Westminister Watch - May 2012

Toby Craig and Charles Hale look forward to a new batch of bills, the London mayoral election and propose the launch of a parliamentary pin-up competition

Ready to go

As Parliament enjoyed an Easter break, there was some welcome relief from the intense battles over the Legal Aid Bill. That left plenty of time for Easter Egg hunts as the bill completed its passage in the House of Lords and geared up for the “ping pong” between the Commons and the Lords, which will enable each House to consider the successful amendments and government concessions. The 11 defeats inflicted upon the government represent a substantial and important set of victories to longstanding opponents of the bill, of which the Bar Council is one of the most vocal. Lobbyists from a wide range of organisations stood ready and willing to continue making their arguments through a wide variety of communications channels, right up until the last.

The frenetic (and, it should be noted, not particularly cerebral) ping pong process is the crunch time that we have long (if not eagerly) awaited, as the government races to ensure that the bill crosses the finishing line in time for the conclusion of this Parliamentary session. Indeed, it is quite possible that when WW hits newsstands, the bill will have received its Royal Assent.  We can only speculate.

And then it will be on to the Queen’s Speech and a new Parliamentary session. Whilst it looks as though there will be some bills of interest to the Bar, it seems unlikely that anything quite as monolithic as the Legal Aid Bill will emerge, which should elicit a welcome sigh of relief.


Snooper’s charter

Within moments of learning of the leaked government plans to snoop on email, telephone and internet communications, a quick-witted wag set up a Facebook group calling on people to cc Home Secretary Theresa May into all of their emails. Proposals intended to “plug” a gap in national security, according to the Prime Minister, would see greater use of electronic surveillance and more cases held in secret (notably including some civil cases in which actions are brought against the government), with the leak suggesting that ministers, rather than judges, would be able to determine what evidence would be admissible.

With the proposals dubbed a “snooper’s charter” by civil liberties groups, the strongly worded section of the coalition agreement on civil liberties (which we have pointed to previously) seems a distant memory. Privacy has become a commodity which seems to have a clear and tangible value attached to it; “only so far as it does not impinge on national security”. Well, we might ask, who defines what impinges on national security? And as soon as the question has to be asked, Pandora’s Box is open and nobody knows what might tumble out. We have discussed on these pages in recent months the government’s cavalier attitude towards legal professional privilege, which once would have been seen as untouchable.

As the predictable public outcry ensued, the Liberal Democrats were quick to point out that they had not, in fact, agreed to the proposals, so all hope is not lost; but the shift towards an attitude which dictates that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, is one about which many have very strong reservations.


London decides

On 2 May, London will once again have an opportunity to decide upon its mayor. The next term is sure to be an eventful one for the winner, who will preside over the Olympic Games. Once again, Londoners will be choosing between Boris, Ken and Brian. They should choose wisely: the world will be watching. Whoever said sequels were boring?

Four years under Mayor Boris have produced the eponymous bikes, which have been a huge success (he has benefited greatly from this wonderful scheme, despite its creation having had nothing to do with him at all), the removal of “bendy buses” alongside the production of a new Routemaster, and a ban on alcohol on public transport. It has also seen a hike in public transport prices, which is always a raw nerve amongst Londoners. But despite a veneer of chaotic bluster, a few small slip-ups permitting, he has been a vocal advocate for London on the world stage.

In the red corner, Ken Livingstone is proposing price cuts on public transport and more affordable housing. With a body of achievement to point to from his first two terms, he is a Londoner through and through whose left-wing views are popular in inner London. His “man of the people” image has, however, been damaged by the revelation that he has avoided paying higher tax rates by re-routing his earnings through a company.

Former police officer, Brian Paddick – also having another tilt at City Hall – is unsurprisingly strong on policing and also champions environmental issues. He seems fairly unlikely to challenge the main candidates and will suffer from the Liberal Democrats’ broader unpopularity in the polls.

Green Party candidate, Jenny Jones, has attracted far more attention at this election than her party has mustered at previous mayoral contests, perhaps due to a sense of apathy among many voters towards the two parties currently in government and an opposition with a widely criticised leader.

As other cities prepare to embrace the London model, whilst more of a personality contest than a genuine political one, there can be little doubt that Londoners are engaged.

Far be it from this column to state any preference, but the incumbent does deserve at least one honourable mention for his barnstorming contribution to the 2010 Bar Conference. Sharing a platform with Lord Neuberger, Mayor Boris proclaimed, after sharing breakfast with the keynote speaker: “He may have been the Master of the Rolls, but I was Master of the Croissants!”.


Vanity unfair

And to think, a topical column completed without a single reference to Samantha Brick. We struggled to think of the Parliamentarian who could most easily be compared to the Daily Mail’s latest pin-up, but drew a blank. Perhaps readers can help? Answers on a postcard to the “Chris Huhne Competition”... Until next month.


Charles Hale is a barrister at 4 Paper Buildings and a member of the Bar Council.
Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council.