Friday 12 August 2011

Cameron must avoid the rush to law

In his summary of David Cameron’s “marathon” statement to the Commons yesterday, Andrew Sparrow reported on the “series of measures intended to show that the rioting crisis is over and that order has been restored”.

"There were at least 10 separate announcements in the list— some of which were relatively minor, or very provisional — but collectively they amounted to a reasonably weighty package which should convey the impression that, after a period when it looked weak, the government is now firmly back in control."

The full scope of this remains to be seen, but the government should avoid the urge to legislate in haste.

For the most part, the political debate following the riots has been restrained, focusing on concern for victims, condemnation of perpetrators and criticism of policing. The focus will broaden over time, as people dig deeper for answers as to why and how this happened, and how to stop it happening again.

In the meantime, the government will try to reassert control – and as yesterday’s announcements showed, make sure it seen to be doing so.

But rushing measures onto the statue books often results in bad law - as a thoughtful essay from Will Straw in the summer issue of the Fabian Review shows, explaining how ‘something must be done’ syndrome led the Labour government into difficulty. If there is truth to the charge that Labour was ‘too statist’ in power then it is often in these moments of public outcry that it is to be found.

Straw tells the story of how Labour’s legislative response to the Soham murders resulted in across the board condemnation. Needing to be seen as ‘tough on crime’, here and elsewhere, led to laws being passed when often a less centralised approach would be not only less coercive, but more effective.

How can Cameron avoid falling into the same trap in his response to the public's rage at the rioters? Legislation should be the last resort argues Straw and sets out 3 tests for when it’s 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. "

You can read the full piece here.

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