WestminsterWatch - March 2013

Intrigue, scandal and everything in between. Toby Craig examines the state of play in Westminster

Wedded to Europe?
There are some months when churning out a thousand words about life in Westminster can prove something of a challenge. It is at times like that when reports penned by Sub-Committee F of the joint taskforce on judicial stationery suddenly seem appealing. And then, there are bursts of such frenetic and potentially historic activity that it’s hard to know where to start. Whilst a happy medium is usually preferable, this month, there is no shortage of drama.

You’re looking for big mainstream issues? Look no further than the Prime Minister’s long-awaited Europe Speech committing to an in-out (and possibly shake it all about) referendum on Britain’s EU membership. David Cameron took a huge gamble on his ability, in one fell swoop, to quell Party in-fighting on Europe, nullify the UKIP threat and, in the event that the Conservatives are in Government after the next election, renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and win a resulting national poll. And whilst all this goes on, carry on working constructively within our existing relationships as the UK seeks to exercise its opt-out on a range of criminal justice measures - the subject of a House of Lords committee investigation, to which the Bar Council has given evidence in writing, and orally both in Westminster and Brussels.

Just in case the PM’s relationship with Europe was not enough, attentions turned to an entirely different kind of coupling, with a hugely divisive (in the blue corner at least) vote on same sex marriage, which won a clear majority support in the House of Commons, but split the Conservatives almost straight down the middle. With a lively debate to come in the House of Lords, this huge and historic shift, which appeared neither in any Government manifesto, nor in the Coalition Agreement, has provoked extremely strong and passionate views.

Scandalous behaviour
If it’s scandal you’re after, then again, look no further. Chris Huhne resigned his Eastleigh seat after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice, after his then wife took speeding points on his behalf. Having persistently denied the charges, the last minute change of heart seemed to follow the decision to allow a harrowing text message exchange between the erstwhile Cabinet Minister and his son into evidence. The trial against Vicky Pryce, who pleaded not guilty, continued. As WW went to press, a custodial sentence looked a distinct possibility; a rather spectacular fall from grace for a man tipped by many to lead his Party. Yet another political career lies in tatters, as the Lib Dems and Tories gear up for a highly charged by-election.

More scandal you say? There’s plenty still to come. Lib Dem MP, David Ward (no, WW hadn’t heard of him either), was formally censured by his party, after choosing Holocaust Memorial Day as the appropriate time to explain that the Jews hadn’t learnt the lessons from being systematically slaughtered in concentration camps. The irony seemed lost on him that hijacking a sombre and commemorative event, marking the death of millions of people, to castigate all Jews for Israel’s foreign policy indicated that perhaps it’s not the Jews who have lessons to learn. He helpfully later clarified that is wasn’t all Jews; just the ones who did things that he doesn’t like. His subsequent, forced, apology (to anyone who had been offended, rather than for what he had said) did not ooze sincerity. Plainly it is not just the Conservative Party which has its ‘nasty’ elements.

Looking in
Amongst all of this, we might be forgiven for momentarily taking our eye off everyone’s favourite hive of activity, the MoJ. But the non-lawyer Lord Chancellor made sure that he remained front of our minds, with a Sunday Times article on funding criminal legal aid, in which he questioned the cost and value of silks. Whilst he suggested that those a year or so off from silk could take on that work for a lower fee, this raised a number of problems. First, there is no way of knowing which senior juniors will ultimately go on to take silk. Second, the rates he referred to were for the most serious VHCCs, not senior junior work. And third, it blurs further the distinction between silks and juniors. It is beginning to look as though he is living down to the approach taken by a number of his predecessors and which has been noted by WW before, namely knowing the price of everything and value of nothing. It does not seem so outlandish to expect an understanding that in a very expensive process (which, any way one looks at it, large trials are) having the leading experts in their field will make for a smoother, quicker and more efficient process, which carries less risks than using practitioners who, whilst excellent at an appropriate level, do not have the same level of experience or expertise. Increasing risk increases the potential costs. Suddenly the supposed savings are not quite so clear cut.

There was also time to convene a very well-attended All Party Parliamentary Group on legal services, looking at what the future might hold for the legal sector. Maura McGowan QC articulately set out the Bar’s position and reiterated that whatever models emerge, the integrity and standards, which have for so long formed the core values of most practitioners, must be preserved. The Bar is keeping an open mind as to what models might suit a changing market best; it is still very early days. It is already clear that products such as BARCO, the Bar Council’s third party escrow account, will allow more flexibility than ever before within the current chambers model. Encouraging words followed in an impressive contribution from Baroness Deech, who took the LSB’s Chief Executive, Chris Kenny, to task over the oversight regulator’s failure to call for an outright ban on referral fees and its rather oddly-timed report on the cab rank rule.

Umbrellas at the ready
And so, it never rains, it pours over SW1A as our friends in Westminster gear themselves up for a by-election, the budget in late March and surely more tales of the unexpected. We wouldn’t have it any other way...

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