The Burden of Legislative Reform

by Philip Jones

The Legislative Reform Measure 2017, aka The Enabling Measure

According to the Church of England’s website, the General Synod is due to consider the first draft of the above Measure this coming weekend, just before the ‘Shared Conversations’ on human sexuality.

The procedural flaws in the Measure have been discussed in a separate post, which is filed below (‘The Proposed Enabling Measure: A Complex Process of Simplification’).

However, the fundamental misconception of the Measure is that it is modelled on a piece of secular legislation that has no application to the Church.  The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 makes provision for ‘removing or reducing any burden … resulting directly or indirectly for any person from any legislation’ (s.1).

This provision appears in the draft Measure.  However, the Measure indicates a failure to appreciate the significance of another provision of the 2006 Act.  A burden-reducing order ‘may not be made … in relation to any burden which affects only a Minister of the Crown or government department …’ (s.1(4)).  The 2006 Act defines a ‘burden’ as that ‘which affects the carrying on of any lawful activity’ (s.1(3)).

The 2006 Act was intended to benefit private citizens, not public officials and public authorities.  Its purpose was to cut red tape, to enable ordinary people to go about their business without unnecessary official interference.

In the Measure, by contrast, the definition of  ‘burden’ makes no reference to ‘any lawful activity’ by private citizens.  This is because ecclesiastical legislation does not regulate such activity in the first place.  Instead, the Measure refers to burdens ‘resulting … from ecclesiastical legislation’ (s.1(1)).  However, with the exception of weddings and funerals (particularly the fees involved), ecclesiastical legislation does not impose any burdens on private citizens.

Thus the only burdens that the Measure will relieve, or can relieve, are the burdens attached to ecclesiastical office and governance, because these are the only burdens imposed by ecclesiastical legislation.  This is a quite different, indeed opposite, purpose to that of the 2006 Act.  The 2006 Act was intended to reduce official interference.  The Measure is intended to make the officials’ work easier.

Legislation that promises to reduce burdens always sounds attractive.  However, reducing burdens is not as simple as it sounds.  One person’s burden is another person’s benefit.  One person’s benefit may be another person’s unemployment.  One person’s burden may be reduced merely by increasing another person’s burden, or by appointing an extra person.

The Measure makes clear that burden-reducing may involve

[1] ‘abolishing, conferring or transferring, or …. delegat[ing] … functions of any description …’ (s.1(5))

[2] ‘creating a [new] body or office’

[3] ‘abolish[ing] a body or office’  if abolition is consequential on burden-reducing (s.1(6))

[4] considering ‘the interests of any person adversely affected’ by burden-reducing (s.2(c))

The purpose of the Measure is therefore a little more nuanced than merely ‘reducing burdens’.  It rearranges red tape more than cutting it.  It seeks to reorganise official functions with a view to improving the quality of ecclesiastical governance, by making it simpler, more efficient and less expensive.

This is an admirable purpose, of course.  But it does not justify a new legislative procedure.  It can, and should, be effected by ordinary legislation.  The whole point of all ecclesiastical legislation is to improve the quality of ecclesiastical governance.  The Measure will throw a spanner into the legislative works.  It adds a new legislative procedure that serves essentially the same purpose as the existing one, with the two procedures operating side by side.

The Measure may not receive very close attention in the General Synod, if the members are preoccupied with the more sensational matters to follow.  It may prove insignificant in practice, if it is used only to make minor and uncontroversial administrative changes.  But a more confused attempt at ecclesiastical law reform is hard to imagine.