When he entered office, Rishi Sunak used his first speech as prime minister to emphasise that his government “…will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.”
At the time, this came as a relief as the autumn government led briefly by Liz Truss had sent shockwaves through the country on both the economy and the environment.
But it seems political memories are conveniently short as the government’s approach to its Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill continues to undermine the prime minister’s commitment to “accountability at every level”.
Legal foundations give the strongest accountability
The government maintains that the scant scrutiny processes in the bill will suffice and that an environmental safeguard is not needed because it has made verbal commitments about how it intends to use the bill’s powers.
Much has been said about how the words of today’s ministers often mean little to their successors. With an election looming, any government that wants its commitments to last into the future has no alternative: it must put them in law.
The growing trend to horde powers and keep parliament at bay has been documented by numerous select committees and commentators. For example, the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee concluded that “…it is now a matter of urgency that parliament should take stock and consider how the balance of power can be re-set.” The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee found a growing imbalance between government and parliament and has called for power to be returned to parliament. The Hansard Society has called the powers in the REUL bill a “blank cheque”.
Amendments to the bill, proposed by crossbench peers Lord Hope of Craighead and Lord Krebs, are a small but welcome step in this direction. They would restore power to MPs to oversee changes to over 4,000 laws and establish an environmental baseline. Passed for a third time on 20 June by significant margins, which is unusual for this late stage of proceedings, these important safeguards have once again been incorporated into the bill. Ministers have, therefore, been presented with a final chance to seek common ground.
Political expediency can mean words don’t last
Last week, even though there was consensus in the House of Lords that redefining the meaning of ‘disruption’ in relation to police powers around protests was constitutionally problematic, the new laws were agreed. In this case, the government opted to use the back door to legislate because its plans had been rejected in the Lords during consideration of the parent legislation only weeks beforehand.
That the executive should be able to override the express will of parliament because it happens to be in secondary rather than primary legislation has worrying implications for democracy. It highlights the importance of building in checks and balances to the use of executive powers when primary legislation is passing through parliament.
The recent report of the privileges committee and the ensuing sanctions on the former prime minister Boris Johnson, reinforce that ethical leadership is about setting and sticking to the rules.
Good leadership involves consensus
Political leadership in these straitened times is demanding and challenging. Negotiating a middle way on strongly held views is a prerequisite. It is, therefore, baffling why government ministers have so far declined to do that on these important issues.
On the REUL Bill, at this late stage in a parliamentary process, the expected convention should be to seek compromise so that a middle ground might be found, and matters completed.
Friday 23 June is the seventh anniversary of the Brexit referendum. The government will, no doubt, want to mark it by ensuring that its keystone Retained EU law Bill is put to bed before then as part of its ongoing narrative to ‘Get Brexit Done’.
But, if it continues to disregard parliamentary conventions, where compromise is sought on both sides when long running issues are put forward, then it is likely to either miss the chance to mark the anniversary by finalising the bill or be forced to use a ramrod approach where a silver tongue would have worked far better.
Consensus is a political good and a way of navigating between different interests. Good leadership is based on building it not imposing will. It will also foster the accountability which the prime minister has set so much store by.
As Edmund Burke once said, “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens than subtle disputants.”
We hope the government will heed these wise words, the advice of parliamentarians and independent advisers, civil society and business voices, and unite itself with the public good to make sure that important rights we will all benefit from are protected. Then we can all move on to focus on the many challenges that lie ahead.