Westminster Watch

Mark Hatcher distils for the Bar another busy month in Westminster – Super Thursday and a One-Nation-themed Queen’s Speech.

The UK’s ‘Super Thursday’ results on 6 May provided the first significant verdicts on the UK political situation since last year’s General Election. The outcome was a disaster for Labour.

In Scotland (where there have been two referendums and two elections in 21 months), the SNP won 63 of 129 seats at Holyrood, and they remain the single largest party in Scotland. Labour were knocked into third place (with 24 seats) after the resurgent Conservatives who took 31 seats including Edinburgh Central by Ruth Davidson, their new Leader, whose hobbies include kickboxing. It was Labour’s worst result north of the border since 1918. Scottish Conservatives are now positioned firmly as the pro-unionist party and the only effective opposition to the SNP.

In Wales Labour lost votes and, significantly, its seat in Rhondda to Plaid Cymru. UKIP gained seven seats in the valleys including one for Neil Hamilton, the ‘cash for questions’ ex-Tory MP and former tax barrister.

‘We hung on,’ was Jeremy Corbyn’s overall assessment. But for Labour hanging on is going backwards. Governments can expect to lose seats mid-term. No opposition has lost council election seats at this stage since the 1980s. Labour’s share of the vote in the English council elections was actually 6% less than in 2012.

It was not all doom and gloom. Labour’s losses were partly offset by Sadiq Khan’s election as Mayor of London who gained 57% of the vote once first and second preferences were counted. With 1,310,143 votes, compared with Zac Goldsmith’s 994,614, Khan won the largest personal mandate of any politician in UK history. His victory ended eight years of Conservative control of City Hall after what many considered to have been an ill-judged, divisive, anti-Islamist campaign which never got off the ground to win over the hearts and minds of multicultural London. Whatever happened to compassionate conservatism? Will the brand once again become toxic, especially with ethnic minority voters?

Overall Jeremy Corbyn did just well enough to hold on to the leadership of his party. No immediate threat of a coup appears likely which suits senior Conservatives, many of whom are counting on Jezza to deliver Labour’s support for Remain in the EU Referendum.

A week later the Westminster Parliament was prorogued. Her Majesty’s end of term summary of her government’s One Nation approach to policy and legislation (resulting in the enactment of 24 government Bills) over the past year was delivered by the Lord Privy Seal. There was much doffing of cocked hats by five ermine-clad Lords Commissioners (which included former Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Lord Hope who is now Convenor of 175 Crossbench Peers).

Those Members of the Commons (mainly Tories) standing at the Bar of the House to observe the proceedings appeared rather world weary, perhaps reflecting on the party’s fractures over Europe, and a series of policy U-turns including reversal of welfare cuts announced in the Budget and the shelving of Nicky Morgan’s plans for ‘spreading educational excellence everywhere’ (academisation) among 17,000 schools in England.

No sooner had parliamentarians slipped away from Westminster for a few days break in the sunshine than everyone was back in the Lords to hear the Queen’s Speech outlining the legislative programme for the next year of the Cameron Administration, the second in the current Parliament.

Billed by No 10 as a One Nation Speech from a One Nation Conservative Government, it contained few surprises. Delivering security for working people, reforming public services, improving life chances for the most disadvantaged, preventing radicalisation, tackling extremism and promoting integration, safeguarding national security, upholding the sovereignty of Parliament and the primacy of the House of Commons were the key themes.

Twenty-one new Bills are expected to be introduced to Parliament. The Investigatory Powers Bill is one of four ‘carry-over’ Bills from the previous session.

Of particular interest to the Bar are Michael Gove’s plans to bring forward legislation to reform prison and the courts, and a Bill of Rights.

The legislation on courts and tribunals will be designed, in the words of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) ‘to ensure faster and fairer justice for users by making better use of technology and modernising working practices.’ New technology, the MoJ claims, ‘will make our court system fit for purpose in the 21st century, speeding up cases for litigants and reducing costs’. Who knows?

Repeating an undertaking in the Queen’s Speech last May to give effect to a manifesto commitment, proposals will be brought forward for a British Bill of Rights. The MoJ sees the benefits of such a measure being to ‘better protect against abuse of the system and misuse of human rights laws and…restore common sense to their application.’ Details of the measure remain shrouded in mystery.

The Queen’s Speech also referred to a Home Office Bill to permit the government to recoup more criminal assets by reforming the law on the proceeds of crime, including provisions to strengthen enforcement.

The speech’s reference to legislation to improve Britain’s competitiveness alluded to a Better Markets Bill, to be introduced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), a measure designed to help businesses, according to the somewhat opaque language in the BIS briefing ‘by simplifying regulatory processes and removing unnecessary requirements’.

Overhanging everything at the moment is uncertainty about the outcome of the EU referendum on 23 June and the immediate aftermath in the event of a vote to leave. Divisions over Europe within the Conservative Party mean that the government’s overall majority of 12 in the Commons (smaller than John Major enjoyed in 1992), is very fragile and the governing party is a long way short of a majority in the Lords.

For the remainder of the Parliament austerity rules. As an unprotected department, the MoJ will see its budget fall by 22% by 2020. Departments are also under pressure to cut their own budgets. The MoJ is cutting its administration budget by 50%, which will involve a significant headcount reduction programme over the next three years. With ambitious plans to cut spending across Whitehall and reform public services, whilst protecting spending on pensions and health and avoiding tax increases, the government will need to be adept in managing the legislative programme, both inside Parliament as well as beyond Westminster.

Reducing further the scope, size and cost of the state’s responsibility to maintain the justice system creates opportunities as well as threats. In relation to MoJ’s ability to originate and deliver policy development, it could result in a shift towards more judiciary-led court reform initiatives and (on one view) provide opportunities for greater engagement of the legal profession in policy design. The Lord Chief Justice’s enthusiasm for the development of an online court, a huge and costly project, was evident when he gave evidence to the Lords Constitution Committee recently. But does the involvement of the judiciary in promoting significant reforms of this nature run the risk of appearing to compromise their independence from government with a mandate to cut costs?

Meanwhile, the pressure on government to ensure taxpayers’ money is properly spent continues. The Public Accounts Committee recently reported on the failure of the government’s accountability arrangements to keep pace with the increasing complexity of delivering policies and services. How to address these challenges will occupy Whitehall permanent secretaries as another session at Westminster gets underway against the backdrop of the shifting political landscape of what, at present, remains the United Kingdom.

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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.