MPs are on holiday - but what did they do for us?

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The Independent Online
After the months of fury, intrigues about the leadership, sackings, reshuffles, and clashes across the despatch boxes at the House of Commons, what has Parliament achieved?

Apart from a few key bills, such as those on nursery vouchers or divorce law reform, the answer will be - very little. This was not a vintage year. It was more the last dregs of a dying Parliament. The legislation was so thin, that inquiries around Whitehall yesterday produced nonplussed responses from various departments.

MPs increased their productivity this year by 20 per cent, having passed 34 bills for Royal Assent, compared to 27 bills in the previous session. They rewarded themselves with a 26 per cent pay rise.

So, is Britain any better for all the legislation passed this year? The attached table provides a guide. The Family Law Act to reform the divorce laws put the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, on trial, as the Act came under all-round Tory attack. It finished its passage in a heavily amended state. Couples whose marriages are irretrievably broken down, may come to curse these politicians.

There was also the last vestige of Thatcherism, with a minor piece of legislation on the right-to-buy for "social housing" tenants, and the Act that gave force to vouchers for nursery education. Little else to suggest muchideological zeal though. In fact, Lady Thatcher complained bitterly about the lack of ideology in this Government when she addressed the 1900 Club, a group of elderly knights of the shires dedicated to the memory of Tory Party zealots.

There was a strong flavour of Majorism to the legislation. Worthy but boring measures included the bill to preserve railway heritage, and the Rating (Caravans and Boats) Act, introduced by John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment.

The small beer included the London Regional Transport Act which allows LRT to raise private finance, and the Government's Deer (Amendment) (Scotland) Act.

Some of the more interesting legislation came from backbenchers, from Alan Meale's protection of wild animals bill, to the Dogs Fouling of Land Act. Other backbench measures for which 1996 will be noted include the Party Wall etc Act, and the Marriage Ceremony (Prescribed Words) Act, which streamlines that part of the ceremony concerned with lawful impediments.

Much of the legislation left officials in Whitehall understandably lost for words last night when asked to explain some of the bills. The Hong Kong (Overseas Public Servants) Act, which received the Queen's Royal Assent on 29 February, after being taken by both the Commons and the Lords, was described by one Whitehall source as "fairly esoteric". It provides, by the way, pension provision for civil servants after the colony is handed over to the Chinese in 1997.

Laws passed in this Parliament

Bills receiving Royal Assent

ARBITRATION: streamlines law to encourage firms to go for arbitration rather than litigation.

Impact? A modest reform, which may cut business costs.

AUDIT (MISCELLANEOUS PROVISIONS): empowers Audit Commission to probe local authority social services.

Impact? May help efficiency in over-stretched services.

ARMED FORCES: discipline, renewed every five years.

Impact? Bad news for gays who want to join armed forces; but this may be reversed by European courts.

ASYLUM AND IMMIGRATION: cuts benefits for asylum-seekers.

Impact? Cuts down, a little, on fraud, but very severe for some genuinely persecuted foreigners.

BROADCASTING BILL: cross-media ownership for digital TV.

Impact? Fudged key issues. Mirror Group, one of the owners of the Independent, among losers.

CONSOLIDATED FUND, CONSOLIDATED FUND No 2: puts pounds 230bn tax receipts into a fund.

Impact? None on most of us; but Kenneth Clarke would be broke without it.

CHANNEL TUNNEL RAIL LINK BILL: go-ahead for fast track.

Impact? Yes, plenty, in time.

CRIMINAL PROCEDURE: prosecution and defence disclosure of evidence.

Impact? Tilts court procedures a little in favour of the prosecution.

CHEMICAL WEAPONS: makes it an offence to make chemical weapons.

Impact? Very few of us were doing this anyway.

CIVIL AVIATION AMENDMENT: powers to arrest in the air.

Impact? Hardly any.


CORPORATION: extended its powers to assist governments with privatisation programmes.

Impact? A little, abroad.

COMMUNITY CARE: cash payments in lieu of community care.

Impact? Minimal.

DEFAMATION: allows judges to dispose of defamation cases.

Impact? A modest speeder-up.

DAMAGES: personal injury claims.

Impact? A modest reform.

EDUCATION SCOTLAND BILL: nursery vouchers etc.

Impact? Brings a whiff of radicalism to Scottish education.

FAMILY LAW: divorce law reform.

Impact? Despite much sound and fury, the final act was a compromising affair, modestly liberal in its effect.

FINANCE BILL: puts last Budget into effect, 1p off tax and 15p on cigarettes

Impact? A few more pounds in our pockets and a few fewer fags in our fingers.

HEALTH SERVICE: ombudsman for complaints about GPs.

Impact? Significant for a few angry patients.

HUMBER BRIDGE DEBTS: wiped out debts for that bridge.

Impact? None - the byelection which brought the bridge was back in 1970.

HOUSING AND CONSTRUCTION: right to buy for tenants of new social housing.

Impact? Yes, if you have one of those houses.

HONG KONG OVERSEAS PUBLIC SERVANTS: provides pensions after 1997 hand- over to China.

Impact? Yes, if you are an HK civil servant.


LEGISLATION: renewal of anti-terrorism measures.

Impact? Keeps in force measures Labour used to hate, but now accepts; helps police searching for bombers


Impact? A gateway to peace, being slammed shut since.

NOISE: Harry Greenway (Con), making noise an offence

Impact? Powerful, let's hope, on the youth in the flat above with pounds 400 worth of bass equipment.

NURSERY EDUCATION AND GRANT-MAINTAINED SCHOOLS: vouchers for all four- year-olds, and lifting bar on borrowing for GM schools.

Real impact? Too early to say whether this will prove a gimmick or a popular reform.

OFFENSIVE WEAPONS: Lady Olga Maitland (Con) tightens law on knives.

Impact? It may help a little.

RAILWAY HERITAGE: Mark Robinson (Con) conserving records and artefacts.

Impact? Only for serious anorak-wearers.

RESERVE FORCES: allows more flexible use of reservists

Impact? Only in Preston.

STUDENT LOANS: allows private loans.

Impact? Creeping privatisation of higher education.

SEXUAL OFFENCES: John Marshall (Con), outlaws sex-tourism, mainly by paedophiles.

Impact? Can only be good for some foreign children.

SECURITY SERVICE: lets MI5 fight crime with police.

Impact? Will make life harder for the most serious crime barons.

TREASURE: Sir Anthony Grant (Con), abolishes treasure trove.

Impact? Depends on whether you stub your toe on a Saxon helmet - and if you do, it is good news.

TRADING SCHEMES: Sir Nicholas Scott (Con), controls chain letters and pyramid-selling.

Impact? Curbs a growing and dubious commerce.

WILD MAMMALS PROTECTION: Alan Meale (Lab), protection from cruelty.

Impact? Another small step for decency.