Around a year ago, I said on the subject of legislative productivity –
Now, how many laws should be passed? Given that we get as many laws as possible, to the very limit of the time available, there is no reason to believe that the level of legislative production is exactly the ideal level. The behaviour of Parliament suggests that they think we need many, many more laws, but there just isn’t time.
If this is what they think, and they are right, we should surely be looking at some constitutional reform to allow more laws to be passed than is possible currently. To some extent, the addition of extra layers of government — regional and European — provides this opportunity, but I’ve never heard them advocated in these terms.
I suspect this is because no-one really believes that what this country needs is higher legislative production. But that leads to the question: if we don’t need more laws than Parliament has time for, why does Parliament pack as many as possible into the time it has?
I believe that it does so because it is in the interest of politicians and bureaucrats to personally pass as much legislation as they can, independent of the interests of the public.
Now we get the Regulatory Reform bill – precisely “some constitutional reform to allow more laws to be passed than is possible currently.”
This has been compared by some to Hitler’s Enabling Act – and the connection is obvious enough. Strictly speaking, however, and assuming I haven’t misunderstood (I have no legal training or background), the orders made under this bill have to be laid before the House like other statutory orders, and can be rejected by Parliament.
Interestingly, in my piece referred to above, I then went on to look at the European Parliament:
…this effect reaches a whole new level in the European Parliament, because of the rules governing it. Where, as in this case [Software Patents], the Council adopts a proposal different from that adopted by the Parliament on first reading, Parliament is assumed to approve the changes, unless it finds time within a three-month period to disagree! This truly is a revolution in legislative productivity. Imagine if, say, the US Senate worked under this rule. Rather than have to find time to pass the laws you want to pass, all laws will automatically pass except the ones you find time to oppose.
This obviously gives even more power to whoever arranges the Parliament’s business.
I had no idea how prescient I was being! This is exactly the reform we are now talking about.
Therefore, the effect of this bill is not absolutely to hand over legislative power to the executive; instead it is to give Parliament the same role as the European Parliament has in the EU – the role of an observer whose aquiescence, rather than approval, is needed for laws to be passed.
Indeed, the bill seems to model the government of Britain very closely on EU structures. The Law Commission takes on the law-drafting role of the European Commission, putting forward rules – through the Cabinet (like the European Council) – that automatically come into force unless prevented by Parliament. Anyone who thinks that Brussels is the ideal role model for structuring a democratic government should support this bill.
In the long run, the distinction between this bill and the Enabling Act is not likely to be very significant – a Parliament whose own law-making powers are stripped or made irrelevant is only likely to decline in authority, until occasional nuisance-value opposition to the government of the day is seen as a curious anachronism, and the last safeguards are removed.