Policy

Britain's justice secretary Liz Truss

When Elizabeth Truss was appointed Lord Chancellor and justice secretary there was considerable disquiet. The first holder of the combined roles Lord Falconer went so far to call the appointment “unlawful” and inappropriate. Others like Joshua Rozenberg (and myself) reserved judgment. After all, natural justice requires everyone to be assessed on their merits. Read more

Chevening House in Kent, formerly the official residence of the foreign secretary but Boris Johnson will now have to share it with two other leading Leavers, Liam Fox, international trade secretary, and David Davis, Brexit secretary

Chevening House in Kent, formerly the official residence of the foreign secretary but Boris Johnson will now have to share it with two other leading Leavers, Liam Fox, international trade secretary, and David Davis, Brexit secretary  © Getty Images

In the days after the Brexit vote, a favourite taunt of Leavers was to tell those who were warning of the difficulties of Brexit that such critics were “in denial” and were indulging in “wishful thinking”. Brexit meant Brexit and it was now inevitable. But it is now evident that it is the Brexiteers who are denying the challenges of reality and wishfully thinking away the problems they now face. Read more

David Davis, the new cabinet minister responsible for Brexit

David Davis, the new cabinet minister responsible for Brexit  © Getty Images

The attention of the public and the media has been grabbed by the appointment by the new prime minister, Theresa May, of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. But it is another of her appointments, that of David Davis as the cabinet minister responsible for Brexit, which is more important for those interested in how and when (or if) the UK leaves the EU.

The choice of Mr Davis is a remarkable one in some ways. A sincere civil libertarian, as well as a pro-Brexit campaigner, he is one of a group of claimants suing the UK government at the European Court of Justice to enforce EU law on an allegedly non-compliant UK in respect of personal data rights. This case — which is reliant on the very charter of fundamental rights loathed by many in his own party — has already seen a decision of the high court saying an act of parliament was incompatible with EU law (though this was not upheld on appeal, it was referred to the ECJ instead). Read more

The referendum on Britain’s EU membership is unnecessary. There is no objective reason for it to take place: no new treaty or proposed treaty amendment. It is merely a vote on whether the U.K. continues to be part of an international organisation of which it has been a member for over forty years. There is no more reason to have a referendum on this issue in June 2016 than in June 2015 or June 2017.

The referendum is also not binding as a matter of law. As set out in my earlier post, there is no legal consequence contingent on the result of the vote. The government could have legislated for an immediate legal effect but it chose not to do so. As such the referendum is advisory and not mandatory. The key decision by the government in the event of a “Leave” vote is whether to invoke the (seemingly) irreversible exit procedure in Article 50, and the government can make the relevant notification at a time of its choosing (subject perhaps to a parliamentary vote) or even not make such a notification at all. Read more

What follows any referendum vote next week for the United Kingdom to leave the EU? From a legal perspective, the immediate consequence is simple: nothing will happen.

The relevant legislation did not provide for the referendum result to have any formal trigger effect. The referendum is advisory rather than mandatory. The 2011 referendum on electoral reform did have an obligation on the government to legislate in the event of a “yes” vote (the vote was “no” so this did not matter). But no such provision was included in the EU referendum legislation. Read more

The third painting in the series, 'The Humours of an Election' by William Hogarth, 1755. Granger, NYC/Alamy.

The UK Conservative party is facing serious allegations and extensive investigations in respect of their campaign expenses at last year’s general election. Read more

John Whittingdale, secretary of state for culture, media and sport

John Whittingdale, secretary of state for culture, media and sport  © Getty Images

During the recent controversy about John Whittingdale, his private life and his relationship with the press, one statutory provision was often mentioned.

This is “section 40″ and the contention was that the secretary of state for culture, media and sport was acting wrongly in not bringing it into force.

It was further argued that the reason for this failure could be attributed to the hold that the tabloid media had over him. Section 40 of the Courts and Crime Act 2013 is, it would appear, to be of fundamental importance in the debate about press regulation.

Some assert that it would be lethal to press freedom in general and to investigative journalism in particular. Others say it would be a valuable cornerstone in a regulatory system for a free and vibrant but accountable press.

Never has a statutory provision, which is yet to be implemented, had so much riding on it.

On the narrow issue of this provision, as on the wider one of press regulation, good and experienced people — who worked alongside each other on libel reform, for example — disagree starkly. There is anger and derision in their debates on social media. One gets the sense that wise individuals should never discuss the regulation of the press, and that they should talk of less controversial topics such as religion or politics instead.

So what exactly is this section 40 about? Why does it matter to so many people who are concerned with press freedom and media standards? And what would it mean in practice, if and when it is finally put into effect?

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Relatives of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster celebrate the inquest verdict of unlawful killing

Relatives of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster celebrate the inquest verdict of unlawful killing  © Getty Images

On Monday, Theresa May gave a speech where, contrary to the policy of the UK government, she called for the country to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

It was a curious speech for the Home Secretary to make — indeed for any UK Home Secretary to make. This is for many reasons, not least that the Good Friday agreement explicitly requires that the ECHR have ongoing legal effect in Northern Ireland. For this requirement to change would require the UK to try to rewrite and renegotiate the peace settlement, and even then the amendment would have to be approved by referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. And, as the ECHR requirement was included so to give comfort to nationalists concerned about the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Ms May’s demand would risk causing upset and alienation.

Perhaps the Home Secretary did not realise this; perhaps she did not care. It would seem that the political imperative was for her to send a signal to Conservative politicians and the media — she is opposed to Britain leaving the EU so no doubt wanted to placate her pro-Brexit supporters. Whatever the explanation, it showed a certain superficiality in her approach to human rights: the assertion of a populist view without regard to the relevant facts or to its practicality. And this is not the first time: in 2011 she told her party conference that an illegal immigrant could not be deported because they had a pet cat. “I am not making this up,” she assured her audience. Read more

Protestors gather outside Iceland's parliament after Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson stepped down in the wake of the Panama Papers leaks  © Getty Images

There have been two main responses to the leak of the Panama Papers.

The first has been a great shrug of indifference: so what? The rich and powerful do things that only the rich and powerful can do. The second is a warm, indeed enthusiastic, welcome to this dramatic exercise in transparency: we can now see how the rich and powerful do the things that only the rich and powerful can do. The political consequences of the leak, for example in Iceland and the UK, indicate that the transparency in turn is leading to greater accountability.

Are these the only valid responses? Is there any issue here about privacy and the right to confidential legal advice? Or are such concerns mere fusspottery and point-missing? Read more

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The Houses of Parliament  © Getty Images

Public policy in England seems to have a rather illiberal tone at the moment. (And this post deliberately refers to England as, since devolution, it is increasingly hard to generalise about all the national governments in the UK.) Almost every day comes some new announcement about how the government wants to have more power at the expense of its citizens. Is England getting more illiberal? If so, how has this come about? And will any such illiberal trend continue?

First, the evidence of illiberalism. At its most stark, it is about life and death. In the last few weeks alone the prime minister has called for the army to be put above the law and for the law to be changed so as to make it easier for the police to shoot people. It would appear that David Cameron sees no role for the law in restraining those who can exercise lethal force on behalf of the state.

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  © Getty Images

Last October, I revealed the existence of a Memorandum of Understanding between the UK’s Home Office and its counterpart in Saudi ArabiaRead more

CeBIT 2012 Technology Trade Fair

  © Getty Images

This week the Home Office will be launching the new Investigatory Powers Bill. It had previously sought to obtain these powers under the “Snoopers’ Charter” proposals in the last parliament but it failed.

This time the government is sensibly not relying on the brute strength of parliamentary votes or the standard “FUD” tactic of promoting fear, uncertainty and doubt. Such methods of stealth and FUDery may not be sufficient, so something more is needed to get the Bill over the bumps of this first week or two. The Home Office wants your heads to nod along too.

Many people say that the problem with politics is that there is too much cynicism. The problem with UK politics, however, is not that people are too cynical but that they are too gullible. Our politics is beset and bedeviled by the phenomenon of mass nodding along. Just get the catchphrases correct, and you will get all the audience applause you need. The trick is saying the right things at the right time. Read more

Magna Carta  © Getty Images

Last week the UK’s Cabinet Office sought silently to remove the reference to “international law” from the Ministerial Code.

The text had stated that there was an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”. The new version states that there is an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life”.

Does this matter? From a strict legalistic perspective, there is an argument that it makes no difference: inclusion or exclusion of text from a ministerial code by acts of ministerial or civil service discretion do not create or change substantive law. And there is some force in this contention, though the courts can and do look at such documents when construing the obligations of the state under public law and the legitimate expectations of individuals who can be affected by state actions. Read more

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David Cameron  © Getty Images

On Monday, the prime minister told the House of Commons that a specific UK citizen had been killed deliberately by the UK state in a UK military operation:

Today, I can inform the House that in an act of self-defence and after meticulous planning, Reyaad Khan was killed in a precision airstrike carried out on 21 August by an RAF remotely piloted aircraft while he was travelling in a vehicle in the area of Raqqa in Syria. In addition to Reyaad Khan, who was the target of the strike, two Isil associates were also killed, one of whom, Ruhul Amin, has been identified as a UK national. They were Isil fighters, and I can confirm that there were no civilian casualties.

We took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with; we have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots; and there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home, so we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action.

The rather legalistic tone and phrasing was no accident; what the prime minister was telling the Commons was not only that the operation had been a success but that it was also “lawful”. Like a defence advocate in court, David Cameron was keen to show that all the required elements to justify an otherwise unlawful action were present: it was “self-defence”, it was necessary — “there was no alternative”, and it was proportionate — there was no other method to achieve the aim of eliminating this target. The statement was, in essence, a formal box-ticking exercise. Read more

David Cameron Attends Prime Minister's Questions In Parliament

Michael Gove  © Getty Images

If there is an epitome of just how bad the tenure was of the previous Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice it has to be the prison books fiasco. This remarkable policy — even more than the time the Ministry of Justice instructed counsel to submit to the High Court that the Lord Chancellor should be able to disregard the rule of law — told observers all they needed to know about the ways in which Chris Grayling was running his department.

The thing about the prison books fiasco was that it was not even a deliberate policy decision: the listing of books as a “privilege” in an elaborate prisoner incentive scheme was the sort of error that a bureaucracy can make from time to time. Nobody perhaps realised, or cared, that making books harder to obtain was contrary to the government’s own project of promoting literacy among prisoners. No government department is really “joined-up”. Read more

The State Opening Of Parliament

  © Getty Images

The Queen’s Speech last week had one notable omission: the firm commitment to a new Bill within months to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and for it to be replaced with a “British Bill of Rights”. Read more

It is a misconception to say Conservatives do not “do” human rights and civil liberties — yet Tory civil libertarianism wants the benefits of a libertarian approach to policy in certain cases without the means of placing such libertarianism on a sustainable basis. So Raab’s appointment as a junior minister at the ministry of justice is an intriguing move Read more

Michael Gove

Michael Gove  © Getty Images

The United Kingdom’s Conservative party no longer has to share power as part of a coalition. Now it has a majority in the House of Commons, one of the very first things the Tories want to do is repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with something that purports to protect the rights of citizens but has a weaker connection to the European Convention on Human Rights. Getting rid of the Act is a long-standing objective of the Conservatives, and they now want to repeal it at speed.

According to the Guardian, repeal of the Act is an urgent priority for the new government:

The scrapping of the human rights act, a pledge included in the Tory manifesto, is one of the measures to be included in the prime minister’s plans for the first 100 days, when the Queen’s speech is delivered on 27 May.

The “pledge” is in the 2015 party manifesto, which contains the following statements about the Act:

We will…scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights, so that foreign criminals can be more easily deported from Britain. [...]

The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. [...]

We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights which will restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK.

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A French national flag at the Paris statue "Le triomphe de la Republique"  (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

A French national flag at the Paris statue "Le triomphe de la Republique"  © Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

What should be the legal response to terrorism?

This question needs asking, for whatever the security problem, the political solution seems invariably to be more law. Something dreadful happens, and the response of many UK politicians and officials is “tougher powers” and another bill on the statute book.

It is almost as if the passing of a law is seen as a kind of solution in and of itself. Something must be done, and therefore something will be done.

And so in the UK over the last 15 years, we have had a Terrorism Act, then an Anti-terrorism Act, then a Prevention of Terrorism Act, another Terrorism Act, then a Counter-Terrorism Act, and most recently a Terrorism Prevention Act. Currently there is a Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill before parliament.

If statutes were weapons in the war against terror, the UK would be armed to its hilt. And inevitably, the atrocities last week in Paris have prompted the prime minister and home secretary to call for even more laws to combat terrorism.

 

Part of the reason for this glut of legislation is, of course, the relative impotence of UK politicians. There is, in fact, very little they can be seen to be doing in response to any crisis other than to promote additional laws. Policy making is hard, and good policy making and its implementation is not showy. Sometimes policy making will not need any new laws at all. But for the busy and media-conscious politician, it is easier to ban something, or to create a new legal power, than to actually think through what one is doing. Read more

One innocent pleasure is to ask someone concerned with “policy-making” what the term “policy” actually means.

Often the person you ask – whether they are a politician or an official, a “public policy” lobbyist or some self-proclaimed “policy wonk” – will not have an instant answer. It is almost as if the word “policy” is such a commonplace in their world, few have thought about to what it refers. Read more