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Gender reform, smacking ban and fire alarms legislation suggests Scottish Parliament isn't following

This is my latest Scotsman column, published 30th January 2023....

As a young policeman rising through the ranks, I was thoroughly schooled in the golden rules of policy development.

All ‘bright Ideas’ for improvement were subjected to three unforgiving tests before implementation, designed to prevent bad or superfluous policies. Statute books and policy files were cluttered enough.

The first test was the ‘so what’ question. What difference would the new policy make? What problem were we trying to sort? Was there not existing provision already?

If the first hurdle was cleared, the next test was about legality and enforcement. Did we have the powers and the means to carry the new policy through? If not, we were bound to fail and bring our systems into disrepute.

The third test was the hardest, the question of consequences. Any change of direction has consequences, what would be the direct and indirect implications, not just immediately but downstream? How would the change impact other areas and other services.

It was the toughest of tests, requiring both critical and lateral thinking. But there was more. Even if the fledgling policy passed the three tests, there was the question of drafting, a discipline all its own.

We followed the old civil service rules strictly. A degree of precision was demanded, so that not only a person of good faith would understand it but a person of bad faith could not misunderstand it. It was all common sense, of course, and while we made some mistakes, these golden rules prevented us from making many more.

Thinking about some recent laws passed by the Scottish Parliament, I wonder whether such disciplines are followed there. Take the recent public smacking ban, the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) Scotland Act 2020. At first sight, it fails the first ‘so what’ test. There were already adequate provisions in law to protect children from physical assault. The new law was a duplication, so unnecessary that it has never been used.

Then there was the law on interlinked smoke and heat alarms, introduced in February 2022. This demanded that homeowners fitted new and expensive linked systems, scrapping perfectly good unlinked ones. Dire warnings of enforcement were given, prompting many older people to panic and spend hundreds of pounds on new systems.

The threats were empty, the new rules failed the enforcement test. It’s all gone strangely quiet now and the regulation on linked alarms remains only as a planning requirement and another get-out clause for insurance companies.

As for the ‘consequences’ test, we may look no further than the hotly disputed Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland ) Bill, which would allow people over 16 in Scotland to legally change their gender, without medical evidence and in a short timeframe.

Let’s be clear, there is no doubt that those who have promoted and steered through this legislation have acted in good faith, to genuinely improve the lives of some people. But were all the consequences properly calculated?

Our courts may be called upon to adjudicate. But if the Gender Recognition Bill is found to be flawed, let’s hope our legislators learn a lesson rather than take umbrage.

We all make mistakes and there are lessons to be learned from such stumbles. For a start, I recommend following the three golden rules of policy development.

My column can also be read by clicking here.

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