Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Lobbying Bill: more bad law

The problem with the UK Parliament is that it's become a sausage machine for bad laws. You name them, we can pick them out. The absurd, unworkable (and very expensive) idea that landlords will check your documents? Rubbish - and quietly being dropped. Lords reform? It went down in flames. Life for dangerous dog owners who maul people? Wrong in principle, and unlikely to work in practice. Universal Credit? Roadkill - as we always said it would be. Actually, roadkill is unfair to small animals who get hit by cars. But that's another story.

The point is that we have too many laws. They're often composed of a series of knee-jerk reactions. They're badly drafted. They leave massive loopholes. They're sloppy. Unintended consequences proliferate. Ministers and civil servants have to go back over them - thus creating the need to pass even more legislation. Everyone knows this to be the case. Civil servants know it. The Cabinet Office has just published a paper about it. Even the Church has complained about it.

Today's Parliamentary consideration of the Transparency of Lobbying Bill is a case in point. Frankly, it's a dog's dinner - except that I wouldn't feed it to my dog. If I had one. It's supposed to regulate lobbyists, establishing a register of who they are and what they do - as well as capping their spending in an election year. So far, so relatively unproblematical. But read on. Unfortunately - and you really could not make this up - about 80 per cent of actual lobbyists will be exempt. The groups that will really be affected? Britain's charities and trade unions, who are defined as 'lobbyists' for the purpose of the Bill - a concept that most of the public would have a hard time with. Ministers, perfectly plausibly, say that they have no intention of restraining the activities of such groups. But creating powers that you arbitrarily say you won't use is a very dangerous principle, and it's alien to the principles of liberal democracy and the rule of law - the reign of measures, and not men. Even the neutral Electoral Commission has voiced a series of concerns about this hastily drawn-up and shoddy piece of nonsense.

This one should be junked right away. You can write to your MP about it if you want.

But what might we do to stop such debacles happening again? A 'yellow card' system from Parliamentary Select Committees, which would ask (or then force) Ministers to go back and think again. Since each party's MPs are appointed to those committees in roughly the numbers that they sit in the Commons, the Government should still get its business - more slowly. Another one? Civil servants should be free to raise their concerns with those Committees, anonymously if needs be, without fear or favour of disciplinary action - the very definition of a 'public interest immunity' in action.

One thing's for sure: if we don't do something soon, we're going to be deluged with more and more rackety old legislation. Whitehall mandarins will blush with shame: then new Ministers will just pass a load more tat to patch up the problems with the old lot. And on we'll go.

Is that really in anyone's interests?


  1. Is this something new and peculiar to the present Government, or is it a more general trend that stretches back to the Labour years?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. This trend in fact stretches back to the period immediately after the Second World War, and perhaps before. Mr Attlee might look at just over 200 files per year, between 1945 and 1951 (he would return to these, again and again): by 1965, Mr Wilson might look at 586. That's an increase of 193 per cent, just in those first two post-war decades (Figures from Peter Hennessy, The Prime Ministers (2000), table 4, p. 96). There are lots of reasons: increased presidentialism, more and more media calls for quick 'action', whatever that might be; and the parliamentary guillotine curtailing debate. But it's been getting worse for decades: it's not limited to this or even the previous administration.