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Government is ruling by ‘Executive edict’, Bishop of St Albans tells House of Lords

20 January 2023

House of Lords official portrait

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith

THE Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has voiced concerns that the Government is ruling by “Executive edict”, without sufficient parliamentary scrutiny.

Dr Smith spoke on Thursday of last week during a debate in the House of Lords on a report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, Democracy Denied? The urgent need to rebalance power between Parliament and the Executive.

The report says that “the abuse of delegated powers” — when Parliament delegates its legislative powers to ministers, for example when there is an emergency — is “an abuse of democracy”. The report also examines the use of “Henry VIII powers” — “conferred by primary legislation which enable a minister, by delegated legislation, to amend, repeal or otherwise alter the effect of an Act of Parliament” — and “skeleton legislation” — which includes “bills or parts of bills which so substantially consist of delegated powers that the policy change which the bill or clauses are intended to implement is, in effect, left to delegated legislation”.

Speaking in the debate, Dr Smith said that it was necessary, “in unusual and challenging circumstances”, for the Executive to use “delegated authority” — but it was “absolutely crucial that this is done sparingly and in a transparent manner”.

He continued: “The Government’s response to the pandemic is the classic example of this. Of course, there are times when a national emergency will demand that we fast-track legislation, or grant broad delegated powers, but those should be exceptional and rare cases. The Government must always recognise the importance and value of parliamentary scrutiny. What is concerning . . . is that the Government’s widening use of delegated legislation is not limited to emergencies, but is now being used routinely.”

Dr Smith also urged the Government “to think very carefully” about the use of skeleton Bills and Henry VIII powers, “as they will have no grounds for complaining if a future government of another political persuasion use the very same powers.

“If this becomes the norm, any government will take it for granted that they can ignore scrutiny by Parliament. As a minimum, we need policies that have the support of both Houses and all parties, and clear principles on what needs primary legislation and what can, in exceptional circumstances, be dealt with by delegated legislation.”

He concluded by saying that parliamentary scrutiny was “one of the core constitutional functions”, and the Government should be willing to be scrutinised by Parliament, “particularly on any matter relating to the rights of the individual: their privacy, security, and right to speak or assemble”.

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