I’m not going to speculate on who leaked the Fox letter, nor do I propose to comment here on the desirability of increasing overseas aid spending. But I’m interested in the concerns the Defence Secretary raises about enshrining objectives in legislation.
Fox expresses his fear that, in the case of the aid budget and also the passing into law of the ‘Military Covenant’, the Government is opening itself to the risk of expensive and damaging lawsuits based on those statutory commitments.
That's a reasonable objection. I think there’s also a bigger reason not to pass laws of this kind: legislation should not be used to make a political point. Back in 2008 I criticised the Blair and Brown governments for their propensity to pass “declaratory legislation”, which I then identified as one of the techniques used by Labour to disguise government failure. Unrealistic carbon targets (sound familiar?) and unattainable child poverty targets were just two examples I cited; everyone knew at the time that these were pie-in-the-sky (although, regrettably, rather than point this out, the Conservatives signed up to both). Not only does the subsequent failure to meet legislated targets leave government looking ineffective, it also creates widespread and justifiable cynicism about the political process.
The Coalition’s success in alleviating world poverty, or in respecting and rewarding its own armed forces, will rest on numerous day-by-day decisions, not on a clause in a bill. Nor should we ignore the possibility that making the right decisions may be hindered, rather than helped, by the existence of legal targets.
In decreeing a fixed-share aid budget and enacting terms for the treatment of our armed forces, it seems the Coalition is fast succumbing to the allure of declaratory legislation. It’s a temptation that should be resisted. Governments are judged according to their effectiveness, not by the laws they have passed.