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Legislation - just a longer press release?

Published by John Redwood 26th june 2008 at 8:23 am under Blog

Legislation has become an extended press release to this government. As the government of the spinners by the spinners for the spinners detects movements in public opinion through its copious professional polling and focus group research, so it wishes to send out messages. “We feel your pain”, “We will do something about your problem”, “We will legislate to put it right”. Unfortunately for the government so often it requires administrative action – or cancelling incorrect administrative action – not legislation. They don’t seem to care, as they have given up on trying to make their huge public sector work properly. They prefer instead to retreat to their comfort zone of trying to manage some of the media some of the time to repeat their idiot soundbites. Passing laws helps to reinforce the message of the day.

The events of recent days are much easier to understand once you have grasped this cynical and futile approach to mass producing more law codes. We finished the Commons stages of the Planning Bill yesterday evening. I, along with several other MPs, wanted to speak on the Third Reading of the Bill. It makes much more sense to wait until Third Reading, as the government rewrites huge chunks of the original proposals during the course of proceedings, so it is only at Third Reading that you can have a proper Second Reading Debate on the overall structure and impact of the legislation. This government, of course, does not want that. Once again their anti democratic timetable meant we had less than thirty minutes for Second Reading, which allowed no time for a single Opposition backbencher to speak.

This Planning legislation was born of the correct perception that it takes too long to make decisions about major projects in the UK. Communities face years of blight from wanted and unwanted planning proposals before the state gets around to making up its mind on whether to allow them or not. Doubtless the business lobbies and the focus groups told the government this was a problem. Instead of improving the existing administrative framework, and setting meaningful deadlines for the different stages of a planning application, the government decided to legislate for a new system. Drawing on what they think of as their success with an “independent” Bank of England ,(see my blogs on why this is misleading) they decided to create an “independent” planning quango to take these decisions. It has been fun watching many MPs who have bought the nonsense of the so-called independent Bank of England lining up to say planning had to be subject to elected democratic control. We had the pleasure of watching as the government eventually buckled and put in a very complicated system of Ministerial statements of national planning policy on major projects to be followed by the so-called independent quango “taking” the decision! They did not seem to see the contradiction in their views.

I asked if someone wanted to build a new power station, how long would it take starting today to get a decision under the present system, and how long would it take under the new system. You would not have thought that a difficult question, as the main rationale for the new system is to speed things up. Indeed, I felt I was being kind to the Minister, John Healey, offering him a free hit to advertise his Bill. Mr Healey was unable to give any answer. He also failed to intervene or object when the Conservative front bench told me they think it would take longer under the new system than the old, and that there is a severe threat of judicial review of decisions under the new system!

It all goes to show that the purpose of the Bill is not to speed up planning applications, but to appear to be speeding up planning applications. In practise it will probably take the next couple of years to establish the Planning Quango, and to write the government statements of national policy. People and businesses planning major projects might well opt for the existing system to get their permission, or might decide to wait and see how it all settles down. I am pleased to report that the Opposition stated they will abolish the quango, as they see it as another spanner in the planning works,

Today we learn there will be new equality legislation. I am all in favour of trying to prevent discrimination on grounds of race, age and sex. I do see that having framework legislation in place can set the tone and avoid the more extreme examples of unpleasant discrimination. I am also aware that there are many subtle forms of discrimination which no legislation can ever prevent or ban. We have all been discriminated against for one reason or another at some points in our lives. One person’s unfair discrimination is another person’s criteria for choosing between candidates or deciding who to favour where choices have to be made. The government is perplexed by the fact that equal pay legislation for women has been on the statute books for years, yet the figures show men still earn more than women on average and there are doubts about the justice of pay between the sexes in certain walks of life. They have yet to show us the problem is the shape and nature of the legislation. If they cannot demonstrate that legislative change will fix this, their new Bill will be yet another in their sequence of posing Bills, well intentioned but ineffective.

Yesterday we heard one year after the floods the result of a government review into the floods. It is pathetic that it took so long to conclude the blindingly obvious – that our flood defences are inadequate and a lot of buck passing occurs between the different authorities and levels of government over who should do the work. Once again we are told there will be legislation to deal with the problem in the next Parliamentary year. Why on earth do we need legislation? We need women (or men) in JCBs to get out there and enlarge and cleanse the ditches and cut some new ones. We need schemes to build bunds and other means of retaining water in safer places, better conduits and cleaner pipes, with a few non return valves and bigger pipes to handle sewage in some places. We need these now, in case the rains come again as they did last summer. One school in my constituency has already been flooded again this year, as it was last. I doubt that a new law will make any difference. I showed the Environment Agency the other day what might solve the problem, and it wasn’t legislation.

There is a simple message for the government. Stop trying to pose as saviour by legislation, and start taking some practical action where action is needed. Stopping future floods would be a good thing to do. Getting your own recruitment and retention right in the public sector would go a long way to tackle inequality in the workplace. Let Parliament have longer to discuss fewer Bills, and you might also start to get some sensible legislation.

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