I was talking to a dangerous man about an even more dangerous man the other day. The even more dangerous man was Tony Blair, our smooth talking leader, who possesses what you could describe as a bellicose streak were it not so obviously the product of his special trans-Atlantic relationship with George W. Bush. The less dangerous man was Peter Fluck, who, in his Fluck & Law days, was the scourge of the Tory establishment with the TV satire Spitting Image.
It was a balmy day and Peter and I were enjoying a glass of wine or two in the garden of his home on The Lizard, Cornwall. Here, on the far western fringes of our great democracy, I was able to gaze out to sea and imagine the even greater democracy that is the USA. Unfortunately, my equilibrium was disturbed when Peter said he had something on his mind. “And this time,” he added, “it’s not the way in which Saddam has become an inspirational figure for Blair and Bush.”
No, Peter was preoccupied by something ostensibly rather less controversial. “It’s this Bill that Blair is pushing through,” he said. “The one that he says will do away with red tape.”
Red tape is evil, I replied; doing away with it is no bad thing.
“But that’s not what the Bill is really about,” Peter replied, and proceeded to educate me about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. This unexcitingly named piece of draft legislation purports to be the Government’s means of reducing the “red-tape hurdle” that its reforming zeal perennially stumbles over. In particular, the bill is supposed to remove the burden of regulation weighing on British business without the tiresome problem of having to refer to parliament first.
“Hang on,” I said, belatedly waking up to a constitutional conundrum. “Are you saying that this bill will allow ministers to ditch laws that they don’t like without having recourse to the normal checks and balances of parliamentary procedure?”
“That is exactly what I am saying,” Peter said.
I went away to research the innocuous-sounding bill. And discovered this: it is a loosely-drafted, deeply worrying and dictatorial measure that would enable the Government, by means of delegated legislation, to do such undemocratic things as abolish the right to trial by jury, allow Mr Blair to sack judges and permit the Home Secretary to place citizens under house arrest. New laws could be created at a whim, including, for example, an offence of incitement to religious hatred, punishable by two years’ imprisonment. Moreover, the bill could also allow the government to override the five-year limit on a parliamentary term.
Put bluntly, if it became law the bill would sound the death-knell to centuries of democracy.
I rang Peter to tell him that I found the bill as unappealing as he did. He was still brooding on it. “They say they’re backing down on it,” he said. “Jim Murphy, the Cabinet minister responsible for the bill, says that it’ll be redrafted so that it’ll be crystal clear that its only purpose is to tackle red-tape.” But Peter was not convinced and neither am I. The terms of the bill give ministers the power to reform legislation or introduce recommendations of the Law Commission, which suggests updates to the law, “by order”. Select committees would be allowed to scrutinise the orders and suggest changes, but they would not go to the floor of the Commons. The plan is that ministers will have the final say in deciding whether the order becomes law, but Mr Murphy now says that regulatory reform select committees will have a statutory veto in the Commons and Lords, allowing them to block fast-track changes.
The problem is that we have yet to see any detail from Mr Murphy. Moreover, the Bill requires a drastic reduction in its scope if it really is to be merely a red-tape measure.
Peter muttered darkly about contacting his old friend Law and designing some new puppets. “Mind you, if the Bill goes through,” he added, “we’d no doubt incite religious hatred and have to finish them in prison. Let’s hope it’s a nice, cosy Jeffrey Archer-type open prison with full puppet-making facilities and a pub down the road.”
I left Peter pondering his options and reflected that there could not be a more damning indictment of what New Labour has become than for its chief to be immortalised by the men who brought us Spitting Image.