A recent article on the proposed sale of Forestry Commission land on LibCon seems to have revealed a far more far-reaching attack on Parliamentary democracy by the government. The amount to be sold in England over the next few years is about 100,000 acres, which is 15% of current holdings. However, they want to sell far more – potentially over 500,000 acres (leaving only about 10-20% not privatised). The reason that they cannot do that right now is down to existing law that restricts the sale or externalisation of the bulk of the public forestry estate.
To get around this, a series of extra powers on forestry have been added to a bill has that has been raised in the House of Lords by Baron Taylor of Holbeach, called the Public Bodies Bill (PBB). This Bill itself goes far beyond just forestry, and it gives Ministers at Westminster (or at the devolved assemblies/parliaments) powers to order abolition, merger or constitutional changes to huge swathe of organisations. Rather than using legislation (requiring examination by committee and several debates), the government would be able to simply issue an order to be voted on by each House.
Stanley Johnson on ConservativeHome was a source for Lib Con, and he has raised concerns following this exchange when Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for the Environment, and a DEFRA civil servant appeared at the Commons committee that deals with Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently:
The Chair of the Committee stated: “That’s a once and for all legislative permit, that you will never again as a Department have to come back for future sales of forestry or such?”
Defra civil servant: “That is the intention.”
Secretary of State, Mrs Spelman: “The Public Bodies Bill is an enabling Bill on the reform of a wide range of arm’s-length bodies.”
Chair: “So you will never, ever again have to come and ask permission?”
Secretary of State, Mrs Spelman: “We should not have to, no.”
Chair: “So this is our one and only chance?”
Defra civil servant: “Yes.”
The Telegraph has an article concerning the PBB, in which it points out that the types of order to be used are based on those initiated by Henry VIII, used to give Crown (and so government) proclamations the force of law, without having to go through all that bother of passing a law through Parliament.
So, if passed, the PBB would be an ‘enabling Act’ that covers more than just forest sales. Looking at the Bill, and particularly the schedules at the end, the scope is massive. It would also only take an order to expand the scope to include many other bodies, rather than legislation. The removal of a level of Parliamentary scrutiny means that more power will be centralised with Ministers and less with the MPs. The chances are that any such orders will be simply nodded through as long as a government has a majority.
Now, some people will simply say that it is fair enough, that these public bodies are just a bunch of quangos and who needs them anyway? Let us look at some of those included in the schedules:
The Charity Commission
The Office of Fair Trading
The National Parks authorities
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
The Chief Coroner, Deputies and Medical Advisors
Director of Public Prosecutions
Civil Aviation Authority
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
HM Land Registry
Independent Police Complaints Commission
That’s just a dozen of the many entries on the schedules where powers to abolish and/or merge and/or drastically alter by order will be given to Ministers if the Bill passes. It is perhaps appropriate that this anti-democratic proposal has been raised for the government in the unelected House of Lords. Selling off most of the publicly owned forestry land through the PBB is bad enough, but the Bill itself was already designed to chop through our Parliamentary constitution.