This was another session with the Constitution Unit of University College London.
The topic of “skeleton bills” and “Henry VIII powers”, which have been highlighted a lot in recent political blogs and podcasts, was also prominent here. Although this problem is said to be particularly bad in the post-referendum era, it has been in the making for many decades. I asked the panel (at 1 hour and 35 seconds in):
“If the trend towards skeleton bills and secondary legislation gas been noticed for many decades, does this indicate a problem with the permanent government rather than the politicians?”
It was put to the panel simultaneously with two other questions. I will try my best to disentangle the answers.
Doctor Tom West said: Absolutely this is a long-running trend. The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 had very wide powers and people called it the “Abolition of Parliament” Bill. There are all sorts of examples of this being an issue, such as the financial crisis of 2008. Ministers, once they’re no longer in power, will come clean that there is an issue – Theresa May mentioned it at an IfG lecture last week. It’s very difficult while you’re in power to give up these very convenient ways of making law through secondary legislation. Brexit and COVID have raised the profile of this problem, but it is not exclusive to them. That’s what our Delegated Legislation Review Programme is looking at – we think there’s a need for a reset of the whole system of what these powers can be used for in the first place and how they can be scrutinised. We are in the middle of developing proposals.
Ruth Chambers said: This trend towards framework bills has been going on a long time. I’ve worked on environmental legislation for over twenty years. Just to give one practical example – it used to be that when governments would state consultation requirements on the face of the bill they would be quite explicit about which sorts of people and groups the minister should consult before taking powers forward. Now the more standard construction says the ministers can consult whoever they think they need to. Obviously that has consequences – bills often lack the future-proofing edge. It doesn’t matter how many times you have that conversation with ministers while they’re passing legislation, it doesn’t quite register that at some point in the future someone else will be wielding those powers. It also has huge implications for the public – the public businesses and civil society organisations really need to stay the course and engage with the secondary legislation not just the bill.