Westminster Watch - July 2011

The Neverending Story. Charles Hale and Toby Craig continue to await the Government’s response on legal aid.

And so, as WW goes to press, still we wait for the Government’s response to its legal aid consultation. It is now four months since the 4,500 or so public responses hit MoJ desks, but the powers that be are still to reach a final conclusion of how they want to take forward their original proposals. There is only so much patient waiting anyone could reasonably expect to do, as supposed publication dates are successively pushed back. To be published alongside a Bill, which is intended to bring forward some of the necessary primary legislation to enact the planned changes, the continuing false dawns have only ensured that we remain in the dark. Harrumph!

In early June another reason for delay suddenly intervened: the furore over sentencing reform plans. When the Government published its sentencing consultation, Breaking the cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders, there was much which appeared to be very sensible, as was illustrated in the CBA’s instructive response in March. Open to an innovative approach (including the “social impact bond” pilot initiated under the last Government) and with a more rational view on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism, the MoJ seemed to send out a positive signal about the Government’s approach to reform. For the first time in recent memory we seemed likely to see sensible sentencing proposals that were not entirely media driven. And then everything changed.

In May, Prisons Minister, Crispin Blunt referred to the planned 50% deduction for early guilty pleas. The example he chose to refer to was rape. That catalyst was uppermost in 5Live’s Victoria Derbyshire’s mind when shortly afterwards she interviewed Justice Secretary Ken Clarke. As well as seeking to justify the planned discounts, he made the crucial and uncharacteristic error of grossly mis-speaking, referring to “serious rape”. This opened the door to suggestions that he believed there to be a more trivial kind. It was a school-boy error for such a seasoned politician and Silk. It seems unlikely that he ever really meant to reference anything other than the different aggravating factors involved, but the seed was planted and the media began to shine a spotlight on the proposals (which had previously been largely neglected). It was in that context that to many, with rape having been used as the primary example, that a 50% reduction seemed altogether too high, and Ken Clarke appeared to be out on his own.

It soon became clear from the Prime Minister that a 50% reduction in rape was off the table. On the wider principle, the Government’s new favourite position, “having a rethink” has been adopted, as with NHS reforms. Shame we say. A chance to make a real difference lost after an own goal in a game of political football. This has the potential to leave a £130m hole in the MoJ’s proposed savings. Will that make a difference to the legal aid proposals? Well... we’re still waiting.

Divine inspiration

Religion and politics is invariably a troublesome combination. Acting as guest editor of the New Statesman, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, launched a fairly astonishing attack on the Coalition Government. In terms of health and education, he wrote, “we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted”, and he described “a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor” (strongly refuted by Welfare Secretary and devout Christian Iain Duncan-Smith). He proposed that went “beyond a Balkanised focus on the local that fixed in stone a variety of postcode lotteries”.

The Prime Minister expressed his “profound disagreement”. Even Business Secretary, Vince Cable, hardly a Coalition apparatchik, jumped to the Government’s defence. He welcomed the Archbishop’s contribution to the debate, but said he was wrong on the facts.

It raises the interesting question of what the appropriate role of religious figures should be in political discourse. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its separation of church and State, it is something which seems historically to have vexed our American cousins more than us. It is highly unusual for religious leaders to enter into the political fray in such a partisan manner. Representing a constituency of all political shades and already a controversial figure, Dr Williams’ intervention was not welcome to Ministers. It remains to be seen if Church-goers feel the same way. One leading editor-journalist was heard to suggest that he might like to have a week as a “Guest Archbishop of Canterbury” in response.

A load of Balls

One-time pioneer of the simple and straightforward “post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory” (yes really!), Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls was back in the news following the leak of his private Ministerial papers by the Daily Telegraph. It associates Mr Balls with the 2006 “Project Volvo” (make up your own jokes here please...). Part of a plan to oust then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to allow Gordon Brown to assume the hot-seat, the leaked papers include a cringe-worthy presentation, the brainchild of Brown pollster, Deborah Mattinson, which may have been the origin of the famous Brown smile. Cryptically referred to as “Richard and Judy mode”, the then Chancellor was encouraged to flash the famous grin “at all times”. And who said politics is superficial?

Cabinet Office supremo, Sir Gus O’Donnell (who became a Knight Grand Cross in the Queen’s Birthday Honours) has ordered an inquiry, amidst allegations that Government figures may be responsible for the leaks which are potentially extremely damaging to Balls. The response will no doubt be denial or – yes, you guessed it – a balls up! The leaks surely lay to rest any claims that there were no plots to remove Blair from Number 10.

Conspiracy theories endure

As the leaks surfaced, harking back to other controversies under the last administration, the Attorney General appeared to draw a line under the death of Dr David Kelly by ruling out a fresh inquest. Dominic Grieve QC MP, in a statement to MPs, said that evidence of suicide was “overwhelmingly strong” and was critical of the “imaginative speculation” which has fuelled conspiracy theories over the past eight years.

The group of doctors which had long campaigned for a fresh inquiry were “perplexed and outraged”, but the Attorney General stuck to his guns amidst claims of a Government cover-up. Alas, as is so often the way with such difficult and controversial issues, conspiracy theories will endure, whatever the strength of the evidence, and yes, they will endure even when the legal aid response does materialise, eventually. Perhaps they are the real neverending story.

And finally, another neverending wait for a Wimbledon win starts with a Murray victory at Queens. It must be time for the umbrellas.

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