As a legislator I have a confession to make. I do not read all the laws that are rammed through Parliament – there are too many of them. I do try to read all the Acts of Parliament brought before us for debate, but these days those Acts of Parliament are just the beginning. Once passed, they allow the government to go off and legislate in detail about that topic, pushing through Statutory Instruments that often are not debated at all in Commons. Many of them are put out in the summer when Parliament is not allowed to be in session, and many of them go through without a word in anger being said against them. Reading the Acts themselves does not leave me well informed about our law – I would need to read all the secondary regulation, sometimes put through a year or more after the original Act.
Many MPs do not even read the primary legislation we are putting through, because it is often abstruse, and vague, leaving much to be decided in the regulations that follow. Because this government limits the time available for debating all Bills automatically, the Commons these days tends to concentrate on a few items or controversies over each bill which might make it onto the media. The detailed work of scrutinising each line of legislation is left much more to outside lobby groups, consultants and advisers. Bill committees can only get so far in the time available, and only by considering the original text. Very often the government ends up with large numbers of amendments at the very end of the Parliamentary process, as by then the outside interest groups have woken up and explain why the law as originally conceived will not work.The Bill we agree to on Report and 3rd Reading may be very different from the Bill considered in Committee.
If even the legislators themselves have not read all the laws, let alone know their contents, it is expecting a lot that busy people trying to lead their normal lives should also know all the laws. There is simply too much law, and too much pettifogging law. Time was when Acts of Parliament were shorter, when there was less regulaiton on top of the Act, and when the principles that underpinned the Act were understood by many.
Today it is more difficult to guess what the law is from first principles, because so much of the law is bureacratic and silly, often achieving the opposite of what it sets out to achieve.
It is still the case that ignorance of the law is no defence, but I have increasing sympathy with generally law abiding people who simply had not got round to reading the reams of legislative paper being churned out by Brussels and Whitehall which might affect them and their businesses. It is easier for large companies, because they can afford expensive staff and consultants to alert them to relevant changes. It is a nightmare for small businesses, where entrepreneurs have better things to do with their time than become experts on EU directives and UK Statutory instruments.
The legislative factories are too efficient at churning out lots of law, but useless at producing good law which is clear, simple, and meets with general support. One of my main grievances with the EU constitutional Treaty is that is designed to make it easier for 27 countries to produce more laws. It is called institutional change to allow decisions to be made. Why one earth do we want more laws? Isn’t everything wicked – and quite a few things that are not – banned and regulated already?
If legislators are to read the laws they pass, and if the public is to have some chance of knowing what the law is, we need to get back to less law and better law. The EU model is based on ever more complicated controls and needless interference.
Too much law means a cowed people, unsure of what the law says, and hesitant about doing things and making decisions. Too much law is the enemy of enterprise and risk taking. Too much law means the talented go into the law and bureaucracy, where the easier returns can be made. Too much law makes life a misery.
Better government means less government, concentrating on those things that matter where a sensible law fairly enforced can make a difference.