Westminster Watch - April 2011

Charles Hale and Toby Craig reflect on history and the speed of change.

The laws of nature may not be challengeable. The laws of man must always be. The shocking events following the huge earthquakes in New Zealand and in Japan followed by the terrifying tsunami served as a timely reminder of the fragility of the infrastructure which we can all sometimes cling to.

Hot on the heels of dramatic, and ongoing, scenes in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East, the haunting images of the aftermath of the natural disaster in Japan were devastating to behold. Whether the power of nature or the power of people coming together in revolution, determined to make a difference, it is abundantly clear how quickly things can change.

But of course, change can be a shifting kaleidoscope with different levels of intensity, cause and effect. The laws of nature may not be challengeable. The laws of man must always be.

Taking stock

The annual spring gatherings of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats (Labour having abandoned its Conference in 2006 in favour of smaller ”seminars and consultations”, as expressed at the time) provided an opportunity to assess the extent of the changes which have struck at the heart of the British political system over the past year. The novelty of Coalition Government combined with an increasingly unpopular programme of cuts have left both parties, separately and collectively with much to answer as their supporters adjust to the unfamiliarity of compromise.

Bluebirds

It was the turn of the Conservatives, first, in Cardiff, hoping to reignite its grass roots, fittingly perhaps in the home of the Bluebirds. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were eager to sing from the growth, rather than cuts, hymn sheet. The talk was of enterprise, entrepreneurialism and the perennial Big Society. Fitting in with the growth strategy, there is much here which is directly relevant to the Bar. The repeated references to cutting waste and getting more for less from our public services are well known. However, this goes beyond that. The self-employed Bar is a profession made up of thousands of, effectively, small businesses. The Prime Minister was clear that the strategy for growth was not money being thrown at new policies or initiatives. We all know that there’s precious little of that commodity to go around. The only thing the Government can do, David Cameron told delegates, is to “[roll] up our sleeves and [do] everything possible to make it easier for people to start a business and to grow a business”. Both in traditional practice and as it develops new business models, the Bar has long embraced an enterprise culture.

Steel City

Sheffield seemed an ironic choice for the Liberal Democrats’ conference, as a ring of steel was erected around the venue to keep out the 5,000 plus baying protesters. Just as David Cameron had done in Cardiff, the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, spoke of his party’s distinct identity, saying that it “will never lose [its] soul”. Despite the bullish speech, the polls would seem to support the received wisdom that the smaller party is always the mostly likely to get squeezed after a term of Coalition Government. The Lib Dems continue to average around 10 points, trailing well behind the Conservatives and Labour. Not a lost but definitely shrinking soul...

Away from the keynote addresses, the Liberal Democrat Lawyers’ Association, ably chaired by Alistair Webster QC, carried a motion on access to justice, with a strong legal aid flavour. In particular, the motion called for thorough impact assessments to ensure that the consequences of the Government’s proposals are properly examined prior to any changes being made. It is a popular line with Lib Dem members and with many members of the Bar. Its impact on Government thinking is less obvious.

Justice and austerity

It is not just the Lib Dem lawyers who have been taking a strong interest in access to justice. Peter Lodder QC addressed the Society of Conservative Lawyers in Portcullis House on 1 March, joining the Solicitor General and Lord Faulks QC on a panel to discuss access to justice in an age of austerity. The Chairman of the Bar told a full audience that the Government’s legal aid consultation had laid out a disturbing picture of what access to justice in an age of austerity might look like. He considered whether the proposals might end up costing more than they would save, the effect they would have in tandem with the mooted Jackson reforms and how the Bar might be able to work with Government to find workable savings in the system. Edward Garnier QC, responded constructively on behalf of the Government, but warned of “analysis paralysis”, saying that the time had come to move forward. There was also time, during questions, for the always insightful contribution of Lord Mayhew, who urged the Bar Council to provide intelligent support to the Ministry of Justice in finding savings that may relieve the pressure of the legal aid budget.

The Opposition view

The Bar Council was also there to see the Shadow Lord Chancellor Sadiq Khan’s first major speech to the Fabian Society. His main focus was criminal justice reform, saying that Labour could have done more to cut re-offending and bring down prison numbers, but was scared to appear soft on crime. Unsurprisingly, he took issue with the Government’s current approach, alleging that its primary driver was cost reduction, rather than a more thoughtful and principled effort to cut crime. The issue is a topical one, closely following the Ministry of Justice’s sentencing consultation to which the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has, as ever, responded.

The CBA has welcomed a number of the proposals contained in the consultation, particularly those intended to tackle the root causes of reoffending, such as drug and alcohol addiction, lack of education, training and employment, housing problems and mental illness. It seems inevitable that one of the keys to “breaking the cycle” which the Government named its consultation, is going to be managing the transition from custody to the community more effectively. There will be a greater role for the private sector, and organisations like social finance. We should all hope for positive results.

So as daffodils begin to show and the spring brings with it seasonal uplift, the Bar continues to Prepare for Change. The optimists among us will try and look past that nagging worry; plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Charles Hale is a barrister at 4 Paper Buildings and a member of the Bar Council.

Toby Craig is the Head of Communications at the Bar Council.