As Parliament is recalled, MPs must resist the temptation to legislate

Parliament is due to be recalled this week following the riots in London and elsewhere. But the Government must be careful not to rush to legislative solutions.

Parliament is due to be recalled this week to discuss and debate the Government’s response to the riots in London and elsewhere. But in scrutinising what has gone wrong in recent days, the Government and Parliament must be careful not to rush to legislative solutions.

My essay for the latest edition of Fabian Review, which was published this week, looks back at the Labour government’s response to crises. I observe that in a number of instances, Labour felt that legislation had to form part of its response to a crisis regardless of whether a new law was actually necessary. For example, the extension of CRB checks following the Soham murders created a bureaucratic system which was criticised by author Philip Pullman and former Archibishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, among many others. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s proposal to extend detention without charge for terrorist suspects to 42 days was criticised by the then head of the Crown Prosecution Service, Sir Ken Macdonald.

Looking to the future, I write:

“A future Labour Government must avoid the pitfalls of the Blair and Brown era while retaining the right to create new laws where they are truly the only way to address a new or persistent problem. A set of principles should help underpin when a universal, centrist approach would be justified. First, ministers should justify whether there is really a problem that needs addressing in order to avoid fiascos like ID cards and 42-days. Second, they should ensure that a legislative approach – rather than tighter enforcement of existing rules or closer working between different government agencies – is absolutely necessary. Third, they should explain why a national rather than a local approach is the right answer.”

The Coalition has a mixed track record so far. Following the tragic shooting of 12 people in Cumbria last June by Derrick Bird, David Cameron said, “Of course we should look at [gun ownership] … but we should not leap to knee-jerk conclusions on what should be done on the regulatory front. We do have some of the toughest legislation in the world.” On the other hand, in the midst of criticism over 50% jail discounts for guilty pleas, Cameron announced a new offence of ‘aggravated knife possession’ which received acclaim from the headline writers but did not effectively alter the penalties associated with knife possession.

Parliament has an important job this week in debating the cause of the riots and examining the police response. No doubt there will also be calls to reduce the level of cuts to the police service and to organisations concerned with youth unemployment and community cohesion. But parliamentarians do not need to pass new laws to answer the call that “something must be done”.

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