Ministers are showing ‘growing contempt for parliament’ through the increasing use of secondary legislation and skeleton bills to significantly change the law without proper scrutiny – a growing trend which is ‘dangerous for democracy’, peers have warned.

The ‘subtle but profound shift in the culture of government over the last 30 years’, which has allowed successive governments to ‘chip away’ at processes of oversight and accountability, is ‘turning parliament into a graveyard of democracy’, the House of Lords was told yesterday.

This has led to ‘a culture that says that anything goes, anything can be tried on and any excuse can be offered … through which ministers can, without restraint, hide in delegated legislation aspects of policy that need to be open to scrutiny and challenge’, one peer said.

Thursday’s debate on skeleton bills and delegated powers follows two reports published in November, which cautioned that their growing use – accelerated by the twin challenges of Brexit and the pandemic – amounted to ‘government by diktat’.

Baroness (Camilla) Cavendish, formerly head of Downing Street’s policy unit under David Cameron, said that ‘we are sleepwalking into a world where governments increasingly rule by diktat, without even fully realising the cumulative effect’.

Referring to the late addition of 18 pages to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill shortly before Christmas ‘which had not been there when MPs voted on it in July’, Cavendish said that ‘this government’s stance seems to me to be approaching the Orwellian’.

Lord Judge, the former lord chief justice, noted that ‘the House of Commons has not rejected a piece of delegated legislation since 1979’ – since when ‘thousands and thousands of pages, in small print, are sent out to us every year, telling us all how we should live’.

He suggested that parliament should be able to object to certain parts of statutory instruments and called on the upper chamber to ‘reject any and every Henry VIII clause until the minister identifies the specific areas it is intended to address’.

Lord Rooker similarly argued that ‘there is a strong case for a targeted and limited ability of Parliament to amend some SIs’, adding: ‘It would be targeted and limited – there is no way we would go for wholesale.’

However, Baroness Andrews – a member of the delegated powers and regulatory reform committee which produced one of the two reports – said peers should consider the ‘nuclear option’ of rejecting delegated legislation in order to reassert parliamentary sovereignty.