Sunday, January 08, 2012

Cooking the books

In the 2010 Queen's speech, 46 separate measures were announced. By contrast, the EU in its 2012 equivalent set out 129 initiatives – a measure of how much power has shifted from Westminster to Brussels.

The EU's plans for 2012 were duly noted by Booker in the second part of his column, the contrast triggering a search of the government archives. The intention was to show how the focus of legislation has changed, from Acts of Parliament to statutory instruments (SIs), implementing Brussels legislation.

Booker used regularly to report on the rising numbers of SIs. Just over 20 years ago they began to grow inexorably, from an average of 2,600 a year in the 1980s to well over 3,000 a year in the 1990s and more than 4,000 a year in the Blair era. This coincided with a dramatic drop in the number of Acts of Parliament, reflecting just how much of our law was coming from the EU.

To our surprise, however, these developments are no longer reflected in government statistics. In the year 1992, for instance, when we recorded 3,355-plus SIs being adopted, the government site only lists 1,923. This drastic downwards revision also applies to Act of Parliament.

Puzzled, Booker asked for an explanation of a change which has made it impossible to make historical comparisons. He ended up talking to National Archives who say that the figures now show only "those SIs which are published on our website" – so that many of those formerly included in the totals for earlier years have vanished.

They concede that this change in methodology should perhaps have been explained, and that a statement to this effect may be added to their website. But Booker also pointed out, as an unfortunate consequence of the change, that the new figures seem to show the numbers of SIs issued in 2010 and 2011 as very much higher than those for any years previously.

This gives the "red-tape czar", Oliver Letwin, something of a problem. Despite his efforts to reduce regulation, the way the statistics are now presented, it looks as if the coalition is producing a record amount of legislation. What was that about "when you first practice to deceive"?