Covid — the perfect public health emergency that just keeps on giving. Each new scariant is only ever one step away from the next new scariant — an endless flow of new worries, Fergie forecasts and government responses, forever clogging up the mainstream media, like logs in a log jam. Behind the puppetry, for an authoritarian government hell bent on passing draconian laws and regulations with the minimum of scrutiny, covid is the perfect enabling epidemic, because it allows the government to get into the swing of passing law by diktat, or secondary legislation, which is almost never subject to meaningful parliamentary scrutiny. The backstops against bad secondary legislation, the arcane the negative and affirmative procedures, haven’t been used in anger since the late 1970s. In practice, the instruments of secondary legislation sail through Parliament like ships in the night, unseen, unheard, and unopposed. As of 10th December 2021, the government has laid 1,788 SIs (Statutory Instruments, the name given to this form of secondary legislation) before parliament since January 2020, of which 546, or 31%, were covid related. Truly, covid is the enabling epidemic that just keeps on giving.

If SIs are the back door through which unwelcome legislation is dumped on an unsuspecting public, then the front door through which the dictating minister strolls is increasingly the odious parliamentary menace of the skeleton bill. So called because they have no meat on them, skeleton bills provide, albeit through scrutinised primary legislation, a set of delegated powers to ministers to make unscrutinised secondary legislation. Skeleton bills are, when they become law, in effect enabling acts, in just the same way that Germany’s Enabling Act of 1933, passed by the Reichstag, enabled Hitler’s government to make law without involving the Reichstag, because they allow ministers to make law without involving parliament in any meaningful way. The only difference, and it is only a difference of degree, between our covert enabling acts and Germany’s in the open Enabling Act is that ours, at least for now, are power and sector specific, whereas the German Enabling Act had global effect across the board. The underlying principle, a substantial shift of power from parliament to the executive, remains identical.  

Many of the contentious bills currently before parliament are skeleton bills that contain far too many delegated powers, the licence to legislate clauses that empower ministers to make secondary legislation on the hoof, without consulting parliament. The Health and Social Care Bill 2021 has no less then 138 such powers (see para 14 here), including seven draconian Henry VIII powers, named after the Tudor monarch who discovered his own new ways of legislating when things weren’t going his way. These clauses — Dr No prefers to call them Hitler clauses — allow secondary, and so unscrutinised, powers to be used to amend primary legislation. Don’t forget, delegated powers are hardly ever blocked. Of the 170,000 SIs laid before parliament since 1950, only seventeen have been rejected by either the Commons or the Lords in all that time. SIs represent, to all intents and purposes, rule by diktat.      

Another, but not the only, current bill shot though with delegated powers is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which by early September had no less than 62 such powers, and now has many more (no official tally has been kept), including at least one Hitler clause. These late additions to the bill appear through another odious menace to parliamentary democracy, late stage amendments stapled to the back of the bill as it approaches the end of its journey though parliament. Although the mechanism is different to the use of delegated powers, the effect is the same: government introduces controversial law that in effect bypasses meaningful parliamentary scrutiny. Let us consider how this might work in practice.

On or about 24th November, the Home Office added a wad of new amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSCB). The bill at this time had all but ended its passage through parliament, leaving precious little time for scrutiny, let alone amendments to the amendments. Lord Falconer, one time Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary under Labour, was not amused: ‘Commons excluded, Lords marginalised, Parl[iament] neutralised’. As well he might be outraged: the clauses in the amendments are far from trivial. They introduce a swathe of new offences aimed at, for the most part, peaceful protest. Not only is there a new offence of ‘locking on’, protesting by attaching oneself to another person or object, or land, in such a way as to cause, or be able to cause, ‘serious disruption’, there is even an offence of merely ‘being equipped for locking on’. You might have popped out to the shops to buy some superglue, but what if the police have you fingered as a protester? Ullo, ullo, ullo, what have we here?  At least you will only be liable for a fine. If you lock on, and are deemed to have caused, or might have caused, ‘serious disruption’, you face, on summary conviction, a possible jail term ‘not exceeding 51 weeks’.

The problem is that even at this late stage in the bill’s passage, ‘serious disruption’ is not defined in any practical sense. One person’s ‘minor inconvenience’ might be another’s ‘serious disruption’. Instead of defining ‘serious disruption’, the bill ducks the issue by — Dr No is sure you have guessed it — relying on delegated powers. The PCSCB amends the Public Order Act 1986 by adding (in three places, emphasis added) “(12) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision about the meaning for the purposes of this section of— (a) serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of a public procession, or (b) serious disruption to the life of the community”. Although the additions are clause specific, they remain the only place in the bill where the meaning of serious disruption is mentioned. Now let us turn to the locking on offences, tacked onto the bill by the late stage amendments (see page 68 et seq.). These do require intent to cause ‘serious disruption’ to achieve conviction, but ‘serious disruption’ has yet to be defined, and when it is defined, it will be at the minister’s whim.   

The photo at the top of this post was taken by Dr No in 1980, at a protest against moves to absorb, without trace, his medical school, the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, into a megalithic University College School of Medicine and Dentistry. Naturally we protested, and, as part of the protest, some of our finest chained themselves — the term absurd term locking on wasn’t in use back then — to the gates of Senate House, the University of London’s central administrative building. As publicity for our plight, it worked — a similar photo made it onto the front page of The Times — but if some medical students did the same thing today, once the PCSCB becomes law, would they find themselves convicted of ‘the offence of locking on’, and so liable to ‘imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks, to a fine or to both’? New ways of legislating that can allow brilliant medical careers be blighted before they have even begun, merely on a whim of ministerial diktat? What on earth is our country turning into?


  1. DevonshireDozer Reply

    My synopsis of this excellent piece is: “Sir Humphrey is now in charge”.

    In a sense, that’s what ‘BRINO’ means.


  2. Tom Welsh Reply

    “[I]t allows the government to get into the swing of passing law by diktat, or secondary legislation, which is almost never subject to meaningful parliamentary scrutiny”.

    Although I feel there has not been meaningful parliamentary scrutiny for a long time – perhaps centuries. As explained by Ben Greene back in the 1960s, since the Victorian era MPs have worked, not for their constituents, but for the parties to which they belong.

    This morning I read that 75 “Conservative” MPs are prepared to vote against the next batch of oppressive mesaures; but as the Loyal Opposition is likely to vote with the government, that will be nothing more than virtue signalli ng.

  3. dr-no Reply

    “Although I feel there has not been meaningful parliamentary scrutiny for a long time – perhaps centuries.” Indeed. Parliament has a rich history of bribery and corruption on an industrial scale. It is salutary to remember that only two hundred years ago, Parliament was a Georgian Bullingdon Club sitting at Westminster. Less than 3% of the population had the vote, and there were numerous rotten (small and easily manipulated number of voters) and pocket (‘in the pocket’ of a wealthy patron) boroughs. It took the three reform and a number of other acts of the 19th century and the Chartists to start moves towards a more representative democracy, still exclusively male dominated, and the suffragettes in the early 20th century to get universal suffrage.

    We were lucky at the Free. At a time when medicine was predominantly male – things are rather different nowadays – the RFHSM (Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine), because of its history, had each year made up of roughly half women, half men, meaning we had plenty of photogenic women to grab the interest of the press. Here’s the front page of The Times from 12th March 1980 (unfortunately a far less than perfect copy):

    One of the Tory rebels, Tobias Ellwood, came out with a decidedly left field remark on the Today programme this morning. Talking about Plan B measures, he said, “Leadership is about taking people to where perhaps they didn’t realise they needed to go…”. Taking people where they didn’t realise they needed to go? One of Dr No’s breakfast Marmite soldiers folded in half as his grip involuntarily tightened in response to a remark that sounded more like full-on Labour than light touch conservatism.

  4. dr-no Reply

    dearieme – true, perhaps in the same way there were (some) women on naval ships at the same time. Dr No’s understanding is that the Great Reform Act gave the vote to (some) men, and so implicitly withheld it from all women.

    What a bizarre set of votes in the Commons yesterday. A significant Tory back bench rebellion, and a set of measures that nonetheless get through because the Loyal Opposition, as Tom noted, put virtue signalling ahead of it duty, and gave its loyalty not to the Crown, but to the government.

    • Tom Welsh Reply

      We should focus resolutely on what happened – not how it came about. There are many ways of making a new law, and we shall no doubt see a dazzling variety of them, if only to distract the broad masses. But “all roads lead to Rome” – a new set of repressive laws.

  5. dearieme Reply

    The goal of the Great Reform Act was uniformity. So either all constituencies should let women vote or none should. The matter was debated: the “nones” won.

    I like to tease Americans by asking why they’d never allowed women to vote at all. (I don’t know whether it was true of all the colonies throughout their history but it was true of all the states and the federation.)

    Anyway about your lead photograph surely the key question is which one did you marry?

    • dr-no Reply

      Alas, none of them. But in the event, when it came, Dr No didn’t do too badly.

      Dr No has just finished reading parts one and two of what will be a three part series of essays. Well written and intelligent, they are worth a read.

  6. dearieme Reply

    I’ve just read the first. In his comments policy he says “you must do so with respect for others and their views”. No-o-o. That was the demand of the woke totalitarian Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge.

    An uprising of the dons replaced it by a demand that the views of others be tolerated. No need for respect. Seems right to me. Am I really meant to respect someone who says Hitler was right, Stalin was right? Tolerate, OK. Free speech and all that. Respect, no.

    I look forward to reading his second piece.

    • dr-no Reply

      Dr No also baulked at the rather headmasterly attempt to referee comment spats even before they started, but at the time let it pass. Dr No of course has a ‘comments policy’ but in the great British constitutional tradition it is unwritten. If you are here, reading and commenting on this blog, you are supposed to know the rules we play by. If you don’t and get something wrong, the court of common appeal will sort you out.

      If Dr No had a written comments policy, it would go further than tolerating, towards something based on Voltairian principles: I detest what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it. Or should it be deplore what you say? No: deplore has a moral high ground tone, detest is is the more direct personal reaction, so detest it is.

      Respect is an interesting word, in the way that a decomposing rat is interesting to a biologist. At the time Dr No was pretending to be David Bailey (the four women and a gate photo was indeed taken with a black bodied OM-1), respect was a perfectly reasonable but unremarkable lower case word. At some point, perhaps about two decades ago, it appears to have entered street/gang culture, adopting along the way an upper case R, and a new use and meaning, as a token and exclamation, even perhaps an adulation: ‘Respect, man!’. Some time after that, it was adopted by victims and underdogs: ‘Show me some Respect, man!’ and from there, it slid sideways into wokism, where its increasing overuse assured its degeneration into meaninglessness.

      This post’s photo has a backstory, in that it very nearly didn’t get used. On one level, it is the perfect image for the post, as it has Dr No taking part in a historical protest that, had it happened once the PCSCB becomes law, would have an odds on chance that the four women chained to the gate might well end up with a criminal record. But on another level, it is a page 3/sex sells stories photo, and is that OK in this day and age? Might some blokeism appear (as indeed it did)? In short order Dr No decided it is OK, because he is a product of his times (and sex still sells stories as well as it has ever done, perhaps even more so), but nonetheless this is still an example of the invisible chilling effect of an accidentally adopted over sensitivity to woke thinking. Dr No has a half written post on another bill that as it happens contains toxic elements very relevant to chilling effects, the Online Safety Bill, which Dr No hopes to publish before too long.

      In the meantime, perhaps we need to commission blokeism, as the antidote to wokism.

  7. dearieme Reply

    Piece the second. “Lockdowns are not needed, masks do not work, the safety and efficacy of the vaccines are being oversold, vaccine passports will not only fail but further segregate society, and in the near future we can expect Giradian scapegoating of the unvaccinated.”

    (i) I didn’t know there was an adjective meaning totalitarian-in-the-style -of -the-Guardian: I must use Giradian at every opportunity.

    (ii) Lockdowns not needed; oh no they’re far worse than unnecessary.

    (iii) Masks don’t work: well of course not. The facts are surely not contentious.

    (iv) The safety and efficacy of the vaccines are being oversold: I fear so.

    (v) Vaccine passports will not only fail: that depends on what they are intended to achieve.

    (vi) Scapegoating of the unvaccinated: kulaks, Jews, Uighurs, … altogether deplorable people.

  8. dr-no Reply

    dearime – this is more smoke and mirrors from how you count vaccinations (numerator) and denominators (ONS of NIMS?) plus the stupefying effects of switching back and forth between numbers and rates, combined with the fact no one has actually counted the unvaccinated, they are inferred, by subtracting the vaccinated totals from the population totals.

    Some ‘facts’, sticking with just first doses, and only ‘eligible people’ ie 12+:

    The latest NIMS based weekly announced vaccinations report says 42,611,175 have been administered by 12th December.

    The accompanying spreadsheet has the same number.

    The same spreadsheet also gives the ONS and NIMS denominators (for those eligible): ONS 48,375,273, NIMS 54,328,630.

    On those figures, we get:

    on ONS denominatos: Vaxxed 42,611,175 (88%), No-vax 5,764,098 (12%)

    on NIMS denominators: Vaxxed 42,611,175 (78%), No-vax 11,717,455 (22%)

    Already the smoke is a-swirling and the mirrors are a-spinning!

    Yet UKHSA in its latest weekly vaccine surveillance report says 67.9% of the population have had one dose. This is the percentage which the Daily Expose then applies to ONS based denominators (the Statista numbers are based on ONS numbers, and the Daily Expose denominator, 47.8m, is all but the ONS denominator given above).

    The odd man out figure appears to be UKHSA’s percentage vaccinated – 68% vs 78% (NIMS denom) or 88% (ONS denoms). Dr No rather suspects – UKHSA don’t say on page 3, where the 67.9% figure appears – the 68% might be 68% of the total NIMS population, rather than the eligible (NIMS) population (UKHSA normally uses NIMS denoms). We can test this by adding the 0-11 year olds (~8.2m) to the NIMS denominator to get a NIMS total population of ~62.5m and sure enough 42.6m of 62.5m is 68%.

    This explanation is also supported by eyeballing UKHSA’s 1st dose by age charts (page 19). All age groups aged 16 and over are at least 60% vaccinated, with the older groups at over 90%. If we take ‘somewhere in the middle’ as the overall rate, that gives us around 75% of eligible people have had one dose, which is much closer to the 78% based on the NIMS denominator.

    What the Daily Expose appears to have done is taken some sloppy reporting by UKHSA (not declaring the 68% is 68% of all the population) and used it to apply that NIMS based percentage to the ONS (and so smaller) eligible population to get a smaller people vaccinated number (32.4m) which then of course gives a larger unvaccinated number.

    Dr No’s verdict: nice try, but no cigar; and, Dr No might add, it’s not the first time the Daily Expose has tried bowling from the pavilion end. But that said, look again at the numbers given above:

    on ONS denominatos: Vaxxed 42,611,175 (88%), No-vax 5,764,098 (12%)

    on NIMS denominators: Vaxxed 42,611,175 (78%), No-vax 11,717,455 (22%)

    Depending on where you place you favoured best estimate of the eligible population that still leaves between 5.7m and 11.7m (12% and 22%) unvaccinated. If you happen to favour NIMS, as UKHSA does, that leaves 11.7m, or getting on for a quarter, of the eligible population have never had a covid vaccination. 11.7m, or getting on for a quarter of those aged 12 and over who will, if/when covid apartheid kicks in in earnest, will be excluded from society.

  9. dearieme Reply

    Thanks, doc. Brilliant: I’m whacked, go for a wee lie down, and there’s an answer returned before dinner. I wish the NHS could rise to that standard of service.

  10. dr-no Reply

    dearieme – expecting to have a Steady Eddie regular vaccine to a respiratory virus given current knowledge and technology has always been a naive pipe dream. It’s not how these things work – take flu vaccines, for example. Matt Hancock’s vaccine cavalry when it arrived was always going to turn into paper men on wooden horses. Vaccines may have a role in protecting the vulnerable (at a cost of frequent, tweaked boosters) but as a way out of the pandemic, it’s a nonsense. The only way out is to grow up, stop panicking, and treat the virus (or whatever it is that makes us think there is a virus – Dr No is still in the school of thought that says it probably exists, but we lack the technology to prove that, except by inference) as just another endemic respiratory virus that has episodic peaks or waves that justify special precautions for the vulnerable, just as happens with flu (wobbly certitude intended).

    In short, as David Robertson and Peter Doshi suggest in their excellent The end of the pandemic will not be televised article in the BMJ this week, the only way out of the pandemic is by choosing to decide it has ended. The end of a pandemic is a subjective human decision, not an objective scientific event.

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