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Review group finds room for improvement in gov’t lawmaking

A supervisory group founded by the government of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä has analysed 11 bill drafts and found close to a dozen deficiencies in each, including a lack of care and expert feedback and strict political steering. On the other hand, the group reports that the government heeded two-thirds of its improvement suggestions before it sent the bills on to Parliament.

Sipilän hallituksen nimitys.
Prime Minister Juha Sipilä's first coalition government on 29 May 2015. Image: Valtioneuvosto

A council appointed to oversee Finland’s government’s bill drafting performance has produced 10 to 15 suggestions for each of the 11 bills it has reviewed since it was founded in April. In a preliminary report on its 2016 operations, the council notes that the government took note of two-thirds of its comments.

In December 2015, on an idea formed during Alexander Stubb’s term as prime minister, the government led by his successor Juha Sipilä established an independent Council of Regulatory Impact Analysis, responsible for issuing statements on government proposals. Specifically, the council was founded to improve the quality of bill drafting.

The first council was appointed in April 2016 for a three-year term, with a chair and eight expert members. Since April, the group has reviewed 11 bills that have been prepared by Sipilä’s government.

Hurry creates worries

The Prime Minister has been under fire recently for sloppy lawmaking that is sometimes in opposition to Finland’s constitution. The council says it is easy to spot a bill that has been prepared too quickly.

“It is too long, because no one has taken the time to edit it down and make it streamlined. It is difficult to read and fragmented. Things are repeated and in the wrong order,” says the council’s chair Leila Kostiainen. 

A lack of resources – too little money and too few employees – is also apparent in the lawmaking, after governments have elected to save money by merging ministries.

Favouring the few

The council pointed out a clear case of preferred treatment, for example, in a Centre Party initiative to amend forest land inheritance laws to encourage generational succession. The idea was to reward people who donate forest with a gift tax break.

“The forest gift tax break was originally worded so it would only benefit people with considerable ownership levels. In this form, it would have only been the prerogative of a chosen few,” said Kostiainen.

Other people assessing the law in the comment rounds noticed the same thing, and the government changed the lower limit to expand the scope of benefiters as a result.

Even so, the agrarian newspaper Maaseudun Tulevaisuus has criticised the tax break as only helping landowners with very large or expensive tracts of forest.

Less taxes, more entrepreneurs?

Sipilä’s government has tried to encourage Finnish residents to become entrepreneurs. One tactic was to lower the income tax of small and medium-sized businesses by five percent, in a move similar to what they had done for big business. 

“In the draft of the entrepreneurial tax cut bill, the political motive was clear, as there were no alternative solutions presented. Apparently the people who were drawing it up were instructed to write a certain kind of law,” Kostiainen says. 

Leila Kostiainen.
Leila Kostiainen. Image: Yle
The tradeoffs of austerity

The council has also taken note of the proposed legislation's impact on the economy– especially because so many of Sipilä’s government proposals set out to cut spending. Sometimes it is hard to assess the economic impact of the proposed policy changes. If the focus is just on saving money, the good and bad effects of the law can sometimes be overshadowed.

Kostiainen says this happened in the bill proposing changes to Finland’s network of emergency hospitals. The draft bill presented only the savings calculations, but the council suspected that there would be other benefits from better concentrating services.

“If operations are centralised, there's less malpractice and suffering. This is an impact that directly affects people on an individual level,” she says.

The council made no mention of the cuts to Swedish-speaking services in this area, a concern that both Swedish-speaking communities and the President Sauli Niinistö have since raised.

Had enough of experts?

The government has also been publicly criticised for not using expert guidance. The council came to the same conclusion in its review of several drafts.

“We have requested additional and more comprehensive research data multiple times. If a list of research is cited, there should be proper attribution. And international research could be better utilised, in addition to domestic studies. If international references are included, the law should spell out how the results can be linked to Finnish conditions,”  says Kostiainen.

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