All The More Reason

November 20, 2009, 6:37 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The Economist has an article on the latest manifestation of Labour’s zeal for legally enforceable duties:

Henceforth, since standards have risen and (whisper this part) the money has run out, improvement will be driven by new legal guarantees or entitlements. These have been increasingly touted in recent months and featured in the Queen’s Speech on November 18th. So, for example, existing targets for NHS patients—to have hospital treatment within 18 weeks of referral by their family doctor, and to see a cancer specialist within two—will become legal entitlements. Among the assorted education guarantees is that some pupils who fall behind will be able to get one-to-one catch-up tuition. Existing pledges on police-response times and regular beat meetings are also set to be converted into guarantees.

These strike me as supremely unimaginative ideas, much in the same vein as the self-imposed legislative duty to halve the deficit. The Economist doesn’t mention perhaps the barmiest of these; Ed Balls’ idea of having a (supposedly) enforceable ‘right to a good school’.

Statutory duties are all very well for specific tasks that we expect public authorities to carry out (e.g. the duty to consult – arguably a rather bureaucratic and ineffective device, but one that puts a brake on knee-jerk legislative action – if that’s your bag), but they are singularly unsuited for holding the government to account in a wider sense.

For a start, they are only enforceable by way of Judicial Review, a legal route that has a very high burden of proof for a Claimant to discharge: effectively, they must show that the Government has acted in a way that no reasonable Government could have acted. If you think about that – and many judges have over the years – it’s a pretty hard standard to prove.

This horrible fetish for legal solutions to political problems does nothing to improve the relationship between citizen and State. It reached its nadir with Harriet Harman’s plan to create a statutory right for public authorities to ‘have regard to social equality’. Previous Labour governments might have preferred more radical redistribution of wealth. Reluctantly ,I say that it’s another argument in favour of this exhausted government taking a breather for a few years.