WestminsterWatch - February 2012

There is one relationship that Cupid may need to work hard at this month. Toby Craig and Charles Hale examine the Scottish referendum issue

Cracks in the Union

It’s that time of year again when love is traditionally in the air. Cupid will doubtless be busying himself sharpening the tips of his arrows in anticipation of a busy Valentine’s season.

But one Union has been looking decidedly shaky as Westminster and Holyrood square off over a potential Scottish referendum. Constitutional lawyers will be rubbing their hands with glee as the arguments rage on about precisely what the Scots are allowed to vote on (with options apparently including independence and ‘devolution max’, a halfway house entailing greater fiscal autonomy, which might prove a useful compromise for an SNP which is struggling to convince Scots of full independence), which Parliament is entitled to sanction a vote and how binding the results of the answer will be. And that’s before we even get onto the wording of the question. Alex Salmond, seemingly imbued with the Braveheart spirit, continues to fly the flag for independence.

Surprisingly, there is a bit more common ground which can be found on the economy. As a slew of Eurozone members saw their cherished AAA credit rating controversially downgraded by ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls accepted that if in Government, Labour would not be able to reverse the public sector pay freeze, a position which has not impressed the unions. The state of the Eurozone continues to make clear that the economic battleground is the one upon which the Coalition Government is most likely to succeed or fail. Whilst the Opposition has conceded some ground, it would be highly surprising if that were to translate into tangible support for any of the Government’s proposed savings plans. However, both Balls and Labour know that they cannot be seen as wanting to spend their way out of the financial crisis.


A taste for revolt

On the subject of savings plans, the House of Lords continues to grapple with the Legal Aid Bill, with the £350m savings it is claimed the Bill will create. At the time of writing, still addressing the many concerns arising under Part One, which addresses general principles and debating a number of amendments, which were suggested to peers by the Bar Council. As yet, none of the amendments have been pushed to a division, but the Bar’s position in a range of areas has received broad support from all sides of the House, which augurs well for making further progress at Report Stage. There have been some particularly strong and thoughtful contributions made by cross benchers. Research including a recent report compiled by King’s College, continues to demonstrate that, as has been said for some time, it is far from clear that the Government will achieve its anticipated savings. As the Bar Council has said on many occasions, the cost of doing things badly is often far greater than any savings which might be achieved.

There are some signs that their Lordships may be minded to revolt, having defeated the Government on the Welfare Reform Bill in three straight votes. Peers spoke up on behalf of cancer patients, disabled young people and people with serious illness. The issues are not the same but the Legal Aid Bill hits weak and vulnerable people hard too. It might be families going through breakdown or victims of clinical negligence or people with serious debt and housing problems. They need effective access to the justice system and many will be systematically deprived of it under the Bill as it stands, as they have little to no prospect of meeting the costs privately. Across all sides of the House, peers have engaged with those issues and if the Government does not make the appropriate concessions, they will have an opportunity to vote on them at Report Stage. 


Upwardly mobile?

The Government, and most notably the Deputy Prime Minister, have continued to encourage employers to support their social mobility plans by signing up to the social mobility business compact. The Bar Council was an early signatory and has continued to engage with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office. However, despite the Bar’s commitment to enhancing social mobility, it is often the legal profession and the Bar in particular which is first in the firing line. Nick Clegg only recently attacked the senior Bar and judiciary for being too white, male and elitist (in terms of private schooling). It is one thing to attack the top of the profession, but change occurs most notably at the bottom end. The Government’s own policies on tuition fees and legal aid cuts only serve to undermine the Bar’s efforts to make the profession an accessible one to those with the talent to succeed.

One thing any socially mobile youngsters will need to be watchful of is their future earnings. Executive pay and banker bashing remain high on the agenda. Lloyds boss Antonio Horta-Osorio’s decision to refuse his annual bonus (he had just returned from a two-month sickness absence), was reported all over the world, but has been uncommon. The difficult balance between achieving a competitive City of London, which is crucial to a broader economic recovery and proper, effective regulation, has not fully been struck. The political posturing which accompanies it (on all sides) does nothing to achieve it either.

As we begin to approach the home straight of this Parliamentary Session, we can expect the rhetoric to ramp up across the political divide, but also see continuing stress within the Coalition. It is unlikely to prove insurmountable, but as Bills reach crucial stages in their passage and concessions become either expected or demanded, any fissures between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be further magnified.   Rest assured, WW will be standing by, looking glasses at the ready.