Monday, October 27, 2008

The nasty party

The mighty elephant has laboured and brought forth (or fifth?) a mouse. So it is that the Taxpayers' Alliance has finally woken up to the fact that we are in the European Union and has come up with a report telling us that it has produced an awful lot of regulations in the last few years.

I think we knew this already, but it is marginally useful (if the figures are accurate, which I doubt) to know that between 1998 and 2007 the EU added an average of 942 new laws each year; a total of 9,415. We are thus told that last year 3,010 EU laws went onto the UK statute book and that there are currently 16,980 EU acts in force.

The Alliance also provides us with a piece of harmless entertainment when it tells us that at least 770 pages of UK Statutory Instruments will be needed to enact the 76 Directives passed by the EU in 2007. "Assuming this as an average per year," it adds, "then EU directives alone have necessitated over 7,700 pages of UK law since 1997."

And the point is?

Well, if it was us, we would draw the obvious conclusion. It is time to go. In fact, we are long past the time when we should have departed, with a cheery au revoir leaving the stinking midden of the European Union on the other side of the Channel where it belongs.

But this is the Taxpayers' Alliance we are talking about. One of its responses to its own findings is that we need the private member's European Union (Transparency) Bill. This, we are told, would force Ministers to declare to Parliament which new laws are derived from EU laws.

In the view of the TPA, this "would increase awareness of the sheer scale of the EU's regulatory machine and make it impossible for the Government or Whitehall to smuggle through their own unpopular policies in the guise of EU requirements."

The next stunning idea from the TPA is that there should be "regulatory sunset clauses" to ensure that all regulation expires after a certain time period, unless Parliament voted to renew it. This, they say, would cut out regulatory dead wood and avoid unnecessary regulations lingering on after they have become useless or counter-productive.

And then for a finale, they would have "more powerful Parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation." British Parliamentary scrutiny of EU laws, they say, is extremely weak and ineffective, particularly when compared to the successful, stronger powers of other countries such as the Danish Parliament. The UK should adopt the Danish system of a Parliamentary committee with the power to scrutinise every single EU law.

Forgive the tone, verging on the sarcastic, but this is garbage. Taking the last of the TPA trio, the authors are in the land of the fairies arguing that scrutiny is "extremely weak and ineffective", as if scrutiny was the problem. As my co-editor has written many times, such as here and, more recently, here, scrutiny is not the same as "holding to account". "Scrutiny", she wrote,

… even if there were time to do it thoroughly, without the right of rejection or amendment is not legislation. It is akin to rearranging those famous deckchairs on the Titanic.
Even more recently, I wrote of the complexity of modern government, and the fact that there were so many diffuse and anonymous sources of laws, then declaring:

With all these organisations dipping their nibs into the legislative pot, however, there is one notable and glaring exception - the British Parliament. As thousands – quite literally thousands – of rules burst upon our shores, the one institution which supposedly governs us, has … nothing whatever to do with the process. That is, until it is too late to do anything about it.
What is the point – just what is the point of stepping up scrutiny at the final stages of this long and tortuous legislative process when with the best will in the world, there is absolutely nothing Parliament can do? Horrible phrase, it might be, but the TPA is indulging in intellectual masturbation.

Turning to the second of their stunning ideas, the "regulatory sunset clauses", what is the point of that? If we are obliged to implement EU law, and we do so, what on earth use is there then to bring it back before Parliament again, when the EU law itself has not expired, when all that Parliament can do is re-enact exactly the same law, untouched?

That, of course, begs the question of "negative assent", the procedure used to implement most Statutory Instruments (SIs), where they are "laid before Parliament" and there is no vote at all. Does the TPA want these Instruments laid again before Parliament, to pass by default in exactly the same way? And if it does, what is the point of that?

Then, what about the thousands of EU Regulations, which have immediate effect without being enacted into UK law – which go nowhere near Parliament, but come into force after they have been, as the signature block states, "done at Brussels".

So to the first of the TPA's brainwaves: forcing Ministers to declare to Parliament which new laws are derived from EU laws. Ostensibly a good idea, it nevertheless seems to have escaped the TPA's notice that, where SIs implement EU law, a note to that effect is already included in the explanatory note.

As for Acts, in the main, these are few and far between and are largely these days enabling acts – the description being largely self-explanatory. They do not, themselves, implement EU law. That comes later, through the SI process.

Then, if it a matter of smoking out the "elephant", what price the latest plans to introduce random breath tests which, as we reported, is EU "inspired" but you will not find the EU’s fingerprints on it. And how do you deal with the opposition’s insistence on making proposals which simply would not be permitted under EU law?

If this is not bad enough, when you look at the wider issues, the puerility of the TPA's case really becomes apparent. As we noted recently, the Lord Pearson elicited from the government the admission that, even had the EU not passed its own tranche of law on waste management, the UK government would have done something very similar. What does the TPA have to say about that?

And, of all the law that is passed, it is not the quantity per se - most of which is very trivial - but the quality, the main problem being the regulatory philosophy.

This is a far more complex and serious issue than playing the facile numbers game in which the TPA is indulging, them offering nothing serious or substantive to resolve such issues.

Earlier, however, when we dismissed the TPA as children at play, they took their bat home because we were "nasty" to them, hiding in their own little corner with their fingers in their ears. We, it seems, have taken over the mantle from the Tories to become the "nasty party" and they don't want to listen.

Actually, the Tories never were "nasty". What they were was arrogant, and there nothing has changed. But we are nasty – at least when presented with such childish, superficial, pathetically inadequate work. And we can get a whole lot nastier. Like the man said, this is not a game.