Space Law, Separation of Powers, and Henry VIII

I don’t know a lot about UK law.  That won’t stop me from talking about it, of course, especially when it looks like the same problems visit space law on both sides of the pond, namely, questions regarding separations of powers.  In the United States we see very broadly drafted legislation in which our legislative body, the Congress, tells the agencies of the Executive Branch to license and regulate consistent with “national security” or “foreign policy” interests.  This direction cedes much legislative power to the regulatory agencies in the Executive Branch, and no one should claim surprise when its employees construe that delegation as a mandate to go farther in the exercise of their powers than Congress might have intended.

Apparently, other countries have the same problem.  In the linked story Professor Mark Elliott at Public Law for Everyone takes issue with a proposed Space Industry Bill.  The Space Industry Bill makes ‘provision about space activities and sub-orbital activities, and for connected purposes’.  Elliott considers it inappropriately broad in the powers it delegates to the Executive:

the Bill serves as nothing less than a case study in a variety of drafting techniques that are becoming increasingly common and which, individually and collectively, give rise to separation of powers concerns. It was partly for this reason that the House of Lords Constitution Committee published a report on the Bill in early September, albeit that that report did not attract quite as much attention as its latest intervention, published the previous day, in relation to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.  There is, however, a connection between the two Bills. While the Withdrawal Bill is, without question, a uniquely egregious example of the executive seeking inappropriately broad and insufficiently controlled powers from Parliament, the Space Industry Bill serves as a more mundane example of the way in which the accretion of administrative law-making authority is becoming commonplace.

Elliott raises six concerns, one of which resembles a concern we face on this side of the Atlantic, too:  that the bill does not limit the executive’s rulemaking power.

Clause 67(1) provides that: ‘Regulations may make provision generally for carrying this Act into effect and for achieving the purpose set out in [clause] 1(1).’ And clause (1) says that the Bill has effect for the purpose of regulating space activities, sub-orbital activities, and associated activities carried out in the UK. The purpose of the Bill is thus set out in very broad terms indeed, rendering the clause 67(1) power commensurately wide. Among other things, the existence of such a power will make it relatively difficult to seek judicial review on the ground that the scope of individual powers conferred by the Bill have been exceeded. Indeed, the catch-all power in effect undercuts those limits, given that when they inconveniently apply so as to narrow specific powers in the Bill, the general power may instead be available.

Another complaint centers on the paucity of something called the affirmative procedure, where rulemaking may require the approval of both Houses of Parliament to go into effect:

while some of the regulation-making powers in the Bill are subject to the affirmative procedure, in a number of cases that procedure is required only upon the first use of the powers, subsequent uses being subject only to annulment — and so, in practice, to minimal-to-non-existent parliamentary control.

Elliott raises the concern that the executive could make regulatory changes without legislative review. The legislative review of the affirmative procedure sounds like the Congressional Review Act in the United States, although that provides for streamlining of a review process whereas the UK approach may be more fundamental.

Finally, we get to the Henry VIII power. According to the UK’s Parliament website it is quite as alarming as it sounds:

The Government sometimes adds this provision to a Bill to enable the Government to repeal or amend it after it has become an Act of Parliament. The provision enables primary legislation to be amended or repealed by subordinate legislation with or without further parliamentary scrutiny.

Such provisions are known as Henry VIII clauses, so named from the Statute of Proclamations 1539 which gave King Henry VIII power to legislate by proclamation.

How would it operate in the proposed Space Industry Bill?

the Bill provides that: ‘The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision that is consequential on any provision made by this Act.’ This broad power is a Henry VIII power because, according to clause 66(3), it can be used to ‘amend, repeal or revoke any enactment passed or made before this Act or in the same Session’. The use of Henry VIII powers normally is — and normally should — be subject to the affirmative procedure. However, this Henry VIII power is subject to that procedure only in part: it applies when regulations ‘amend’ primary legislation, but the annulment procedure applies otherwise — including, presumably, when primary legislation is repealed by regulations. It may be that ‘amend’ here is supposed to include ‘repeal’, but that seems unlikely, given that ‘amend’ and ‘repeal’ are specified separately in clause 66(3).

The professor concludes with some hope:

The fact that large volumes of delegated legislation are (deemed to be) necessary does not inevitably mean that constitutional principle [of separation of powers] must be sacrificed to the extent that it currently is. Indeed, our system, at present, is set up very poorly when it comes to the making of delegated legislation. Such legislation cannot normally be amended, meaning that it must be approved unless the nuclear option of outright rejection is to be taken; the House of Lords is subject to the threat of having its powers stripped away should it ultimately refuse to knuckle under; and Parliament in general lacks the capacity to exercise its own discretion so as to divert secondary legislation that is more than merely technical into elevated scrutiny processes.

(I think that the UK’s “delegated legislation” is somewhat akin to regulations issued by the Executive Branch in the United States.  Or, this may be another of those instances where, as Churchill or Shaw said, Great Britain and the United States are two countries separated by a common language.)

If I am reading this correctly, the UK’s proposed Space Industry Bill should receive careful scrutiny before it serves as a model for any U.S. legislation.