Checks and balances on ministers powers to reorganise quangos

Posted on November 25, 2010 by

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On Tuesday, the Lords looked at the Public Bodies Bill in a committee of the whole house – this Bill is interesting because it’s the way the government intends to reorganise all the quangos and create a single research regulator, among other things. There is concern that the powers the bill gives ministers may provide very little opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny.  An initial amendment designed to restrict the powers the bill would give ministers and ensure that parliament gets the opportunity to scrutinise what they are doing was successful. The Bill still has a long way to go through the Lords and Commons.

Background

This is the Bill that the government has introduced to create a legal framework to enable them to make changes to quangos, modifying their constitutions, funding arrangements or transferring their functions elsewhere, without opening up the original Act that created them. They will use these powers to make all the changes to quangos they are planning, including reorganising the research regulators – the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) to create a single regulator of research. More background here.

What happened on Tuesday

Tuesday was the first day of committee stage – see all the stages the bill will have to go through here – where each clause of the bill is discussed in turn. There are a lot of concerns about the proposed powers the Bill would give the government from a legal standpoint, reducing parliamentary scrutiny. The Lords Select Committee on the Constitution looked at it and concluded:

14.  The Public Bodies Bill [HL] is concerned with the design, powers and functions of a vast range of public bodies, the creation of many of which was the product of extensive parliamentary debate and deliberation. We fail to see why such parliamentary debate and deliberation should be denied to proposals now to abolish or to redesign such bodies.

and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee said that it considered

“the powers contained in clauses 1 to 5 and 11 as they are currently drafted are not appropriate delegations of legislative power. They would grant to Ministers unacceptable discretion to rewrite the statute book, with inadequate parliamentary scrutiny of, and control over, the process”.

An amendment seeking to restrict the powers this Bill might give to government ministers and ensure there is opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny was brought to a vote and was successful. This amendment is a first step in introducing some checks and balances to the Bill.

What next?

The next committee session is on Monday 29th. This Bill still needs to make it’s way through the rest of its stages in the Lords and the Commons so there will be lots more debate yet but it looks like the government will now work with the Lords to try and design a Bill which will give ministers the powers they want to rearrange the quangos while introducing some checks and balances.

Posted in: Policy