Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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Government must do more to explain its reasons when it pre-empts Parliament

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has yesterday published a report which says that the Government should do more to inform Parliament when ministers propose to take action before Parliament has passed the legislation that would make that action legal.

The Committee says that when ministers want to act in anticipation of legislation, known as "pre-empting Parliament", they should set out what they want to do, why and under what powers in a statement made to Parliament.

The Committee also says the Government should publish a full list of instances where they pre-empted Parliament at the end of each parliamentary session. 

Recent examples of occasions where the Government was seen to have pre-empted Parliament include:

  • The reorganisation of Primary Care Trusts into management clusters before the Health and Social Care Act 2012 become law
  • Public bodies such as the Youth Justice Board and Regional Development Agencies that were proposed for abolition in the Public Bodies Bill beginning to wind up their operations before the Bill passed through Parliament

The Committee calls on the Government to consolidate the principles and practices governing pre-emption and restate them clearly in the Cabinet Manual. It stresses that pre-emption should not take place when it might threaten the principle of effective parliamentary scrutiny.

The Committee considered a number of conventions relating to the pre-emption of Parliament, including the "second reading convention" – that some action based on legislative proposals can be undertaken after a Bill has had second reading in the House of Commons. The Committee makes clear that this practice has not been endorsed by Parliament and does not carry any independent constitutional force.

Commenting, Baroness Jay of Paddington, Chairman of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, said:

"There seems to be a lot of confusion about when the Government are entitled to pre-empt Parliament and what the impact of that is.

It is important that where the Government are seeking to pre-empt Parliament they make clear to Members of both Houses and the public why they are doing so and the powers they are using. We think that Ministers should do more to inform Parliament about executive action taken in anticipation of a Bill becoming law.

Recently, proposals to abolish the Youth Justice Board were dropped as the Public Bodies Bill made its way through Parliament. This presented the organisation with significant problems in getting back to normal working practices and recruitment, as it had planned to be wound up. Pre-emption can have a serious impact on a wide range of organisations. It should be approached with caution and, when undertaken, there should be greater transparency."

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