David Cameron's has ordered his Cabinet to carry out a "U-turn test" of all new policies, as No 10 fears that the Prime Minister is gaining a reputation for mishandling key reforms.
Ministers returning to Westminster this week have been told that there must be "less and better legislation", to avoid a repeat of the PR disasters triggered by the "paused" NHS reforms and U-turns on forest sell-offs, elected police commissioners and benefits cuts.
Sir George Young, the Leader of the Commons, has told cabinet colleagues the next session must include fewer, better drafted Bills. "There is the danger that the public thinks we don't really know what we are doing," one Tory minister said. "It's hopeless." A ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday showed Mr Cameron's reputation for competence took a dive in 2011, ending the year with a net satisfaction rating of -25 points, down from -3 points at the end of 2010.
The extent of the coalition's mismanaged programme is revealed by news that the Queen's Speech has been postponed until after council and London mayoral elections in May, almost two years after the last one. The delay has been caused by a logjam of controversial Bills in the House of Lords where Labour and Lib Dem rebellions have led to many being heavily re-written. Time is running out to get them passed into law, so further concessions are expected.
But the plea for fewer new laws appears to have fallen on deaf ears. A series of fresh battles is being fought over the next Queen's Speech, with the coalition committed to a range of new laws. Bills on health and safety, pensions and crime are already being drafted. "There is just too much legislation flying around," a senior Lib Dem source said. "We have all been told there must be less and better legislation, but then everyone wants a big Bill. There are all sorts of shenanigans going on."
Nick Clegg faces a headache over his plans to reform the House of Lords. While the Deputy Prime Minister has the backing in principle of George Osborne, the Chancellor, senior Tories are reluctant to expend political capital on the Lib Dem plan to replace peers with elected senators. Mr Clegg has vowed to use the Parliament Act to force the reform through if opposed by the Lords. But in a sign of a growing cabinet crisis, Lord Strathclyde, the Leader in the Lords, has said that to do so "would be illegal".
Lord McNally, a Lib Dem minister, said both parties had entered the coalition "determined to legislate less" but every department has Bills it has been "waiting to get on the statute book". Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government, said: "Both sides have shopping lists. The ticking of boxes results in more legislation. They need to balance the enthusiasm for legislation with whether or not it's the best way to do something." An increasingly politicised House of Lords has also scuppered hopes of an early Queen's Speech. Baroness Royall, Labour's shadow leader in the Lords, said: "A raft of poorly conceived and badly drafted Bills are still in play in the Lords, while a legislative vacuum has emerged in the Commons."
The Hansard Society called for the creation of a Legislative Standards Committee to assess the necessity and quality of legislation, with the power to defer badly written Bills. Constitution experts have expressed dismay at the rate of new legislation reaching the statute book, since many laws are never subsequently enacted. The most famous is the Easter Act, passed in 1928, which would have set a fixed date for Easter Sunday, but which has never been implemented. Research by The Independent on Sunday shows almost 60 new laws passed by nine government departments in the 2005-10 parliament were not enacted, including more than a dozen from the Home Office and several from the Department for Transport.
Lord Norton, a Tory peer and an expert on Parliament, called for more post-legislative scrutiny, forcing ministers to assess whether their new laws have achieved their stated aims.
Additional reporting by Nick Butler
New bills: The lengthy queue for parliamentary time
Despite David Cameron's call for fewer laws, a rush for headlines, and internal coalition battles, the list of legislation ministers want in the next Queen's Speech is already long... and growing:
Airports regulation; making courts more efficient; taking on high electricity bills; overhauling employment law to encourage businesses to take on more staff; taking action against excessive executive pay; giving police powers to break up gangs and move them on; allowing same-sex marriage; cutting health and safety; replacing the House of Lords with directly elected senators, serving 15-year terms; giving legal rights to absent parents and grandparents to see children; creating a lobbying register; creating new laws to reduce cases of metal theft; NHS training and research; modernising parliamentary privilege; reforming party funding; public and private sector pensions reform; allowing cameras in courts; science regulation; skills funding; overhauling the social care system; new offence of stalking; single rule against tax avoidance; water industry reform.
Plans to sell 1,500 forests were felled after a public backlash. The Ministry of Justice dropped plans to scrap the Chief Coroner, and the Youth Justice Board was saved from the axe. Giving ministers the power to abolish future quangos at the stroke of a pen has been abandoned.
Health and Social Care Bill
Andrew Lansley's grand plan for GPs to control funds of £60bn only united medical bodies and Lib Dems in opposition. David Cameron feared for his polling so "paused" its progress. Numerous rewrites followed. Expect battles in the Lords on the role of the Health Secretary and increasing competition.
New planning rules pitted the Tories against the shires, culminating in Francis Maude accusing the National Trust of peddling "bollocks". The idea of 11 "shadow mayors" running England's biggest cities to show what a real mayor could do was dropped.
Welfare Reform Bill
Plans to axe the "mobility" element of the Disability Living Allowance for those in residential care, and to cut housing benefit for the long-term unemployed were both dropped. Expect more concessions on the plan to cap a family's benefits at £26,000.
Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill
Ken Clarke's idea of halving sentences for defendants who plead guilty at the first opportunity was dropped. Mandatory jail sentences for 16- to 18-year-olds carrying knives were ruled out, then announced, then left up to judges.
Embroiled in north-south wrangling, it proposes to give Edinburgh far greater budgetary powers, including setting income tax rates, and some areas of law including drink-driving, speeding and gun control. The Scottish National Party wants it to go further.
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