Bill Jamieson: Hung parliament has its benefits too

Queen Elizabeth II during the Queen's speech. Picture; Getty
Queen Elizabeth II during the Queen's speech. Picture; Getty
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Instead of rushing into ill-considered legislation, we can now re-assess the effectiveness of existing laws, says Bill Jamieson

We’ve reached the summer solstice and the nights are drawing in. But should we be downhearted? Not a bit. And certainly not downhearted over the exceptionally dire news flow of the past few days.

What a meal of misery is served up nightly on the news. A dark and thunderous political outlook, a stripped bare Queen’s Speech, the government at sixes and sevens and the Prime Minister tottering: splendid.

I am reminded of the declaration of the French Marshall Ferdinand Foch in the Battle of the Marne: “My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, and I am attacking.”

We should give hearty thanks that the government is as boxed in as it is. For the greatest sin of modern times is not a hamstrung government but its opposite: the torrent of rushed and ill-considered legislation.

It is our good fortune, not a cause for woe, that the government has had to scale back, not only on its manifesto commitments but – and altogether more welcome – the vague and lofty rhetoric that seemed to be asking voters for a carte blanche to do anything that popped into its head.

Should we be depressed at what it has already been obliged to drop? There was the proposed £2 billion National Insurance Budget hit for self-employed workers - dropped in a dissembling fog about a pending review of modern employment practices by RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor. It was a revolt by small business and more than a dozen MPs that saw this measure kicked into touch. Might it not have been more sensible to await the review first before charging in? Indeed, was that not glaringly obvious?

Then there was the manifesto muddle – to put it no stronger – of the so-called dementia tax. This was a proposal that simultaneously increased the amount of people’s money that was protected - and yet took funding away, by including the value of a person’s home in all calculations.

It left some, particularly those with dementia, facing huge costs - sometimes running into the hundreds of thousands of pounds before they get help.

Such was the inevitable uproar that only four days after the manifesto launch, a cap or limit on the highest care costs was promised – but by then the damage to voter trust was done, and Theresa May was left mouthing “nothing has changed, nothing has changed” at an incredulous press briefing.

Now come major retreats on items widely expected to have been in the Queen’s Speech, including cuts to the winter fuel allowance, a reduction of the so-called pensions “triple lock” and a vote on the fox hunting ban.

It’s not that these policies may or may not have merit in themselves. But we have had a long succession of rushed reforms that have been ill thought through, badly drafted and botched on delivery. Seldom is thought given to the unintended consequences of legislation.

The purpose behind some of these measures was to reduce pressure on the public finances and help the government to meet its (already extended) deadline to achieve a balanced budget.

But there was little by way of detail or compelling arithmetic to demonstrate that this would in fact be the case. On pensions the plan was to replace the “triple lock”, under which the state pension rises in line with the highest of average earnings, the inflation rate or 2.5 per cent with a “double lock” rising with earnings or inflation. But this was not due to take place until 2020 while the cost of retaining the triple lock could be zero if forecasts on earnings growing by more than 2.5 per cent proved correct.

How much would have been saved for the public finances by curbing the winter fuel allowance? We don’t know, because no detail was given by the Conservatives on how it would be means tested.

As for the social care plan, which involved people having to sell their homes until they had only £100,000 left in their estates, there were always serious doubts as to whether this would survive in the face of widespread criticism from pensioner and health care lobbies. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies said there was insufficient detail to cost the proposal – or the financial implications of the immediate U-turn.

Nor did we know how much it would cost to retain the winter fuel allowance as no detail was provided on how it would be means tested.

Meanwhile, few tears are likely to be shed over the absence from the Queen’s Speech of a commitment to repeal the fox hunting ban, campaigned for vigorously by Tory peer Lord Mancroft. Theresa May had confirmed the Conservatives were committed to repealing the ban and to allow a free vote. The hung parliament put paid to a measure that was always sectional and which needlessly offended many voters.

Finally, on business measures, many firms are opposed to more regulation and fear any additional financial burdens when many are already grappling with rising costs.

So does parliament now stand idle? The government should not be staring helplessly into space moaning that there’s nothing it can do. There is everything to do in ensuring existing policies are fully and rigorously applied – the appalling Grenfell Tower disaster being an example of where ministers proclaim action has been taken but existing regulation appears to have been sloppily or inadequately applied.

Never mind new legislation and regulation – we need much more concentration in ensuring that existing legislation works as it was intended to do and that it is followed through. Pious declaration is the easy part.

Politicians constantly crave for new laws - bright shiny new things - when so much that is going wrong in the UK is not the fault of inadequate law but existing law poorly applied.

Perhaps the mooted changes at Holyrood might help the process of more detailed and thorough scrutiny here of legislation before it hits the statute book. The review by the redoubtable John McCormick suggests more than 70 practical reforms, including changes to the role and structure of committees to help cut down “the waffle”. Mercifully, it comes out against expanding the number of MSPs.

What – more of them? Flawed government activism is already all too evident. The Curriculum for Excellence programme is a glaring example. Another is the Children and Young People Bill, better known as the named persons scheme. This has already been “paused” due to lack of public confidence.

And did we really mean to give a carte blanche to Police Scotland? Or fully think through the bung to Prestwick Airport?

A hung parliament at Westminster should not mean an inactive parliament but the opportunity to think laws through more carefully and with greater regard for their practical implementation. And we should be more appreciative than we are that the scope for daft law has been much reduced.

How could all this be a cause for despair? We have been given a merciful deliverance – and a chance to do better with the laws we already have.