Read the bills!


examThere’s a fun meme on Twitter at the moment, asking what three things you would change about how the country’s run if you had the chance. Playing the game – so dispensing with the big “privatize everything” things that I’d actually do – is fun, because it focuses the mind on the really big issues that face us. I chose (1) Introducing a free banking system (that is, by banning bank bailouts, get rid of regulations and the state money supply), (2) replacing state schools with a voucher system, and (3) abolishing the urban planning system, including the green belt. Drug legalization and leaving the European Union (in order to introduce unilateral free trade) were two that just missed the cut. Do suggest your own three in the comments, or on Twitter including the "#3things" hashtag.

Ok, so those are my big, radical priorities, but I also thought about a small change that might be more effective than we think: requiring MPs and peers to read all of the bills they vote on before they vote. Yes, this would be impossible to enforce perfectly – many politicians would lie. But you could make the cost of lying higher, by making them swear to a legally-backed oath that they’d read the bill, or giving them a test about the bill’s contents. If they fail, their salary could be docked, or they could just be stopped from voting on this bill.

A “read the bills” law would slow down legislation, so blockbuster bills drafted by a few wonkish civil servants and read by nobody would be harder to force through Parliament. It would probably make bills simpler and shorter. And comprehension exams would make politicians more accountable for the ludicrous harmful bills that they pass at the party whips’ behest. I highly doubt that a bill as mangled and wrongheaded as the Digital Economy Act, passed in the "wash-up" at the end of the last Parliament, would have made it through if MPs had been forced to take the time to read and understand it.

As the campaign for a "Read the Bills Act" like this in the US says, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse for citizens. Neither should it be in Congress.” A Read the Bills Act for the UK would be a sensible, if imperfect, step towards slowing down Parliament and making MPs a little bit more accountable to their electorates rather than their party whips. It would never pass for precisely that reason, but I can dream. The least we should expect of our lawmakers is that they understand the laws they're making.