Powers which “strike at the heart of our constitutional system” may be diminished

24 November 2010 by

Updated | The House of Lords has voted against the Public Bodies Bill for a second time, making it more likely that the so-called Henry VIII powers buried within it will be revised.

The House defeated the bill by 235 votes to 201. The Bill, which has already attracted attention for seeking to abolish 192 quangos, was heavily criticised by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution. The committee said that the powers given to ministers under the bill to change the statute book were too broad, and needed to be limited by procedural safeguards (see this post). It argued:

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.

The second defeat of the bill may now lead to these powers being revised. Politics.co.uk reports that a Cabinet Office spokesperson said afterwards that “The House of Lords has voted to include more safeguards on ministerial powers in relation to reforming quangos and we will work with the House to address this and take forward these important reforms.”

It is unsurprising that the Lords has rejected the bill. As the committee report stressed, “the bill, in particular “hits directly at the role of the House of Lords as a revising chamber.” So voting for the bill would have been to endorse a reduction in second house’s powers.

Opposition to the extra-ministerial powers has been almost universal within the legal community. I posted on the issue of so-called Henry VIII clauses in July. Joshua Rozenberg  calls themstaggeringly wide“. Afua Hirsch at the Guardian calls the Bill a “vampire law”, and the Law and Lawyers blog sounded the alarm that the bill will amount to a “permanent extension to Ministerial powers exercisable with quite minimal Parliamentary oversight.”

You can track the progress of the bill here.

Update, 24 November – Joshua Rozenberg has written an extensive and interesting account of yesterday’s 8-hour debate which led to the vote. He compares the speeches of two well-known human rights jurists and Lords: Lord Lester and Lord Pannick. The result is interesting.

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