Is this really necessary, Minister?

Guest Blog by Cyclefree, a lawyer/investigator specialising in financial services and whistleblowing investigations.

Politicians are always inclined to fall for the “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” fallacy. The almost instant reaction to any problem in the public eye or if you want to look serious about an issue or to show that you really really care is to propose a new law. 

In recent days, Labour have proposed a law making spiking a criminal offence, even though there are existing laws which could be used. They plan to ban “conversion therapy”, though it is wholly unclear what this term means. The Tories are trying to pass a law against small boats in the Channel. The Bill of Rights (introduced under Raab, dropped by Truss, reintroduced by Raab again) is back on Alex Chalk’s desk. 

This last Bill is a classic example of a solution in search of a problem. It has been presented as a necessary reform. In reality, there have – since 2010 – been 4 reviews, all of which found no “compelling evidence of a problem” or “viable proposals for reform”. The Bill has been eviscerated by the joint Parliamentary Human Rights Committee’s report – here. Even a previous Tory Justice Minister (Robert Buckland) said the proposed Bill was pointless and a solution to a problem which no longer existed, if it ever did.

This last comment goes to the heart of why so many proposed new laws so often achieve little – and can do great harm.

When should a new law be introduced? And why? 

Those wanting a change should show:-

  1. The mischief they seek to address or the improvement that is needed. “What is the problem to which this is the solution? Be  precise in your answer” should be the first two questions asked of any politician proposing a new law. Too often they are never asked. Or, if asked, the answer is no more than “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do this.”
  1. What are the real causes of that problem? If the causes are not legal ones, a legal solution is not going to be the answer. What will it improve and how? Too often, a new law is doing for the sake of doing. Or more often appearing to be doing.
  1. Can this issue be addressed by existing laws or other measures? We have enough of the bloody things on the statute book, after all.
  1. Is the problem sufficiently serious to warrant change? Partly this is a matter of priorities. But some problems are ones which cannot easily be solved or at all, are inherent in the tensions between conflicting interests. A bit of realism to counter the “There should be a law against it.” tendency in voters and politicians is needed.
  1. Will legal change resolve or alleviate the problem? Will it create other problems instead?
  1. Is what is proposed a proportionate way of resolving the problem. Not all problems can be resolved or only at an unacceptable cost.
  1. What are the consequences, especially the unintended ones? Do they harm the interests of others? If so, how badly? Can these be easily mitigated? If not, is it really worth going ahead or are there other measures which might work better?
  1. Is this consistent with other legislation or initiatives the government is enacting? This may be unduly hopeful but some attempt at consistency and joined up thinking would be welcome.
  1. Finally – and critically – how is this going to be implemented / enforced? If there are no or few resources to back up the new intentions, what – really – is the point? 

Is a pointless / ineffective law harmful?

Does it matter? Yes. Pointless law-making – the passing of Potemkin laws –  creates or reinforces cynicism about politics and a disregard for the rule of law, especially when it is seen as ineffective. Above all, it diverts attention and effort away from practical and effective problem-solving measures.

The desire to be seen to be doing something often seems to be the only important consideration. Consultation is put forward as a justification. But too often consultation starts from the assumption that something must be done and avoids a clear-sighted analysis of what the problem actually is and whether anything should be done. Or, more cynically, a cover for unclear / unpopular proposals (“We are going to consult on these proposals” = “We know they aren’t popular but we’re going to implement them anyway.”)

It’s as if what matters most is not effectiveness but the appearance of busyness. Ironically, this simply creates more work for lawyers and judges to try to sort out the mess thus created, more material for politicians to grumble about, more cynicism among voters, more proposals – and on it goes. It’s law-making as Escher might draw it.

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