Expert View: Passing new laws is no substitute for running the country

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The Independent Online

Most of the 32 measures that were outlined in last week's Queen's Speech will need a new Act of Parliament. Add to those the hardy perennials, such as the Finance Act, the odd Private Member's Bill and other bits and pieces and we might end up with somewhere around 30 new Acts on the statute book by the end of this parliamentary session.

In the last session, we had 31 new Acts come into force. And you can add to those the 1,644 General Statutory Instruments (subsidiary legislation) made last year. That's a lot of new law.

The more worrying statistic is that 141 Bills were introduced in Parliament last year – so it's a blessing that parliamentary time is limited by working hours and long holidays.

Is there such a dearth of good law that we can't live without another 30-odd new Acts and another thousand-plus Statutory Instruments this session? Come to think of it, what was so bad 10 years ago that we needed more than 350 Acts of Parliament over the intervening period to put it right?

The reality is that the Government legislates largely because of politics, rarely because of need. When events happen, the Government gets off the hook with headlines promising a new law, irrespective of whether it will prove to be of any use. Who can forget the Dangerous Dogs Act?

More than 20 Acts dealing with crime have been brought in over the past five years. But, from the Queen's Speech, it seems we now need another counter-terrorism law. Why not try a moratorium on new laws and see if we can't get by on what we have? We have police, court and health services, schools, universities and armed forces working under a framework of supporting laws. Can't we just leave them be for a while and let them operate under the same laws they managed with last year?

Perhaps working under a stable framework would make life more productive, and applying the law, rather than spending half the year helping to change it and the other half learning it, would generate better results.

The unspoken cost of there being so much legislation is that it distracts the Government and Civil Service from doing their jobs. Instead of running the country, they spend their time creating a new legal framework within which the country should be run. Instead of implementing policy, they induce paralysis by forcing departments to put plans on hold while everyone awaits the new rules.

And it distracts the electorate. Rather than focusing on the effect of executive action or complaining about inaction, we are persuaded that the promise of new legislation is action.

Perhaps the better way forward would be to have a raffle and the holder of the winning ticket could introduce a new law. But of course, we already have that system – it's called the Private Member's Ballot. Is there anything less sensible in the legislative world than introducing law by random chance? The benefits seem to be that the Private Member has his or her five minutes of fame and a small section of the community is given a perk that the Government itself does not deem worthy of new law.

Take ragwort control. Ragwort weed is potentially fatal for horses. A Private Member's Bill became the Ragwort Control Act 2003, which amended the Weeds Act 1959, and a code of practice for controlling the weed was drawn up and endorsed – two years later – by the Minister for the Horse (believe it or not, that was a title Alun Michael used at the Department for the Environment). No one would say that those involved had anything but the best interests of horses at stake. But why did Parliament allow horses to exist under the presumably defective 1959 law for so long? If the Member had not been lucky in the ballot for a Bill, the Government would not have bothered to legislate and horses would still be chewing ragwort. Perhaps they still are.

The only really good thing that new legislation can be guaranteed to deliver is more work for lawyers. Now that's something there should be a law against.

Alasdair Douglas is senior partner and head of corporate tax at City law firm Travers Smith alasdair.douglas@traverssmith.com

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