Every year, 13,000 pages of new laws

Published in The Sunday Telegraph, 20 August 2006 (PDF)

Although Iceland is a spectacular country it is not the first place you would expect to learn something about good lawmaking. But in the southwest of the island there is a place called Thingvellir. “Vellir” is the Icelandic word for plains, and “thing” is the word for Parliament.

It was here that Icelanders first began to gather as a national assembly in the 10th century. Once a year they met at Thingvellir. A wise man, the Lawspeaker, recited all the laws and then decided any legal disputes. New laws could be suggested by anyone, but with one proviso: the Lawspeaker had to be able to memorise them, because they were not written down.

Lawspeakers may have been walking law books but their capacity was limited, and this kept laws comprehensible and simple. A rule that could not be remembered in a year’s time could not become a law.

Fast-forward 1,000 years and consider the case of a British lawmaker. Andrew Phillips is a 67-year-old solicitor with a life-long experience in law. Since 1998 he has served in the House of Lords as Lord Phillips of Sudbury. But a few weeks ago he announced his wish to resign. While some people might be prepared to pay for the honour of sitting in the House of Lords, to Andrew Phillips this honour had become a burden.

He explained his withdrawal from the Upper House by pointing to the vast quantity and poor quality of new legislation: 13,000 pages are added to the law books each year, too much for Parliament to scrutinise properly, according to Lord Phillips.

Of course, in one sense there is no comparison between the ancient Icelandic Lawspeakers and Lord Phillips’s ordeal as a modern British lawmaker. The needs of a fast-moving economy such as Britain’s are vastly different from those of medieval Iceland, which at the time was a small community of fishermen. Yet there is a lesson to learn.

While there is a need for new laws, the best laws are those for which there is a clear necessity and which are easy to understand and apply. While such laws will come at an economic cost, the benefits will outweigh it. Laws that do not fulfil these criteria are likely to be of little use at best and, at worst, extremely costly.

The Government has understood this problem in principle. It uses tools such as Regulatory Impact Assessments, and has set up a Better Regulation Commission (BRC) and a Better Regulation Executive. But how many Acts or other legislative instruments have disappeared from the statute books (or were never added to them in the first place) because of these various “better regulation” institutions? In fact, “better regulation” has become a regulation in itself. The Government’s guidelines on writing a Regulatory Impact Assessment fill 65 pages!

There is some hope, however. The Government has just opened a consultation on improved impact assessments, and the BRC seems keen to lower the administrative burden on business by copying international best practice. Yet, these can only be the first steps in the right direction. What is needed is a much more independent body, accountable only to Parliament, with the right of analysing all new and existing legislation for its simplification potential.

Much could be learnt from the Dutch here. They have established an agency, ACTAL, which must be consulted early in the process of legislation. This way, laws are kept simple and cost-effective. The times of Icelandic wise men are past, but it is good to remember their example. And if we cannot learn from them, maybe we can learn more from others instead.

Dr Hartwich is a Research Director with responsibility for economic competitiveness at Policy Exchange, a Westminster-based think tank.

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