WestminsterWatch - November 2011

Toby Craig and Charles Hale give Counsel an overview of this year’s party conferences

When surveying the Parliamentary terrain, particularly over the course of party conferences, there are always particular issues or events which stand out and capture the imagination. It might be a policy division, a sartorial misjudgement, or a “catty” remark in a speech. It is also an opportune moment for negative stories, which have been in the pipelines, to spill out. This year’s conferences proved no exception, though understandably, most eyes fell on the Conservative conference, which drew in the largest numbers.

From the conference delegates strutting like peacocks whilst revelling in the status of Government, to the feline-obsessed Home Secretary (who miraculously managed her now infamous cat remark whilst wearing leopard-print kitten heels), in conflict with the Lord Chancellor, everyone’s favourite ‘Big Beast’, to a vicious bout of Fox hunting which will have left the now former-Defence Secretary wishing for a better enforced ban; the political menagerie always makes compelling, if sometimes comical viewing. Binoculars at the ready ...

 

Rights in the spotlight


The Human Rights Act was once again in the spotlight as Tory delegates descended on Manchester for their annual gathering. Something of a political football in the Coalition (and a frequent topic of conversation at the Lib Dem Conference), as both sides seek to appease their grassroots, Theresa May began strident in her opposition to the controversial Act, calling instead for a Bill of Rights (no, not the one we already have, another one, keep up now). The problem was, when reeling off a list of extreme cases, she stretched her hyperbole a little too far. Now the cynics amongst you might say the best way to tell when a politician is lying is to see if their lips are moving. That might be unfair, but what could be more sincere than the Home Secretary prefacing her cat anecdote with “and I am not making this up”? Except that she was, having (surely) been poorly briefed. Maya the cat was not, in fact, the basis for the determination that her Bolivian owner was entitled to stay in the UK (a point proved by legal bloggers within 30 minutes of the comment), but it seemed to get Mrs May in a flap nonetheless. At a well attended Liberty fringe, the Attorney General voiced his support for the Act and the UK’s longstanding commitment to human rights, and the Lord Chancellor took a similar stance after the speech. The Prime Minister seemed to take the Home Secretary’s side. One cannot help but form the view that it is as much about throwing party members some red meat as it is about any serious policy-making.

 

 

 

Fox hunting


The row about rights was quickly forgotten as attention abruptly turned to Defence Secretary Liam Fox. A longstanding darling of the Tory right, Dr Fox was embroiled in controversy surrounding his relationship with close friend, Adam Werritty (the best man at his wedding), who despite holding no official position, had accompanied Dr Fox on numerous foreign trips. Amidst allegations of impropriety, an investigation followed, a media storm ensued and the Opposition eventually got its scalp. A capable Minister, highly regarded by the military, Dr Fox’s became the second Coalition cabinet resignation, the first being that of David Laws (another capable Minister). At the time of writing the Cabinet Secretary’s initial response is that he did break the Ministerial code. He has been swiftly replaced by Philip Hammond and having resigned with relatively little fuss, despite having tried initially to hold on (prior to any negative reports being published), Dr Fox may still be able to stake a claim for a return to Government somewhere down the line. The Prime Minister’s initial instinct was to avoid a full reshuffle; undoubtedly more difficult to engineer in Coalition. He will also probably have an eye on the fate of Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, awaiting a CPS decision on whether to bring any charges over allegations that his estranged wife took his speeding points.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to the Bill


As Parliament returned from its conference break, so it returned to the Legal Aid Bill, and promptly rattled through the final sessions of Committee Stage (detailed scrutiny has not been one of the obvious features of this particular Bill’s legislative passage). In terms of the many Bar Council amendments tabled to date, there is yet to be a significant victory, with the Committee consistently splitting on partisan lines. As WW went to print, the Bill was gearing up for Report Stage and Third Reading with a broad range of campaigners hoping for at least some Government concessions before the legislation goes to the Other Place. The Bar Council remains at the forefront, issuing detailed briefing materials for MPs and beginning to engage with Peers. Alongside the FLBA, it also joined with a range of organisations representing the rights and needs of women, children, families and victims of domestic abuse and/or who are engaged in the administration of family justice. In a ‘Manifesto for Family Justice’, the broad alliance of groups (including Liberty, the WI, Gingerbread and Resolution) call for the Government to amend the Bill to temper the egregious effects it will have on families.

This comes in the midst of the Statutory Instruments, laid in August, enacted in October, which provide the mechanism for fee cuts.

Of course, it’s not just family law which will be affected by the Bill, but it is likely to be uppermost in the debate over the next month. David Norgrove is expected to publish the final iteration of the Family Justice Review in early November. It remains a mystery why the Government has so single-mindedly pushed ahead with its family legal aid proposals whilst, in parallel, awaiting a wholesale review of the system. This seems a policy decision lacking in any real common sense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bar Debates


The second ‘Bar Debate’ will also focus on family issues. “Broken Britain; Broken Families: What next?” will be the topic of discussion, as David Norgrove and FLBA Chairman Stephen Cobb QC are joined by Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner, and Ruth Bond, Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. Following the sentencing debate at the Old Bailey earlier this year, it promises to be an exciting event.


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.