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Mon 6 July 2020
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David Hencke reports on the radical moves to undermine parliamentary democracy by Boris Johnson’s chief advisor and the Cabinet Office Minister

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Britain is changing from a parliamentary democracy towards an elective dictatorship faster than people realise after Boris Johnson’s election victory.

The announcement that Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor, has quit is the most high profile indicator of a revolution that will be sweeping through Whitehall, Parliament and the courts over the next four years if Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings get their way.

Sir Mark will have to be replaced, under Civil Service Commission rules, by another permanent or former permanent secretary – but the new National Security Advisor, David Frost, is currently leading the Brexit negotiations with the EU and is a committed Brexiter and darling of the Vote Leave movement.

Last week, the Prime Minister’s controversial chief advisor Cummings was reported to have warned that a “hard rain” would soon fall on the Civil Service.

What has not been noticed is that the vast majority of new Whitehall appointments are now going to business and data experts – part of Cummings’ revolution to bring in ‘disrupters’ and, in his words, “weirdos and misfits” into the heart of Whitehall.

The search for a new permanent secretary for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) already involves a New York recruitment agency, Russell Reynolds, which states on its website: “The organisations that don’t disrupt themselves are the ones that will be disrupted.”

Now, BEIS is recruiting a new head of behavioural change, data and insight with the aim of using data to revolutionise its communications strategy.

A BEIS spokesman said that this will be beneficial: “Our recent Coronavirus campaign activity successfully reached some of the UK’s most disadvantaged groups, including vulnerable workers and business owners from a black and minority ethnic (BAME) background, via TV adverts on community-focused channels, such as the Sikh Channel, British Muslim TV, and Islam Channels (Urdu and English) as well as translated radio live reads. As a result, this insight-led strategy helped lead to an increase in the take-up of Government support measures amongst these groups.”

The Department for Work and Pensions is recruiting 16 business analysts to organise its “products” – benefits and pensions – and nine new software engineers.

The current 11 vacancies at the Cabinet Office are mainly data-orientated, with plans for new databases to be created for people with disabilities and black and ethnic minorities, including a new position to run a national location software system.


Deliberate Disrupters

In a speech at the weekend, the Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove – and Vote Leave ally of both Johnson and Cummings – backed the chief advisor’s agenda, praising Cummings’ new £800 million advanced research projects agency which will allow scientists unlimited cash to follow their latest “crazy” ideas.

He also attacked the establishment and said that “the whole culture of Government, and the wider world of political commentary, is hostile to risk, adventure, experimentation and novelty”.

He then laid out the Government’s programme:

“We should… reform planning rules to fast track beautiful development, pioneer biodiversity net gain to offset any adverse consequences of development, better use anonymised NHS data to improve healthcare delivery, allow parents and others to compare schools on value-added, exam entries and attendance, among other factors, compare individual courts, judges and CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] managers on their efficacy on processing cases, look at how successful individual prisons are at delivering education and rehabilitation programmes, compare that with re-offending rates, assess the effectiveness of anti-radicalisation programmes, ask what value for money gains the Troubled Families Programme has secured, interrogate the basis on which defence procurement contracts are considered value for money, ask how we judge the real impact of development spending, and I could go on

All of this is being accompanied by post-Brexit legislation that is allowing a power grab by ministers at the expense of Parliament and democratic accountability.

What was a parliamentary democracy which pooled some of its sovereignty as a member of the European Union is being turned into an executive democracy, in which ministers are taking power for themselves and bypassing Parliament.


Henry VIII Powers and the War of Independence

Far from ‘taking back control’ of our laws, Parliament – the elected legislature at the heart of our representative democracy – is being demoted. Its main role in passing laws is being undermined by ministers ruling by decree.

A report by the House of Lords Constitution Committee has forensically examined every piece of Brexit legislation and discovered extraordinary changes on the way in the next year.

The Government is using what are commonly known as Henry VIII powers – or statutory instruments – to give it authoritarian powers.

These include powers to create new criminal offences, impose unlimited fines on people, overrule in some cases legislation in the Scottish Parliament, and 150 new powers to changes duties and taxes on business and individuals.

Even with something as mundane as the granting a road traffic goods licences, ministers have not bothered to even specify to Parliament how they will use the powers.

At most, Parliament will get 90 minutes to debate each change and, in some cases, it will only be able to debate the change after it is already law.

In his speech, Gove also took aim at two other powerful bodies that provide accountability: the National Audit Office and select committees. He blamed them for the failure of Whitehall to be bold:

“Far too often, innovation in Government is treated as though it were a mischief rather than a model. The default mechanism of the NAO, PAC [Public Accounts Committee], other select committees and various commentators is that any departure from the status quo must be assumed to be more downside than upside. Had they been able to interrogate George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in 1783 they would have concluded that American independence was an expensive, untried and unjustifiable innovation. In Treasury terms it would have been novel and contentious and therefore stopped”

The position of the courts is also alarming. Ministers have taken powers under the EU Withdrawal Act to specify what retained EU law they should follow – not just at the Supreme Court, the final court of appeal in the UK, but also in the lower courts and at tribunals. 

Ministers have not published how this will be implemented, despite demands from MPs and peers to do so. Given that case law arguments are a key part of any trial, the peers rightly fear that is going to lead to chaos in the courts, with numerous appeals against judgments. Combined with this, the fact that ministers want to reform the judicial review procedure and – if Gove is right – assess the efficiency of judges handling cases, this is a power grab designed to reduce the independence of the judiciary.

By the time of the next scheduled General Election in 2024, if Cummings and Gove have their way, Britain will have a smaller, more authoritarian Government. The judiciary will be less independent and Parliament will not have to meet as frequently – because many changes to law will be made by ministers without the need for primary legislation. There will be more time for Johnson to play tennis and go for runs in the grounds of Buckingham Palace.

The only thing that could stop this authoritarian drift is the incompetence and arrogance of this Government itself, which has already been demonstrated by its failure to tackle the COVID-19 crisis competently.

The Government’s next steps are going to be restoring the economy and negotiating in a post-Brexit world – at the same time. Will it be a recipe for chaos?


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