Getting rid of laws?

In my previous post, I invited suggestions for new laws or changes to the law that would be desirable but which are not likely to figure in the debate between the parties.  Some of you have already come up with valuable suggestions.  I plan to invite further comments shortly on some of those suggestions.  However, as various readers have previously argued, we have a problem in that there is too much legislation.  There is a marked tendency to introduce a law whenever we have a problem, even though the problem may not be amenable to resolution by legislative means and the legislation may be poorly drafted and produce unintended consequences.

In the last Parliament, a measure was passed getting rid of a lot of obsolete legislation from the statute book.  However, there is a difference between obsolete laws and those which are useless, undesirable or having negative effects.  Should we have a cull of the statute book?  Are there any particular laws that you feel justify being repealed?

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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24 Responses to Getting rid of laws?

  1. Dave H says:

    It is worth a quick look at where there has been some discussion of this idea. I’ve been busy this weekend but I’ll go and add my list to your other post later.

    • Croft says:

      I thought of the same thing Dave. I disagree with some and agree with others but there are certainly some ideas in there that seem sensible – restore right to silence, remove the right for all offences to be arrestable (Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005.) DNA retention as examples.

      Of course there are many laws which I agree with conceptually but not in application. For instance I saw and indeed a still don’t see any argument for a specific offence of using a mobile phone while driving. Either you are committing an existing offence (failing to have proper control, reckless, dangerous driving etc) or not. Itemising individual objects (it’s not illegal to use a cb radio/ walkie talkie etc so why a phone. It massively increases the number of laws where general principles properly applied would suffice.

      • Jonathan says:

        Croft: how often do you see someone driving while using a CB radio? The law on driving and phones was introduced to make it completely unambiguous: you simply must not use a phone while driving. In my view, it could do with tougher penalties – after all, you have to make a conscious decision to pick up a phone, whereas other offences such as speeding slightly can be committed accidentally.

        However, I do think this is the sort of thing Lord Norton had in mind. In contrast, the site Dave H linked to suggests repealing all sorts of major laws such as ID cards: major areas of policy that should be specified in a manifesto, not simply removed as part of a tidy-up.

      • Dave H says:

        Many years ago as a student, I remember setting up my amateur radio gear in the car. It wasn’t too bad driving into Bath until I got to the Sainsbury’s Roundabout and the microphone lead rather got in the way of steering. That afternoon I went and bought a headset, which I used for many years with no problem.

        Like Carl, I agree with some of what’s on that site but not all of it. We probably even overlap for some of it…

      • Croft says:

        Jonathan : There are laws about failing to have proper control, reckless.. etc. The government and sentencing guidance bodies have a good deal of discretion in their guidance to make sure that the courts, CPS and the police interpreted existing laws to properly deal with the phone problem. However I don’t want to get bogged down int he specific the whole point of the example was that governments have become obsessed with passing laws as a means of ‘dealing’ with problems when too often things are already illegal or can de reasonably dealt with under existing laws. It’s exactly because governments can’t stop adding tiny item law changes that we ‘need’ a criminal justice act every year.

        On the point yes I know quite a few people who use CB.

  2. ladytizzy says:

    If all Acts had an automatic 100 year ‘sunset’ clause would this cause more or less chaos for Parliament over time? Bit too Keynesian?

    • Dave H says:

      I’d say give them a default of 10 or 20 years unless explicitly agreed to be different by 75% of the vote.

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        But does anyone ever take into consideration the vote percentages? It has been my impression that for all decisions taken by either House a majority is required, or, in certain cases, unanimity. The only reason people count votes in divisions is to find out which side “has it”. What you say about “75% of the vote” would seem to create a new precedent.

  3. Troika21 says:

    Oh, good grief yes! I wonder when MPs will realise that sometimes their job means not legislating.

    Yet the government passes laws at a ferocious rate, and I suspect that very few of them have thought-through consequences.

    Makes me think of Dara O’Briain: ‘Zombies are at an all-time low, but the fear of zombies could be incredibly high’. I await the zombie control legislation.

    The laws a mess in alot of areas, Carl.H mentioned prostitution laws in the previous post, but I think the whole area of sex laws in this country are a mess, the government criminalised ‘extreme pornography’ – basicaly anything that revolted the minister I suspect, there was no real justification for it.

    But I don’t expect that anything will change, it makes the MPs look like they’re doing something I suppose.

  4. ladytizzy says:

    Apologies for foing o/t but I have been ‘lobbied’ to ask the following:

    1. Why do the media persist in stating that 326 is the magic number of seats when the Speaker can’t vote?

    2. Apparently still no delivery of choccies: should I pursue this with Hansard or TNS?

    • Dave H says:

      It occurred to me that the chocolates might have to wait until after May 6th.

      • Croft says:

        ladytizzy: unless the vote is tied.

        Dave: In the ‘olde’ days MPs used to pay for an election supper, bunting and the cost of wearing their colours. 🙂 Today I think you are probably right that the chocolates are in purdah!

      • ladytizzy says:

        Croft: Hypothetically, two parties only, both get 325 seats. The Speaker must be elected from one party, giving the other a majority. What am I missing?

      • ladytizzy says:

        Due to the unfortunate death of a candidate, the Tory safe seat of Thirsk and Malton will not be polled until 27 May.

        Would the grey beards be right not to take the probable outcome into account?

  5. Carl.H says:

    “Legislation said to prohibit people dying while in the Houses of Parliament has been voted one of the most ludicrous laws in the UK. ”

    “Londoners are not allowed to keep a pigsty in the front of their homes

    It is still an offence to beat or shake any carpet rug or mat in any street in the Metropolitan Police District, although you are allowed to shake a doormat before 8am. ”

    Under the UK’s Tax Avoidance Schemes Regulations 2006, it is illegal not to tell the taxman anything you don’t want him to know, though you don’t have to tell him anything you don’t mind him knowing.

    • FinnishCowl says:

      I tried to resist, but Carl.H. has opened the door for me on humorous obsolete laws. There are a lot of sites devoted to this ( was one, but it is very out-of-date and often wrong – still it is funny).

      However, I must say that I am glad that Lord Norton and his fellow parliamentarians still cannot attend Parliament armed, especially with a likely hung parliament on the horizon. It was a good law in 1313, and it still is today:

  6. Senex says:

    I came across this Australian link:

    “The aim of the Discovering Democracy Program can be readily stated. We want students to understand the way we govern ourselves and to think of themselves as active citizens. John Hirst, Chair, Civics Education Group”

    This link from the same site:

    Talks about English Common Law and its history.

    Common law is based upon precedent or the search for such in prosecuting and/or defending a court case. The more Common law there is the longer becomes the search for precedents. There are snags and entanglement too that operate in tandem to make the process of dispensing Justice increasingly expensive through the courts for people of ordinary means.

    The other facet is law enforcement and general respect for the law. One culprit is popular democracy. Laws are increasingly put in place to compensate for a society that is irrationally fearful through too much information. When they interface with these laws they soon find that they are unenforceable so they openly flaunt the law which causes more laws to be made in an ever descending spiral of disrespect for the law.

    The other culprit is the Parliament Acts. A Commons voting system based upon FPtP requires another democratic system that is not so based to challenge and block its ability to put bad laws into place. The HoL used to be this mechanism but the Commons took it away when it embarked upon its ‘Royal’ prerogative of perfection and privilege one hundred years ago.

    The public knows that the Commons is imperfect. They are quite willing to dethrone this ‘Monarch’ and so are the Liberal Democrats having realised their mistake. If the Tories wish to keep FPtP and avoid eternally hung Parliaments they must restore to the HoL its ability to block non money based legislation.

  7. Perhaps much might be achieved by declaring Marsham Street an MoD firing range, and arranging an administrative oversight over relocating the Home Office beforehand?

    I proffer again my suggestion that all new legislation should be personally inscribed on tablets of stone by whomsoever introduces it, on grounds that if it’s good enough for the Almighty, it’s good enough for ministers (or whoever). This would greatly improve succinctness, especially if there had to be a tablet for each member of each House. And amendments would be such fun if it forced whoever to do it all again!

    Sometimes I don’t think the powers that be know what the law is. Or that they feel they have to make new laws, even if they just duplicate existing law, just to keep Westminster occupied (or preoccupied?) Here’s another example I’ve blogged about that’s on the horizon now:

    There’s no sign of this in the Labour manifesto, thankfully, as it turns out, but of course this guarantees nothing.

  8. Lord Norton says:

    Thanks for all the suggestions so far. On the silly laws, many are not necessarily still law, if they ever were embodied in statute. My understanding is that it is not illegal to die in the Palace of Westminster, but rather that it would be unduly burdensome, as the Queen’s coroner would need to be in attendance. As a result, those who do die in the Palace are instead recorded as DOA at hospital.

    ladytizzy: There may be a case for making sunset clauses more regular features of legislation, though the period may need to be determined on a case by case basis.

    Troika21: I take your point about sex laws. There is a lot of legislation that has been generated as a response to particular events, resulting in a cluttered and sometimes incoherent body of law.

  9. Croft says:

    Not specific repeals but some libel reform would be a blessing whether it be better protections for scientific commentators/correspondents, the insanity of the continuous publication online definition, costs to bring and defend actions.

    As you have shown an interest in privacy I suspect many people would like government databases, public and private cctv and other monitoring brought into single acts with much clearer rights to object and limitations on mission creep than at present.

  10. ladytizzy says:

    After my deluge petit, I must say I’m amazed at so few entries for new or to-be-binned laws after the most generous offer I’ve ever seen from a top-notch parliamentarian. When the whole of the UK has is asked by LoNo, no less, what new laws do you want and what laws do you want scrapped, well, er, it’s embarrassing to see so few suggestions.

    Nothing on HIPs?

    Everbody happy with the extraordinary subsidies on fuel bills?

    Are you content to be still on hold with Sky’s Customer Service [sic] half an hour after they’ve advised you to take the plug out, wait for 30 seconds, replace the plug?

    Is this really the end of the Great British Moanathon?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: I must confess I don’t have much to go on in terms of promoting any measure of repeal. On your point about HIPs, that is on the agenda as a point of contention between the parties, so action on that is possible. I’m still looking for any measure that falls outside the mainstream party debate that is clearly crying out to be removed from our rather substantial statute book.

  11. There is a case for dealing with laws affecting the ‘sex industry’ holistically, and I for one would appreciate a Royal Commission on the subject.

    Having said that, I think a repair job is needed on human trafficking legislation, repealing the relevant section of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 here:
    …and replacing it with the internationally agreed definition in Article 3 of the ‘Palermo Protocol’ here:

    Click to access Palermo%20Protocol.pdf

    …as is the case with other signatories of the Protocol, including the USA and Ireland.

    Apart from the obvious fact that adherence to the signed protocol is surely a bounden duty, differing definitions of human trafficking can confound crucial international co-operation at the operational level, and confuses debate on the issue at both public and Westminster levels.

    The 2003 Westminster definition is an utter mess in a number of respects:

    1. It addresses merely the transportation of persons into, around or out of the territory covered, and ignores the other actions constituting trafficking in the international definition, ie the recruitment, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons.

    2. It totally omits the means element in the international definition, relating to the trafficking of adults, thereby infantilising persons deemed trafficked by it, primarily women.

    Under the internationally agreed definition of a trafficker of adults (but not children), the use by them of “threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person” has to have been employed in order to achieve the ‘exploitation’ defined in Article 3.

    However the volition of so-called ‘trafficked’ persons is ignored by the SOA, the result being that persons are deemed traffickers who are clearly not traffickers, and ‘victims’ are declared (and resources expended on them) who do not consider themselves victims. Consequently the crime statistics relating to these sections overstate the level of trafficking convictions, as trafficking is generally understood.

    See, for instance:

    3. The SOA definition is far too widely applied. It could potentially be used against anyone transporting someone for use in any offence in Part 1 of the SOA (or certain other legislation). This includes a wide variety of sexual offences from incest to having sex in a public lavatory to voyeurism.

    Yet the actual offence in many cases, eg having sex in a lavatory or voyeurism, carry very light maximum prison sentences, whilst anyone transporting someone to carry out these offences could face up to 14 years for trafficking. This cannot be right, or a sensible use of prison places.

    I understand that trafficking for anything other than sexual exploitation is covered elsewhere in UK statute, and that the definition there corresponds much more closely to the Protocol.

    I believe there is a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Trafficking and am sure you would want to take soundings should you be interested in pursuing the matter. I’m unsure whether a PMB would be the right device, but I think any raising of awareness at Westminster concerning the issue must be a good thing.

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