Leading Article: The palace of ineptitude

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH Parliament could be seen in all its farcical glory last week, during the final stages of the Railway Bill. Middle-aged men donned black opera hats and knotted handkerchieves, bobbed up and down waving pieces of paper, played games in the lavatories, shouted 'I spy strangers'. We may draw comparisons with mad hatters' tea parties or, since the cast included lords and ladies, with Shakespearian comedy. But the failings of the legislature are not, in truth, a laughing matter.

They are not, for example, a laughing matter to those thousands of fathers who have received demands for what they consider excessive payments from the Child Support Agency. How many people realised, when the Child Support Act was debated and passed, that the agency would eventually set maintenance payments for all children whose parents are separated - regardless of whether the mother presently receives state benefits, regardless of whether the parents' relationship was based on a one- night stand or a 10-year marriage, regardless of whether the separation was amicable? How many people understood that the agency could override settlements already authorised by the courts? How many people understood that, even if both parents wish to opt out of the system, the law dictates that their family relationships will be determined by a state-supported bureaucracy? How many people understood that a rigid formula would be applied to matters that are, by nature, complex and sensitive? More important, how many MPs understood these things? The answer is that the Act sailed through Parliament on a wave of rhetoric about single mothers living on state benefits while feckless fathers roamed free. Nobody bothered with the detail.

This is not an isolated example, as a report from the non-party Hansard Society showed earlier this year. Far too much legislation is ill-considered and badly drafted. At best, it proves a waste of time, like Kenneth Baker's absurd Dangerous Dogs Act in 1990. At worst, it provokes riots in the street, like the poll tax. Much legislation is apparently designed by people who live in some Whitehall version of Biosphere 2. As soon as an Act of Parliament encounters the real world, it is accepted that more legislation is needed either to reverse its effect or to plug loopholes. Hardly had the dust settled from the climax of the rail privatisation controversy last week than it was reported that ministers and officials had forgotten to make any provision for the future of the British Transport Police. If any other profession's work was so flawed ministers would be planning crackdowns and shake-ups and demanding performance-related pay.

Why is our legislation so bad? First, the quantity and complexity of the Bills presented have increased enormously, without any corresponding adaptation of Parliamentary procedures. Debate is arbitrarily curtailed by the guillotine (or arbitrarily extended by filibuster) instead of being conducted according to a rational timetable. Backbench select committees cross-examine civil servants, experts and interest groups only after legislation is passed. Second, our adversarial system of politics does not allow people to admit mistakes, or even to admit that they could have done something better. Getting a Bill through largely unamended is regarded as a symbol of ministerial virility, a willingness to listen as a sign of weakness. MPs on both sides are more concerned about the broad brush of a Bill's intentions than about the practical detail of how it will work. Third - and this brings us back to the ridiculous scenes over the Railway Bill - Parliament lacks an effective second chamber. It is perfectly true that some of the most useful revision is done by the House of Lords. But this is often at the margins. The Lords lacks the authority to insist on a complete rethink. Last week's rebellion in the Upper House was not confined to opponents of privatisation in principle. The best solution - for the country, for its transport network, even for the Government, which faces years of trying to operate an inoperable railway system - was to force ministers to spend another year getting it right. The Lords has that power but, because it is unelected, declined to use it. We are left with the largely unchecked actions of what amounts to an elective dictatorship. Like all dictatorships, it is sometimes oppressive; more often, it is simply clumsy and incompetent.