Five things about David Cameron and sovereignty

9th March 2016

Here are five things to remember when you hear the Prime Minister praise the “sovereignty of parliament”.

First, ministers and officials are encouraged to use statutory instruments as much as possible, which do not get proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Second, the government has sought to cut the “Short money” which funds the scrutiny work of opposition parties in parliament.

Third, the government is seeking to push through the Investigatory Powers Bill through parliament at speed, just as it did with the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act.

Fourth, when the House of Lords (sensibly) rejected cuts to certain benefits (which were later dropped), Cameron sought to limit the power of the Lords.

Fifth, when the Speaker of the House of Commons was seen as too independent, the (then Coalition) government under Cameron attempted (and failed) to get the Speaker sacked.

Take together the increasing use of secondary legislation, the attempts to cut Short money, the rushing of primary legislation, the attempt to limit the Lords, and the plans to eject the Speaker – and the evidence does not show that Cameron and his government have any sincere respect for the sovereignty of parliament.

In fact, the evidence contradicts the notion that Cameron and his government believe in the rights and prerogatives of the legislature.

And this is without the ongoing tendency for major announcements to be leaked to the press, or to be revealed on chat shows, rather than on the floor of the Commons.

In essence, it is not the sovereignty of parliament which is being claimed by Cameron and his ministers, but the sovereignty of the government once it has a Commons majority; what a former Conservative Lord Chancellor called an “elective dictatorship“.

The rhetoric may be about the sovereighty of parliament, but the practice of the current government (as with previous governments) is to undermine parliament in as many ways as possible.

It is not Brussels which is the greatest enemy of the Westminster parliament but Whitehall.

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Estragon’s boot: the Conservatives delay the repeal of the Human Rights Act

27th February 2016

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Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to repeal the Human Rights Act.

He pulls at it with both hands.

He gives up, rests, tries again.

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According to a news report today, the Conservative government has “shelved” the proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights”.

This is not a surprise. It was never going to be an easy task.

In the last week or so, the proposals – as well as a daft and dappy “Sovereignty Bill” proposal – have been nothing other than tokens in a political game between the Prime Minister and other Conservative politicians about supporting and opposing Brexit.  But the tokens turned out to have no value and no purchase in this game.

Last May this blog set out the “seven hurdles” for repeal of the Human Rights Act.  These hurdles included the facts that the Good Friday Agreement requires the European Convention on Human Rights to have local effect in Northern Ireland and that Scotland would have a veto on the replacement legislation.

These were real hurdles, and they could not be wished away in a game of tokens.

The hurdles are still there.

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The Human Rights Act is not likely to be repealed this Parliament.

Even if the Conservatives could agree on the proposals, and somehow had solutions to the problems presented by Northern Ireland and Scotland, the parliamentary arithmetic is against them: it is an issue which divides the Conservatives and would unite the opposition parties in both houses.

The Act is not a perfect piece of legislation, even for supporters of human rights law.  It actually does not do a lot which could not be done by courts drawing on other, domestic case law; but it does enough.

And the Conservatives have begun to realise that it is not worth the time and the effort of repealing and replacing it.

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Estragon with a supreme effort succeeds in pulling off his boot. He peers inside it, feels about inside it, turns it upside down, shakes it, looks on the ground to see if anything has fallen out, finds nothing, feels inside it again, staring sightlessly before him.

“Nothing.”

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With apologies to Samuel Beckett.

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Law and policy round-up: three points about Cameron’s prisons speech

9th February 2016

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Prisons policy

Yesterday was a busy and perhaps significant day for prisons policy.

The Prime Minister gave a speech devoted to the subject.  The speech was even trailed with two government announcements here and (on treatment of pregnant women in prison) here.

Frances Crook of the Howard League gave the speech a cautious welcome and Ellie Dunt, also of the Howard League, correctly observed that the most significant thing about the speech was that the Prime Minister was giving it.

There are three things worth noting about the speech and what may be behind it.

First, prisons are expensive even if “law and order” rhetoric is cheap. Wise politicians realise this and know that the current approach to prisons policy is financially unsustainable, regardless of what lines voters and tabloids clap along with.  The current policy also makes no real sense from a crime prevention perspective and is best seen as one devised by a mischievous demon.

Second, there is a move in right wing thought against custodial sentences as the default punishment for crime, especially in the United States.  (I wrote about this in 2013 at the FT.)  This development in right wing thought may be having an influence on Michael Gove.

Third, if such a speech is indeed the political price Micheal Gove has extracted from David Cameron for support on the EU referendum issue, then it is a good bargain.

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The prisons policy of a mischievous demon

8th February 2015

Prisons policy is in the news today.  This is from my 2013 post at FT on custodial sentences:

Here is a thought-experiment: imagine that you have asked some mischievous demon to conceive the most counter-productive way of dealing with crime.

What fiendish scheme would this diabolic agent devise?

The demon could suggest a system:

– where offenders are kept together with more serious and experienced criminals for months or years, and so can learn from them;

– where the offender is taken away from any gainful employment and social support or family network;

– where the offender is put in places where drugs and brutality are rife;

– where the infliction of a penalty can make the offender more, and not less, likely to re-offend; and

– where all this is done at extraordinary expense for the taxpayer.

A system, in other words, very much like the prison system we now have in England and Wales.

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The thinly veiled threats of the Saudi Ambassador

27th October 2015

When a genuinely extraordinary political decision is taken the consequences can often be telling.

Such decisions are not those usual ones that are predetermined or stage-managed, as are the stuff of any political system under the public gaze.  They are instead the decisions that suddenly disturb and disrupt the settled practices of those with power; they are decisions the effects of which are often worth watching carefully.

Earlier this month, the UK prime minister David Cameron ordered that the Ministry of Justice should pull out of a bid to provide training services to the prisons of Saudi Arabia.

The exact basis of that decision is not yet clear.

But it was not one which the Saudis and their allies in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) were expecting the UK government to make; indeed, the FCO had until then managed to oblige the MoJ to continue with the bid even though the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, was against it.

The Saudis are not happy with this decision, or about its significance.

The contract proposal itself was not big in the global scheme of things — just under £6m; it was more that the usual tactic of Saudis threatening to not “co-operate” unless they got their way did not work for once. It seemed as if a bluff was being called. The FCO had not wanted to upset the Saudis, but this supposed “wider” interest of the government was trumped by the prime minister effecting a quick fix to a cabinet split that was about to be exploited by the media and the opposition.

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The Saudis have now reacted publicly.

In Monday’s Daily Telegraph is a remarkable article from the Saudi ambassador in London, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz. The ambassador’s piece is worrying — and revealing.

The article warns of the adverse consequences of the UK treating the Saudis with disrespect.

But it does so in a clumsy and discreditably strident manner.

The ambassador’s overall tone is evocative of some international protection racketeer telling the UK what a nice little country we have here, and wouldn’t it be a shame if “co-operation” ended.

One wonders if anyone at the Saudi embassy in London had the wit or sense to tell the ambassador to desist from publishing such a blatant exercise in implicit intimidation. Perhaps somebody did, and the first draft was even worse. Who knows. What is clear, however, is that Saudis do not react well to being told that they are not going to get their way.

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The ambassador’s article bears close attention, both for what it says and what it does not say.

For example, there are general threats with only the thinnest of veils:

“…an alarming change…potentially serious repercussions that could damage the mutually beneficial strategic partnership…a strong alliance [which up] until a few weeks ago, I would have said it had never been stronger”.

Then the threats become more specific. First, in respect of commercial matters:

“The Kingdom’s contribution to Britain’s security and economy provides the foundations on which the bilateral relations between our two countries are built, allowing trade, cultural exchanges and military cooperation to flourish. Saudi Arabia ultimately provides over 50,000 British families in the UK and the Kingdom with livelihoods, thanks to commercial contracts worth tens of billions of pounds. Saudis also have an estimated £90 billion in private business investments in the UK.

[…]
If the extensive trade links between the two countries are going to be subordinate to certain political ideologies, then this vital commercial exchange is going to be at risk.”

(On this point, also see the FT’s news report yesterday of the threat to the Typhoon contract.)

And then in terms of British lives and limbs:

“…the Kingdom remains an invaluable source of intelligence on the activities of terrorist groups. Information from Saudi intelligence in 2010 resulted in a major counter-terrorism success by scuttling an al-Qaeda attempt to blow up a cargo airliner over Britain. In a recent interview, David Cameron confirmed the importance of our contribution when he declared: “Since I have been Prime Minister a piece of information that we have been given by (Saudi Arabia) has saved potentially hundreds of lives here in Britain.” Given information to which I am privy, that number is, in fact, in the thousands.”

The message is plain: the UK had better be careful.

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Here it is important to remember what the prime minister’s decision was about.

It was a decision that a relatively small UK government department should not bid for overseas work but should instead concentrate on domestic matters.

It is the sort of issue that any sovereign government should be able to make in respect of its own public services.

But the ambassador has such a distorted a view of national sovereignty that he misses the irony of him complaining that the UK does not respect Saudi Arabia as a sovereign state while saying that it was not open to the MoJ to drop a bid so that it concentrate on domestic activities in England and Wales.

The ambassador’s express criticism of the political approach of the UK’s new leader of the opposition also looks at odds with the insistence that the UK should not interfere with the internal affairs of another country.

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The ambassador’s article is telling in other ways.

The propensity of the Saudis to use barbaric physical punishments is blithely passed off as a local tradition and custom, as if tying someone to a pole and flogging them nearly to death is somehow comparable to having a pole on a village green for dancing around on May mornings.

The ambassador also appears not even to be properly informed as to the matter in hand. He states that the UK prison cancelled a consultancy contract with Saudi Arabia worth £5.9m. In fact, the contract was not yet in place. It had not been signed because the Saudis had not yet awarded the contract to the UK – even though the final bid had been in April and the Saudis had still not made their decision by October (the intention was that the contract was to have been awarded by July).

What was cancelled was not a contract, but a contract bid. But such details do not matter to the ambassador, even though he is mounting threats on the back of what he says has happened.

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Ever since the Saudis pressed the UK in 2006 to drop the fraud investigation of BAe (read the first 22 paragraphs of the House of Lords’ 2008 Corner House decision for a chilling account of this dreadful incident) it has been obvious to anyone who wants to see what the influence of the Saudis is over the UK state by holding the twin swords of commerce and intelligence close to our necks.

So used are the Saudis in routinely threatening that “co-operation” will be at risk that various UK bodies not directly connected with foreign affairs – the Home Office, the MoJ, the College of Policing, and even the Information Commissioner (as I set out in a post earlier this month) – are all too scared even to reveal minor details of the relationships, lest the Saudis retaliate.

Against this backdrop, the decision of the Prime Minister earlier this month has caused a jolt in UK-Saudi relations. It may well be that something substantial has changed; or it may be that the old practices will resume.

But what is new is that Saudi diplomats have now taken to the pages of the British press to display their displeasure, and to make explicit in the media what they want the UK to believe is at stake. To do this, however, does not indicate Saudi strength but insecurity; it means what was said behind closed doors is no longer sufficient.

The blustering and bullying is now in the public square, and this cannot be undone; everyone can see the Saudis for what they are.

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