It is tempting to blog on how the conventions in the Companion are being ripped up by the Government by not allowing time between the committee and report stages of the Parliamentary Bill. But I suspect interest in that legislative marathon is waning.
As we wait and see whether a credible deal will be done on the Parliamentary Bill, we don’t know whether we will have time to debate anything else next week. If we do we are scheduled to return to the Public Bodies Bill where we are still on Clause 1 after 7 days in committee.
In this case no one is being accused of a filibuster. This is the bill to get rid of all the arms length bodies and it is proving a most unpopular bill, poorly conceived and requiring extensive scrutiny as a result.
Top of the list of controversial elements are the proposals relating to forestry. The public reaction should have been predictable. The response on BBC’s Question Time showed how angry people are. Like the inclusion of some other bodies in the bill, it seems either ideological or solely for appearances sake that the forests should be privatised. It is now clear it won’t raise any money.
People like to walk in the woods. They like trees. They want to retain their access and retain protection of threatened natural species like the red squirrel. They can see no reason to privatise the trees and plenty of risks.
I spent a year as Biodiversity minister aware of how potent a political force the biodiversity lobby of the combined membership of the National Trust, the RSPB, and the wildlife trusts could be. The government will have to change its mind.
The Government has already responded to the powerful concerns of the judiciary and backtracked on some of the reforms to the public bodies working in the criminal justice system. They will have a massive fight on their hands of they don’t also listen to the concerns of Baroness Deech and others on the HFEA and the HTA. But it also looks increasingly likely that a bigger axe may fall on the Bill.
Beyond the detail of individual bodies coming or going, some of the biggest objections to the way this bill works has come from the constitutional experts. The Constitution Committee and the Lord Chief Justice have been particularly scathing in their criticism of the use of Henry VIII powers in Schedule 7 of the bill. Henry VIII powers are where the government takes powers to amend primary legislation by executive order – thus depriving Parliament of the powers of thorough scrutiny. Schedule 7 is a very long list of public bodies that the Government proposes being able to move into any one of the other lists for abolition or amendment by order.
The Government is probably realising that even if it manages to resist an amendment to remove the list, it will then take a long time to debate the future of all the bodies listed. The Committee stage could last much longer than the 17 days we took on the Parliamentary Bill.
I think they are planning to bow to public pressure and remove Schedule 7.
The best evidence is in the Education Bill published just over a week ago. The Bill includes measures to abolish four education bodies that are in Schedule 7 of the Public Bodies Bill – the General Teaching Council for England, the Qualification and Curriculum Development Agency, the Statutory Support Staff Negotiating Body, and the Training and Development Agency for Schools. It also legislates to change the powers of another Schedule 7 body, Ofqual. This is to be welcomed. Both houses can now debate and amend the bill around the transfer of the powers of these bodies. That is what Parliament should be able to do for all the others on the Schedule 7 list.
I hope I’m right, the Bill would be much healthier after removing the diseased branch of Schedule 7.