Dear Mr Gove, bad Ministry of Justice policy making has not gone away

4th April 2016

Another policy failure of the Ministry of Justice becomes apparent: over at the Law Society Gazette, John Hyde has detailed how the MoJ has collected only a small proportion of the criminal courts charge.

The charge has now been terminated; but the underlying problem remains: the MoJ is simply not any good at policy making and policy implementation.

The MoJ adopts a policy, usually without assessing evidence or even thinking things through, and it then “presses on” with the policy regardless of onlookers pointing out that, well, the policy will not work.

The policy is then eventually reversed.

This is not just a one-off; the cycle of policy adoption-failure-reversal has been a feature of the MoJ for as long as one can remember.

Michael Gove has been Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor for less than a year. He has started well as the ministerial head of the department, and he has been savvy enough to work out ways of ending most of his predecessors more idiotic policies.

To go by the political news, however, it seems like Gove is now becoming preoccupied with the upcoming “Brexit” referendum vote.

The worry is that Gove somehow thinks the problem of crap MoJ policy making has been solved. and that he is thereby free to concentrate on other political matters.

The problem has not been solved; as not being any good at policy making and implementation (whilst arrogantly ignoring anyone pointing this out) is the natural state of the MoJ.

Without a careful eye, bad policy making will return.

And, if so, Gove will no longer have the luxury of focusing on Breixt or even the Tory leadership succession.

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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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Regular blogging at Jack of Kent is made possible by the kind sponsorship of Hammicks Legal Information Services.  

If you value this this blog and its free content, please do two things.

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Second, please subscribe for alerts for my new posts at Jack of Kent and the FT, and anywhere else.  Just submit your email address in the “Subscribe” box on this page.  Twitter and other social media platforms may not always be around – and so by subscribing you will get alerts for my posts.

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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Falconer refers the MoJ’s criminal legal aid fiasco to the National Audit Office

1st February 2016

The shadow Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer has today referred the Ministry of Justice’s aborted criminal legal aid “reforms” to the National Audit Office for investigation.

Below is a copy of the letter which was sent today.

 

Dear Sir Amyas,

I write to ask the National Audit Office, as the body responsible for scrutinising public spending on behalf of Parliament, to investigate the decision by the Ministry of Justice to pursue its policy of consolidating the criminal legal aid services market through a model known as “dual-contracting”, as well as the Legal Aid Agency’s (“LAA”) handling of the procurement process for the introduction of Own Client and Duty Provider Crime Contracts.

The Government’s proposals for legal aid were first consulted on in June 2013 in the document Transforming Legal Aid: Delivering a more credible and efficient system[1].

As a result of fierce opposition to some of the Government’s plans, the Justice Secretary came before the House of Commons on 5 September 2013 and announced that there would be a further consultation, Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps[2], in relation to two of the original proposals, those to introduce competitive tendering and proposed reforms to criminal advocacy fees.

On 27 February 2014, the Government unveiled its final package of criminal legal aid reforms, which included staged cuts of 17.5% and the introduction of a dual contracting model[3].

There has been considerable opposition to the Government’s proposals and the decision to commence a tender process for 527 Duty Provider Work contracts was the subject of judicial review proceedings.

In March 2015, the LAA set new deadlines for crime duty tender contracts following the Court of Appeal’s decision to dismiss the Law Society and practitioner groups’ challenge.

In June 2015, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Courts and Legal Aid, Shailesh Vara MP, published a Written Statement confirming that the government would press ahead with the second 8.75% reduction to litigators’ fees and with the new duty provider contracts[4].

Shortly afterwards, practitioner groups commenced a nationwide boycott of legal aid work under what they describe as ‘derisory’ new rates.  This was suspended after 52 days of protest as a gesture of goodwill following talks with the Lord Chancellor and MoJ officials.

Criminal legal aid firms found out whether they were successful in their bids for new contracts in October 2015.

The procurement process for the new duty provider contracts has been mired in chaos and controversy from its inception.

After repeated delays in announcing the tender results and reports of errors, two separate whistle-blowers – Freddie Hurlston and Paul Staples – came forward alleging that the process had been “shambolic and unprofessional”, with bids being handled by inexperienced, temporary staff and staff being put under pressure.[5]

Despite denials by Ministers, a response from Shailesh Vara MP to questions tabled by Karl Turner MP revealed that almost twenty per cent of the assessment team were temporary staff and that staff working on the bids were not required to have procurement experience.[6]

Following these allegations, the president of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers, wrote to the Chairs of the Justice Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee expressing concerns that the process had not been robust and calling for an independent review[7].

 A judicial review, sought by the Fair Crime Contracts Alliance, has been launched which was due to open on 7 April and a hearing into more than a hundred individual procurement law challenges was due to begin on 3 May.

On 13 November, the LAA was forced to announce that services under the new contracts, scheduled to start on 11 January, would now start on 1 April 2016[8].

Following speculation at the start of January 2016 that the court action would cease and that the Government would drop its plans, the Law Society asked the LAA to clarify its plans. The LAA maintained that there had been no change in policy[9].   

 On 28 January, the Secretary of State for Justice, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, announced via a Written Ministerial Statement that the Government had decided not to go ahead with the introduction of the dual contracting system and to suspend, for a period of 12 months from 1 April 2016, the second fee cut[10].

This is a significant change in policy and one that has taken place very late in the day. Not only will many criminal law firms will have already taken decisions either to expand or to cut staff based on their success in the bidding process but much time and expenditure is likely to have already been spent by the MoJ and the LAA. In addition, the Government has so far ignored calls – by the Law Society and the Labour party – for an independent review of the procurement process.

For the reasons set out above, I hope you will agree that the NAO has an important role to play in ensuring that the interests of the taxpayers have been properly safeguarded in this case.

I copy this letter to the Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier MP.

[1] See https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/transforming-legal-aid

[2] See https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/transforming-legal-aid-next-steps

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/transforming-legal-aid-government-response

[4] http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-vote-office/June%202015/10%20June/2.Justice-Legal%20Aid.pdf

[5] http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/law/whistleblower-claims-legal-aid-contracting-process-flawed/5051581.fullarticle; http://www.legalvoice.org.uk/2015/11/13/duty-tender-shambolic-and-unprofessional-says-second-laa-whistleblower/

[6] http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2015-10-29.14001.h&s=speaker%3A24767+section%3Awrans#g14001.q0

[7] http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/society-calls-for-independent-review-of-duty-contract-procurement/5052209.fullarticle

[8] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/crime-news-provision-of-criminal-legal-aid-services-from-11-january-2016

[9] http://www.solicitorsjournal.com/news/crime/funding-legal-aid/25215/law-society-seeks-clarity-legal-aid-contract-procurement-process

[10] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/changes-to-criminal-legal-aid-contracting

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Just Solutions International caused a £1.1 million loss to the Ministry of Justice

29th January 2016

It now can be revealed that “Just Solutions International” – the Ministry of Justice commercial venture promoted by former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling – caused an overall £1.1 million LOSS to the MoJ.

JSI was closed by Grayling’s successor Michael Gove last October.

From a National Audit Report [Edit: Now Online]:

The total income generated by JSi was less than £1 million. The main contracts delivered by NOMS, under the JSi brand, between 2012 and 2015 were for training Royal Oman Police officers (£255,000), consultancy on prison design in Libya (£128,000) and contracts in Nigeria (£130,000), Australia (£89,000) and the Seychelles (£34,000).

The cost of setting up JSi exceeded the income generated by completed contracts. We estimate that JSi’s costs were approximately £2.1 million from 2012 until its closure, including £239,000 on consultancy services. Therefore JSi made a net loss of approximately £1.1 million in this period. This is due, in part, to the decision to withdraw from prospective arrangements with Saudi Arabia and Oman. 

The NAO has now provided this press release:

Investigation into Just Solutions International

The National Audit Office (NAO) has published the findings from its investigation into Just Solutions International (JSi), which was the commercial arm of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). JSi aimed to help improve justice systems across the world by selling products and consultancy services. In September 2015 the Ministry of Justice announced the closure of JSi. Shortly after this announcement the NAO received correspondence raising concerns around the transparency of JSi’s activities and requesting that we investigate.
The key findings of this investigation are as follows:

· Just Solutions International (JSi) was created in 2012 to exploit commercial opportunities arising from National Offender Management Service (NOMS) activities relating to IT, training and consultancy services. The target market was primarily overseas governments originally facilitated through the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) then directly with overseas governments from 2014. JSi aimed to make a commercial return on work contracted from overseas governments.

· JSi was established as a brand within the NOMS Commercial Development Group (CDG) after the NOMS board rejected a proposal to establish JSi as a company. A number of consultants were engaged from 2010 to 2014 to undertake pilots and develop business cases that formed the basis of JSi.

· In establishing JSi, NOMS followed the current guidance from HM Treasury, the National Archives and the Cabinet Office where this guidance was available. The Cabinet Office guidance is limited because it does not cover the question of whether a company is the most appropriate form for new operations.

· The total income generated by JSi was less than £1 million. The main contracts delivered by NOMS, under the JSi brand, between 2012 and 2015 were for training Royal Oman Police officers (£255,000), consultancy on prison design in Libya (£128,000) and contracts in Nigeria (£130,000), Australia (£89,000) and the Seychelles (£34,000).

· The cost of setting up JSi exceeded the income generated by completed contracts. The NAO estimate that JSi’s costs were approximately £2.1 million from 2012 until its closure, including £239,000 on consultancy services. Therefore JSi made a net loss of approximately £1.1 million in this period. This is due, in part, to the decision to withdraw from prospective arrangements with Saudi Arabia and Oman. The NAO also note that had JSi not been created, NOMS would have committed funding to support wider international engagement with countries to support FCO and wider Government objectives.

· In September 2015 the Secretary of State for Justice closed JSi and decided not to pursue any commercial activities in Oman. In October 2015 JSi withdrew from the bid for work with Saudi Arabia. This followed the launch of a judicial review into JSi and significant media and political interest in the proposed work with Saudi Arabia. There were no financial penalties for withdrawing from contract negotiations with Saudi Arabia.

· JSi is now closed and NOMS does not plan to perform further work for overseas governments on a commercial basis. NOMS will continue to receive visits and requests for assistance from overseas governments through FCO and other UK departments for the achievement of cross-government objectives.

Notes for Editors

1. This report is a National Audit Office Investigation. The NAO conducts investigations to establish the underlying facts in circumstances where concerns have been raised with us, or in response to intelligence that we have gathered through our wider work.

2. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at the NAO’s website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

3. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 810 people. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally. Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services, and our work led to audited savings of £1.15 billion in 2014.

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The damning Commons justice committee report on the criminal courts charge

20th November 2015

One of the most illiberal and misconceived measures adopted by the Ministry of Justice – perhaps by any government department in recent years – was the criminal courts charge.

Today the Commons justice committee has published a short but critical report. You should read it – the web version is here and a PDF is here.

The MoJ cannot easily ignore this; and it may be that is the point.  It is very helpful for a Tory-majority select committee to give “cover” to the MoJ in reversing this measure.  Indeed, you can easily imagine the polite conversation:

“Hello Bob”

– “Hello Michael.”

“Thank you for taking my call, Bob. Very kind. How are you?”

– “In good form Michael, mustn’t grumble. How are you?”

“I am well, thank you ever so much for asking. So thoughtful of you.  But I do need a little help. Dreadful policy inherited from Chris. We need to shift it, but we do need some cover.”

[Pause.]

– “I know, perhaps a damning report?”

“What a great idea, Bob, oh yes please. I knew you would think of something.”

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I am certain no such conversation actually took place (and I am only being satirical).  The charge is so awful that being critical of it needs no external influence.

And if the MoJ does now proceed with the charge’s abolition (or fundamental change) then – following the MoJ’s delay last week of the botched criminal legal aid procurement – it would seem that almost every distinctive policy of Grayling at MoJ has now been reversed or improved.

 

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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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Michael Gove “picks a fight” over the MoJ’s Saudi contract bid: the background

13th October 2015

The overnight news was dramatic: the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, has “picked a fight” in Cabinet.

And the subject of this political spat?

It would appear that it is the commercial bid by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to assist the prison service of Saudi Arabia, something I have been blogging about here and at the FT since January.

This post sets out the general background to this political development: in essence, everything you need to know.

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The overnight news

The story broke in the Times, with a page one news feature and a (very) well-informed opinion piece inside.

The front page of the print edition (hat-tip Nick Sutton):

20510 Times3

And here is what the online story looks like:

201510 Times2

And the opinion piece:

201510 Times1

(Please now click and read the originals if you can, even it involves paying: journalism costs money, whatever its source.)

The key facts in the Times story are as follows:

– there is a “cabinet row” between Gove and Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary;

– Gove has demanded the MoJ commercial bid be scrapped;

– Gove has circulated a memorandum to this effect;

– the dispute was raised at a meeting of the “National Security Council”

– the Prime Minister has had to determine the dispute, and has insisted that the commercial bid go ahead;

– Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, supports Gove;

– Hammond warned that cancelling the deal would make the UK look an untrustworthy ally;

– and so, in summary, the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister have overruled the MoJ.

The Opinion piece repeats these facts, and adds the following detail:

“There was a robust exchange of views,” says a Whitehall source who has seen the letters. “The MoJ had human rights concerns; the Foreign Office felt this would have far bigger ramifications.” Downing Street ruled that the Ministry of Justice must honour its bid. Unless something changes, Mr Gove will sign the contract any day now and British civil servants will spend six months working with one of the most barbaric prison systems in the world.”

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The “commercial bid” of the MoJ

So what is this about?

[Most of the information below is contained in and sourced in these previous posts: FT, January 2015Jack of Kent, February 2015,  FT, September 2015Jack of Kent, October 2015, and FT, October 2015 (yesterday).]

The “commercial bid” of the MoJ to assist with the Saudi prison service was one of a number of transactions proposed by a group of MoJ civil servants who called themselves “Just Solutions international” (or “JSi” complete with gimmicky lower-case “i”).

JSi was established in 2012, when Kenneth Clarke was Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, but it developed rapidly under his successor (and Gove’s predecessor) Chris Grayling.

The idea was that JSi would sell “expert” services to foreign governments in return for cash on a “commercial” (as opposed to a costs) basis.  The MoJ would thereby make money from the transactions.

Involved in the creation and promotion of JSi was PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The proposed Saudi contract was first mentioned (in passing) in a MoJ report to Parliament in December 2014.  That in turn was brought to the attention of David Hencke, who broke the story in January 2015.

The MoJ under Grayling continued with the bid (despite the public criticism), putting a final bid in around April 2015.

In May 2015, after the general election, Gove replaced Grayling.  Gove then quickly reverses a number of Grayling’s policies: see Joshua Rozenberg here.

In September 2015, the MoJ announced it is closing down JSi, but also that the Saudi commercial bid was too advanced to be stopped.

After a bit of digging, I was able to establish that one reason then given by the MoJ for not dropping the bid – “financial penalties” – was invalid (and this led to an amendment of the September announcement to parliament).  The MoJ then confirmed it had to continue with the bid because of the “wider interests” of the government.  Alan White at Buzzfeed reveals that MoJ (and Gove) wanted to drop the bid but could not.

At this stage, therefore, there was obvious tension between government departments. Tension is not new, of course.

But what then electrified the situation is that at the end of September 2015, the new Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn mentions the bid in his conference speech.

Corbyn demanded of the Prime Minister:

“And while you’re about it, terminate that bid made by our Ministry of Justice’s to provide services for Saudi Arabia – which would be required to carry out the sentence that would be put down on Mohammed Ali al-Nimr.”

And that in turn is the immediate background to the overnight news.

So: an issue of “reverse public procurement” (ie, public bodies seeking to sell goods and services) in a relatively small government department (in spending terms) leads to a political fight between the holders of two great offices of state – the Lord Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary – which the Prime Minister then has had to resolve in the face of criticism from the Leader of the Opposition.

And then someone tells the Times about this happening.

*

Assessing the overnight news

Things do not end up on the front page of the Times by accident.

There are reasons why this story has hit mainstream media in this well-informed way, and in the manner it has.

The details of the contract bid, or the MoJ’s recent opposition to continuing with it, are not news.  It has previously been covered in detail by David Hencke, by me here and at the FT, and by Alan White at Buzzfeed.  It was not of particular interest to political correspondents and columnists.

What has converted it to front page news is that the bid and the MoJ’s opposition has become the stuff of a cabinet split.  One can guess who would benefit from such a story.

What appears to be the situation (and here I am only going on what is in the public domain) is that the issue is of natural interest to Gove (I do not doubt his sincerity in not liking this Saudi bid) but that it also is a useful political tool for him to use.

Gove did not have to close down JSi – the fact he did shows his general disdain for selling MoJ services to foreign despots, even though it shut off a potentially lucrative revenue stream to a cash-starved department.

It is also clear that the Saudi bid would have been stopped but for pressure from the Foreign Office.

And so it also serves Gove as a political weapon: it is reminiscent of how Gove used the faith school issue in Birmingham when he was Education Secretary.

Whatever the political realities of the matter, one thing is plain: the MoJ should never have got itself into the misconceived and illiberal position of making commercial bids to sell UK state services to repressive regimes.

Nothing good was to come of it.

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