The House achieved a notable success on Monday. As readers will recall, the Public Bodies Bill attracted criticism from all parts of the House. It is a ‘Henry VIII’ Bill, enabling ministers to change primary legislation – in this case, Acts establishing particular public bodies – by order (that is, secondary legislation). A particular focus of criticism – by both the Constitution Committee and speakers in the Second Reading debate – was Schedule 7 of the Bill. Other schedules list public bodies that are to be abolished or have their functions amended or merged. However, Schedule 7 is a ‘not yet decided’ category, where bodies are included until such time as the Government decides whether to move them to other schedules – or not. I described it as a category of ‘living uncertainty’.
There were also significant constitutional objections. Various quasi-judicial bodies were included. I drew attention to the Information Commissioner. He has to adjudicate in cases to which the Government may be a party – the very same Government that is holding the Sword of Damocles over his office.
The scale of opposition to the provisions, especially Schedule 7, was notable for its quality as well as its quantity. I have previously drawn attention to the powerful criticisms levelled by the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, in the Second Reading debate and by the current Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, in evidence to the Constitution Committee. The report of the Constitution Committee on the Bill was much quoted in debate.
I tabled motions to remove Schedule 7 and Clause 11 (which gives effect to Schedule 7) from the Bill. These were likely to come up for debate next week. I was confident that there would be a majority in favour of the motions. In the event, the Government has sensibly recognised what was likely to happen and on Monday the Minister, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, announced that he was adding his name to the motions. In short, the Government have accepted that Schedule 7 has to come out of the Bill.
This reflects the capacity of the House to influence legislation. In a recent debate, I offered the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill as an example of worst practice when it comes to parliamentary scrutiny and the Public Bodies Bill as an example of best practice. It shows how Government may be persuaded through discussion to accept changes to legislation. Further discussions are taking place to improve other parts of the Bill. It is work in progress. Monday’s announcement, though, constitutes major progress.