Improving legislative standards

Lord Norton

I was giving evidence yesterday to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the Commons, alongside Lord Maclennan and MP Nick Raynsford, as part of the the committee’s inquiry into legislative standards.  The committee is examining whether, among other things, a commitee on legislative standards should be established.

 I was keen to argue that such a committee is desirable, even necessary, but it is not sufficient.  There needs to be changes in respect of the whole process by which law is made, encompassing for Parliament pre- and post-legislative scrutiny as well as reform to how Bills are dealt with once introduced.

Changes are needed in order to achieve a culture shift among ministers and, indeed, backbenchers.  I summarised the nature of the problem in my written evidence:

“Problems with the process derive in large part from prevailing attitudes.  For a minister, failure is not having a Bill to bring forward.   The starting point of the legislative process is seen as the First Reading of a Bill.  The timing of introduction is largely determined by what Robin Cook termed ‘the tidal wave’ principle, with a continuing attachment (despite provision for carry-over) to the sessional cut-off.  Legislative ‘success’ is seen in terms of Royal Assent.   

 The way in which we legislate is thus marked by a large volume of legislation (bigger bills rather than more bills) – incoming senior ministers wanting to make their mark through legislation, the government wanting to show that it ‘has done something’  – and a process that is constricted and rushed.  Creating a Committee on Legislative Standards is desirable, even necessary, but it is not sufficient.   It has to be set in this wider context.  As such, it can fulfil a valuable role, helping address some of these problems.”

The session helped tease out how the whole process can be improved.  However, once proposals for change are made the real challenge is ensuring there is the political will to implement them.  

I will do a link to the transcript of the session once it is made available.

7 comments for “Improving legislative standards

  1. Gareth Howell
    14/09/2012 at 4:02 pm

    Creating a Committee on Legislative Standards is desirable

    The process is certainly better than it was in 2001 and onwards,and that did not take a committee to decide it. It took two general elections.

    A healthy balance, whichever party you support, in the division lobbies, is surely the best guarantee of avoiding some of the pitfalls the noble lord describes.

  2. Dave H
    14/09/2012 at 9:12 pm

    There is a disturbing trend for too much to be left to secondary legislation, sort of like Parliament writing a blank cheque for ministers. There are places where it’s appropriate, but there was definitely some mickey-taking in evidence.

    My example here is Schedule 1 of the CSF Bill from the last Parliament, where it was definitely in that category. There was provision for an appeal procedure against government decisions but no details of how it might be implemented, nor any requirement to have it in place in an acceptable form before the legislation came into effect. Fortunately this all got junked in the stitch-up.

    The other thing is the badly written stuff that gets used for other purposes. My example here is the anti-terror legislation that was used against Iceland when their banking system collapsed.

    Laws should be specific in what they prohibit or mandate, with clear guidance as to why something is mentioned. I’d like to see a proper independent scrutiny committee with the power to re-word clauses based on challenges from anyone and the government’s response.

    As an example, if I say “the Bill as written will allow XYZ to happen” and the minister responsible assures Parliament that it is not meant to be used like that, the committee should have the power to turn the minister’s words into a clause in the legislation to be presented at second reading or report stage (I would assume that in general it would come about during the committee stage). I’d also like it to become a convention that the government would not seek to overturn such clauses if the minister has given an assurance.

  3. Nazma FOURRE
    15/09/2012 at 12:31 pm

    Dear Lord Norton,
    The problem behind the legislative proceedings of bills is that the lapse of time between the first and second reading is too big. The delay for both houses to vote must be on a fifteen day basis and in case of opposition another 15 days can be allowed. In case of another refusal, a comittee comprising both houses should be held to examine the bill in a objective way and another voting system should then be held. The royal assent could then be given by the Queen within a period of week.
    The next step is to recruit more junior Members of Parliament and Lords.
    God bless the Queen and the Lords. God save the United Kingdom.
    Nazma FOURRE

    • Dave H
      15/09/2012 at 8:40 pm

      You are assuming that speed is important. In many cases it is important not to go too fast in order that proper scrutiny can be performed on all aspects of the wording and any unintended consequences. If you’re opposed to whatever is in the Bill, you want it to go as slowly as possible in the hope that the government will run out of time because if you have a government with a large-enough majority it can do pretty much what it wants without listening to dissenting voices.

  4. ladytizzy
    16/09/2012 at 7:27 pm

    I am catching up with the earlier evidence sessions and, for now, if I may say: OMG. Jaw-droppingly informative.

    Meanwhile, perhaps one question: would I be better served if those with legal qualifications were disqualified from standing as MPs?

    • Gareth Howell
      19/09/2012 at 8:41 am

      would I be better served if those with legal qualifications were disqualified from standing as MPs?

      The number 60 occurs to me as the number of lawyers of one sort or another who may be in parliament at any given time. It is a legislature, so perhaps it is not surprising.
      It is part of a career path for many a lawyer.

  5. MilesJSD
    16/09/2012 at 11:54 pm

    Legislation being a form of ‘Rationing’,
    and the UK
    & subsequently its Parliamentary Legislature
    being ‘subject’ to Global Economics,

    and the latter being both immediate-term and longest-term subject to the Earth’s Finite Resources,

    (then) every piece of UK legislation vitally needs to be brought well within the above two Greater Supply-Demand overarches and underpinnings;

    including all past still-enforceable , applicable, or ‘resurrectable’ legislation.

    And that legislations need to be made more sustain-worthying of every level of The People, especially of those disadvantaged millions on permanently low incomes;
    but also of all those not working life-threateningly nor more than 40 hours a week, but appearing to ‘absolutely need’ and to have individually ‘earned’ many more human-livings than one, from the Common Purse

    I would therefore ‘intuit’, Lord Norton, that the/your legislatural* task
    is far more urgent, important, and huge
    than even your insight reveals when you say
    “there needs to be changes in respect to the whole process by which laws are made”,
    .* In the sense of “the/your Task here,
    is vis-a-vis the Legislature
    (rather than being the/your ‘legislative’ task,
    even ‘though ‘better’-legislation would also require improvements to legislative processes, which in turn might need improvements to the Legislature itself…)

    [Apologies; but I have no say whatsoever in making nor in improving any part of the English Language,
    much of which in misleading use today I nonetheless have criticised as being ‘unfit for both World and British Purpose’].

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