28 November 2021

Weekly Briefing: Petty parliament

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Politics went back to the playground this week, with Peppa Pig and babies in parliament dominating the headlines. But despite appearances, it’s actually the latter row that’s the silliest.

To recap, Stella Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow, was reprimanded by Commons authorities for having her 13-week-old baby in a sling while she spoke in a debate. This was as a result of an update to the pompously titled Rules of Behaviour and Courtesies in the House of Commons, which states, ‘You should not take your seat in the Chamber when accompanied by your child’. It’s curious that this change has been made now, given that MPs have been bringing babies to debates since 2018, and the customs and dignity of the House have survived so far. Our democracy is not so fragile that it can’t withstand a sleeping baby. Parents should be trusted to apply a bit of common sense. And, as Annabel Denham writes, there is a nursery on-site – MPs of a more practical, less performative, bent will choose to use that instead.

In any case, this is an argument for parliamentarians to have between themselves. The problem is when they turn that same instinct to interfere and micro-manage to the rules of behaviour for the rest of us. Parliament is continually being called upon to consider creating new criminal offences, from pet theft to death by dangerous cycling to assaulting a service animal to a recent Lords’ effort to make misogyny a hate crime. As our Editor-in-Chief Robert Colvile has poited out, a new offence of dognapping These tend to be well-meaning backbench efforts with no realistic chance of making into the statute books. Often these motions are designed to assuage the petition signers who plague MPs’ inboxes. It may seem harmless enough, but Parliament has limited time, and does not do a good enough job of scrutinising actual government legislation.

Sometimes campaigns for new laws come from people who’ve experienced a terrible loss, and it’s these that, for understandable reasons, tend to command ministers’ attention. An example is Harper’s law, which received government backing this week. It follows the awful case of PC Andrew Harper, who was dragged to his death behind a getaway car after intervening in a theft. The callousness of his teenage killers rightly appalled the nation.

The campaign by his widow, Lissie, to make life sentences mandatory for people found guilty of killing an emergency service worker as a direct result of a crime has been brave and determined – but the law is a bad one. Life sentences are already mandatory for murder, and can be applied for manslaughter too. That this did not happen to PC Harper’s killers may have been an injustice, and a failure by the courts to adequately consider the value society places on its frontline workers. But creating a whole new offence can’t change that. Nor can it prevent similar crimes, since it could only apply when a defendant didn’t intend to kill the victim, and you can’t be deterred in advance from something you didn’t mean to do. Sadly, this new law won’t bring Lissie Harper justice or stop others suffering as she has.

Harry Phibbs has said on these pages that the tax code should be simplified, and I would make the same argument for the criminal law. The rules that govern society and shape our moral codes should be clear, simple and readily understandable to the lay person. As our Editor-in-Chief Robert Colvile has pointed out, the newly created offence of dognapping carries a longer sentence than assault, abandoning a baby and bestiality. Do we really, as a country, believe that it’s worse to steal a dog than to have sex with it?

The statute book is not the place to pursue hobby horses, to try to rectify individual injustices, or to generally tinker about for no good reason. That politicians do so while making little progress on important pieces of legislation like the Environment and Planning Bills, and simultaneously pettifogging about their own rules, does neither the country, nor the credibility of its parliament, any good.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.