Parliament should be given the chance to “think again” about government legislation that could damage the lives of “a large number” of disabled people, the speaker of the House of Commons has told campaigners.
John Bercow made the unexpected call at the inaugural Jack Ashley Memorial Lecture, delivered by Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson in the speaker’s own state rooms in the Houses of Parliament.
The intervention could be considered controversial, because – according to parliament’s website – the speaker has to remain “politically impartial at all times” as “chief officer and highest authority” of the House of Commons.
Bercow spoke out after a lecture in which the retired Paralympian and now campaigning peer discussed her concerns about changes being introduced through the government’s Welfare Reform Act and planned changes in the children and families bill, which includes major reforms to the special educational needs system.
Bercow told the invited audience that he believed MPs should carry out post-legislative scrutiny on the legislation referred to by Baroness Grey-Thompson in her lecture.
Post-legislative scrutiny is a rarely-used procedure through which a select committee carries out an inquiry into how new legislation is operating, usually about five years after it has become law.
Although all government departments have to publish a detailed memorandum describing how each piece of legislation has been implemented – between three and five years after it receives royal assent – only about six acts in the last 10 years have been the subject of a select committee inquiry.
Bercow, whose idea it was to hold an annual lecture in Lord Ashley’s memory, said: “Before a large number of years have passed and a large number of lives have been damaged, parliament would have a chance – if it thought it was right – to think again.
“I am very alarmed by the thought that the whole thing just becomes the established fact and there is no formal, high-profile opportunity for review.”
He added: “If the advocates of these pieces of legislation are right, they should have nothing to fear from post-legislative scrutiny and if they are wrong, they damn well ought to be fearful.”
He told Disability News Service afterwards that he was “simply floating the possibility that parliamentary colleagues might want to look at post-legislative scrutiny”.
He said: “I am not trying to score some kind of political point. I am not saying this legislation is bad or good.
“I am saying I don’t know; but it will affect people’s lives in a very big way, including some people who are vulnerable and it may well be that [the legislation]is the right thing to do and it may well be that it is the wrong thing to do.
“Surely it must be reasonable for parliament to take another look at it.”
He said he was not suggesting any particular legislation should be scrutinised, although he said Baroness Grey-Thompson had talked in her speech about the children and families bill.
And when asked if the Welfare Reform Act was another piece of legislation that could be scrutinised, he said: “It might well be.”
2 July 2013