Sunday, February 26, 2006

democracy and accountability, "where relevant"

Charlie Whitaker at perfect points out that democracy in the UK should be understood in terms of accountability:

A free society can choose to grant its leadership extensive power - as long as it retains the right of informed democratic oversight. The powers the prime minister describes are not his to take or to give away. They belong to the nation. [...]

Last week its Mayor was removed from office for a month by an unelected quango created by, uh, New Labour. The Lord giveth with one hand: but what is he doing with the other? We don’t see until our new ‘freedoms’ are removed with a sudden swipe.

He is, of course, talking about the looming threat of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, whose name is an exercise in keeping the content and purpose of legislation out the sight of casual public enquiry.

This particular 'reform' allows.. well.. how to put this without sounding alarmist.. it allows a sitting government to rewrite almost any Act, and enact a few more besides without Parliamentary approval. Not my words, so much as the words of six professors from Cambridge's Faculty of Law.

The restrictions on this Act seem to be of the loosest, most easily circumvented kind: that measures be 'proportionate' to policy objective, strike a fair public interest balance and do not impinge upon a freedom a person might otherwise reasonably expect to continue to exercise - which all sounds good until you realise who gets to decide what that means, and when those criteria have been fulfilled. This briefing note (pdf, link via points out that the bill doesn't require that these criteria are met - only that Ministers consider they have been met, where relevant.

Under such a law, acountability becomes reduced to a four-yearly exercise in hope - hope that you'll be able to vote someone else into power, and hope that they'll act to reverse decisions taken outside of parliament and resist using the powers themselves. It is, quite simply, an invitation for idiots to behave like dictators.

(crossposted at RS)

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