According to the official summary (slightly paraphrased) the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act exists to make provision about the Green Investment Bank; employment law; to establish the Competition and Markets Authority and to abolish the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading; to amend the Competition Act 1998 and the Enterprise Act 2002; to make provision for the reduction of legislative burdens; to make provision about copyright and rights in performances; likewise about payments to company directors; and for connected purposes.
I know this because I looked up the act to check one ‘connected purpose’ relevant to my industry, the bit specifying that Royal Charters made after 1 March 2013 can be amended only by a two-thirds majority in parliament. It didn’t even make the summary.
Neither did the measure creating a power to require banks and utilities to allow customers to see what data is held on them. Despite my long-standing interest in access to data, that aspect of the bill had passed me by until I heard about it by chance at a thinktank event last week.
Readers will recognise the problem created by ‘Christmas tree’ bills – large multi-topic bills, upon which a department hangs areas of policy like baubles on a Christmas tree. In opposition, the Conservative party used to protest against such legislative tactics, but of course in government everything changes.
A report by the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee this week found that the size of acts of parliament has been growing consistently since the 1980s - from an average of 37 pages during the 1980s to 85 in the past decade. In the 1950s the average was just 16.
More pages isn’t necessarily bad – the report points out that some of the increase can be accounted for by welcome improvements in readability. But the scale and range of topics covered by legislation like the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, the Localism Act, and our old favourite the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, surely militates against quality.
Especially given the parliamentary timetable. The committee concludes that ‘the majority of poor-quality legislation results from either inadequate policy preparation or insufficient time being allowed for the drafting process, or a combination of the two’.
It recommends that a week should elapse between the conclusion of bill committee evidence sessions and the start of line-by-line scrutiny, to allow MPs enough time to consider the evidence and for amendments to be drafted and selected for debate. No doubt the government will accept this recommendation – until the next time a minister wants to get a pet obsession in to legislation.
However the report also commends the ‘Good Law’ initiative set up last month by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, a wide-ranging effort by a bunch of web-savvy individuals working with the Cabinet Office to find ways of reversing the tide of complexity in legislation.
The initiative says it wants to generate a wider debate. I hope solicitors find the time to join in – if only to disprove the canard that lawyers believe the more complex the legislation, the better.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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