Westminster Watch - August 2013

Toby Craig watches the legal aid consultation drama continue to unfold

Nobody’s going on a summer holiday...

Those quiet summers never quite seem to materialise. We all know the drill; a busy start to the year as we atone for the excesses of the month before. We get back into the swing of things and before we know it, spring has passed. Then it’s that one last push before a nice, long, quiet August, if we’re lucky somewhere warm, and a chance to rest up before throwing ourselves back to the grind once more. Sound familiar? It never quite works out that way though does it? And so it’s proved once more as the legal aid consultation drama continues to play itself out, with more twists and turns than an Alpine railway.

The formal close of the Transforming Legal Aid consultation always looked more likely to be the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end. Much action since then, particularly as the Justice Select Committee and Parliament took their first meaningful opportunities to familiarise themselves with, and scrutinise more closely, the Government’s proposals. First, the Justice Select Committee took evidence from a range of witnesses, including the Chairman of the Bar Council, Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association and President of the Law Society. There was then an opportunity for the House of Commons to debate the consultation, under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee after the topic was proposed by two of its members, Sarah Teather and David Lammy. Members speaking in favour of the proposals could be counted on the fingers of one hand. That all provided a useful backdrop to the second Justice Committee session, this time with the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, as its star witness. The transcripts of all of those sessions are now available, so although this is not the forum to descend into the minutiae, it is safe to say that the Lord Chancellor’s plans have prompted passionate feeling on both sides.

With a roaring crescendo building and seemingly ready to climax as the Lord Chancellor gave evidence to the Justice Committee, he wrote to its Chairman, Sir Alan Beith, to say that having listened to the consultation responses he had seen thus far, and having had detailed conversations with the Law Society about an alternative criminal legal aid model, he was no longer minded to withdraw client choice. This seemed to the untrained eye to be a fairly significant U-turn.

Not so according to the Lord Chancellor. He seemed incredulous when Seema Malhotra characterised his change of tack in those terms, suggesting that he had simply “consulted, listened and modified” his plans. Nonetheless, it marks one significant victory for a broad-ranging and united campaign which had client choice as a central pillar. But of course, that is not the end of the matter. There remains much about the proposals which that broad campaign continues to oppose, not least the further civil cuts and the principle of price competitive tendering in any form. It was, nonetheless, a robust performance from the Lord Chancellor, who will have been aiming to appease his grassroots support who have no enduring affection for the tired stereotype of fat cat lawyers which so many of these proposals seem falsely to perpetuate.

We do now know that there will be a further, shorter, consultation in September, so whilst hoping that at least the busy summer would be spent continuing to work towards a clear end-line, it has now disappeared a little further down the track and many will rededicate themselves to ensuring that the legal aid system in the future is one which the public interest and a fair and effective justice system demand.

Money, money, money

What we all really needed of course was a reminder of how the public finances are doing; after all, that’s the biggest driver to the mess which we are in. That came in the form of the Comprehensive Spending Review, just shortly before Mark Carney succeeded the newly ennobled Mervyn King as Governor of the Bank of England. We could, of course, have been forgiven for thinking that those piffling matters of education, health and welfare expenditure all played second fiddle to the crucial matters of the day, like where George Osborne buys his burgers from, but the Chancellor was not to be deterred. In some ways, the picture was rosier than imagined. National Audit Office figures showed that there had, in fact, been no double-dip recession and that the original recession, under the previous Government, had been worse than first reported. Music to the Coalition’s ears. The cuts however, continue unabated. An £11.5bn cuts package was unveiled, including a further 10% cut for the Ministry of Justice. Automatic civil service pay rises are also to be scrapped; it could be worse, they could be legal aid practitioners. Not a pretty picture, but it does seem that some of the austerity rhetoric is perhaps starting to achieve a better political impact for the Government. In any event, the Opposition is not currently helping itself.

Labourers Unite

The Labour Party had the unwelcome distraction of a spat with one of its biggest backers, Unite, about strange goings on in Falkirk, where a replacement Labour candidate for departing MP, Eric Joyce (after his conviction for assault), was being found. Unite is accused of trying to pack the local party to ensure its preferred candidate was chosen (also the office manager of Labour’s then election strategist, Tom Watson; Watson subsequently resigned that position). A row between Ed Miliband, whose election as Party Leader owed a great debt to Unite, and the Union’s General Secretary, Len McCluskey ensued. It looks a lot like what the Washington lobby would call ‘inside baseball’. It seems immediately relevant to few outside the political bubble and nobody comes out of it particularly well.

So whilst WW ruefully puts its bucket and spade back in the cupboard for another year, hopefully its readers will manage to get that all too brief interlude which they have surely earned. Have a good summer...

Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council.