Legally binding

David Renton’s latest book, says Dan Carrier, argues that the sheer number of laws in this country is a ploy to make them tough to challenge

Thursday, 4th August — By Dan Carrier

David Renton

David Renton: ‘The effect of the multiplication of immigration law is to make them harder to challenge’

RULES, laws, regulations, obligations – the framework that people use to manage our relationships in society.

But there is a careful balance between ensuring a fair process in our dealings with one another and our public authorities, and an overburdening and over-complicating that decreases our liberty.

This is the starting point in a new book by radical employment lawyer, David Renton.
Mr Renton – who lives in Islington and works at Garden Chambers in Lincoln’s Inn – has supported blacklisted trade unionists and other political campaigners who have been targeted.

In his latest book, Against The Law, he lays out a case for wiping swathes of laws from the statute book and by doing so recognise how rules can be created to stymie fairness and equality of opportunity.

The lawyer begins his case by citing the huge amount of new laws created in the UK annually.

“Every year an extra 14,000 pages of new laws are added to the statute book,” he explains.

They are not just managing interactions with authorities or businesses, employment laws or environmental rules, but offences that fall under criminal laws.

“Between 2010 and 2015, the Tory-Lib Dem alliance added 1,785 new criminal offences,” adds Mr Renton.

He uses an analogy of water meandering towards the sea, saying 40 years ago there were fewer streams – half a dozen criminal and civil courts operated. But a proliferation of laws since 1979 has lead to a Tribunal system with responsibility for a huge range of legal questions and possible redress.

“If we imagine a reader doing nothing other than reading new law and doing so at the rate of one page every 10 minutes, working eight hours a day, five days a week and taking no holidays or breaks, 13 months would be needed to read one year’s law,” he adds.

“You would look up from your desk when you finished, and there would be more laws waiting to be read than there had been when you began.”

This shows the sheer scale of regulation we face.

But Mr Renton is not from a populist stable who believe regulations are “red tape” that hamper companies, as opposed to protect the employee, customer or environment. Instead, he shows how new laws are created to undermine equality and protect vested interests.

“Ever since the neo-liberal breakthrough in the 1970s, hasn’t it been the right who have argued for the dismantling of the state? Aren’t laws the product of popular struggle; isn’t it the case that every popular movement in history has gone into battle with the state and left traces of its conflict in rights to protect workers, women, or black or minority ethnic communities?”

No, he argues, laws have emerged to often peg back as well as protect and cites numerous sources and cases to provide a bedrock to his argument.

Taking apart, for example, the introduction of the Industrial Relations Act in 1971, brought in by a Conservative government, he illustrates how it was a tool to defeat the trade union movement. The Ted Heath government used laws as a useful tool to stymie workers’ rights – as Margaret Thatcher did when she fought the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s, introducing, for example, laws that criminalised secondary picketing and altered the ballot thresholds needed for strike action.

“Alongside the extension of individual rights, politicians introduced the most restrictive anti-strike laws in Western Europe,” he points out.

Mr Renton walks the reader though issues that cover employment tribunals, and how this legislation has skewed the power dynamic in favour of the employer: of housing law, and how tenants rights have been whittled away by laws that empower the landlord. He considers the boom in laws relating to immigration, creating a tangled web that makes seeking a safe haven harder than it should be.

“The effect of the multiplication of immigration law is to make them harder to challenge,” he writes.

“The number of migrants in conditions of detention akin to jail, and of deportations have grown to levels which could never have been imagined half a century ago. These laws have made Britain a more authoritarian and crueller society, repeatedly jailing people for doing something ordinary, merely crossing borders, which millions of British people treat as their birthright.”

Immigration laws are made to restrict people’s rights and pander to a bigoted electorate.

“Migrants are overrepresented among the workers who struggle to enforce the minimum wage, and the people who sleep rough on the streets of Manchester and Glasgow,” adds Mr Renton. “Their treatment is not an aberration of the law, but employers and landlords doing what the law tells them.”

The author describes how a post-Second World War settlement saw a reaction from how neo-liberal thinkers.

“The supporters of market liberation conceded the expansion of political rights – the right to vote, the right to a fair trial – or even welcomed such rights, believing conceding them would make it easier to hold the line against any expansion of economic or social rights,” he adds.

Mr Renton cites politically motivated legislation that changed the British landscape – and uses the example of the Housing Act of 1980, which gave council tenants the right to buy their homes at a discount of 60 per cent of the market rate.

“The scheme privatised a significant part of the welfare state, changing a group of Labour voters into Conservative homeowners. It succeeded because the funds were found to finance it on terms so advantageous that opposition would be limited to a minority of tenants who were committed to public ownership. Everyone else would take what amounted to a huge bribe.”

By walking through the many ways legislation has weakened the welfare state, taken away people’s rights and switched a legal onus on to the protection of property , Mr Renton draws a carefully constructed and enlightening picture.

To create a fairer world, we have to look at how laws are created, and who benefits from their implementation – and whether they are needed in the first place.

Against the Law: Why Justice Requires Fewer Laws and a Smaller State. By David Renton, Repeater, £10.99

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