A couple of weeks ago we were given a stark reminder as to the pivotal role the House of Lords can still play in democracy. Wednesday 6th March 2013 was a key day in British politics, but also one which exposed the danger in politicising fundamental rights through playing party politics with the civil justice system.
The issue before the House of Lords was Clause 62 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. This somewhat radical clause had been introduced by the Coalition without previous consultation, entirely at odds with the clear advice given to the Government by the expert who had been asked to consider the matter. Clause 62 had the potential to be an extremely damaging amendment to the Bill which would have put back the law in relation to health and safety by 150 years, rendering the entire body of health and safety regulations totally useless. For such radical reform to be introduced in the way in which it was, was frankly, unacceptable and viewed by many as an abuse of the legislative process.
Perhaps more worrying still, a leading constitutional QC gave a very clear Opinion that Clause 62 was illegal, would put the UK in breach of its European Union membership obligations and would therefore be reversed in any legal challenge.
We were faced had the situation where the Government was introducing radical legislation which turned back the clock on workers’ rights by over a century, was illegal and would cost the taxpayer large sums of money in this time of austerity being introduced by what, at the most charitable way of putting it, could be described as sleight of hand. Thankfully, into this perfect storm stepped the House of Lords. It was close, as you would expect whenever the party whip is being used, but the day was one for the integrity of both the legal system and parliamentary process.
It is clear that civil justice is not the place for politicians to play party politics, there are certain basic rights which must transcend party politics and civil justice is one of them. Thankfully, the House of Lords could see that and I trust that our own Scottish Government will follow suit when it comes to their current consultation on civil justice.