Sir Edward Coke

Sir Edward Coke  © Getty Images

This post is the first of a series on law and legislation. 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

John Whittingdale arrives at No 10 for a cabinet meeting

John Whittingdale arrives at No 10 for a cabinet meeting  © Getty Images

Two news stories about privacy have dominated the London-based media for the last week or so. The first is about the private lives of an (as yet) anonymous celebrity couple and the second is about the private life of a cabinet minister.

In neither case are the material facts of any great importance: the politician is single and had a relationship with another single person, and the celebrity couple have an open marriage and one of them had a relationship with another married couple. The allegations are entirely about consensual relationships between consenting adults. But in both cases there is serious — and sometimes heated — debate about the public interest and the extent to which the press can or should intrude into the private lives of others.

The preoccupation about these two stories is telling about the priorities and concerns of the London media. Even though the ultimate details in each case are trivial, both cases are discussed as if they engage first principles.

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People demonstrate against Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson in Reykjavik, Iceland on April 4.

Large scale unauthorised data releases are becoming both more frequent and more politically significant. 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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Last October, I revealed the existence of a Memorandum of Understanding between the UK’s Home Office and its counterpart in Saudi ArabiaRead more

David Cameron Addresses The 2015 Conservative Party Autumn Conference

UK home secretary Theresa May  © Getty Images

The UK government on Wednesday published a draft Investigatory Powers Bill for public and parliamentary consideration. It was a significant move in many ways.

The intention is that the draft Bill will be the basis of consultation, with a revised Bill being published in 2016. This revised Bill will need to be enacted by the end of next year, as the current Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act expires on 31 December 2016 and one section of it has been quashed by the High Court as from March 2016.

Publication is therefore the start of what may be a year-long legislative process. On the face of it, the government intends to take the legislative process seriously. The Bill has been published with extensive explanatory materials, fact sheets and impact assessments. The page count of those documents is higher than that of the bill itself — the government wishes to give the impression this process is to be done properly and thoroughly. Read more

CeBIT 2012 Technology Trade Fair

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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

Spending Review - Government Ministry Buildings

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To what extent does the influence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reach into the domestic government of the United Kingdom? And what does the UK get in return? Read more

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Chris Grayling in March as Justice Secretary before the general election   © Getty Images

The UK’s Ministry of Justice made a welcome announcement this week: “Just Solutions International” is to cease to operate. Just Solutions International (or JSi) was the means by which a group of MoJ civil servants went round the world to sell their supposed expertise to foreign despotic governments on a “commercial” basis, rather than doing what they are there to do, which is to run the prison and probation services of England and Wales. (For background on JSi, including my previous posts on it, see here.) 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

Founder Of Kids Company Camila Batmanghelidjh Leaves LBC Studios

Camila Batmanghelidjh  © Getty Images

One should always be wary of charming people, for they are used to making you feel good about them getting their way. And one should always be cautious of organisations whose first line of defence when placed under scrutiny is something emotive and manipulative like “won’t somebody, please, think of the children?“.

Neither of these wise stances necessarily mean that Kids Company and its charismatic and well-connected head Camilla Batmanghelidjh have done anything culpable. The truth is that, at this stage, very few people know what happened before the UK charity closed in a financial mess.

But what is plain is that subjecting any “third sector” service provider to any meaningful accountability is difficult, and that this needs to change. The appropriate mechanisms are not in place, there is almost no transparency and any public criticism can be deterred as appearing “unhelpful”. Who would want to be responsible for stopping what could be valuable and wonderful work? 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

Michael Gove at the State Opening Of Parliament  © Getty Images

A curious Martian looking down at the government departments in Whitehall would not work out much about the British party political system. The alien would not grasp that there is supposedly a policy division between Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. 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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