Westminster Watch

Charles Hale on electioneering, acting and performances

It’s strange, isn’t it? The airwaves are buzzing with talk of how this general election could be the first genuine internet election, with the main parties taking their lead from Obama’s celebrated use of online communication to help secure his victory. Apparently the latest political brainwave involves identifying hot news topics that will generate multiple searches and buying appropriately linked domain names. For example, if you want to know more about David Beckham’s Achilles tendon injury, you might Google “Beckham’s operation” – only to discover that this exact phrase has just been purchased by the Liberal Democrats. So, instead of learning about the England star’s dashed World Cup dreams, you find yourself reading Nick Clegg’s views on a hung Parliament. I can’t imagine that the man on the Clapham omnibus will welcome such blatant interference into his browsing habits, but maybe I just don’t understand as I’m not a politician.

Actually we all know what is likely to make the real difference in this truly modern election and that of course is the first televised debates between the party leaders. My research tells me that the television was invented in 1923, although it was not until 1927 that the BBC began making its first regular broadcasts. So now, in 2010, we are congratulating ourselves on our state of the art democratic system as it finally embraces this 87-year-old technology. Not exactly cutting edge, is it?  The debates themselves began on US television in 1960—before Cameron and Clegg were even born. At first, it was thought that they made the difference, ie Kennedy’s glamour vs Nixon’s 5 o’clock shadow, but by Bush it was being said that no President had ever “lost” a debate and yet won the election (“won” according to the spin doctors presumably), but Bush proved them wrong. So, are we looking at content or presentation? Or the wives?

I understand that Gordon Brown has been preparing for the encounter by use of proper dramatic rehearsals. And who do you imagine might be playing the part of David Cameron (with a certain amount of relish, I understand)? Why, it’s none other than our old friend Alastair Campbell, spin doctor – novelist – and now actor. I do hope that Alastair’s not too disappointed if his performance isn’t screened alongside the actual TV debates.

CPS in the dock

One organisation which will not have particularly enjoyed a recent review of its performance is the CPS. HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate has looked in detail at 20 London boroughs and has produced an overall report on the CPS in London. Inspectors concluded that 12 of 20 boroughs assessed were poor, seven were fair, and one was good. This represents a deterioration from performance assessments carried out in 2005 and 2007. Interestingly, a more revealing pattern emerged. Namely, that in the early stages of a case, there was sound decision making but this was tainted by inadequate follow-through. This in turn led to poorly prepared cases with adverse effects on trial readiness and presentation at court. As a result, London’s performance compared to the national picture was significantly worse. Paradoxically, the inspection teams were struck by the real commitment and professionalism of most London staff.

The conclusions did find some cause for optimism, primarily for two reasons: the fundamental commitment of staff, and the increased awareness at senior levels of the very real concerns about the organisation’s operations. I predict that this will all become an even hotter hot topic in the next year or two, as the legal profession grapples with how to measure the quality of advocacy in our courts.

DNA Database concerns

Another report hot off the press is the Home Affairs Committee’s report on the National DNA Database. I had a feeling of déjà vu as I read through much of the material covered. Nevertheless, this does not lessen the report’s significance. In fact, it highlights the fact that the problems have not gone away. Unsurprisingly, there is still a significant disproportionality in terms of racial profile of those whose details are held. For example, the DNA profiles of a staggering 77 per cent of young black men aged between 15 and 34 are estimated to be on the Database.

Diane Abbott made the point in her evidence that despite the fact that the DNA Database is by far the largest in Europe, there has never been a proper Parliamentary debate about it. She therefore welcomed the work of the Committee. There are also one or two disconcerting examples of the manner in which completely innocent people can find their way on to the Database. A youth who had enjoyed a water fight in Greenwich Park was arrested four days later for an assault which had taken place elsewhere in the park. He was taken down to the station, his DNA was taken, and now he’s on the list. But my personal favourite is the girl who was suspected of stealing a Primark sweater (even though she was carrying a receipt for it) and was duly arrested and had her DNA taken. In both of these examples, the people concerned have been unsuccessful in ensuring that their details are removed from the Database. The point is also well made that there is no real justification for having innocent people on the Database at all. There have been several high profile reports about major crimes being solved by virtue of the fact that we have so many records on the Database. But reports that any serious crimes were committed by those who were seemingly innocent have turned out to be incorrect.

The LSC: the movie?

Finally, since the announcement that the Legal Services Commission (“LSC”) will be replaced by an executive agency in a move to regain control of government spending on legal aid, I have been telling myself that I must not dwell or gloat in WW about the beginning of the end for the LSC. But all this talk of acting and performance has made me ponder one question. If Hollywood ever decided to make a movie about the LSC’s ten year existence (and I admit, this may seem unlikely) what genre would they choose for the film? Would it be a Western with Willie Bach wearing a wide brimmed hat and a bandana? Or a disaster movie perhaps, telling a cautionary tale of failures to listen and financial mismanagement? But then I realised, it could of course be only one type of film. “Brutal Cuts” will be a vampire movie, with the LSC repeatedly breaking into the bedrooms of publicly funded barristers and trying to suck every last drop of blood … Apologies, I think I just managed to stop myself in time. Or maybe not. Until next month, happy electioneering.

Charles Hale is Chair of the Public Affairs Committee