Westminster Watch

Mark Hatcher examines the Magna Carta celebrations, The Queen’s Speech and the new Government’s legislative programme

The political significance of Magna Carta was not lost on the Prime Minister when he addressed representatives of Church, Law and State at Runnymede on the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the charter.

David Cameron recalled the inspiration it had provided to those who had fought in the English Civil War. It had given fuel to the Chartists and succour to the Suffragettes. It had underpinned the founding charters of the earliest States in America and it had inspired Gandhi’s Indian Relief Act. As Nelson Mandela had said at his trial in 1964, Magna Carta was a crucial part of the British freedoms he so admired and wanted for the people of South Africa.

But Mr Cameron thought the good name of human rights had become distorted and devalued in Britain. It was time, he said, to restore the reputation of these rights and their critical underpinning of the legal system.

Lord Denning considered Magna Carta to be the greatest constitutional document of all time, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot. For Lord Dyson, the Master of the Rolls (and Chairman of the Magna Carta Trust which had masterminded the celebrations) the charter was a hugely significant step on the journey which had led to the building of a society at home, and in many other parts of the world, where everyone had equal rights and nobody was above the law.

But Magna Carta also reminded us that all politics is about conflict – about the clash of rival interests, opinions and values. Managing these forces is the art of good government which is to be even-handed and impartial between vocal and articulate interests, to strike a balance between competing and conflicting interests that clamour for attention.

The intersection of these interests will be played out in Parliament in the coming months, in particular in relation to three major issues that look set to dominate the Westminster agenda: human rights, devolution and the UK’s relations with the EU.

It was significant therefore that The Queen’s Speech, outlining the Government’s legislative programme for 2015-16, contained no commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. That commitment had been made in the Conservative manifesto. Instead there was a terse reference to “bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights”. This shift of emphasis (reflecting the unexpected outcome of a slim working majority for the Tories in the Commons) presages a period of calm reflection and proper consultation that such an undertaking plainly requires.

In the meantime the Chancellor’s budget statement on 8 July, managing the devolution of further powers to Scotland and making preparations for the EU referendum, will occupy what is likely to become an increasingly febrile Commons in the coming weeks before the start of the summer break. MPs expect to rise for the recess on 21 July and they will not return until 17 September for 10 days of parliamentary business before the party conferences lure members to Bournemouth, Brighton and Manchester.

The new intake of MPs should by now have begun to feel more at home amid the eight acres of space comprising the Palace of Westminster with its 100 staircases, more than 1,000 rooms and three miles of passages. To many it will seem like a museum and some new members may well wonder what use they are likely to make of the purple ribbons attached to the coat-hangers in the members’ cloakroom, allowing MPs to hang up their swords as well as their coats. Nor will it will have escaped their attention that the Gothic fantasy part of the building is crumbling away. Decisions will need to be taken soon about how to tackle the repair challenge over the next 10 years which, according to Speaker Bercow, could cost £3billion to address and involve decanting members out of the main buildings.

Before the start of the summer recess interest groups and representative bodies (like the Bar Council) will be eager to meet and make friends with parliamentarians, at venues on or close to the parliamentary estate, in order to convey their views to those who are thought to have an interest in a particular cause or who might be persuaded to develop one. Members of the newly constituted Commons’ Justice Committee and of all party groups like the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee can expect to be approached as part of the Bar’s charm offensive.

In the House of Lords, several select committees will be of interest to the Bar. The Constitution Committee has been reconstituted. The 12 members of this committee, which is chaired again by the Conservative Peer, Lord Lang, examine all Public Bills for their constitutional implications. Among the four legally qualified members of the committee are Lord (Dan) Brennan QC (a former Chairman of the Bar, in 1999), Lord Hunt of Wirral (a solicitor who is also the Co-Chair of the APPG on Legal and Constitutional Affairs), Lord Judge (former Lord Chief Justice who sits on the crossbenches) and Liberal Democrat Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC (a former member of the Commission on a Bill of Rights). The Committee also undertakes investigative inquiries into wider constitutional issues (such as the Office of Lord Chancellor) and publishes reports with recommendations aimed principally at the Government. The Committee also takes evidence annually from the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the President of the Supreme Court and from the chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. 

The EU Justice Sub-committee is one of six re-constituted sub-committees of the Lords EU Committee (the latter being chaired by former Conservative Minister Lord (Tim) Boswell, whose daughter, Victoria Prentis, a barrister and former member of the Government Legal Service, was elected to the Commons for Banbury in the last General Election). The EU Sub-committee, which is chaired by Labour’s Baroness (Helena) Kennedy of the Shaws QC, scrutinises proposals in the field of criminal justice and procedure, fundamental rights, copyright and intellectual property. The remit of this sub-committee also includes scrutinising proposals related to the EU’s institutions and consumer protection.

There are two new Lords’ select committees to note. The Social Mobility Committee was appointed to consider social mobility in the transition from school to work. It will be issuing a call for evidence and has been asked to report by the end of March 2016. The committee membership includes Baroness (Elizabeth) Berridge, a former practising barrister whose interests include crime, justice and human rights issues.

The Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee was appointed by the House of Lords to consider the impact on people with disabilities of the Equality Act 2010. It will be seeking written submissions and has also been tasked with reporting to the House by the end of March next year. This committee is chaired by Baroness (Ruth) Deech, a Crossbencher and former Chairman of the Bar Standards Board.

Like the Commons, Peers are scheduled to return to business at Westminster briefly on 7 September until resuming their recess on 17 September and then returning on 12 October. Barring the need to recall Parliament, members of both Houses can expect to benefit from a period of rest and quietness before they return to hold the Government to account for some major planned changes to our constitutional fabric.

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Mark Hatcher

Mark Hatcher is Special Adviser to the Chairman of the Bar. After working at the Law Commission and in the House of Lords, he became Head of Global Public Affairs at PwC. He is a Bencher of Middle Temple, as well as being a priest. He is Reader of the Temple.