all sides of the House for what the reports have said, and in particular for the two speeches by the leading protagonists.
But at this stage of the afternoon, I want to ask myself a different question: what is the total sum? I do regret that the total sum seems to add up to the very distinct possibility, though it is not particularly underlined in the reports, that increasingly we are being governed by proclamation. Of course, we wiped out government by proclamation when the Stuarts were here, and there are many proclamations which are fine—there is a proclamation every time you drive past a speed limit sign, which tells you “That is the limit, that is the law”. When we are told to wash our hands more than three times a day for 20 seconds or more, that is advice, and there is nothing wrong with proclamations that set out the law or government advice.
The problem is where the Government of the day set out the sort of issue that arose during the Covid pandemic, “How do we deal with it?” I am not going to enter into the argument about it, but it undoubtedly was government by proclamation. The real question is, “What sort of proclamation rule do we have?” I am taking a word which has been used quite a number of times this afternoon; we have proclamations in disguise. The disguise is the parliamentary process. The parliamentary process, if you take every word down to its last theory, provides a perfect controlling system by which secondary legislation—statutory instruments—is controlled.
We all know that it does not work like that, and the reason we know that it does not work like that is twofold. First, when was the last time the House of Commons, which after all produces this material for us, actually rejected a statutory instrument? Gazillions of thousands of pages have been produced, but the last time was in 1979—is that a form of control being exercised? Then you have the other side of the same coin, which is, “Why do the Executive continue to do it this way?” The short answer is, “Because it’s very friendly to do it that way, and because the controls that are supposed to be available are not being deployed.”
I want to draw the House’s attention, really by way of summary, to the latest piece of legislation coming our way, the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. It is a skeleton Bill with a supercharged Henry VIII clause, and it illustrates my point. The first clause is on “Minimum service levels for transport strikes”. It is actually declaratory and does not make any law at all. It is misleading, because in paragraph 4 of new Schedule A2A, you will find that there are relevant matters relating to health, national security, social care, education, the economy and the environment, and that:
“The Secretary of State may by regulations amend this paragraph to change the matters that are relevant matters”,
so they can just add to this list.
I should interrupt myself to say that I am not making any comment on the value or otherwise of this proposal; I am looking at it as a piece of legislation. Clause 3 tells us its extent, Clause 4 tells us its commencement and transitional provision, and Clause 5 tells us its Short Title—that is it. There is one real clause in it: Clause 2, about the “Power to make consequential provision”. Hang on a minute: about what? The Secretary of State
“may by regulations made by statutory instrument make provision that is consequential on this Act”,
“Regulations under this section may amend, repeal or revoke provision made by or under”
an Act passed
“before this Act, or … later in the same session … as this Act.”
This is an important piece of legislation. We have all read the Government’s response to the two reports we are discussing this afternoon, but I do not see any link whatever between those responses and this legislation. We cannot go on like this.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Prentis, on his maiden speech. It is always a particular pleasure to welcome a fellow Member of your Lordships’ House who was born in Leeds. I am sure he will make a very substantive contribution to the work of the House, and I look forward to hearing from him in future. I begin with an apology on behalf of my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester, who, as a former chair of the Delegated Powers Committee, was very much looking forward to taking part in today’s debate. Unfortunately, she is indisposed. I am sure she will be watching the debate avidly and have clear views on it.
The reports we are debating today deal with one of the most fundamental and fraught relationships in a democracy: that between the Executive and the legislature. There is an inevitable and natural tension between the two, and different democracies strike different balances between them. In the case of the UK, we have developed a series of conventions about how the relationships work, which, broadly speaking, have stood the test of time. These reports demonstrate that this relationship has shifted in recent years, in that the Executive have successfully sought to increase their control of legislation by reducing the scope of primary legislation—which is subject to full and detailed scrutiny, amendment and sometimes rejection—in favour of secondary legislation, over which there is very limited scrutiny, which is incapable of amendment, and which in well over 99% of cases results in the statutory instrument being approved in its original form.
As the reports make clear, this increased use of secondary legislation has a number of causes. Sometimes the Bill is presented to Parliament before there has been time to do the detailed drafting. Sometimes Ministers themselves seem unclear about exactly how they expect the intended legislation to operate. In what appears to be an increasing number of cases, Ministers simply seek to maximise their discretionary powers at the expense of Parliament. Since the reports were produced there have been a number of very clear examples of this principle in practice. The Schools Bill—now thankfully withdrawn—was one, as is the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, very eloquently pointed out, the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is another. There is clearly widespread agreement, not just in the reports but in today’s debate, that the current trend towards skeleton Bills and the increasing use of secondary legislation is unsatisfactory and should be reversed.
In his evidence to the Delegated Powers Committee, the then Lord President argued that proposed ministerial powers contained in upcoming legislation via secondary legislation were subject to intensive scrutiny by the public bills and legislation Cabinet committee. I sat on that committee for three years from 2012, and that issue was rarely discussed. If it was, it was in the context of whether widespread SI-making powers would cause problems in getting the Bill through your Lordships’ House. It was certainly never about whether in principle the Bill was giving Ministers too much power. Maybe since then things have changed, as he suggested. But the evidence of many recent Bills is that, to the extent that they have changed, they have done so for the worse. It would be a bad mistake to place any faith in the PBL committee to redress things.
Instead, we look to reports. They contain a swathe of sensible proposals about how to improve the situation. If implemented, they would undoubtedly go some considerable way to doing so. But the reports do not completely address how Parliament should respond when faced with proposals that still contain far too many discretionary ministerial powers to be exercised by secondary legislation. What should we do about it?
In the medium term, one way of addressing that is to increase Parliament’s ability to amend or reject an SI, as several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord German, have suggested. For the Lords, this could take the form of asking the Commons to think again, in much the same way in which we do for primary legislation. For the Commons, it might take the form of requiring an amendment to be made before the SI is approved. Such an approach is being proposed by the Hansard Society in its delegated legislation review, due to be published later this month, which I commend. Such new powers should be accompanied, as the Hansard Society proposes, with other measures that have at their heart a new concordat between Parliament and government that would establish a clearer boundary between what should go into Bills and what should go into SIs. If that approach were to stand any chance of success, all the main parties would need to sign up to it in advance of the next general election and include such proposals in their manifestos. This is a good time to contemplate that, and I hope very much that the parties will do so as they are beginning the process of putting together their manifestos.
However, the next election is not being held tomorrow. For the next 12 to 18 months, we have to decide how to deal with legislation either currently before us or that will reach us at a later date. There are two ways in which your Lordships’ House can and should exercise its authority if it feels that the Government are taking too much arbitrary power. First, as a Bill goes through the House, we should make it clear that when we see too extensive delegated powers we are prepared to vote against them at clause stand part. Even the threat of doing this can sometimes concentrate ministerial minds, as we saw with the Schools Bill. If the Government insist, we should put the matter to a vote. If the whole Bill is little more than a skeleton Bill, we should in extremis be prepared to vote against the Bill as a whole. Secondly, when, as happens from time to time, the Government bring forward SIs based on existing legislation that the House thinks goes beyond what was envisaged when the Bill was debated, or that are simply badly drafted, we should be prepared to vote against them. The noble Lords, Lord Liddle, Lord Norton, Lord Sandhurst and Lord Cormack, and my noble friend Lord German and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, among others, suggested that as an option. I realise that those on the Opposition Front Bench are opposed to this proposal in principle; they will not do it, in case the Conservatives do it to them if and when they are next in government. However, this is not a principle but a political calculation.
I know that many on the Cross Benches are concerned that voting against an SI breaches the conventions but, as a number of noble Lords have said, the Lords has always had the power to say no in extremis, and it should be prepared to exercise it—not on a regular basis, but when an SI is particularly deficient. The only alternative to taking this action is that we simply let the Government get away with it. No volume of condemnatory speeches and no regret Motions have the slightest effect. The Minister might be slightly discomfited, but frankly that is a small price that the Government are very willing to pay to get their measure through.
For the world outside Parliament worried about a cost of living crisis and a collapsing NHS, today’s debate must seem a mile away from their day-to-day concerns, but the effectively unfettered use of ministerial power will affect many aspects of their lives. It is not what they expect of their democracy—and they are right.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. I start by thanking the chairs of the committees, the noble Lords, Lord Blencathra and Lord Hodgson, for their excellent introductions. I also want to thank all members of the committees for their hard work in producing these reports. We have heard that both committees collaborated closely, producing parallel reports and holding joint evidence sessions.
Crucially, as we have heard this afternoon, the overwhelming message is that the abuse of delegated powers is, in effect, an abuse of Parliament and of democracy. Despite the response from the Government, these reports, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, reminded us, will be a prompt to strengthen Parliament in the coming years.
It is worth repeating the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. This is not a debate about Lords versus Commons; it is a discussion about how we strengthen Parliament. I will not be tempted to comment on what we might be able to do in Opposition and then as a Government. The fact is that our democracy is a parliamentary democracy, and it is how we strengthen Parliament that is now most important.
The conclusions of the DPRRC report are that it is now a matter of urgency that Parliament should take stock and consider how the balance of power can be reset. As it says, far too often primary legislation is being stripped out by skeleton provisions and, with the inappropriate use of wide delegated powers, it is increasingly difficult for Parliament to understand what legislation will mean in practice and challenge its potential consequences. We have heard numerous examples from across the House of such legislation being put before us, including Bills that are currently before the House.
Importantly, the committee’s report refutes the argument that parliamentary legislative procedures cannot respond swiftly to address urgent, unforeseen situations. As part of my responsibilities as shadow FCDO spokesperson, I have been involved in work on the war in Ukraine. We worked with the Government to ensure a speedy response to a very difficult situation. It did not avoid parliamentary scrutiny, but meant working collaboratively to address the urgent issues. Of course, both Brexit and the pandemic are other good examples of that.
The committee’s analysis of the historical account of delegated legislation shows there have been times when the Government of the day have been impatient of parliamentary legislative constraints. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, says, Parliament rightly demands patience in fulfilling its most important role: making our laws—and making them good laws.
One of the things that I have done is work with the noble Lord, Lord True. We have had debates on Bills before this House in which we have pointed out that clauses had unforeseen consequences. To be fair to the noble Lord, Lord True, he has supported the Opposition in taking clauses out of Bills where that has happened, and I thank him for that. It is important that, in this debate, when we are critical of our procedures and of some of the things that the Executive do, we stress the importance of the work of this House and how well we do it. I do not accept that we do not force the Government to change—because we do. More often than not, 90% of the changes that we make are not via votes and defeating the Government; they are by winning the argument and making the case, which sadly does not happen too much down the other end. But we do it here, and that is really important.
The recommendation in the SLSC report that Parliament and the procedure committee should follow a special procedure for skeleton Bills with substantial delegated powers was rejected in the Government’s response. They argue that Parliament is able to consider each Bill on its own merits, and agree or disagree to delegating powers. In reality, of course, the ability to do this limited. As the DPRRC noted:
“The limits on Parliament’s ability to intervene in delegated legislation places an even greater significance on ensuring the appropriateness of the delegation in the first place.”
The tax credits situation is a really good example of that. It is also a good example of where we did not use our powers to push down something; we used them in an innovative way to say to the other place that it should think again. The problem that the Government of the day had in that situation was that they were not confident that they would have a majority in the elected House. Our role was not to abrogate the responsibilities of the democratic House; it was to say to the democratic House, “Here you are; think again”. That House was prepared to think again and changed its mind. That is the important thing in this debate.
The Opposition supports these committees’ recommendations. Substantive components of policy should be decided and presented via provisions on the face of a Bill, not devised and introduced by secondary legislation after a Bill becomes an Act. We have had many examples of that recently. I hope that the Minister could, at the very least, consider consulting on the merits of creating a new procedure for skeleton Bills. I hope that there will not be a closed-door situation here. The Government’s response to date on the recommendation that there should be fewer cases of poor practice and the improper use of secondary legislation and guidance is not convincing. Departments need to improve their efforts to ensure that a clear and appropriate distinction between legislation and guidance is maintained. The pandemic highlighted the inadequacies of this process.
The SLSC was not convinced by the answers it received in evidence about why sunset clause provisions are not used more often as a matter of good practice. I have moved amendments myself in recent times on why a sunset clause would be appropriate. The Government could now, of course, also consider a greater use of various forms of sunset clauses, such as a sunset and renewal clause.
In the Government’s report The Benefits of Brexit: How the UK is Taking Advantage of Leaving the EU, the Government said that they would
“provide guidance to departments on the use of sunset clauses in regulations and Legislative Reform Orders, including when they should be used”.
I would welcome the Minister sharing this guidance with the House, so that it could be formally reviewed. I realise that it may already be available, so I would welcome the Minister writing to me about it, particularly on the circumstances in which the Government consider sunset clauses should be used.
I am running out of time. I wanted to address a number of issues, particularly with regard to Henry VIII powers. Perhaps the Minister could tell us what progress has been made towards the DPRRC contributing to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel delegated powers training sessions. As noble Lords said, this is a debate where we do not have to wait for legislative change. There is policy and practice that we can influence, which is why it is so important that these committee reports are reviewed properly on a regular basis.
My noble friend Lady Armstrong mentioned the importance of civil society. In fact, a lot of our work in reviewing legislation involves engagement with civil society and how we hear other voices. Here I take the opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lord Prentis on his excellent maiden speech. That speech highlighted that our work is not limited to listening to ourselves; it is about how we reach out to communities, and support and confidence in our democracy is about how we engage with our communities. One of the things I have heard is about how we take back control. Certainly, taking back control is about how we empower our communities; how do we ensure that power is devolved to our communities and our towns and cities?
I conclude by saying that I have read the Hansard Society’s initial recommendations, which are due to be published, and I certainly think, like my noble friend Lord Hendy, that a new concordat between Parliament and government that sets out principles of legislative delegation would be a really good starting point. I hope the Minister can support the principle of that being adopted.
My Lords, on that last point, obviously I look forward to seeing the Hansard Society report in full when it comes out; it has been referred to by a number of noble Lords, and I will address that at that stage.
I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Prentis of Leeds, on his excellent maiden speech. My beloved only brother, who died a few years ago, was for decades a member of the noble Lord’s trade union, first as NALGO and then as the amalgam. I once asked him, “What’s this Prentis like?” and he said, “He’s not one of the worst.” I have to say that having heard his speech today, he is clearly one of the best. That was one of the best maiden speeches that I have heard, a gracious maiden speech, and we look forward to hearing a lot more from the noble Lord and to his contribution to this House.
I feel that I am in an odd place here, because I started serving your Lordships’ House as private secretary to the Leader of the Opposition in 1997. I suppose I am a poacher turned gamekeeper now, but I retain something of the poacher’s heart. I love Parliament, and I have listened with great attention to this debate and understand the gravity of the issues raised and their importance to your Lordships’ House. I will not just reflect carefully on what we have heard and what we have read in the reports, as Ministers always say, but will consider ways in which we can have further discussions on some of these matters.
I thank my noble friend Lord Blencathra and the DPRRC, and my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for their recommendations on this issue. I also thank all noble Lords who contributed today. Someone said that it is a disgrace that we have had to wait so long. My noble friend the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms and I have been in these places for only a short while. We have sought to bring committee reports to your Lordships’ House and we will continue to do so to the best of our abilities.
I do not come to defend big Bills. I share the view of the ancient Greek poet that a big Bill is a big evil. Large Bills can certainly frustrate the process of orderly discussion just as much as skeleton—as they are described—Bills may. We need to reflect collectively on both of those matters and whether either of those extremes are the right way to go forward.
It has been a challenging and powerful debate. I have listened to it not only as a government Minister but, as I said at the outset, as Leader of your Lordships’ House. At times it has left one conflicted. It is in my part as Leader of your Lordships’ House that I repeat that I will reflect carefully and consider with colleagues the important points made today. I am old enough and conservative enough, like the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, who said in his important speech, along with others, to think that there was much to be said for some of the old ways of preparing and carrying legislation. This sentiment was shared by many of your Lordships.
As a member of the Government, I am also a member of the committee examining future legislation, to which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred. In government, I am not alone in believing that there needs to be a check on some of the perceived line of direction. In the last few years, all departments have been asked to appoint a Minister and senior official to be responsible for secondary legislation. Although departments are responsible for the quality of their own secondary legislation, Ministers can be—and are—asked to account for their department’s performance to the PBL Committee. All statutory instruments must now go through a PBL triage process, which is relatively new. Departments are given laying dates to limit the number of statutory instruments having to be considered at any one time by Parliament. Through this, we try to ensure that there is a steady flow of statutory instruments being laid before Parliament to facilitate scrutiny by your Lordships. These changes have strengthened the Government’s approach to secondary legislation.
The former lord president of the council, my right honourable friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, wrote to the DPRRC and other committees of your Lordships’ House setting out explicitly that
“Bills with substantial powers, though sometimes essential, should not be a tool to cover imperfect policy development.”
I think many of your Lordships have said that today. Those should not be empty words; I do not think my right honourable friend meant them to be. I hope that the PBL Committee will be able to live up to what the former lord president said.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hutton of Furness, said, a central question underlying this debate is about the balance of power between the Executive and the legislature. It is right that Parliament should challenge, as these reports do, and as your Lordships have done today. My strong belief is that the starting point of the balance is that Parliament must have what it needs to scrutinise legislation. This is in all Governments’ interests, as the noble Lord opposite implied. I stated previously that the quality of legislation is improved by properly conducted scrutiny and dialogue within your Lordships’ House and elsewhere.
There have been so many points raised in the debate. Of course, the dreaded words “Henry VIII” emerged from many mouths, starting with my noble friend Lord Blencathra and finishing with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. The 1539 Act was obviously an undesirable constitutional development. I agree, and noble Lords will be pleased to hear that the Government agree, that powers to amend primary legislation must be strongly justified, precisely drawn and clearly defined. I agree with my noble friend Lord Blencathra and so many others that vague, sweeping powers are inappropriate. Each new power that the Government ask of Parliament is considered on its own merit within government, and of course in your Lordships’ House.
As set out in the response to the Delegated Powers Committee’s report, we are working to improve awareness of appropriate use of powers across Whitehall through existing guidance and the continuation of training on the sorts of factors that must be considered when determining whether they are justified. We will expect departments to continue to publish their justification for any Henry VIII power in the delegated powers memoranda that accompany each Bill.
My noble friend from the Cabinet Office was here for the end of the debate, and I am sure that she will have heard the interesting suggestion that DPRRC and other input could go into the training for civil servants and those drafting and preparing legislation. I know she will reflect on the suggestions put forward. I cannot, however, promise what the outcome of that reflection might be.
A lot has been said about the sub-delegation of power and disguised legislation. I think that this is a serious issue. There is a huge acquis which goes back through legislation over decades in relation to delegated and disguised powers, and powers which are operated by bodies below the level of the Government. It is something which we need to consider and think about. The Government continue to uphold the presumption against the sub-delegation of legislative power and therefore would expect any provision in a Bill which allows novel sub-delegation to be fully justified. The Government will update existing guidance for drafters to make it clear that the policy background section should provide an explanation of any proposed legislative sub-delegation.
Pre-legislative scrutiny was advocated, quite rightly, by a number who spoke. We are committed to pre-legislative scrutiny where possible, as there are often real, recognised benefits to doing this. I agree with those who made that point. My right honourable friend the Leader of the House of Commons wrote to the chair of the Liaison Committee on 21 June to confirm the Government’s approach to publishing Bills in draft. This Session we are planning for pre-legislative scrutiny to take place on a range of Bills: already published are the draft victims Bill and the draft mental health Bill, and later this Session we will publish the draft protect duty Bill and the draft media Bill. The Government will continue to consider which Bills would benefit most from pre-legislative scrutiny and inform Parliament in the usual way. However, in some instances, it is not practical; for example, immediately after a General Election or where an immediate legislative response is required.
The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, asked at the outset about post-implementation reviews, and that was a recommendation in the report. The Government note this recommendation, but the PIR process is now being reviewed as part of the proposed reforms to the Better Regulation framework. Government publications relating to legislation, including a PIR setting out the conclusions of the review, should be published online alongside the relevant regulations. The Better Regulation exercise is working with the National Archives to update guidance for departments to ensure that PIRs are published online. In addition, the National Archives is exploring options for improving the accessibility of PIRs.
A number of noble Lords, beginning with the right reverend Prelate, and including the noble Lords, Lord Goddard and Lord Liddle, the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, and others, referred to Brexit and indeed to the retained European law legislation as a difficult case in point. Well, we will see what happens when that Bill comes to your Lordships’ House. I comment only that it arises from a mass of legislation that was imposed, without any effective scrutiny, on this Parliament for over 40 years.
A challenging speech was made by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and the sentiment was taken up in a thoughtful speech by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, with loud murmurs of assent from the Liberal Democrat Benches, which were then voiced by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. Others called for a power for your Lordships to reject statutory instruments or some power to amend. This arose—many noble Lords referred to it—in the context of the tax credits regulations in 2015. That precipitated the review by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde.
This House retains the power and the right to examine statutory instruments laid before it, and the Government support the Motion passed by this House in 1994:
“That this House affirms its unfettered freedom to vote on any subordinate legislation submitted for its consideration”. ”.—[Official Report, 20/10/94; col. 356.]
How nice it was to have the memory of the great Lord Simon of Glaisdale evoked by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. How well I remember that voice rising from those Benches. The Government agreed with my noble friend Lord Strathclyde’s review on this that in that case the will of the elected Chamber should prevail. There is no mechanism for the elected Chamber to overturn a decision by this House on statutory instruments. The Government said at that time that it was not something that could remain unchanged.
I counsel caution in this area. I note the sabre rattling that was heard today, and I also understand the frustrations which lay behind some of that. After all, part of the answer, as the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Newby, said, is to attack some of the issues that cause the frustration; for example, the scale of the delegation that is perceived. I think that untrammelled power should be considered carefully before being used.
It was in 1998 that the then Leader of the House, Lord Richard, described the DPRRC as
“one of the most effective weapons in the armoury of parliamentary scrutiny”—[Official Report, 13/5/1998; col. 1088.]
and how true that still is today. I certainly feel I have had a weapon at my throat. It is still the case for both committees, and the Government continue to take their work extremely seriously as a central contribution to parliamentary control over the Executive.
On delegated legislation in general, rather than so-called skeleton legislation, the Government must always seek to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between the detail in the Bill and the ability of the Government to deliver for the public, business and the country. Many noble Lords have recognised that that balance has to be struck. The ability to act quickly, the need to ensure that proposals are scrutinised appropriately and the effective use of parliamentary time must also be considered and judgments made. There will inevitably be times when the Government and parliamentarians disagree on how to weigh these considerations, and Governments must always seek to provide Parliament with the justification for their proposed approach. It is a matter of concern that your Lordships so widely feel that this balance is not currently being respected.
I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, why we could not accept the call to declare Bills skeleton Bills. Your Lordships’ report itself noted in paragraph 37 that a precise definition of “skeleton Bill” or “skeleton clauses” would be difficult to prescribe. There was one suggestion that the Speakers might do so, but there is no analogy between Mr Speaker in the other place, who has no authority here, and the Lord Speaker, who has no authority in the other place.
Surely, what is more important than defining Bills of this type is that the Government should bring forward legislation in orderly time, effectively drafted, to fulfil their policy intent. With it, the Government should publish a full justification for any delegated powers they are requesting. Governments must work productively to ensure that Parliament has everything it needs to hold government to account. If the Government do not do that, they are not doing what they ought to be doing. Noble Lords are outstanding in their ability to scrutinise legislation and are pretty fast in sussing out when departments have not done all they need to do, and I will undertake, as Leader of your Lordships’ House, to try to be on the case.
The culture in Whitehall was referred to, and I referred to that briefly. My noble friend was not very kind about the Cabinet Office’s Guide to Making Legislation. We will have another look it. My noble friend sitting by me will, I am sure, take that away. We are making progress, we think, in training officials and Ministers on the use of delegated legislation—but we will continue at it. The training programme focuses on many aspects of the secondary legislation programme.
The Government recognise that impact assessments and cost-benefit analyses were not always possible because of the emergency nature of Covid-19. However, we must learn for the future if we are to improve policy decisions and deal well with major challenges. What is needed when significant SIs are made, even in an emergency, is a simple assessment of costs and benefits, including knock-on interventions and costs. In the case of Covid lockdowns, these might have included a range of estimates—the increase in waiting times for cancer and other operations, the impact of school closures and other harms. As we said in our response to the Government by Diktat report, we agree that the provision of impact assessment is important to be able to fully consider the impact of policy changes. We will also look at that in relation to the points raised on secondary legislation.
I must conclude now, but I will simply reiterate the point that it is a difficult balance here. There are frustrations, but important issues have been raised and, as Leader of your Lordships’ House, I will not only consider those myself but take the substance of this debate into wider consideration.
My Lords, first, I wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Prentis of Leeds, on his excellent maiden speech, made in the finest traditions of this House. I was particularly grateful for his powerful contributions in our report, which I did not expect from a new Member but am very grateful for. I think I and the whole House welcome and respect those who come to this place after a lifetime of experience, whether in business, politics, farming, trade unions or other trades and professions. In the Commons, I always liked and got on well with Ronnie Campbell MP, who was the authentic voice of mining. Of course, Ronnie voted against Tony Blair a lot, which was another reason I rather liked him. Today, we have heard the authentic voice of the noble Lord on trade unionism, with his vast experience, and I can tell him that, if I am called upon to form a Government of national unity, he shall have a place in my Cabinet. We all look forward to hearing from him again in the future.
Turning to our reports, I too wish to play a glowing tribute to the clerk of both our committees—Chris Salmon Percival. She is the clerk for the Delegated Powers Committee and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and that is handling a massive amount. Every Bill that comes to this place, she and her team handle it—and the thousands of SIs which go through each year. When I came up initially with the idea of this, I had some wild ideas for what we should cover. Chris put it into the sensible structure we have seen in the report. She then spent 12 months analysing in detail and researching, going back to the 1920s and then doing the draft report. She reminded me of the late and magnificent Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. I asked him a few years ago, “Robert, when you were writing up Cabinet minutes, did you write out the details of what the Minister said or just a summary?” He said, “Oh no, dear boy, I wrote out what the Minister would have liked to have said if he had thought of saying it in the first place”. That was rather like my report.
I am very grateful to all 35 Peers who have taken part today. If my sums are right, 34 of them were in complete agreement with our report and the general thrust that we have too much inappropriate delegation of power. I am very grateful to my noble friend the Leader for his largely supportive remarks, within the brief he has to stick to. I rather like to think—I wonder whether other noble Lords agree with me—that if perhaps my noble friend the current Leader had been in his post 12 months ago, we might have had a slightly different response to our report: a more amenable and agreeable one.
I will not attempt to summarise anything today, since I could never do it justice, we would be here for far too long and the speeches speak for themselves. I will pick up just two little points. I rather liked history and thought I was quite good at it. I think I got an A in my Scottish Highers and I knew about Henry VIII. But I can tell this noble House that in my 27 years in the Commons, 10 years as a Minister and four as Minister of State in the Home Office, bashing through a huge criminal justice Bill every year—which your Lordships largely rejected—I never once came across the term “Henry VIII powers”. I suspect that in all Governments—the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, told me this—Cabinet Ministers get to hear of it when a private secretary comes in and says, “Minister, would you sign this letter we are sending back to the Delegated Powers Committee?” “What’s it about?” “Oh, they’re complaining about Henry VIII powers.” “What are you talking about? What are Henry VIII powers?” I am fairly certain that is the case, and I would love to see that proved.
My second point is that we often got delegated powers memoranda that said, “Of course, we’re taking this extraordinary power, but the Minister doesn’t intend to use it, or won’t use it in this way or that way”. We always replied by saying, “It’s not how the current Minister says he or she is going to use it, it’s how the law says it could be used by any future Minister”.
Of course, there is a wider debate to be had on the whole way in which secondary legislation is made, especially now that we are out of the EU. That is a very valid discussion to have, and noble Lords have raised some of the points today. I would love to see that discussion take place on whether we amend SIs, ask the Commons to think again or have a refer back procedure or sifting committee, which worked remarkably well for the EU withdrawal Bill. But our Delegated Powers Committee report is not asking for any of that. I do not want to hear an excuse that our report is rejected because we are opening up a whole can of worms on how SIs are made and government would grind to a halt. All we want is proper scrutiny under the existing system. The worst the Government would have to do with our delegated powers report would be that Lords Ministers would have to do some more affirmative resolutions, either in this Chamber or in the Moses Room. That is not too high a burden to place on government.
I do not want to go through the Leader’s excellent speech in detail, but I am certain that we shall study it in detail in Hansard later. All I will say is that I rather welcome his tone that further discussions are necessary. I will make a suggestion to him—one of two suggestions I shall make. I refer to the 2019 Conservative manifesto, which states on page 48:
“In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission … and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.”
Of course, that was aimed at human rights law, judicial review and so on, which I now understand are off the table, but I suggest to my noble friend the Leader that we tweak that manifesto commitment promise and have a special Joint Select Committee of our Houses to look at how secondary legislation is done in future. Then the Government could spin it in the next manifesto that they implemented that promise.
I see the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, smiling. I think I noted that he said that the Opposition were completely in support of our report. I look forward to that firm commitment in the Labour Party’s manifesto.
My final request to my noble friend is this. I would like him to send 60 hard copies of today’s Hansard—not just a link—to every person drafting Bills in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. They need to read the real reason why the House of Lords is “difficult”. Perhaps then they will draft laws taking into account our legitimate concerns about parliamentary democracy and proper parliamentary scrutiny—and then they may find that the House of Lords ain’t so difficult after all.
My Lords, it was 12.09 pm when my noble friend Lord Blencathra got to his feet, and now it is not far short of 4.09 pm, so I shall be extremely brief. I begin by adding my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Prentis, for his extremely splendid maiden speech, and I add my thanks to the clerks, to Christine Salmon Percival and the team at the SLSC. I thank all Members of the House who have spoken today. We have had some tremendous speeches, and a rich menu of suggestions and ways forward have been put forward for us to consider and reflect on. If the House will forgive me, I would particularly like to thank my fellow members of the SLSC who have taken the trouble to come along and speak today.
I was not surprised, but I was very pleased, at the degree of Back-Bench support from across the House. The road to constitutional reform will be rocky, long, steep and stony and it will be traversed only with a maximum degree of cross-party support from the Back Benches. It will be vital that we reach out to our similar-thinking colleagues in the House of Commons, again on a cross-party basis, or the slur that this is the unelected Lords trying to tell the elected Commons how to do their job will be game, set and match.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, that I recognise what a difficult line he had to follow, with the seductive thought of government, perhaps, within a couple of years. As my noble friend Lord Blencathra said, he dealt with that well. I am delighted to hear his support for the recommendations. I think that he and his party hold an important key, to unlocking the way forward in this particular regard. Without wishing to flatter him, he has a particular responsibility and ability to make things happen, if he and his party so wish. So, we will be watching carefully what he thinks about this in a more measured way.
Finally, my noble friend, the Leader of the House is as ever a polished and practised parliamentarian. He does not give much away; he always gives a very well-thought-through performance, which I enjoy hearing. I am grateful to him for his reassurance about various aspects of impact assessments. I was also grateful for his undertaking to reflect on what we have been doing. As a background to that reflection, I remind him of Admiral Beatty’s saying at the Battle of Jutland. He said:
“Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead”.
If that was the conclusion of his reflections—that we should go full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes—I think that would be a mistake.