Westminster Watch - January 2012

What will 2012 hold both here and over the pond?  Toby Craig and Charles Hale look ahead.

First and foremost, we would like to wish a very happy New Year to all of WW’s readers. Now that the turkey has been digested, and the crackers pulled, we can focus on the year ahead and the job in hand.

But before we do, it is worth just reflecting on a busy end to 2011. There was the very welcome news that price-based competitive tendering for criminal defence services will not be introduced until at least the summer of 2015. The concept of best value tendering was first recommended by Lord Carter’s Report in July 2006; he intended that it would go live in 2009-10. The coalition is the second Government that has tried but failed to persuade anyone that such a system is in the public interest.

Should the Legal Aid Bill make its way through Parliament, its enactment will be delayed until April 2013, which includes the abolition of the Legal Services Commission and the creation of a new executive agency to replace it. It makes it all the more important that the LSC grasps the nettle and resolves the horrendous backlog of payments owed to advocates. It is not acceptable for the status quo to continue. As the Government is committed to supporting small businesses, this seems a striking exception.

The Bill’s passage through the Lords continued with a high quality Second Reading debate. The Bar Council was cited by a number of peers and considerable opposition to many aspects of the Bill was expressed by those on the Government benches; particularly towards the provisions for victims of domestic abuse, Clause 12 (advice and assistance at the police station) and clinical negligence. These continue to appear to be the most likely areas of concession. Thanks, in part, to a Lords Constitution Committee report published before the debate, which reflected a number of Bar Council concerns, amendments to Clause 1 and Clause 8(2) on more general access to justice principles seem likely to gain considerable support. We retain the hope that the Bill will leave the Lords in a better state than that in which it entered it. This would be testament to the extremely hard work being conducted by the Bar Council’s Bill Group, under Stephen Cobb QC’s thoughtful and well-organised leadership.

Whilst the competition consultation is being delayed, the MoJ wasted no time in issuing a fresh one; Appointments and Diversity: A Judiciary for the 21st Century. The Lord Chancellor introduced it as a consultation on “legislative changes to achieve the proper balance between executive, judicial and independent responsibilities, improve clarity, transparency and openness; create a more diverse judiciary that is reflective of society; and deliver speed and quality of service to applicants, the courts and tribunals and value for money to the taxpayer.” The Bar Council will be responding in due course.

Meanwhile, the Justice Committee will be taking a closer look at the MoJ’s finances as part of its inquiry into the Department’s Budget and Structure. There can be no doubt that continued, independent, scrutiny of the Department’s affairs remains an essential check on its activities.

But whilst competition, the Legal Aid Bill and the MoJ remain a staple part of our diet, it is, perhaps  parochial in comparison with some of the better publicised events of the end of last year. The Government’s new £20bn loan guarantee scheme, announced as part of the Chancellor’s autumn statement, and the public sector strike on November 30 demonstrated once again that the state of the public finances will dominate for some time to come. It really is the only game in town and has cascaded through all Departments and most policy decisions. The Deputy Prime Minister has been talking tough about boardroom pay once again, threatening to legislate if necessary. Blue skies on the horizon seem an increasingly distant prospect.

Looking ahead

Whilst the economy remains a dominant force, it is not all doom and gloom. In the coming year, we can look forward to the London mayoral election in May, which is sure to be a lively contest, full of personality, mud-slinging and high rhetoric. Even for those outside the capital, Boris v Ken; The Rematch, is bound to have something for everyone. But of course, that’s far from the most interesting or exciting election of the year. That accolade would be better suited to the pages of Washington Watch, with Barack Obama vying for a second term in the White House. As WW goes to press, the number of potential Republican opponents continues to dwindle. Will it be Newt Gingrich? We will have to see.

Ostensibly outside the Westminster Bubble (though Stratford is not so far away), we can also look forward to the Olympics, a perennial political hot potato, for which you can be sure the current Government will seek credit if a roaring success and seek to shift the blame if costs spiral and it turns out to be a flop. It will be interesting to track Lord Coe’s next move when the Games come to an end. A Government role seems unlikely, but we wouldn’t rule it out, though maybe not until the end of the World Athletics Championships.

It promises to be an exciting year ahead for the Bar Council under new Chairman, Michael Todd QC, who laid out an ambitious and creative agenda in his inaugural address last month. His call to ‘invest in the future’ is one which we can all heed. Very often on these pages, we have bemoaned the Government’s approach to spending cuts as being ill-considered and short-term. It would be unrealistic to call upon anyone to spend money they do not have, but investment is not just about finance, but about marshalling resources effectively. In these straitened times, Government, the Bar, and indeed all of us, must think about how best to maximise whatever investment we are able to make and skills we can muster, but failing to invest is not a viable option.

With all to play for in 2012, there will be many resolutions made and broken and predictions fulfilled or cast aside. Whatever lies ahead together we must go for gold and, hopefully, we can all enjoy a successful and prosperous 2012.

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

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