Westminster Watch

As the nation readies itself to vote on Europe, Mark Hatcher considers the diminishing trust in the political class and steadying influence of the select committee

I am writing this column six days before the EU referendum – such is the publisher’s immutable deadline. 

Vote Leave and Remain have both suspended campaigning following the death of Labour MP Jo Cox who was shot and stabbed before holding a constituency surgery in Birstall, West Yorkshire. Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, who together with Mrs Cox set up the All Party Parliamentary Group on Syria, described her as a ‘force of nature’. She had been a ‘five foot bundle of Yorkshire grit and determination absolutely committed to helping other people’. Her attacker is alleged to have said ‘Put Britain first’ at least twice.

On the same day the voters of Tooting in south London elected Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan in the by-election which was held following the departure of Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. The new MP described herself as ‘half-Polish, half Pakistani; I’m married to a Welsh man and I’m 100% Tooting’.

Anyone seeking to predict the outcome of the referendum should have been mindful of Alexander Pope’s line ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’, which began to gain currency in political literature when it was quoted by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790.

There has been no shortage of expert commentary on the respective merits of Leave or Remain, much of it conflicting and contradictory, with a range of forecasts offering spurious precision. The principal protagonists on both sides jumped on the ‘evidence’ and spun it to suit their own purposes. Who can be surprised that trust in the political class will have been diminished further or that members of the cabinet could have displayed such rancour towards each other in public? In the months to come much healing will need to take place.

While much of the policy-making business of government appears to have been in hibernation of late, parliamentary business has been proceeding, albeit in the shadow of the referendum. Some of the select committees engaged directly with the once-in-a-generation opportunity to assess the impact of the referendum.

The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by former Ministry of Justice minister Crispin Blunt, published a measured report following an inquiry into the costs and benefits of EU membership for the UK’s foreign policy. The committee frankly acknowledged the difficulty of reaching a conclusion given the number of variables to consider.

The referendum decision boiled down to an assessment of the benefits of a more direct, narrow, national control over our affairs versus indirect and diffuse, wider international influence, and the interaction between the two. Voters would attach different weight to different factors and different probability to the risks and opportunities involved. Whatever the outcome, the committee concluded, there would be a clearer path for the UK to follow. Quite so. It was not exactly the stuff of campaigning material and probably all the better for that. Predictions about the long-term impact of remaining or withdrawing from the EU must involve guesswork, to a greater or lesser extent informed.

Meanwhile the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), dubbed by cross-bench peer Peter Hennessy as the ‘queen of select committees’, has published its report into Efficiency in the Criminal Justice System. The committee is chaired by Labour’s Meg Miller and includes the Conservative Lincolnshire MP, Stephen Phillips, who is a Silk at the commercial Bar.

The trenchant criticisms of the committee’s report will have made uncomfortable reading for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). But they will have been instantly recognisable to any member of the criminal Bar.

The PAC did not mince words: the criminal justice system was ‘close to breaking point’. It was bedevilled by long-standing poor performance. Lack of shared accountability between different parts of government with different budgets and resource pressures meant that costs were being shunted from one part of the system to another and the system suffered from too many delays and inefficiencies. Around two-thirds of crown court trials were delayed or did not go ahead at all. Too much costly court time was wasted dealing with the consequences of the parties simply not having done what they should have done.

The committee, which is the scourge of departmental accounting officers (Whitehall permanent secretaries), found that the MoJ had been too slow to recognise where the criminal justice system was under stress, and to take action. With laser-like precision, they homed in on the reduction in government spending on the criminal justice system by 26% since 2010-11 and drew attention to the fact that the Ministry had exhausted the scope to cut costs without pushing the system beyond breaking point. In some areas, they noted, even if the court made use of its full allowance of sitting days, there were not enough judges to hear all the cases. The number of Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyers had fallen by 27% since 2010, but the PAC reported that the CPS had struggled to find counsel to prosecute cases because the criminal Bar had reduced in size.

While welcoming the MoJ’s reform programme, the PAC noted that the full benefits would not be seen for another four years and observed that government did not have a good track record of delivering projects that involved significant changes to IT. To see an improvement in performance, the MoJ would also need to change cultures and behaviours, so that everyone was incentivised to do the best job they could and act in the interests of the criminal justice as a whole. Amen to that.

Elsewhere along the committee room corridor at Westminster, the Justice Committee published its report on Courts and Tribunal Fees as this issue went to press. The Chairman of the Bar was among those who gave evidence to the committee on this issue back in February.

The composition of the committee has changed with the newly elected 32-year-old Labour Member for Ogmore, Chris Elmore, replacing Andy McDonald whose responsibilities as Shadow Transport Minister had prevented him from taking part in the committee’s business.

The Chairman of the Bar is scheduled to give evidence to the Justice Committee on legal services regulation on 28 June, together with representatives of the Bar Standards Board, the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

There is no doubt that citizens’ expectations of Westminster and Whitehall have increased hugely over recent years. In particular, expectations of what government should be able to deliver have grown enormously. The demands of a 24/7 media, parliamentary select committees, the Freedom of Information Act and the demand for open data, openness and transparency now subject the business of government, as well as the people who operate within Whitehall and at Westminster, to unparalleled scrutiny and public exposure. With the change in the culture of government, society has changed. We no longer live in an age of deference which tended to respect established institutions and cultures, but in a new ‘age of reference’, in which anyone can obtain an almost unlimited amount of information about almost everything, empowering individuals to challenge people with power and their motives.

The truth of these observations will be tested when the report of the Chilcott Committee, commissioned in 2009, is finally published on 6 July. Its 2.6 million words will keep the inhabitants of Whitehall and Westminster busy over the summer, to say nothing of the reverberations of the EU referendum result.

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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.