Fine words but disappointing actions so far from Rishi Sunak

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 28th Oct 2022

One of the main jobs of a member of parliament is to scrutinise legislation. It can be quite demanding while at the same time quite dull. But it is really important. You elect us to do it so you don’t have to. It is our duty and, compared to most of the population, we are paid quite handsomely for it.

It is tempting sometimes to leave the job to others, experts, lobbyists, interest groups or just to trot through the lobby or press the button indicated by the party whips, but parliamentarians should not abdicate their responsibility in that way. It is our duty to look diligently at the bills we are called to vote upon to be certain they won’t have adverse or unintended consequences for our constituents.

Of course, this applies equally to Holyrood as to Westminster. As to the former we don’t have to look too far for an example of a bill which has caused huge controversy and the unintended consequences of which many feminist campaigners and those with knowledge and experience of safeguarding believe MSPs have not considered as fully as they should.

Readers know my views on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill which passed its first stage yesterday. It allows anyone (not just trans people) to self-identify as the opposite sex with next to no meaningful safeguards and therefore carries with it inevitable risks that I do not believe have been properly acknowledged or considered. While reform of the Gender Recognition Act was a manifesto commitment of the SNP and others, in the case of the SNP, self-identification was not a manifesto commitment and many of us have legitimate concerns about it. Unfortunately, too few have had the courage to speak out. The bill owes its genesis to a lobby group to which I believe many parliamentarians have abdicated their legislative responsibilities, largely out of fear of the consequences for their careers (and, as I know, sometimes personal safety) of doing otherwise. However, I am not going to write about that today. Instead, I am going to write about our new PM and his legislative programme because that is how we should judge him, as we should any leader. At present the right-wing press are whipping themselves up into a frenzy over Rishi Sunak as the saviour of the Tory party and there is a sense that the adults are back in the room and that normal service has been resumed. There is a kernel of truth in this, PM Sunak will be a more formidable ally for the SNP and, indeed the Labour party. Unlike his immediate predecessors he is not a lying charlatan, or a foolish deluded ideologue. But what is he? Let us judge him by his actions. ‘Deeds not words’ as the suffragettes used to say.

On Tuesday outside Downing Street, our new PM made a fine if rather robotic speech about how he would fix the mistakes of his predecessors, and work to restore lost trust. He said his would be a government marked by integrity, professionalism, and accountability… and then he reappointed Suella Braverman as his Home Secretary. In a sense that could be the end of this column. By her actions in brazenly breaking the Ministerial Code seemingly for her own internal party-political benefit, Ms Braverman has proved herself to be neither professional nor a person of integrity. By reappointing her the PM has also put his own integrity and professionalism in question and made a mockery of his promise of accountability.

But enough about Ms Braverman, many column inches have been expended on her and anyway the facts speak for themselves. She should be nowhere near high office never mind one of the most important and troubled departments of state. I want to test our new PM’s promises against his legislative priorities.

As he rose to speak on Tuesday morning Westminster was rife with rumours that the bill which was to receive its second reading that afternoon would be pulled. The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is designed to make it easy for ministers to bin many of the regulations which entered domestic law in the UK by virtue of our EU membership. The bill will enable Ministers to get rid of workers’ rights, environmental protections, and food safety standards with next to no parliamentary scrutiny. It represents a huge power grab by the executive, hardly the sort of accountability our new PM was promising. It will also allow UK ministers to act in policy areas that are devolved without the consent of the Scottish Government or Parliament, hardly what one might expect from the avowed intention of the new PM to work with the devolved governments.

It is absolutely not about ‘taking back control’ so far as parliament or the people are concerned. Instead, it’s about empowering UK Government ministers to legislate and to side-line parliament. It also risks creating considerable legal uncertainty. Opposition to it has united business and legal experts with trade unions, environmentalists, opposition parties and the devolved governments.

There are some very curious provisions in the bill affecting the role and function of Scotland’s law officers. In his speech Sunak also promised to put “the country’s needs above politics.” There is more than one country in the UK. Would he respect the wishes of Scottish voters, the devolved settlement, and his duty to preserve Scotland’s separate and distinct legal system which was underwritten by the Act of Union?

Rumours that the incoming PM would pull the bill reached fever pitch when its author and champion, Jacob Rees Mogg, resigned with barely an hour or two to go before the debate on the second reading of the bill was due to start. The bill is prompted by the sort of extremist Brexit ideology Rees-Mogg typifies. A desperation to point to some so-called Brexit benefits. Yes, Sunak was a Brexiteer, but we hoped he was one of the more sensible ones.

Legal experts have warned the bill is badly drafted and could lead to chaos. You would think we had had enough of that. Liz Truss has left a mess behind her by pursuing an economic policy most people, including Rishi Sunak, advised her against. Surely, he would not make a similar mistake with huge swathes of the law. Surely the new PM would not pursue another dangerous ideological experiment at the cost of our constituents’ rights and livelihoods? At the cost of our ongoing good relationship with the EU and undermining the Northern Ireland protocol? At the cost of the environment? At the cost of his party’s beloved union?

But he did and the bill went ahead. The debate was depressing. Very few MPs spoke about the real problems the bill poses or came to listen. By the time I got called to speak tumbleweed was blowing across some of the benches. The government’s summing up speech did not address any of the issues raised in the debate (as it is supposed to do). Instead it was delivered by the bombastic fool who set off the Tory rammy in the lobbies last week when he wrongly told his colleagues that the vote on fracking was not a confidence vote.

The bill passed and just as it did, we heard Dominic Raab was back as Deputy PM and Justice Secretary, meaning that the Bill of Rights, buried by Liz Truss’s government in one of its few rational acts, will be back, tearing up the Human Rights Act and watering down rights protections across the UK. In Scotland, despite a compliant UK media telling us ‘it’s all right now’ and pushing a nonsense line that the ‘grownups are back’ we know that this is really not a different sort of government and it never will be. 

Joanna Cherry KC MP


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