Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Over-egging the pudding

There's something which irritates me. Overlegislation - when governments legislate not wisely but too much (with apologies).

Sometimes it appears to be a panic measure to dig an administration out of a hole, more often it appears to be the death rattle of a government slipping down the last stages of the MacDougall model.

Many will remember the previous administration in Scotland banning fur farms which didn't exist, but London always outdoes us in glorious redundancy. Take, for example, the law against using a mobile phone while driving. Not only was this not needed, but it actually made the law worse.

Before this very specific legislation the offence would be driving without due care and attention, now the offence is driving while using a mobile phone. The original law (still, of course, in force) indicated what should be done and intimated that there was a punishment for failing to comply, the latter stick-on law prohibits an activity.

Apart from the encouragement being better than the 'just say no', the new law leaves holes through which an average lawyer can guide a client who would previously have been bang to rights - as in "he may not have been looking at the road, but since there was no evidence that the device was sending or receiving signals you can't find him guilty of using a mobile phone whilst driving" - nope, but you could have convicted him of driving without due care and attention.
What's this got to do with the price of cheese in Leith? Well, el Gordo announced a raft of legislation a couple of weeks ago, let's have a look and see how much is worthwhile and how much is just the futile flailing of a dying Government trying to look busy:
Banking reform bill
Measures to allow the Bank of England, Treasury and Financial Services Authority to intervene earlier to prevent another Northern Rock-style bank crisis.
Covers: Whole of UK.
The problem is, you see, that they already have the power to intervene earlier but Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, said that would have been irresponsible.

Saving Gateway bill
New savings scheme for the low-paid, with a government contribution for every pound saved.
Covers: Whole of UK.
Brown actually said that 8 million people on low incomes would 'have access' to a scheme where the Government would match their savings pound for pound. Hmmm - where are the low paid in our society finding this bounty to put aside for a rainy day? Savings and Loans, anyone?

If we had eggs we could have ham and eggs if we had ham.

These are the people whose tax rate has just been doubled by this man's Government, followed by a clumsy attempt at a pay-off for one year only. Perhaps the Prime Minister has forgotten what poverty looks like, perhaps he should come canvassing with me some day. Perhaps he can raise the income tax threshold permanently? Perhaps he can tell us why these people have missed out on his economic miracle?

Business rates supplement bill
To give county councils, unitary authorities and the Greater London Assembly powers to levy a surcharge on the business rate for local economic development.
Covers: England and Wales only.
There's a technical term for this - a slippy shoulder. It's slipping a responsibility from your own shoulder to someone else's. Not only does this move responsibility for economic development squarely into the court of local government, it forces local government to do the tax-raising. I'm sure some will compare the move to a BID levy, ignoring the cooperative element of BIDs
Marine and coastal access bill
Simplify management of coastline and open it up to more leisure activities.
Covers: Some parts will cover whole of UK, others some parts of the UK. Government will work with devolved administrations on responsibilities in their areas.
Not as bad as it sounds when you read the White Paper. Strangely, though, the White Paper has no mention of the very important bit that Brown announced - his big idea "to create a path around the whole of the English coastline, with public access for walking and other recreational activities." With big thinking like that how can he fail?

Heritage protection bill
More transparent and simpler system for management of historic sites.
Covers: Whole of UK for cultural provisions, England and Wales only for heritage protection.
Well, when they published the White Paper, the cultural provisions were gone (a pity - they're needed), leaving this Bill a housekeeping exercise just tidying up heritage protection across England and Wales and a wee bit about the marine environment.

Education and skills bill
Promote "fair access" to schools and improve performance of weakest schools. Give parents the right to regular information on children's progress, grant workers the right to ask employers for training, create an independent qualifications system.
Covers: Some parts whole of UK, some England only, others England and Wales only, or England, Wales and Northern Ireland only.
How legislation is supposed to improve schools' performance is a mystery - that's a matter of discovering and disseminating best practice, not creating new laws. Likewise, regular information on children's progress is more a matter of good communication between school and parent than a matter for a right in law. Workers already have the right to ask employers for training - you can ask whatever you want of whoever you want - is Brown intending to compel employers to offer training? This is important because the training bit is the bit that will extend to Scotland. The independent qualifications system - I take it Brown meant unified, England already has several independent qualifications systems (four, I think, and Wales has its own) - about time England started catching up.

Equality bill
Streamline 40 years of piecemeal laws covering sex, race and religious discrimination. Increase transparency and improve enforcement and allow political parties to use all-women shortlists until 2030.
Covers: England, Wales and Scotland.
Good - needs a consolidation act.

Welfare reform bill
Long-term unemployed forced to start training courses or face benefit cuts - all unemployed people to have their skills assessed when they first claim.
Covers: England, Wales and Scotland. Government will work with Northern Ireland Executive on its responsibilities in this area.
Hang on, what about that economic miracle providing jobs for all? How many pieces of legislation since the mid 1980s have tried to make benefits claimants look like scroungers instead of people in need of help? How many of those pieces of legislation have actually made any difference to the number of claimants or the number of jobless people? How many of them were just to pander to some segment of sit-com suburbia harrumphing into their G&T about an idle underclass?

Policing and crime reduction bill
Plan to cut police red tape, clampdown on anti-social behaviour and binge drinking in public places, more local control of police through directly elected representatives, improve recovery of criminal assets.
Covers: Some parts cover whole of UK, others do not.
Continuing the failed authoritarianism of the Blair years, hitting all the buzz-words, cutting red tape, clamping down on anti-social behaviour. It seems a bit of a desperate grab for the Blair trick of glib denigration. I'd love to know what they mean by 'binge drinking in public places', right enough, but I'm even more interested in what appears to be a proposal for directly elected chief constables...

Transport security bill
UK airports forced to tighten up security. Creates new offences relating to acts of terrorism at sea, including using a ship to transport weapons of mass destruction. Giving Royal Navy new powers to tackle piracy.
Covers: Whole of the UK.
Royal Navy to get new powers to tackle piracy? How much piracy on the high seas goes on in the coastal waters of these islands? Surely that's international law? Unless Brown wants the navy to tackle video piracy... It's going to be illegal to use a ship to transport weapons of mass destruction - fantastic, that's Trident illegal then. Hang on, it already is illegal. In fact the weapons of mass destruction are illegal - shouldn't we get rid of them Gordon?

Communications data bill
New procedures for gathering and retaining data from internet service providers and phone companies for the purposes of investigating serious crime and terrorism. Incorporates EU directive on data gathering into UK law.
Covers: Whole of UK.
See this? It's supposed to incorporate EU Directive 2006/24/EC into UK law, but that directive makes it clear that data should be "erased or made anonymous when no longer needed for the purpose of the transmission of a communication, except for the data necessary for billing or interconnection payments", and the plans of the UK Government are for exactly the opposite - the plans are, apparently, for a database logging the details of every phone call made and email sent in the UK.

Law reform, victims and witnesses bill
Introduce different degrees of homicide including provocation, diminished responsibility, complicity and infanticide - subject to consultation. More video links in court to protect vulnerable witnesses. Prevent criminals profiting from memoirs. Strengthen data protection by giving Information Commissioner more audit powers. Sentencing Commission to monitor prison population and advise courts.
Covers: Will vary for different parts of the bill.
Oh come on, it's mostly fluff. M'learned friend may guide me in this, but wouldn't most of this be covered by Acts of Sederunt in Scotland? Don't they have a similar system in England? Surely the variations of homicide (a pix and mix of death at the hand of another?) are matters for the consideration of the bench? Legislation isn't needed for the Sentencing Commission, given the limited role envisaged.

Citizenship, immigration and borders bill
Support setting-up of UK Borders Agency and earned citizenship scheme. Streamline existing immigration laws.
Covers: Whole of UK.

Coroners and death certification bill
Establish national coroners service, with full-time coroners working to minimum standards and right of appeal for bereaved families. New medical examiners to examine cause of death given by doctors.
Covers: England and Wales only, with some minor provisions applying in Northern Ireland.
Is this a knee-jerk reaction to some recent difficulties? A reflection on Shipman? A need to be seen to be doing something, perhaps.

National Health Service reform bill
Link hospital funding to performance by using patient experience to measure quality of care. Publish NHS constitution, greater autonomy for Primary Care Trusts, more choice for patients - subject to recommendations in Lord Darzi's review to be published in the summer.
Covers: England only.
Tinkering at the edges of the NHS reform that went through on Blair's watch. I'm interested by the idea of rationing funding by performance using patient experience. I see queues of patients waiting for their demob interview before going home - leaving times would exceed waiting times. What happens when you ration hospital funding? Do patients get 45 minutes of dialysis instead of an hour? Does your leg get sawn half way through when it needs amputated? Do the patients in the better-funded hospitals get two hours dialysis instead of one and both legs off instead of one? What a ridiculous idea.
Constitutional renewal bill
Independent Commission for the Civil Service to protect impartiality. MPs given final say on treaties. Stripping Attorney General of right to intervene in prosecutions. Reducing role of Lord Chancellor in appointing judges below High Court level. Stripping prime minister of role in appointing Supreme Court judges. Removing restrictions on protests in Westminster.
Covers: England and Wales only, some provisions extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Again, it's a housekeeping measure, not a policy development.

Community empowerment, housing and economic regeneration bill
Involve communities more in design and delivery of local services - including possible right of response to petitions. Streamline regional governance and boost economic role. More cooperation between local authorities. Improve operation of construction contracts.
Covers: England only but construction provisions apply to England and Wales.
None of this needs legislation and with the exception of the streamlining, none of it can be done by legislation.

Geneva Conventions and United Nations personnel bill
Fulfil commitment to adopt new humanitarian emblem (a red crystal) and ratify the Third Protocol of the Geneva Convention signed by UK in 2006. Extending the protection afforded to UN personnel to workers delivering humanitarian, political or development goals.
Covers: Whole of UK.
Nothing here needs legislation either.

In short, Brown's pitch for the next year is empty. He's introduced a legislative programme that isn't a legislative programme and a braver man and more able politician would have announced only what was actually planned and worth introducing.

It seems that the Brown Government's days are numbered, the question now is how much Labour loses by.

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