The way the Statutory Instrument has become part of the way we are governed without democracy

Extract: "regulations were sneaked through as secondary legislation under a statutory instrument - a device that allows the executive to do what it wishes with only the most cursory parliamentary scrutiny. Every year under Labour, many more than 3,000 statutory instruments have been laid before Parliament for rubber-stamping, and the number is growing. There is hardly time for most backbenchers to read them, let alone debate them."

How Blair tamed his poodle

Telegraph Opinion

(May 15 2002)

The Government (of which Stephen Byers is a member) is pressing full steam ahead, or so it says, with the next stage of reforming the House of Lords. A joint committee of peers and MPs is to draw up a list of options, and then a free vote will be taken to decide the role, composition and powers of the new chamber. We are going about our constitutional reform back to front.

That the United Kingdom is in the grip of a constitutional crisis nobody should doubt. As speaker after speaker, Left, Right and centre, pointed out at The Daily Telegraph's recent Free Country conference, the crisis is that Parliament has far too little control over the actions of the executive.

But that crisis has its roots in the Commons, the House that decides how the country is governed and who should govern it. The Lords is the second chamber, both in name and importance, whose job is to balance and check the power of the first. How very odd, therefore, to propose reconstituting the Lords before settling the future of the Commons, from which any reform of the second chamber should logically flow. The very fact that many MPs favour a wholly elected second chamber shows how frustrated they are with the elected Commons as it is now run. They feel powerless to restrain an over-mighty executive - and, as things stand, they are right.

Take one example: today, the Commons will have its one and only chance to debate a measure that has already given the Government extraordinary new powers to seize and slaughter healthy farm animals and pets without their owners' consent. The TSE (England) Regulations 2002 came into force without debate on April 19, even though similar measures had been rejected by the Lords only three weeks earlier. So how did the Government manage to extend its powers so enormously without the consent of Parliament - indeed, against the expressed wishes of the Lords?

The answer is that the regulations were sneaked through as secondary legislation under a statutory instrument - a device that allows the executive to do what it wishes with only the most cursory parliamentary scrutiny. Every year under Labour, many more than 3,000 statutory instruments have been laid before Parliament for rubber-stamping, and the number is growing. There is hardly time for most backbenchers to read them, let alone debate them.

But there are many other means by which the balance of power in Britain has shifted away from Parliament. Since Labour was elected, the Government has abused its enormous Commons majority to mount a sustained assault on Parliament's authority in a way that has grave implications for British liberty. The attack has been on three fronts: managerial, procedural and constitutional.

On the managerial front, Labour has deliberately recruited bland parliamentary candidates, likely to do as they are told. It has then whipped its MPs mercilessly to keep them "on message". It has packed the watchdog committees of the House with its own appointees, keeping likely trouble-makers out.

Procedurally, one of Mr Blair's first acts was to declare that he would answer Prime Minister's Questions only once a week, instead of twice. "Family-friendly" parliamentary hours are being introduced, to send MPs safely home to bed, where they can cause no trouble to the Government. The parliamentary guillotine has been used constantly to silence debate - even on constitutional Bills, which by convention had always been debated in full. Meanwhile, important policies have frequently been announced outside the House. All this, while a weak Speaker watches on.

Constitutionally, Parliament's powers have been sapped by devolution, Europe and a judiciary newly politicised by the Human Rights Act. The Commons - between elections, the only guardian of the people against the executive - is being emasculated. The Opposition parties must commit themselves to beefing up the watchdog committees of the House and codifying the old conventions that once held the executive in check. They must make firm pledges now - before they, too, are corrupted by power.

May 15 2002