The compulsion to regulate almost every aspect of our lives has become one of the defining characteristics of the last decade. We’ve now reached a point where the law makes common sense a crime, and criminals of increasing number of respectable people.
We all know that this government has been far too trigger happy when it comes to making new laws; an estimated 6,500 since 1997. That’s a problem in itself; a bureaucratic nightmare. But the bigger problem is the underlying philosophy that has given rise to, and shaped these laws.
Whatever the issue, our Government takes as its starting point an assumption that we are all fools, or villains – or both. Almost every ordinary human activity has therefore been regulated, policed, or in some cases banned altogether. So if one farmer is cruel to his animals, they must all be regulated into oblivion. If one painter falls from his ladder, then ladders must be banned.
The same approach is now being extended to parenting. Last week, I chatted to mothers outside a North Kingston school with Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling. We discovered that more or less everyone we spoke to would become a criminal under new laws that require any adult who looks after a friend’s children to register with Ofsted. To be able to legally continue doing what parents have done since the very beginning of time, they will now have to have a criminal record check, learn first aid, take a childcare course and even follow Labour’s “nappy curriculum” for under-fives (whatever that is). They will also have to open their homes for inspection by officials.
To be absolutely certain that none of us escapes, the watchdog has warned that; “Reward is not just a case of money changing hands. The supply of services or goods and in some circumstances reciprocal arrangements can also constitute reward.” It’s an over-used term, but this is Stalinist. What we are seeing is the effective nationalisation of parenting.
The Government has responded to criticism by claiming that the legislation is “proportionate”. Well we’ve heard that before. Remember RIPA? In 2003, the Government provided local authorities with draconian new powers supposedly to prevent serious crime. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act allows Councils to access individuals’ personal and business phone and e-mail records and to use a range of surveillance techniques to track their movements. These powers were granted specifically for the prevention of serious criminal activity, including terrorism.
They were never intended as a snooper’s charter to enable local councils further to erode individual freedoms. They too were supposed to be ‘proportionate’. But despite this, using the Freedom of Information Act, I found that my own council in Richmond has used the new powers 64 times for such offences as the sale of spray-paint to minors, a theft from a handbag, and unlicensed street trading. Richmond is not alone.
The new child vetting regulations are designed, we’re told, to prevent crimes against children. But would they really have stopped the likes of Ian Huntley? I doubt it. In fact the new laws are probably designed to make the Government look tough. And tough they are. But on millions of innocent people. Imagine if half the energy required to implement these laws was expended tackling genuine crime and helping real victims?
In one of my recent surgeries, I met the daughter of an eighty-year old woman who is a virtual prisoner in her own home as a result of the horribly unpleasant, threatening behaviour of her neighbours. I visited her home, and persuaded the authorities to come with me. No one was in any doubt that the final years of this elderly lady’s life are being ruined. And yet, the law makes decisive action almost impossible. I will do everything I can to ensure this one victim finds peace. But her story is repeated throughout the country, and most victims won’t see justice. While the government cracks down on us – all of us – it turns a blind eye to true injustice.
People can see that the priorities are all wrong, and they call for ‘common sense’. But there is no single policy to restore ‘common sense’. We need a new approach altogether.
If our starting point is that no one is to be trusted – in any field – then of course we need more and more laws, tighter and tighter regulation. If that assumption is correct, it is right that there should be a civil servant for every two soldiers, that policemen should spend just one hour in five being policemen and the rest of the time filling in forms. It’s right that the NHS should recruit risk-managers, not nurses.
But the assumption is wrong. The sheer number of new laws has led to a mushrooming bureaucracy, which in turn is paralysing the country. The bizarre nature of so many new rules is bringing the law itself into disrepute, as it becomes utterly detached from common sense.
If after the next election we have a new government, we will have to start afresh. We need to take as our starting point the assumption that the vast majority of people are good and sound. We need to trust people to make decisions for themselves. To trust farmers to farm well, parents to look after their children, head teachers to run their schools, police to set their own local priorities. We need to accept that local decisions on planning and development are best taken by local people.
That’s not the same as giving up on law and order, or accepting low standards. If trust defines our approach, it can only work if it is combined with an absolute willingness to come down hard on those who abuse it. We don’t want lower standards. On the contrary we need things to greatly improve. But it would be for the Government to set the framework, to raise the bar and to outline the outcomes, not prescribe the route to achieving them.
As part of this new approach, we will need to be far more willing to counter perverse EU rules, as many other countries already do. It is lunatic for instance that we are prevented by the EU from applying the same welfare standards to the food we import as we do to our own farmers. Our farmers cannot possibly compete and, as we allow them to go out of business, we are losing our food security. If the law is an ass then we must change it, not just shake our heads.
A society in which the tide of restrictive regulations has been turned and where we have fewer and better laws will not only be more free, it will also be more responsible, more caring and more successful.