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Limitation Of Legislation

Volume 932: debated on Wednesday 25 May 1977

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4.46 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to limit the volume of legislation in force; and for connected purposes.
I have always had a great deal of sympathy with that prayer uttered in the face of all the tempting temptations of the flesh: "God, make me good—but not yet." I am therefore not ashamed to stand here and ask the leave of the House to introduce a Bill to stop others from introducing Bills.

The proposition underlying the Bill is one that has general assent throughout the country if not in the House. It is that we have too much legislation, too many laws and too many regulations

I have referred outside the House to the legislative incontinence of this Parliament. Upon reflection, I realise that that was not an expression that I should have used. Incontinence implies an unwilling or unintended dribble. This Parliament is no unintentional dribbler of legislation. It pours out the stuff—presumably by intent—year after year. To be fair to the Lord President, he seems to be a reformed character in that respect. But I do not believe that he is permanently reformed. If circumstances changed, he might return to his bad old ways.

Since the end of the last war 2,000 Public General Acts have been passed in this House. That contrasts remarkably with the Ten Commandments which at one time were held to suffice.

We have had a number of Acts to control prices, for example. Now it appears that we are all agreed about those. We all agree that those Acts have not been unduly effective. Perhaps before long those Acts will fade into the mists of the past as unwanted legislation. Perhaps we could all find Acts for which we voted—let alone those that we opposed—that might have been better lost in the litter of lost legislation.

Yes, there have been 2,000 Public General Acts. It is appropriate to quote the wise words of the Committee on the Preparation of Legislation which was chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). The report was published as Command Paper No. 6053. Paragraph 1.10 of that report states:
"We must add that little can be done to improve the quality of legislation unless those concerned in the process are willing to modify some of their most cherished habits. We have particularly in mind the tendency of all Governments to rush to much weighty legislation through Parliament in too short a time with or without the connivance of Parliament, and the inclination of Members of Parliament to press for too much detail in Bills. Parliamentarians cannot have it both ways. If they really want legislation to be simple and clear they must accept Bills shorn of unnecessary detail and elaboration."
My Bill would certainly concentrate the minds of parliamentary draftsmen and us parliamentarians, too.

Of course, since that report was published we have had the extraordinary affair of the Acts of Parliament (Correction of Mistakes) Bill. That mistake was corrected at an early stage when the Lord President or someone else consigned it to the dustbin before it got any further. However, as the House knows, it was a Bill designed to allow Ministers to correct mistakes in rotten legislation that had been rushed through the House. I am not sure whether one should laugh or cry at either its appearance or its demise.

Acts of Parliament spawn more and more secondary legislation. Almost every general Act in this respect is like an oilfield blow-out, gushing Statutory Instruments, with no blow-out valve anywhere in the system. Statutory Instruments come gushing out at over 2,000 a year. Indeed, par for the course now seems to have settled at about 2,250. Some of them are never discussed at all.

Some enjoy the 90-minute farce upstairs—a sort of parliamentary "Just a 90-minute" parlour game. It can be played only for fun, as sometimes the vote is for the motion under discussion and sometimes it is against the motion under discussion—but it makes no difference whatsoever: the Statutory Instrument still comes into force. Therefore, it does not seem a very effective way of regulating our business.

I need hardly mention in this House the problem of dealing with European legislation—although in passing I remind the Lord President that my Bill should get his support, because it would give him the perfect excuse not to present the Bill on direct elections, not to mention, of course, the devolution Bill.

As one looks at legislation that has been enacted and at the Statutory Instruments, which are counted not by the page but by the foot of bookshelf space that they occupy, one can have no wonder that the law is in disrepute. Thousands of people break the law without even knowing it. The cascade—perhaps "shower" is a better word—of legislation overwhelms the citizen as regulation follows regulation upon regulation with bewildering and often incomprehensible effect upon his life.

Unlike the Lord President, I do not believe that the judiciary brings the law into disrepute. I think that it would be truer to say that bad laws and excessive laws passed by this House bring the law into disrepute.

We are, I think, the worst-paid legislature in the developed free world. As it happens, we also have the worst economic performance in the developed free world. I am not sure whether there is a correlation there. But certainly one other record that we have is that there is no other legislature that produces so much legislation. This is the only productivity record of the whole world that Britain undoubtedly holds—the productivity of Members of this House in putting words of legislation—whether understood or not, or whether even considered properly or not—on the statute book.

Therefore, my Bill is short and simple. It would require that from the day of enactment there should be no increase in the number of words in force upon the statute book, nor any increase in the number of words of Statutory Instruments and regulations in force. To bring in a new Bill would require the repeal of an existing Act. To make a new regulation would require the rescinding of one already in force. The Bill is based upon the assumption that we have enough legislation. There could be arguments about whether it is the right legislation, but we certainly have too much.

I have already commented upon the irony of producing a Bill to stop other people producing new Bills. Such legislative abstinence from those who have become addicted to legislating would come hard, and, of course, I would be prepared to consider in Committee some amendment to allow a trickle of new legislation, should a case be made for it—but I would want to see the statute book somewhat cleaned up first.

This House won power over the Executive not by legislating but by controlling money, by withholding taxation and by stopping kings and queens—and Prime Ministers, too—from spending. We in this House have lost control of the Executive, and we have become a bunch of parliamentary battery hens producing cracked and addled legislation night and day. It is time that we stopped legislating and started to defend the people against the Executive instead of defending the Executive against the people. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Norman Tebbit, Mr. Nicholas Ridley and Mr. Ian Gow.