The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act - discussed on Law in Action, Radio 4

On the 21st at 4pm, on Radio 4, 'Law in Action' discussed the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill which I have written a lot about in recent weeks. To clarify, this is a bill with a boring name, but it is worth knowing about - and writing to your MP about.

The programme should be available on the BBC Radio 4 website for the next 6 days or so (a shame there is no version to save to the hard drive). Here's the direct link to the audio (but it will no longer be correct after the 28th March 2006. A brief overview may be seen here.

I wanted to be sure that I had a record of this conversation, so I trust that the wonderfully marvellous 'Law in Action' team (Radio 4, 4pm, tuesdays) will look kindly upon the following transcript. Of course, it's not a substitute for listening to the programme itself.

Time into program: 21:50

PRESENTER: Like almost everything else Parliamentary Democracy has it's knockers. Most people do seem rather attached to the principle that if the government want to change the law they have to put their proposals before parliament and have them scrutinised. But that could be under threat from the little noticed 'Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill'. One of those who thinks so is Daniel Finkelstein, the comment editor of 'The Times', and it's been keeping him awake at night.

DANIEL FINKELSTEIN: No-one wants to be thought of as a nutter, so it's best to keep quiet about your nightmares. But I have to admit, I've been having a nightmare in which the government of the country decides one day that it's fed up with passing legislation. It can't be bothered to put its bills through the house of commons. So one day when no-one's looking it passes a piece of legislation that allows it to just to change any bill it likes without consulting parliament through the normal bill process. And it does that without anyone really objecting, it sails through the house of commons by a whip system, and before we know it the house of commons has given away its power to the executive to change laws at will. The problem with this nightmare is actually true. I wake up sweating to discover that the government has actually introduced a legislative and regulatory reform bill which does, almost unbelievably, abolish the Magna Carta rights and make it possible for the government to change any law it likes at will.

PRESENTER: Daniel Finkelstein. But is it really so drastic?After all, the government says the bill simply streamlines the regulatory reform act of 2001. Does Cambridge Professor of Law, John Spencer QC, agree with that interpretation?

PROFESSOR JOHN SPENCER QC: Absolutely not! It goes far beyond that. (and I still don't see this issue in the evening news... Murk) If enacted in the form in which they introduced it it would give the government the power to rewrote almost any legislation on almost anything with hardly any limits.

PRESENTER: Give me some examples. What sort of things could the Government do, theoretically, if this bill becomes law?

JOHN SPENCER QC: Well, theoretically it could, for example, rewrite the legislative and regulatory reform itself to remove all the safeguards written into the bill for the exercise by the ministers of the powers contained in the bill. Or it could rewrite all the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 so as to give itself the power to do the things that parliament wouldn't let it do in the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

PRESENTER: And just to be absolutely clear about this it could do any or all of that without bringing those proposals before parliament?

JOHN SPENCER QC: Without bringing them before parliament in a bill which would then have to be voted through as an act. They'd have to proceed by way of an order, and there isn't the possibility for debate and amendment, of course, when you proceed by order rather than by an act of parliament.

PRESENTER: What the government would say, of course, is look yes, okay, but there are so many safeguards built into this bill that there aren't going to be any abuses.

JOHN SPENCER QC: If they say there aren't going to be any abuses, why have they written the powers in such wide terms? It wouldn't be difficult to amend this legislation to give themselves just the powers they claim that they actually need. If that's all they need why don't they reframe the powers which they propose to give themselves in such a way that it couldn't do, even theoretically, the sort of things they say they don't want to do?

PRESENTER: Is this another example of us not having a written constitution and therefore the government being able to, effectively, to tinker with the constitution?

JOHN SPENCER QC: It's exactly what the problem is. It's high time we had a written constitution in which the basic structure of legislative powers of the country were laid down in a document which can't be altered by parliament itself under the ordinary procedure.

PRESENTER: I presume that what you would like, if this bill is going to go through in any form similar to the one in which it's presented, is that you would like a parliamentary veto added to it.

JOHN SPENCER QC: I absolutely would. I would like something added to this under which any 50 MPs, preferably drawn from different parties would have the right to veto the use of this procedure and put the proposed legislative change along the normal track of bill leading to an act.

PRESENTER: Why haven't we heard opposition parties on the news and over the news media beating their drum, and why aren't people marching in the streets about it?

(Damned good question, it's something that's frustrating me no end - Murk)

JOHN SPENCER QC: I think first of all, the opposition hope they'll win the next election and may be thinking to themselves 'jolly good, we'll be able to use this when we're in power' (Edit: You cynic... I must admit to sharing similar thoughts - Murk). I think secondly people just haven't noticed. This is wrapped up in something soporifically boring, the removal of red tape around the regulation of business, and nobody's really noticed.

PRESENTER: So how dangerous a precedent is this for our parliamentary democracy?

JOHN SPENCER QC: It is unbelievably dangerous. It means potentially marginalising parliament. It moves us a big step toward the elected dictatorship every five years, it's a step toward a system under which the only break that we have on our ministers is the fact that there's a general election every five years. (He seems to overlook the fact that even this may not be guaranteed, as, if I recall correctly, the five years is set by the parliament act, which is itself changable by the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act - Murk)

PRESENTER: Professor John Spencer QC. We asked for an interview with the minister piloting the bill through the commons, but he was unavailable. (Coward - Murk). We were given this statement by the Cabinet Office.

CABINET OFFICE: We will continue to listen to the views of parliament. It's vital that we get this bill right so that the government, in partnership with parliament, business, public sector and voluntary workers can get on with saving businesses time and money, and freeing up public and voluntary sector staff to deliver services of exceptional quality.

PRESENTER: And it you've got any statements of your own to make, do put them into an email and ping them over to us at lawinaction (that's one word) at bbc dot co dot uk.


To take action, please write to your MP, especially if they're a 'usual suspect', and kick up as much fuss as you can. If you have a website, refer to this bill. You can also link to the Save Parliament website, or to one of the posts on the site you're reading now!

According to Spyblog, Jim Murphy who is the one in charge of all this, has only had 50 representations on this matter. Let's put aside the issue that this is not a well known bill (despite the dangers it presents). Let's also put aside that it's not made clear what proportion of those representations are for or against the bill. Let's also ignore the issue that we do not have a sense of how many representations are usually received on a particular topic. Putting all of this aside, it's clear that he needs to get more mail.

Spyblog has helpfully done the research, which I'll present below

I sent this to 'Law in Action':

I was so pleased to finally here the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill discussed on the Radio (there was a brief mention on the Today program on something like the 22nd Feb).

I was very disappointed not to hear this picked up in later news programmes.

Please, keep up the good work.

Online, people have been campaigning against this bill, I first posted on it back in early feb, and have posted lots since then:
My first post on this topic

There have been several sites set up especially about this bill. Most notable are these:
Save Parliament
Campaign Against the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill
Rightlinks

Spyblog is also very good:
(Link to Spyblog)

Coming back to how to contact Jim Murphy (the guy responsible), with thanks to Spyblog:

Send the Minister your views about this wretched Bill::

Jim Murphy MP
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State
Cabinet Office
70 Whitehall
London SW1A 2AS

Switchboard: 020 7276 1234

Astonishingly, the Cabinet Office does not seem to have a central email address for general enquiries from the public, or one for contacting the Ministers or their staff, unlike other Government Departments.

In theory Jim Murphy's email address is:

jim.murphy@cabinet-office.x.gsi.gov.uk

It may also be worth sending a copy of you letter or email to:

Regulatory Reform Bill Team

Better Regulation Executive
4th Floor
22 Whitehall
London SW1A 2WH

Tel: 0207 276 2155
Fax: 0207 276 2138

regulatoryreformbill@cabinet-office.x.gsi.gov.uk