Henry VIII stalks the Public Bodies Bill

9 November 2010 by

Updated | The Select Committee on the Constitution has published its report on the Public Bodies Bill, and has expressed concern that the Bill as proposed will impose “Henry VIII” powers on the Executive.

The Bill, which has already attracted attention for seeking to abolish 192 quangos, is currently making its way through Parliament (track its progress here) and has its second reading in the Lords on Tuesday 9th November. You can watch a recording of the debate here. The committee reports:

When assessing a proposal in a Bill that fresh Henry VIII powers be conferred, we have argued that the issues are ‘whether Ministers should have the power to change the statute book for the specific purposes provided for in the Bill and, if so, whether there are adequate procedural safeguards’. In our view, the Public Bodies Bill [HL] fails both tests.

The Public Bodies Bill [HL] is concerned with the design, powers and functions of a vast range of public bodies, the creation of many of which was the product of extensive parliamentary debate and deliberation. We fail to see why such parliamentary debate and deliberation should be denied to proposals now to abolish or to redesign such bodies.

I posted on the issue of so-called Henry VIII clauses in July, following concerns by the Lord Chief Justice. Indeed, the committee’s report appears to be identical to one published in May, so the concern is ongoing but becoming more urgent as the Bill gets closer to becoming law.

Afua Hirsch at the Guardian calls the Bill a “vampire law”, although it is not clear why this particular monster is used to represent it: probably because what appears to be one thing will ultimately become something far more sinister. The point she is making, and one which is shared by the Constitution Committee as well as the Lord Chief Justice, is that the powers conferred by the Bill are, by any measure, frightening.

The Law and Lawyers blog has also recently sounded the alarm that the bill, if passed into law, will amount to a “permanent extension to Ministerial powers exercisable with quite minimal Parliamentary oversight.” It is “replete” with so-called Henry VIII clauses, which could provide unchecked power to the Executive. See also the Justice briefing paper on the Bill.

This government has promised to devolve power from Whitehall. This frightening Bill may prove to be a significant test for that pledge.

Update, 11 November 2010 – Joshua Rozenberg has written on the Bill in the Guardian.

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