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The Blanket Repeal Bill

How can a new government undo Labour’s mistakes? It should simply repeal everything, says Matthew Parris

11 March 2010

12:00 AM

11 March 2010

12:00 AM

How can a new government undo Labour’s mistakes? It should simply repeal everything, says Matthew Parris

And finally, we shall in our first Queen’s Speech be introducing a measure whose like has never been seen among the manifesto commitments of an incoming government. It will be known as the Blanket Repeal of Legislation (Failure of New Labour, 1997-2010) Bill.

The effect of the Act will be to repeal en masse and at a stroke all new legislation brought in since the fall of the Conservative government in 1997. The only exceptions will be those measures which, by affirmative resolution of both Houses, parliament votes to rescue.

There will therefore arise – with regard to any law brought in under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown – a presumptive demise, unless in the case of any particular item the new parliament specifically and by name votes to override the presumption, and keep the nominated law. In other words, legislative nettles will be removed by applying a general herbicide to the entire landscape, 1997-2010, protecting from the spray-gun only those plants which parliament positively chooses not to kill.

To repeal whole swaths of needless, pointless or positively dangerous new laws made over the last 13 years, there will be no need for legislators to lift a finger – or even to turn their attention more than momentarily to any individual measure. It will be for those who want to keep a law to remember its existence, and argue for it.

The fox-hunting ban, ASBOs, hate-speech crimes, sloppily drafted anti-terrorist legislation used to terrorise camcording tourists in Trafalgar Square, paving legislation for identity cards – all will fall automatically, unless a majority can be found in the Commons and Lords to spare them the axe. The onus will be upon supporters of such measures to make a renewed case for each, and persuade the legislature to keep it. There will be a fair few measures MPs will indeed vote to keep; but they will have to say why.

What (you may ask) is the case for a presumption of annulment instead of the more traditional presumption of continuity? The answer lies partly in the efficient dispatch of business, and partly in human psychology.

If each of new Labour’s bad laws needs further legislation to repeal it, law by law, with all the time-consuming parliamentary procedure that entails – all the divisions, delays, and hours spent in committee – then the incoming parliament could end up spending an inordinate amount of time and energy simply on wiping the slate clean after new Labour’s 13 years of error. With so much that is forward-looking to occupy the next government, the temptation will be to leave the past alone, or put off the necessary rectification until there is more time – which in the nature of Commons business, there never is.

The Blanket Repeal of Legislation (Failure of New Labour, 1997-2010) Bill, however, will achieve euthanasia for scores of futile Acts of Parliament, by means of a single measure, preceded by just one First and Second Reading debate, one Committee Stage and one Third Reading.

The psychological case is equally strong. It is a besetting sin in all political activity, by members of every party, to approach demands for government to ‘do something’ and turn what Churchill called ‘happy thoughts’ into law, with the wrong question in mind. Politicians ask ‘why not?’, instead of the more rigorous question ‘why?’

The Blanket Repeal of Legislation (Failure of New Labour, 1997-2010) Bill will force legislators to reverse the burden of proof from ‘why not?’ to ‘why?’ Those potent forces in public administration – inertia, procrastination and a preference for a quiet life – will be harnessed to the cause of killing off rules and regulations. State busybodying will retreat unless efforts are made to keep it, instead of (as has usually been the case) advancing unless efforts are made to resist it.

It is not unheard of for particular new laws to come with a ‘sunset clause’ attached, whose effect is to terminate the measure after a set period of years, unless parliament votes to renew it. The Blanket Repeal of Legislation (Failure of New Labour, 1997-2010) Bill will bring the sun down not on a single measure, but on the whole damn lot.

It is the ultimate sunset clause.

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