What is Government actually doing?


Our Public Affairs Manager, James Butler investigates the mysterious fall in the number of Statutory Instruments passed by Government. Could it down to the Brexit effect?

The danger was always that Brexit would absorb all the Government’s time and energy as they recruited civil servants to new ministries, fought legal arguments, trained up trade negotiators, and started fleshing out what new trade deals might look like. But demonstrating the impact of all this on the rest of Whitehall is tricky. Governments do lots of things, most of which is impossible to measure in a quantitate way.

But one thing we can look at is the number of Statutory Instruments (SIs) “made”. This is at the geeky end of government and politics, but SIs are really rather important things. Called secondary, delegated or subordinate legislation (as opposed to Acts of Parliaments which are primary legislation) they are the nuts and bolts that make legislation work.

To give you a hypothetical example, an Act of Parliament might say that every child under five will get a piece of fruit each school day. An SI would spell out that ‘fruit’ includes bananas even though they are technically berries, and by ‘school day’ the Government excludes inset days and Saturdays if the school runs happens to run additionally revision classes on the weekend.

So SIs tend to be technical, and they do not receive anything like as much scrutiny as a Bill going through Parliament. But as we know, detail matters which is why SIs are important. However, the key things are Statutory Instruments form party of what Government does on a day to day basis, and the volume of SIs are one of the very few things that we can actually measure.

Below we see the number of SIs made by year since 1998. We see a rise during the Coalition years (it is easier to get an SI though Parliament than agree new legislation, so it is no surprise that there was an increase here) and a marked drop in the number of SIs in 2015 and again a stark drop in in 2016. Today, Government is issuing about half the number of SIs than it was before the Coalition; in fact you have to go back to the mid-1980s to find a period where as few SIs as we have now were made.


Of course, there’s an argument that ‘small government is good’, that we want government off our backs. There’s also an argument that it’s not the volume of government that is the important thing, it’s the quality. Both hold some truth. The number of SIs is a measure of quantity not quality. But for an organisation like Social Enterprise UK which is lobbying for change and where SIs are one of the main ways of delivering change, having a government which is not doing very much isn’t particularly helpful. It does make on wonder a little what is Government actually doing?

SEUK's political work is supported by The Co-operative Energy, CAN, Fusion 21, and First Ark Group