What's the worst British law of all time?

What's the worst British law of all time?
What's the worst British law of all time?
Ian Dunt By

This competition is now closed

When the psychoactive substances bill came out last month, it didn't take long for experts to start pointing out the problems with it. Even on a generous reading, it appeared the bill would ban incense, nutmeg and taurine. It's even possible it bans oxygen and electricity, which may ultimately make it a rather difficult law to enforce.

Is it the worst British law of all time? We raised the suggestion on Twitter and were met by a wave of alternative suggestions – enough, in fact, to make a competition. Below we've laid out eight contenders for the position, including the psychoactive substances bill itself. Anyone who votes will be entered into the prize draw to win a pair of tickets to see two original copies of Magna Carta at the British Library. We thought offering the chance to see a rather good bit of law might make up for having to live through all the bad ones.

We've skipped all the 'it's legal to kill a Welshman outside the city gates' type stuff and kept it strictly to bills within our living memory. If we're getting into the legislative habits of hundreds of years ago, it'll be a cluttered field, what with all the burning people at the stake and that. And anyway, there's more than enough dreadful statute from the last few years to qualify for historic status. Does this mean our headline is not strictly accurate? Absolutely. But it sounded snappy.

Psychoactive substances bill

Here's the problem with legal highs: chemists can keep subtly changing a substance so it is sufficiently different from a banned drug to fall outside the law but still similar enough to have the same effect. The Home Office response to this problem has been to treat substances as guilty until proven innocent. No longer will you be free to consume something unless there is a law against it. Now a substance is considered illegal until proven otherwise.

How does it prove it is allowed to exist? It must do nothing which either speeds up or slows down the central nervous system. Yep, they'll have fun with that one in court. To deal with a problem as minor as teenagers inhaling laughing gas, the government is overturning centuries of British legal standards.

Section 28

It had to be in there somewhere. This amendment to the Local Government Act stated that a local authority "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". Grim stuff.

As far as bad laws go, it was relatively ineffective. It wasn't a criminal offence and no prosecution was ever brought. But it created a chilling effect where gay support groups in schools and campuses either self-censored or were shut down. The law also had a very significant cultural impact. It was a clear message being sent from the Tory party to gay people, and in doing so it actually galvanised many of the campaign groups which drove the issue into mainstream acceptability in the years to come.

The law divided the Tory party for years, with William Hague slapping down front bencher Shaun Woodward for supporting its repeal as late as 1999. It’s only since the gay marriage bill that the Conservatives have started to put to rest the damage it did.

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991

The daddy of bad legislation. A law so terrible it became a byword for how not to do it. The Dangerous Dog's Act was a reaction to a much-publicised series of dog attacks. It was classic something-must-be-done territory, in which the thing which was done showed all the hallmarks of what happens when that territory is entered into. The bill targeted specific breeds of dog, running against much of the advice about dog behaviour, which found it was the actions of the owner, rather than the type of dog, which best predicts potential attacks. It also categorised dogs by type, leading to teams of experts in court arguing whether the dog's legs were too short or ears pointy enough for the category it found itself in. The reports of overzealous officials were legion, from the dog sentenced to death because its owner removed its muzzle so it could be sick, to a boxer-collie sentenced to death for barking at a postman.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

This remains the cornerstone of UK drug policy, although it is actually just an attempt to abide by the UN single convention on drugs. It's a little known fact that drug law is, to all intents and purposes, internationalised. The UN acts as a sort of global policeman on the issue. Nevertheless, even with that excuse of 'mummy made me do it', the 1971 Act is hard to beat for the extent of its failure: countless thousands imprisoned for drug offences, often just possession – very often just cannabis possession. Thousands of lives wasted in jail or with work prospects ruined by a criminal record. Countless deaths as people take drugs on the black market tainted with God-knows-what. And all the while, no discernible effect on British drug taking or purity or cost, which continues to tumble. It's like a mathematically perfect example of legislative failure: costly in its human price, utterly ineffective in what it was trying to do.

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994

For many young people growing up in the late '90s, this Act was totemic of a government which did not understand their culture and was in fact actively conspiring to dismantle it. It was for the raving community what Section 28 was to the gay community. As with most of these bills, the legislation followed a period of tabloid panic about free raves, where young people met up in fields and had fun. But to their credit, the Conservatives came up with a particularly zany way of banning these gatherings, which was to outlaw "sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats" played above a certain volume to a certain number of people.

Bands and DJs instantly made their feelings clear. Autechre inserted sleeve notes saying: "'Flutter' has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can therefore be played under the proposed new law." Orbital's track 'Criminal Justice Bill' consisted of four minutes of silence. Prodigy released Their Law, with the not-hard-to-interpret chorus: 'Fuck them and their law'. Even a decade later, The Streets were including lines like: "And to the government I stick my middle finger up with regards to the criminal justice bill".

But, to be fair, there was actually some good, much-needed stuff in that bill, including expanding the definition of rape to include anal sex and a lowering of the age of consent for homosexual sex from 21 to 18. It almost made it down to 16 but was defeated by 27 votes.

Crime and Disorder Act 1998

This was the Act which created anti-social behaviour orders, one of those rare legal instruments which break through into mainstream discussion. But then Asbos were invented to be so broad it was hard to see how they wouldn't. They were applicable to "conduct which caused or was likely to cause alarm, harassment, or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as him or herself". It's not hard to see how they became so common. Asbos were basically a pick-your-own-law. Suddenly, all sorts of things which were legal were against the law by virtue of annoying the next door neighbour. They were handed out willy-nilly. In the early days just three per cent were turned down.

The reports became stranger and stranger. A 47-year-old man got an Asbo banning him from laughing at his neighbour.  A music fan was given one for singing in the bath, another man for ranting at politicians on the TV. Even a 36-week-old foetus was threatened with an Asbo.

But Asbos also had grave consequences. By 2005 the National Association of Probation Officers was warning that people were being jailed for breaching their Asbo, despite the behaviour which originally earned it not being an imprisonable offence. This was hardly surprising. In 2005, 53.7% of Asbos were breached. By 2007 it was 70.3%. They were a legal device which just grew and grew and grew.

The Health and Social Care Act 2012

Andrew Lansley's piece of legislation reforming the NHS managed to kill several birds with one stone: chiefly, it made a massive change to Britain's most-loved institution without anyone really understanding what it was the legislation was supposed to do. Secondly, it broke Cameron's pre-election promise of 'no top-down reorganisation of the NHS'. Thirdly, it embedded market competition into the health service. Fourthly, it created the political precedent for a legislative 'pause'. Fifthly, it killed the Tories' embryonic ratings for trust with the health service. We could go on. It's failings were legion.

Even now, after five years of reorganisation for no discernible purpose but to considerable financial cost, no-one can tell you what it accomplishes. Even its most generous critics called it "disastrous" and "bewildering".

The Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Act 1998

Last but certainly not least is another Act from the early days of the New Labour government, which is notable for one reason above all others: It made it an offence to detonate a nuclear bomb. What is the punishment for such an act? Life imprisonment.

During its time in office, New Labour passed a remarkable volume of legislation. There was one new offence for every day Tony Blair was in office and the passing of a criminal justice bill became a de facto annual event. This law gives some indication as to why that might be. One imagines other laws, not least of all the law against murder, might have covered it. But apparently not.

So that's your lot. It's a hard call, but pick the worst one and you'll be automatically entered to win a pair of tickets to see two copies of Magna Carta at the British Library. Details of the exhibition and terms of conditions for the competition are below.

Note: The SurveyMonkey servers seem to be acting up quite a lot and the poll below keeps disappearing and then reappearing. If you can't see it but still want to enter the competition, just send an email to ian.dunt@politics.co.uk with yoiur vote from the options above.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

Exhibition sponsored by Linklaters

Since 1215, Magna Carta has evolved from a political peace treaty to an international symbol of individual freedoms.  From its genesis through to today's popular culture, uncover the story of how its power has been used – and abused – in the largest exhibition ever staged about Magna Carta.

Discover the history, and challenge the myth, of one of the world's most famous documents through iconic documents and artefacts, including two of the four original 1215 Magna Carta documents, Jefferson's copy of the US Declaration of Independence and one of the original copies of the US Bill of Rights, stunning paintings, maps, statues and royal relics.

Exhibition open until September 1st.

Click here to skip the competition and buy tickets to the exhibition.


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Terms and conditions

  1. The prize is one of three pairs of tickets to the Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library
  2. There is no cash alternative to the prizes, they are non-refundable and non-transferable and not for resale.
  3. The winners will be selected by Politics.co.uk at random on Wednesday June 24th 2015
  4. This competition is not open to employees of politics.co.uk, Axonn Media, politics.co.uk's sister company, or any agency connected with this competition or family members of any of these organisations.
  5. Only one entry per person. Entrants must be over 18 years old.
  6. The judges' decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.
  7. Entrants acknowledge that their entries may be released or displayed to the public by politics.co.uk or any agency connected with the competition and as such sign all rights necessary for promotion, publication or of such entries to politics.co.uk. Winners agree to grant politics.co.uk or any agency connected with the competition the right to use their name and likeness for advertising and publicity purposes without any additional compensation.
  8. The competition shall be governed by the laws of England and Wales.
  9. Tickets will be valid for entry until July 31st 2015
  10. Tickets will be valid between Monday and Friday, 09.30-18.00 (please note the last time slot is 16:30).
  11. Tickets are usually £12. Tickets are subject to availability, non-transferable and no cash value applies
  12. No alternate prize will be offered
  13. Tickets must be booked up to one week in advance


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