New powers for ministers are a mistake, PM told
By Melissa Kite, Deputy Political Editor
Tony Blair has been warned by one of his most senior cabinet colleagues that he must abandon a highly controversial attempt to extend ministerial power.
Lord Grocott, the government chief whip in the Lords, has expressed serious doubts about the safety of a Bill allowing ministers to change the law without a vote.
In a highly critical letter to the Prime Minister, a copy of which has been seen by this newspaper, Lord Grocott warns that it will be "exceptionally difficult" to get the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill through.
It contains sweeping powers for ministers to amend, repeal or replace primary and secondary legislation without asking Parliament and has earned the nickname at Westminster of the Parliamentary Scrutiny (Abolition) Bill. Some MPs claim it gives Labour powers in excess of those afforded to Henry VIII.
It was conceived to cut the burden of regulation on business, but has been transformed into a much wider set of measures. In a letter dated March 14, sent to John Prescott, who is in charge of the legislation, and copied to Tony Blair, Lord Grocott says: "From the outset I have been worried about the handling of this Bill in the Lords. I am concerned that by failing to consider further changes we are missing our last opportunity to avoid likely defeats and potentially lengthy ping pong.
"It is probable that the Lords Delegated Powers Committee will express serious concerns about the bill. The Constitution Committee is also likely to express doubts."
He said concerns centred on "the broad scope of the proposed power … that a minister of the crown may by order make provision for reforming legislation".
Ministers have repeatedly said the Bill has safeguards to ensure that no major law can be altered by a minister.
But Lord Grocott hit out at "the inadequacy of the existing safeguards on the face of the Bill".
He said: "Is it possible to consider redefining or limiting the scope of the Bill so that (it) is more explicitly aligned with our expressed objectives of cutting red tape and helping businesses?
"Already a Bill that is aimed at reducing unnecessary regulation, which we thought would be well received, has run into widespread opposition.
"If there is no further scope for greater precision about the objectives of the Bill, I predict that it will prove exceptionally difficult to secure its passage through the House."
He made clear that Baroness Amos, the Leader of the Lords, agreed and said he had copied the letter to the Prime Minister and to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell.
Oliver Heald, the shadow secretary for constitutional affairs who is leading resistance to the Bill in the Commons, said: "This was sold as a deregulation measure that would help businesses but has ended up with ministers seeking unprecedented powers of the sort that could only be justified in times of war.
"Now one of the most senior figures in government agrees with the Conservatives that the powers in this Bill need to be reined in. The time has come for the Prime Minister to listen to this advice and change the Bill. We will vote against it unless changes are made."