If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 15 March 2010

Legislation, Legislation, Legislation

If you are a government, and something is happening that you want to stop, it seems to me you have three options: incentivisation, education, and legislation. Let's say you want people to separate recyclable stuff from general waste in their rubbish. You can:

1. Make it worth their while, by giving a rebate for recycled materials
2. Explain to them why recycling is good, and rely on their good nature to comply
3. Pass a law threatening penalties if they do not comply.

1. is almost certainly the best option in terms of compliance, and has the added bonus of making people feel good about what they do. If I managed to separate out fifty bags of recyclables over a year, and earned £100 off my next year's Council Tax bill, I would call that a good bit of work. I would work even harder next year to recycle more, and I would feel in tune with the Council who were organising the scheme, as I could see immediate personal benefits to me for doing so. It's a win-win. The only downside is that these rebates will cost the Council money, but it wouldn't take a Nobel mathematician to work out a way of making it cost-neutral by increasing the charges for non-separated waste.

2. is warm and woolly, and does not cause resentment, but has great variability in its effectiveness. Done well, with humour and pizzazz, it could be very effective indeed, but somehow you don't associate local authorities with humour or pizzazz in any form, and so the likely outcome is poor.

3. is probably quite effective overall, and there is a significant financial advantage in that those who do not comply will provide significant revenue in the form of fines. However, there are two big disadvantages: a lot of energy and ingenuity will go into circumventing the scheme (such as putting your rubbish in other people's bins after dark) which will need investigation and enforcement action, both of which cost money, and the general public are mightily pissed off by yet another threat of fines or worse if they don't do as their masters tell them, leading to a further deterioration in the relationship between rulers and ruled.

Any common-sense approach would surely combine 1 and 2, with 3 as a last resort if the others fail (and a better way cannot be found). But what has gone wrong in the last 13 years is that 3 is the only way anyone can think of getting anything done.

People harming themselves by smoking? Ban it.
People following an activity you don't approve of? Ban it.
People not recycling enough? Fine them.

And so we come to the greatest achievement of 13 years of Labour government. Since Tony Blair took office in the heady days of 1997, the government has created 4,300 new offences.

FOUR THOUSAND, THREE HUNDRED NEW CRIMES. That's 28 per month, or almost one a day.

Four thousand, three hundred ways of getting on the wrong side of the law and being fined or, in the worst case, imprisoned. And for what?

* Carrying grain on a ship without a copy of the International Grain Code on board
* Unauthorised fishing in the Lower Esk River
* Obstructing an authorised person from inspecting apple, pear, peach or nectarine orchards for the purposes of ascertaining whether grubbing up has been carried out
* Failure to attend a hearing by a bus lane contravention adjudicator
* As a merchant shipping officer, falsely claiming a door is closed and locked
* Selling non-native species such as a grey squirrel, ruddy duck or Japanese knotweed
* Obstructing workers carrying out repairs to the Docklands light railway
* Keeping a dog on a lead longer than a maximum length in a designated area
* Using an automatic rail-weighbridge which has a disqualification sticker on it
* Not having a licence for a church concert.

Just ask yourself: whan was the last time you did something you wouldn't normally do because the Government made it worth your while to do so, rather than because you couldn't afford the fines if you didn't obey?

I despair.


  1. My particular favourite:
    The 1998 Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Act - Section 1: "Any person who knowingly causes a nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for life." (Section 2 permits said activities in the pursuit of an armed conflict, which you would think might be the only situation in which people would realistically be flinging nukes around).

    Adequately covered in any case, you might think, by the 1883 Explosive Substances Act, which introduced life imprisonment for causing an explosion, attempting to cause an explosion, possessing an explosive substance, or conspiracy to cause an explosion. [All qualified by "with intent"]. The government disagreed - although few other lawyerly types believed their argument that it was required to comply with the latest European nuclear non-proliferation treaty - and introduced it anyway. There's the mindset, in a nutshell. And I'm willing to put a tenner down now on the Nuclear Explosions Act never, ever being the source of a single prosecution.

    Or on the subject of sheer, bloody-minded pettiness and interference in people's everyday lives, how about:
    "disturbing a pack of eggs when instructed not to by an authorised officer".
    Whether or not this is a particularly large and sinister problem that was crying out for legislation, I have no idea. But I do wonder how many people can actually tell a permitted anti-egg-disturbing officer from any other jobsworth twat in a peaked cap? It's almost worth hanging around Sainsbury's telling people not to look in the egg boxes, and handing out spot fines when they do. Should be easy enough to fake up some official-looking receipts...

    From 1979 - 1997 (the last Conservative administration, for them as is young), fewer than 500 new offences were introduced through primary legislation. There again, we didn't have a Ministry of Justice back then. Judge Dredd, it appears, was more of a training manual than a comic strip to Blair et al.

    If Cameron had any sense at all, he'd be putting a "mass repeal of rubbish legislation" pledge at the top of his manifesto.

  2. The problem is that a) Labour always feel that legislation is the answer to every problem, and b) they have a hyperactive need to be seen to be 'doing something' on every occasion. Hence a new law (often badly thought-out) for every new problem. In almost all cases, there was an existing law that was quite adequate. However, 'let's enforce the existing law better' is hardly a rallying cry for the troops, compared to 'we must legislate against this pernicious evil!'

    For centuries, we had the common law, which was simple and easily understood, and over the years case law had refined it into a very sophisticated mechanism. Now we have government by statute, and even by secondary legislation, where a law is passed which allows the Secretary of State to update and refine it without reference to Parliament.

    All that needs to be stripped away, and we should return to some basic concepts - don't harm your neighbour, and so on - and get rid of the idea that the world is a better place because you can be imprisoned for claiming a door is locked when it isn't, or disturbing a pack of eggs when YOU HAVE BEEN TOLD NOT TO.



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