Power has been drawn away from parliament during coronavirus and Brexit, with the government ruling “by diktat” at times, peers have warned.
Reports by two cross-party House of Lords committees found that laws were being enacted without due scrutiny as ministers have made use of procedures which “effectively bypass parliament’s role in the legislative process”.
The peers said the government’s power grab was enabled by a shift to using secondary legislation and other technical measures.
Secondary legislation — powers afforded to ministers which require less input by MPs and peers about legal alterations — has been employed in the past few years to accomodate for the vast changes to UK law after Brexit and the need to respond quickly to the emerging threat of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee (DPRRC) have warned in both their respective reports published on Wednesday against the practice.
They said, as a result of the divergence from using primary legislation, the “balance of power between parliament and government has for some time been shifting away from parliament”.
They both said: “A critical moment has now been reached when that balance must be reset: not restored to how things were immediately before these exceptional recent events, but reset afresh.”
Lord Hodgson, chair of the SLSC, said that, while it was understandable that the Covid outbreak meant speed was required in introducing restrictions, “government by diktat must not become the norm”.
He said that “hundreds of laws are being imposed on all of us” without effective scrutiny by parliament.
“Increasingly the government has made use of secondary legislation, regulations and orders which are subject to a much lower level of scrutiny than primary legislation,” he continued.
“Given this, it is not surprising that the executive can be tempted to put as much of the law as possible into regulations.”
Lord Blencathra, chair of the DPRRC, said it was imperative the powers of parliament and government be “rebalanced”.
The reports condemn the growing use of so-called skeleton bills that give ministers sweeping powers to make secondary legislation that can be passed with “little or no consideration” by the two chambers.
They recommend that skeleton bills be used only in the “most exceptional circumstances” in future, along with a published justification for their use.
Peers also want the Cabinet Office’s Guide To Making Legislation to be amended to emphasise that when ministers choose to use such delegated law-making powers, that their decision is based on the “principles of parliamentary democracy and not political expediency”.
Additional reporting by PA