A British version of a ‘Read the Bills’ statute

London_Parliament_2007-1

 

Introduction

If I ever meet Rand Paul and talked politics, I imagine he’d run rings round me, he’s quite bright. But once we got down to brass tacks, I doubt that there’d be that much we agreed on politically. But one thing would be that there is just too much badly thought out, verbose and unnecessary legislation begin passed.

Just two examples of Bills going through the House of Commons now – the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill hits 100 pages and the Serious Crime Bill is over that. Bear in mind that that’s a good year for criminal legislation, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 runs to 453 pages some of which was repealed almost instantly, some of which is not yet in force.

 

Problem

The problem is that Parliament is obsessed with passing laws. Fair enough, you may say, as that’s kind of their job, isn’t it? The problem is that the days where there was lengthy consideration of the problems of the day and an attempt to craft a proper solution have long gone. Nowadays our legislators are part Maoists, in a state of permanent revolution, and part headless chickens, running around desperate to do something, as something must be done and ‘this’ is something. Success is measured in how many laws you can pass rather than how good the laws you pass are.

In my line of work – criminal and immigration law, a year with one new bill is a good one. Almost all of these can be described as tinkering, and much of it is washed away later in the same Parliament. This isn’t a party political point, Labour was just as bad. The only difference between the two main parties on this point are that the Tories talk about a smaller state and fewer laws, whilst still tucking into an orgy of legislating just as soon as they got on the governmental green benches.

Of course laws are needed. Also, over a five year period it is to be expected that things arise that need tackling, but much of what has come out (certainly in crime and immigration) has been going round and round in circles with no clear aim. It also seems that the greater the number of clauses in the Bill, the less it is actually needed. For example, in 2011 the High Court gave judgment in Hookway [2011] EWHC (Admin) 1989 This (arguably) created a problem that only Parliament could rectify. And rectify it they did with the Police (Detention and Bail) Act 2011. This was achieved with precisely 138 words. No excess waste there. That is responsible lawmaking.

Maybe just ask yourself this question – looking back over the last five years, how many problems do you look at and think ” you know what, the real issue here is that there was just not enough laws?“.

 

A Solution? 

Senator Paul has promoted something called the Read the Bills Act– the short idea being that every member of Congress who votes on a bill has to sign a sworn declaration that they have read it. It’s a nice one, but not sure if it would work – it’s pretty much symbolic. But it’s nice to think that something like that should be brought in over here.

And then Matthew Bolt suggested this :

It’s genius. Imagine if no MP or peer could vote on a Bill unless they had lodged a handwritten (in their own writing) copy of the entire Bill with the Clerk of the House?

That piece of legislation that looked so good, and so just vital for the country, in the early morning light of a press release, may not look quite so hot at two in the morning as you are bent over a desk, hand cramped, as you write out Clause 94? Any lawyer can tell you that it is almost impossible to keep on top of the outpouring of laws from Westminster. And that’s before you start on Secondary Legislation. Where this fits in nicely – instead of a negative resolution procedure, how about no SI becomes law unless 2/3 of the members of both houses submit it in longhand?

This proposal might stop some of the more silly laws that come out of Westminster. One example – maybe when writing out s76 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, a perfect example of a completely pointless piece of legislation, our dear leaders might just think “fuck it, I’ve had enough” and put down their pen before looking through at which bits of it are actually needed. And, passing over the nonsense complete that is the continuous churning of the Immigration Rules, would we have ‘The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Commencement No. 4 and Saving Provisions) Order 2012‘? Would we be able to survive without it?

Also, our MPs are bright cookies, whatever else you want to say about them, and they might pick up on some of the more obvious howlers. Like repealing a criminal offence but forgetting to enact the new offence that replaces it, or passing a law that has parts of being ‘manifestly inconsistent with each other‘.

One last potential benefit. If members were forced to write out draft laws they might actually read them. Surely they read them now, you say? Well, it’s hard to put this charitably, but I do suspect that that’s not always the case. Some, whisper it, may just do what they are told by the whips. That can be unfortunate when you find yourself on the receiving end of a problem that your vote helped to create.

 

Conclusion

One of the downsides of not having a written constitution is that there is no real check on the silliness of lawmakers. Like a bull in a chinashop they crash around where the mood takes them, bringing chaos out of order in pursuit of the siren call of the tabloids that, due to some event, “something must be done”. We’ll never properly stop that, but here’s one tiny way of putting on the brakes.

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2 thoughts on “A British version of a ‘Read the Bills’ statute

  1. Pingback: Republic Day Ideas on Studying the Structure | Posts

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