Westminster Watch

On the eve of the Scottish referendum, Mark Hatcher reflects on politics either side of the border and conference season for all parties.

When Tip O’Neill, the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, died President Bill Clinton remarked that “he loved politics and government because he saw [they] could make a difference in people’s lives and he loved people most of all.”

O’Neill is remembered for the comment which is often attributed to him that all politics is local. This was his father’s advice and it served O’Neill well in a lifetime of service in government and the Democratic party.

The irony of the advice will not have been lost on the three main party leaders at Westminster as they scrambled to Scotland to try to persuade the Scots that we are better together. The efforts of Alex Salmond and his Scottish Nationalist cohorts to build a stronger border in what is becoming an increasingly borderless world will have seemed strange to many, especially to those south of the border who were denied a vote on the Union. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence (I write this column the day before the event to comply with the publisher’s deadline), our politics will never be the same again.

The House of Commons ended their summer recess at the beginning of September with a short interval of business which included further consideration of the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Off enders Act 2012 (LASPO) on civil justice. Susan Jacklin QC gave oral evidence to the Commons Justice Committee about the impact of LASPO on family justice. After a fortnight of parliamentary business, the Commons adjourned on 12 September for what is known nowadays as the “Conference recess”.

Conference season

Only the Lib Dem conference (in Glasgow again this year) bears a passing resemblance to the party conferences of old. Policy-making used to provide a valid pretext for bringing together great tribal gatherings of the faithful at seaside locations. The beaches of Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton provided some diversion from the fog of debate on composites in the conference halls. Today’s carefully choreographed proceedings are huge marketing conventions to promote the Westminster elite to party foot soldiers packed into secure zones. Awash with corporate lobbyists, exhibitors and PR people, these events will have generated much needed income as preparations for next May’s General Election get underway. Labour kicked off the season in Manchester with no fewer than 500 fringe events, including meetings of the Society of Labour Lawyers addressed by the Chairman of the Bar, Nicholas Lavender QC. Doncaster Racecourse hosted UKIP’s conference, bordering on Ed Miliband’s constituency, the venue no doubt reflecting the party’s confidence of its hold on South Yorkshire. The Conservatives’ choice of Birmingham enabled the Chairman of the Bar to take his message to the Society of Conservative Lawyers at an event at St Philips Chambers, to which members of the local Bar had been invited. The findings of the Bar Council’s research report on the effects of LASPO provided plenty of food for thought with the conference canapes.

Parliamentary timetable

Members of both Houses of Parliament return to Westminster on 13 October. Although that leaves about seven months before the General Election the parliamentary timetable is much shorter. In the remaining 100 or so days of legislative time available, the Government will press on with its priorities including enactment of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which returns to the Lords for its report stage on 20 October. The proposed changes to judicial review will continue to attract Peers’ concerns following a lively committee stage. If the Opposition want to disrupt the Government’s legislative programme in the Commons they might take a closer interest in the Private Members’ Bills, particularly if they find common cause with the Lib Dems. Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs joined forces to defeat the Conservatives in a Commons vote on Lib Dem Andrew George’s Affordable Housing Bill on second reading to overturn some key housing benefit changes. The issue split the coalition, with Lib Dem and Tory MPs and ministers voting along party lines. This has prompted some MPs at Westminster to suggest the gloves are off for the remainder of the Parliament and for others to speculate that coalition government has finally come to an end.

In the other place at Westminster, the Lords’ Constitution Committee has asked Chris Grayling to give evidence to its inquiry into the office of Lord Chancellor. The committee includes former chairmen of the Bar Council, Lord Goldsmith QC and Lord Brennan QC, and the Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC. Bagehot’s assessment, in the English Constitution (1867), was that “the whole office of the Lord Chancellor is a heap of anomalies”. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 was designed to put the relationship between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary on a modern footing. It retained the office but removed most of the Lord Chancellor’s two original functions. One of the questions the committee has posed is whether there should be a Lord Chancellor. It will be interesting to see whether Chris Grayling, who is expected to appear before the committee on 15 October, shares the view of the Bar Council in its evidence. It argued for the retention of the office with the functions which are set out in the Lord Chancellor’s oath, as provided by section 6A of the Promissory Oaths Act 1868, namely to respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the court system for which he is responsible.

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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.