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The government’s Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill intends to let
ministers make up a law, and make it law, without taking it through
Parliament first.1 The Bill is now set for its final reading in the House of
Commons. And every Labour MP has so far voted for it.

'We were misinformed' says Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport. In a recent
interview he is the first to break ranks and admit this. 'We accepted it at
face value. It hadn’t been properly discussed. It didn’t emerge on the radar.
We accepted the assurances that it was a deregulatory Bill, with no malign
effects.' He was, he added, very unhappy.

To understand how someone like Flynn, a prominent Labour rebel, can be taken
in, one must look at the saga of the Bill. Eight months ago no-one had heard
of the 'Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill', because it didn’t exist.
Instead, launched on July 20th 2005, was something described as a 'Bill for
Better Regulation'. It would, said the Cabinet Office, 'speed up the
Government’s Better Regulation agenda'. Behind the Bill was an independent
body called the Better Regulation Task Force (BRTF). In its 2005
report - 'Regulation - Less is More' - the BRTF recommended that the
government introduce a new Deregulation Bill.

The head of the BRTF was a businessman called Sir David Arculus, described in
the Telegraph as a 'serial chairman'. He was enthusiastic about his influence
on the government. 'I spoke to the Prime Minister and was delighted when he
agreed to sponsor our report' Arculus said, in a speech to the Financial
Services Authority in 2005. He had been equally delighted when the government
accepted all the BRTF’s proposals on the same day their report was published.
He was pleased to see the sudden emphasis Tony Blair had put on better
regulation in a speech to the Institute of Public Policy. The idea of a new
Deregulatory Bill for businesses was welcomed by everyone, apart from a few
concerned about the idea of unregulated business.

Fast forward to January 2006, when the first warning rumbles could be heard
about something called the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. They came
from the commercial law firm Clifford Chance. This Bill would mean, warned
their briefing to clients, that ministers would have the powers to create
legislation with 'very little scrutiny'. Legislation which then, the briefing
continued 'cannot be amended by Parliament.'

At the time, the Bill was getting its first reading in Parliament. It was
being presented as the final version of the 'Bill forBetterRegulation'. Yet,
in this version of the Bill, there was now no mention of deregulating
business. And the word 'Legislative' had crept in from nowhere. Nevertheless,
the Bill went through, untouched.

A month later, after the Bill had gone through its second reading in the
Commons, some people outside Clifford Chance had actually read it. Bloggers,
Cambridge lawyers and media commentators started metaphorically
screaming. 'This is the Bill that will kill democracy'; 'This is
Hitler!' 'This is Stalin!' The Lib Dems then came out openly against it. So
did the Conservatives. 'What we have now', says Conservative MP Oliver
Heald, 'is the wide, fast-track power to amend, repeal or introduce primary
or secondary legislation by order for any purpose'.

Heald, backed by his party, has tabled several amendments to the Bill. The
Regulatory Reform Committee, who have just finished scrutinising the Bill,
have also tabled amendments. 'It can’t be right that Ministers be given such
wide and general powers to make any primary legislation. We called for extra
safeguards to be inserted into the Bill so we welcome the statement made by
Jim Murphy' said the committee’s chairman. The statement made by Jim Murphy,
the minister responsible for getting the Bill through Parliament, was simply
that the government 'will consider the addition of further safeguards'.

As indeed, they might. It is possibly worth noting that, in local government,
it is quite common to suggest an idea so outrageous that, after the expected
outcry, the administration can gracefully back down – and get their original
intentions passed without opposition. But here, this does not seem to be the
case. According to Oliver Heald, when asked why the Bill did not contain the
orginal recommendations concerning business regulation, Murphy replied 'We
have wider ambitions than that'.

The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is an urgent topic. It is due for
its third and final reading in the House of Commons around Easter. Over the
last few days many more people have become exercised about it, largely
because lawyers, journalists and bloggers have kept up the pressure. We now
know that it has leapt from mere business deregulation to allowing a
government to make up laws without parliamentary approval. We know that the
few safeguards currently built into the Bill can be removed once the Bill is
passed. 'We will just have to hope that they (the government) come to their
senses and realise there’s a great deal of opposition out there', says Paul
Flynn. Amendments or not, he will now be voting against the Bill this Easter.