WestminsterWatch - June 2012

Toby Craig and Charles Hale reflect on the results of May’s local and mayoral elections and the plans revealed by the second Queen’s Speech of the Coalition Government

Trials and Jubilations

And in the blink of an eye, it was all over. It’s been a busy month for the Queen, as she put quill to parchment to grant the Royal Assent to what is now the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. That marked the end of a long and arduous lobbying process, which sadly was always to have a disappointing outcome, but with some important victories. Having been enthralled with the Bill’s progress on these pages for some months, we have nothing further to say on the topic (for now...), but you can read an excellent and extensive summary of the passage of the Bill by Harriet Deane, who worked tirelessly on the Bill on the Bar’s behalf, later on in this issue.

Her Majesty’s attention then turned to her eponymous address to Parliament, in which she laid out her Government’s legislative agenda for the forthcoming Parliamentary Session. Between those two momentous events, there was time for the Coalition Government, as separate parties, to receive a hammering defeat in the local elections, with the triumphant return of Mayor Boris the single, shining light for the Conservatives in an otherwise poor showing.


Locally speaking

Local and mayoral elections on 3 May proved, as is often the case with mid-term polls, difficult for the Government. Labour gained 22 councils, the Tories lost 10 and the Lib Dems lost one. Half of the councils Labour gained previously had no overall control. As is always the case with mid-term elections, there is a huge amount of rhetoric and speculation, proffered by all sides. This can, and should, be largely discounted. The results were no more a spectacular victory for Ed Miliband than they were a crushing defeat for David Cameron or Nick Clegg. Labour’s gains are probably slightly inflated by a low starting point and the Government’s defeats magnified by a more favourable one. That being said, it surely reflected, at least in part a fairly unpopular austerity package, which the Coalition Government continues to promote. The results will also have bought Ed Miliband some time, and perhaps convinced his followers that he is capable of leading the Opposition back into Downing Street in 2015. 

One particularly interesting feature of the elections was the almost wholesale rejection of City mayoralties in referenda across England. Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield, Coventry, Leeds and Bradford all said ‘no’ whilst only Bristol backed the plan. Doncaster elected to keep its mayor. Whilst the London mayoralty, full of colour, character and personality captured the capital’s attention, delivering Boris Johnson, more narrowly than expected, for a second term, the rest of the country remains largely unconvinced.


A bed of roses

After the disturbingly awkward love-in between David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the rose garden, to launch the Coalition, the aftermath of the local elections seemed a good point to re-take their vows. “Rose Garden 2”, this time in a rather less auspicious tractor factory in Essex (they might need more than that to pull the economy out of the ‘double-dip’ recession) was a slightly more strained display. The continuing commitment to tackling the deficit and restoring growth was unquestionable. The body language between the Prime Minister and his Deputy was more open to interpretation as both men seek to convince their own parties to continue to back the partnership. As voters in France and Greece seemed to reject austerity programmes, whether this Government’s current approach will eventually find favour with the electorate remains to be seen.


Black Rod’s annual outing

Politics is a fast-moving game. The State Opening of Parliament, as well as giving Black Rod his annual outing, provided the setting for the second Queen’s Speech of this Coalition Government. Her Majesty outlined a rather light legislative agenda for the forthcoming Session. With 15 Bills and four draft Bills, a few are of standout interest to the Bar in particular, whilst others will have broader application. The Crime and Courts Bill, Justice and Security Bill and Defamation Bill are all immediately relevant, whilst there is a great deal to engage family practitioners in the Children and Families Bill, which picks up some of the issues raised by the Family Justice Review. There was, however, no legislative time put aside to vote on gay marriage. More broadly, the perennial issue of House of Lords reform remains on the agenda, though the only real appetite for change seems to be coming from the Liberal Democrats, with the senior coalition partners decidedly lukewarm and the Upper House even less enthused.

The Crime and Courts Bill will finally and formally permit the use of cameras in courts. Readers of this column will know, this topic has been a source of much legal and media debate for many years, particularly following the televising of the notorious O J Simpson trial. Whilst there is already a live feed of Supreme Court proceedings and of course the Leveson inquiry, cameras are not permitted in the Crown Court and Court of Appeal (their use is forbidden by the Contempt of Court Act). The final plans are yet to be announced (as are the wider views of the judges...) but the potential use of cameras has been given broad consideration already. This primary legislation will enable that introduction. It seems fairly safe to assume that once introduced there will be no going back so expect to see barristers with much whiter teeth in the Temple soon! Additionally the Bill will seek to introduce a National Crime Agency, a Single County Court system and Single Family Court.

The Justice and Security Bill will be the most obvious target for the Bar Council’s ongoing lobbying work on legal professional privilege (LPP), which the Bar has been seeking to protect through primary legislation. This is a response to the Government’s inaction since the 2009 House of Lords case In Re McE, which found that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) allows LPP to be violated by the authorities. Last month’s excellent Counsel cover story by Gordon Nardell QC and Nick Griffin QC, leading the charge on this, set out the arguments.


The 26th Mile

One half of WW had a very literal eye on the mother of Parliaments, passing it by on the 26th mile of April’s London Marathon (Well done Toby from the other half!). Well done also to Francis Fitzgibbon QC, Hugh Southey QC and Michelle Christie (interviewed in April’s Counsel) who all completed the race on a warm spring morning. This columnist (just about) managed to make it round in three hours and 58 minutes; same time next year!


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.