When the government knows it has to address a national concern, but doesn't know quite how, a bright spark in cabinet – perhaps the PM himself – pipes up: "I've got an idea. Let's pass a law." Then the Minister for Something Must Be Done chips in: "Why don't we rush it through parliament? That way, no one will have time to reflect on it." Thus was born last week's parliamentary standards bill, the government's reaction to the expenses and allowances scandals.
It is a very depressing bill. What it prohibits should not have needed to be spelled out in writing. It should be second nature in the moral make-up of everyone who chooses to enter politics.
Hastily drawn, ill-thought out legislation created in panic rarely works. Look at anti-terrorism laws, or at the Pavlovian reaction every time there was a mild alleged failure in the criminal justice system. Too often the absurdity, injustice or failure of such legislation becomes evident too late, when it becomes clear that it is causing havoc within the existing system, too Byzantine to operate (like some sentencing laws, which several judges have told me are either incomprehensible or unworkable) or just plain embarrassing. Remember the fuss about making the "glorification" of terrorism a crime? The only person to be convicted of it urged attacks on four accountants' institutes, which he blamed for his failure to pass accountancy exams 10 years before.
The new bill would create a new offence of, in effect, fiddling expenses. The government knows that the conduct defined as criminal can easily be dealt with under existing laws – the Fraud Act 2006 or "false accounting" under the Theft Act 1968. But it looks good to pretend that some new initiative is taking place. The bill sets up an over-elaborate machinery to regulate and investigate MPs. A new body would be set up (always a mistake to do this in a hurry), the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
The biggest blow to the government's rush tactics came from an unexpected source: Malcolm Jack, clerk of the House of Commons – Mr Big of parliamentary procedures – who pointed out that the bill would severely diminish parliamentary privilege, a cherished part of the historic bill of rights of 1689, which says "that the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament."
In other words, MPs can say what they like in parliament without the risk of being sued (for instance for libel) or otherwise questioned by some authority or in court. But the new bill would specifically allow evidence of proceedings in parliament to be admissible in prosecutions of MPs. This, says Jack, would have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of MPs and of witnesses before committees. I doubt the government considered this.
It's not too late. Slow down. Think again about the many aspects of the flawed bill. Better a workable act of parliament in a few months than a rubbish one in a few weeks.