Westminster Watch

Mark Hatcher reviews the recent government reshuffle and its implications for the Bar.

The government reshuffle which took place in mid-July – almost 52 years to the day after Harold Macmillan’s ”night of the long knives”, when seven Cabinet members (a third of the total, including the Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir) were sacked – was much more wide-ranging than expected.

The government reshuffle which took place in mid-July – almost 52 years to the day after Harold Macmillan’s ”night of the long knives”, when seven Cabinet members (a third of the total, including the Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir) were sacked – was much more wide-ranging than expected.

On 14 July, Downing Street announced 42 new appointments, roughly a third of the entire government. Overall, the reshuffle looks like an attempt to replace some pale, male and stale Conservatives (the Lib Dems have not yet announced any changes) with younger, fresher faces. They include a few more women (including several from the 2010 intake appointed to junior ministerial roles). We can also expect to see a toughening of stance in key policy areas (including in relation to the EU) in the run up to the election, which is barely 40 weeks away.

Key appointments included that of Philip Hammond as Foreign Secretary, one of the few cabinet ministers to have said they would vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held today. This move followed William Hague’s appointment as Leader of the House of Commons.

Although Gove was widely seen as having been demoted from education to become Chief Whip, he now sits on all the key cabinet committees. Both Hague and Gove’s appointments signal an attempt by the Prime Minister to take Commons’ management much more seriously.

Staying put

Although rumoured to be on the move, Chris Grayling remains as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, to see through the “Transforming Legal Aid” agenda which his predecessor, Ken Clarke (who has now left the Government) had initiated in 2010 and which led to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act. Together with a raft of other measures, this has resulted in unparalleled cuts in legal aid across the board. Ironically, the day after the reshuffle was announced, the Divisional Court confirmed that government proposals to introduce a “residence test” for civil legal aid were unlawful.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) promptly withdrew their draft regulations to introduce such a test. These had been approved by the House of Commons and were expected, subject to approval by the Lords, to come into force in August.

Moving on

The loss of both Law Officers from the government in the reshuffle will be keenly felt by the Bar and more widely. Dominic Grieve’s replacement as Attorney General by the former MoJ Minister for Prisons, Jeremy Wright (who used to practise at the criminal Bar from Birmingham), appears to have been designed to enable the Conservatives to take a tougher line on the European Court of Human Rights.

Oliver Heald is replaced as Solicitor General by Robert Buckland, a former criminal barrister who entered the Commons in 2010. He became a member of the Justice Committee and of the Joint Committee on Human Rights (whose reports have added to the barrage of criticism of the government’s legal aid changes).

At the MoJ, Mike Penning and Andrew Selous have joined the ministerial team, both from army backgrounds. Penning (who replaces Damian Green, who has left the government) has been appointed Joint Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims. His responsibilities include criminal justice system reform, criminal law and procedure, sentencing policy and policing. Selous has been appointed as Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation.

Among other appointments of interest, are the promotion of former criminal barrister, Anna Soubry, to Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence. Another former criminal barrister and Commons Justice Committee member, Rehman Chishti, becomes Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Nick Gibb, who returns to the government as a Minister of State at the Department for Education.

No punches pulled

Additional changes in the government occurred following the resignation on 5 August of Baroness Warsi, formerly “Senior Minister of State” (a title specially created for her) at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Her responsibilities at FCO included the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and human rights. Before entering Parliament, she had trained with the Crown Prosecution Service and qualified as a solicitor. In her resignation letter, Lady Warsi did not pull any punches, telling the Prime Minister that the UK’s approach to the conflict between Palestine and Israel was not “consistent with our values, specifically our commitment to the rule of law and our long history of support for international justice”. Frequently and increasingly outspoken against the Tory high command, her departure from the government will not be mourned on the right of the party. But her appeal to the potentially significant ethnic minority vote, particularly in key marginal constituencies, could have wider repercussions.

Bill skill

How these appointments play out in practice during the remaining months of the current Parliament remains to be seen. The Commons will be back from the recess on 1 September for a short spell, before rising on 12 September for the party conferences. Peers do not return until 13 October. Among other measures they will be considering, will be the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which awaits its report stage. Part 4 of the bill, dealing with proposed changes to judicial review, will once again come in for close scrutiny with the prospect of divisions on amendments from various quarters. Managing peers, in what promises to be another testing time for the government with this bill, will call for considerable skill by the new Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Stowell.