Ultra Virus – the constitutionality and legality of the Coronavirus Regulations

8th April 2020

The Coronavirus Regulations are the law of the land, and as they are the law of the land they must be obeyed, and the reason we have emergency laws is because of emergencies, and this is an emergency.

That sentence is there because there is a sense among some legal commentators that they cannot either comment critically on these regulations or even comment at all, lest some idiot takes the criticism to mean that the laws should not be obeyed.

In my view, however, such quietism and self-censorship may be more irresponsible than any constructive criticism.

At a time of emergency, the scrutiny of emergency laws is vital.

The law still needs to be obeyed when it is in force, even if there are processes for challenging it.

And so it is on this basis that this post sets out the constitutional and legal issues of the Regulations, further to previous posts on this blog (for example here and here).

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One way of critically approaching the Regulations is to look carefully at whether they accord with the parent legislation.

This is because the Regulations are secondary legislation – in this case, a statutory instrument – that only have legal effect (“vires”) to the extent that they are within the scope of the primary legislation, in this case, the Public Health Act 1984.

(Note that although the Act itself was passed in 1984, it has been heavily amended since, and so the relevant provisions for this discussion do not necessarily date back to 1984.)

At the august and influential UK Constitutional Law Blog, the outstanding legal scholar Jeff King has in two posts (here and here) setting out why he sees the Regulations as within the scope of the law.

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Others looking at the detail of the parent legislation take a different view, and they aver that the Regulations may be outside the scope of the parent Act (see here and here).

And Lord Anderson QC, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation and an authority on emergency legislation, has also set out his doubts, and concludes (with elegant and careful wording):

“In summary, the impact on personal liberty in Regulation 6 goes right up to the limit of what is permitted under its parent statute, and arguably beyond. An ultra vires challenge would attract strong arguments in both directions. Ultimately, however, a court which is minded to uphold it as valid has, as it seems to me, a plausible legal argument for doing so.”

In other words: there are plausible grounds that a court may quash parts of the Regulations.

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As the head of this post sets out, the Regulations are the law of the land and must be obeyed.

The Regulations (or any part of them) would, however, cease to be the law of the land if a court of competent jurisdiction quashed the Regulations (or any part of them).

The possibility of this does not mean that, in the meantime, the laws cease to have effect – it means that there is a possibility that a court may one day take a different view.

And this is the case with any secondary legislation (and with any government action or inaction).

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So if there is scope for questioning the legality of the Regulations, what can be usefully said about the constitutionality of the Regulations?

In a sense this is a difficult area, as there is no codified constitution in the United Kingdom and to say something is “unconstitutional” is often not to say anything meaningful at all.

But there is a worrying constitutional feature about the Regulations which the approaches set out above, which focus on statutory construction and interpretation, to an extent overlook.

The Regulations have not had any parliamentary scrutiny or sanction.

They were given effect after Parliament was in recess.

The Regulations restrict or remove fundamental rights, including freedom of movement and freedom of association.

The Regulations create wide-ranging criminal offences.

In the two Miller cases, the Supreme Court ruled against two attempts by the United Kingdom government to do drastic things by ministerial fiat – to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union and to close down parliament for five weeks without any reasonable basis.

In both cases the Supreme Court, rightly, decided that something that fundamental should be decided and endorsed by parliament.

In the case of the Regulations, the government could have included the provisions in the Coronavirus Act, but chose not to do so.

And the government could (and, in my view, should) have used the Civil Contingencies Act, which has several built in safeguards and a supervision regime, but again chose not to do so.

Instead, the government chose to use the Public Health Act which even commentators who say that the Regulations are lawful accept is a bit of a shoehorn.

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My view is that they very decision to use the Public Health Act, rather than primary legislation (which parliament would vote on) or the Civil Contingencies Act (which gives parliament a defined supervisory role) is a decision which can be questioned both in terms of its constitutional propriety and indeed its accordance with public law principles.

The Regulations are to be reviewed shortly, and this blog yesterday put forward some modest proposals for taking the illiberal edge off from the provisions.

But there is a more fundamental question of ensuring that legislation that removes or restricts fundamental freedoms has parliamentary (and thereby democratic) approval.

Law not only should have authority – but ultimately also legitimacy.

The Regulations convert almost all normal social behaviour into anti-social behaviour, punishable as criminal offences.

Such upheavals should have democratic sanction, just as any other upheaval like leaving the European Union or closing down parliament.

And it is not “irresponsible” to point this out – indeed, it seems to me irresponsible to pretend this is not of any urgent concern.

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What is the Bindmans challenge to the Coronavirus government guidance about?

3rd April 2020

The law firm Bindmans are bringing a challenge to the government guidance that a person can only leave where they live once a day for exercise and that exercise should be local.

If just reading of such a challenge means you have already formed A Strong Opinion that you now want to type, then this really is not the blogpost for you: other websites are available, and your comment below the line here will not be published.

This post instead sets out the problem and the applicable law, so that you can form a view based on the available information and the applicable law.

As a preliminary point, please note that this is a legal challenge to government guidance – and not to the Coronavirus Regulations themselves.

Formal government guidance – in effect, policy – can be challenged (in general terms) at the High Court if it is contrary to the law, or is unfair, or is disproportionate in its impact.

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According to Bindmans, the relevant facts are as follows:

“[There are] two families with children with autistic spectrum disorder whose conditions necessitate them leaving the house more than once day for their own well-being.

“One child in particular is deliberately taken to a quiet location that is not local to them, because of their particular needs and where there is a far more limited risk of infection than if he were to remain in an urban environment.”

Bindmans then explain the problem:

“The requirement that everyone is now only able to leave once a day (and can only travel locally) makes it very difficult for these families to be able to manage their children’s high needs and promote their well-being, during a time when lots of disabled people are simultaneously struggling with reduced support from external agencies.  

“Keeping them in urban environments also increases the risk of infection of them and others given they are unable to understand social distancing rules.”

Any sensible person reading this would accept that this is a practical problem and, in such circumstances, the parents should be able to take their child to a quiet location.

There would be no direct public health problems in doing so, and the families would comply with the guidance on social distancing – indeed the child is less likely to infect or be infected.

But a sensible view is one thing, what is the legal case?

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Again, the legal challenge is to the guidance not the Regulations.

The guidance is being challenged because, if interpreted and applied by the police to the Regulations, it could lead to the parents facing criminal liability under the Coronavirus Regulations.

What the parents seek to do is, on the face of it, permitted under the letter of the Coronavirus Regulations – but if the police construe the Regulations in accordance with the government guidance then fixed penalty notices, prosecutions, fines, criminal convictions and criminal records could follow.

The solicitors aver that the guidance disproportionately affect fundamental rights :

“The social distancing measures being put in place by Government are clearly important, but they cannot be used to disproportionately interfere in the rights of those with protected characteristics, particularly those with mental illness, autism or similar conditions that necessitate leaving the house more than once per day. 

“Such rights can clearly co-exist with the health measures being put in place and Parliament clearly did not think it necessary to impose the once per day restriction arbitrarily introduced by the Government. 

“It is essential the Government needs to rethink this restrictive policy and allow appropriate flexibility where it is necessary and justified.”

The main legal basis of the challenge seems to be that the guidance contradicts the protections of the Equality Act 2010 (as well as under the Human Rights Act 1998).

Relevant here is that the mental health is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.

A person protected characteristic has legal protection against direct and indirect discrimination (and the discrimination here would be indirect).

Any such discrimination then is subject to the four stage test under section 19(2) of the Equality Act.  

In particular, are those who are disabled (the term in the statute) placed at a  disadvantage?

There can be no doubt of this.

And so does the guidance go further than is necessary to protect the relevant public policy goal, that here would be the protection of public health in the current coronavirus emergency?

In my view, the guidance is disproportionate in two ways.

First, as long as the affected families comply with social distancing measures, then the public policy goal is unaffected.

And second, there does not need a complete change to the guidance to address this problem, just a further exception for those with relevant physical and mental health issues so they are able to take more exercise and to be travel further than their locality, when necessary.

Such a modified approach would still comply with the Coronavirus Regulations, and it would not affect the position of the greater number of people.

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The government is expected to respond today or tomorrow, and it may be that the government modifies its guidance to address these concerns.

But if the government does not shift its position then the next step would be a formal legal challenge.

The current emergency does not mean that the law of the land has been jettisoned – the EqualityAct and other laws are still in force – and there is certainly nothing wrong with the government being held to account by the courts at this time.

And if those protected by the Equality Act are facing practical discrimination that goes further than the goal of dealing with the current public health emergency, then it is right that their legal rights be protected and enforced.

**

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The extraordinary legal situation of the Coronavirus lock-down

30th March 2020

There is a public health emergency in England as there is in the rest of the world, and so it is essential that emergency public health laws be in place.

Nothing should gainsay that simple proposition, and nothing in this post should be taken as opposing the imposition of public health law in the current emergency.

That is why emergency public health laws exist.

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Yet, we should take a moment to reflect the extraordinary legal situation that we are now in.

Three fundamental freedoms – freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of worship – have all been abolished for six months by a statutory instrument which has been neither scrutinised nor voted on by members of parliament.

The freedom to conduct business or be self-employed also has been either severely curtailed or effectively removed by the same means.

Under Regulation 6(1), it is even now a criminal offence to leave your own home, unless (in effect) the police are satisfied you have a reasonable excuse.

The whole country is thereby (in effect) under house arrest.

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The police, in turn, have been given wide powers to enforce these regulations, including the use of coercive force.

And in turn, again, the police are interpreting these wide powers even more widely, with roadblocks, drones, and a made-up restriction on “essential travel”.

The police are also encouraging people to snitch on each other.

On social media there are accusation and counter-accusation, as neighbours turn on each other.

People are afraid of the police, and increasingly of each other.

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Those with mental health problems, and those in abusive households, are being made to feel that the law means that they have to stay inside.

This is actually not the case at law.

The Regulations provides scope for leaving the house for such important reasons.

One can hardly dare imagine what is now happening behind closed doors, with vulnerable people believing (wrongly) that the law prevents them escaping.

And one must dread the real consequences of this.

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And all this is on top of the fact that all electronic means of us communicating each other are – in principle – subject to interception and surveillance laws.

This means that everything being communicated between citizens – is in principle – open to the government to monitor.

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If it were not for this public health emergency, this situation would be the legal dream of the worst modern tyrant.

Everybody under control, every social movement or association prohibited, every electronic communication subject to surveillance.

This would be an unthinkable legal situation for any free society.

Of course, the public health emergency takes absolute priority.

But we also should not be blind to the costs.

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Thinking about emergency legislation

22nd March 2020

The current coronavirus pandemic is a public health emergency and, as with any emergency, there can be the need for emergency legislation.

By definition, there is not often the need for emergency legislation (or, at least, there should not be), and so emergency legislation is not something that often needs to be considered.

Now in the United Kingdom the government is bringing forward emergency legislation.

There is a bill before parliament that will be enacted in days.

And yesterday there was a statutory instrument issued under public health legislation.

Both instruments raise particular issues, but rather than dealing with the detail of the provisions, this post asks what can be usefully said about emergency legislation generally.

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Emergency legislation is, of itself, a good thing.

This may seem trite and obvious, but the existence of emergency legislation means that those responsible for dealing with an emergency are doing so in accordance with the rule of law.

Emergency legislation means that even though there are exceptional and dangerous challenges, the government is still wanting to place their actions on a lawful basis.

And by doing so, it means in turn that in principle those adversely affected by the legislation have (or should have) the ability to challenge decisions made under it – though in practice this may well be difficult.

There may be an emergency, but (at least in theory) the rule of law is still in place.

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Emergency legislation, however, should be exceptional.

This means that once the emergency is over then the legislation should lapse.

It also means that the legislation should not be used for purposes other than dealing with the emergency.

A genuine fear is that emergency legislation, once enacted, is too convenient for a government to then let go.

And for the executive-minded, any emergency – whether regarding terrorism, public health or anything else – can be the pretext for an executive power grab.

Never let a good crisis go to waste, as the saying goes.

But the prospect that the emergency powers can be abused is not a reason for the powers not to granted for their proper purpose.

(The “thin end of the wedge” argument is often a substitute for thought.)

Emergency powers need to be time-limited and subject to judicial review and democratic supervision.

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Most importantly, emergency legislation also has to be useful.

All because there is an emergency, it does not necessarily follow there is a need for emergency legislation.

The executive already has wide legal powers.

There are already many public health and related statutes.

There is always the risk of a “something must be done” sentiment meaning that emergency legislation is enacted just because something needs to be seen to be done – like an assertion of political virility.

Every piece of emergency legislation should make a difference and be relevant to the emergency faced, as well as going no further than required or lasting longer than is needed.

In other words: emergency legislation should always be necessary and proportionate.

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In technical terms, much emergency legislation falls into two categories:

– first, to provide a legal basis for the government to do a particular thing that it would otherwise not be able to do at law; and

– second, to remove a legal restriction that would otherwise mean the government cannot do a particular thing at law. 

In both situations, the legal status quo may be there for a reason – that parliament and the courts have provided for settled legal arrangements for what can and cannot happen in usual, happier, non-emergency times.

Emergency legislation is thereby a sudden interruption to these settled legal arrangements, for a specific urgent reason.

So when you look at a piece of legislation, you can see clauses that suspend some legal powers and clauses that create other legal powers.

But in both cases the three questions to be asked are the same:

– is that change necessary for the purpose of the particular emergency?

– does that change go further (and last longer) than necessary for this particular emergency?

– what are the safeguards against abuse?

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That the government is bringing forward emergency legislation to deal with an emergency is to be welcomed – for that is why emergency laws exist or should exist.

And a government seeking to enact such legislation should have nothing to fear from anxious scrutiny.

But if there are genuine concerns that the laws are not necessary, or go further or last longer than required, or do not have safeguards against abuse, then those concerns should not be shouted down with “don’t you know there is a virus (or a war) on”.

Emergency legislation is for emergencies only – and proper scrutiny, like the rule of law, should never be suspended.

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Brexit: the end of the beginning

2nd March 2020

If Brexit were a boxset, we are now about the start of season two.

The first season, of course, had a story of its own: a referendum that did not need to be held, leading to a result that was not expected (or anticipated), resulting in a departure on withdrawal terms few positively wanted.

(It is difficult to think that we are still within what would have been the five-year term of the 2015 parliament, where David Cameron had a good Commons majority elected on a manifesto that included a commitment that the United Kingdom be at the heart of the European Union single market.)

Now the United Kingdom is outside the European Union (let alone the single market) as a matter of law, even if the terms of the withdrawal agreement will make it a Brexit in name only until (at least) the end of this year.

Certain elements of the withdrawal agreement – on citizenship, financial contributions, and on a range of technical matters – will endure beyond the transition period.  

Accordingly the threat of “no deal” at the end of this transition period is not as drastic as it would have been had there been no deal for the departure itself.

The scope of issues to be agreed (or at least capable of being agreed) is narrower than before the withdrawal agreement.

What is now to be negotiated (or not) is the future relationship beyond the end of the transition agreement.

One way of following this is by the heady heated excitement of political commentary, where one can form two different views a day (or an hour, if you are on Twitter) on any relevant issue.

And the politics of Brexit are crucial – it is only by understanding the politics of Brexit that you will understand why otherwise incomprehensible decisions are taken and daft unsustainable positions adopted.

But politics is not the only way of understanding Brexit – and a politics-only approach is itself limited and will miss many things.

For along with the pomp and propaganda, there is process.

And the process is about arriving (if possible) at an agreed text.

And a process which is intended to end with an agreed text tends, if the parties are taking it seriously, with a number of preliminary texts.

And it is by having regard to the texts and the process that one can (often) understand where Brexit is going and not going.

Again – form and structure are not everything – but they can provide the situations against which politicians and the media then react.

The two key texts for this negotiation are the negotiation guidelines of the European Union and the United Kingdom’s Command Paper on the those negotiations.

Of course, these are opening positions – but this does not mean they are trivial and can be dismissed.

On the European Union side especially, thought will have gone into what they want to achieve in the final text, and the guidelines will have been compiled by thinking backwards from what they want to achieve with that final text.

And in respect of the withdrawal agreement, early texts of the European Union can be seen as leading directly to final positions.

Remember: this is not the European Union’s first rodeo: they have the valuable experience of negotiations over Grexit, and of association agreements and free trade agreements.

This does not mean they are always right, or that that they will prevail, but to the extent that experience provides an advantage, the European Union will have the benefit.

Against this process-minded approach, there will be the temptation for those supporting the United Kingdom government to adopt again the bluster and silliness that was a feature of the exit negotiations.

Given the membership of the cabinet, that is a real risk.

So it is a relief that the United Kingdom’s Command Paper on the upcoming negotiations is a serious and not a silly document.

And with the two parties prepared (if unevenly) for the negotiations, and as both parties want an agreement (if possible), the second season of the Brexit boxset can begin.

It may well be that the second season will be yet more exciting (and scary) then the first season – but at least we (and the parties) will be ware of how the first season went.

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The moral hazard of the United Kingdom casually breaching the Political Declaration

27th February 2020

The Political Declaration is a formal, negotiated document agreed between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

You can see the document here, hosted on the United Kingdom’s own website – all 31 pages of detailed prose, over 141 numbered paragraphs.

It is a serious document, to be taken seriously.

The United Kingdom government says itself on its website:

“The new Political Declaration sets out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom and reflects the Government’s ambition to conclude an ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership across trade and economic cooperation with the EU, with a free trade agreement with the EU at its core, alongside agreements on security and other areas of cooperation.”

The Political Declaration, however, is not legally binding.

And there is now a suggestion that the United Kingdom government can and should disregard the commitments set out in the Political Declaration.

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There have been, broadly, two responses to the United Kingdom government apparent desire to breach the terms of the Political Declaration.

The first is first is to say that as the Political Declaration is not binding then it does not matter if it is breached, casually or otherwise.

The second is to say that the Political Declaration is a formal and negotiated document, and that it does matter if it is breached.

These two views appear to be be in conflict to the point of contradiction.  

And if they are in conflict then the question becomes which is the better view.

The two responses are not actually in conflict as they are dealing with different things: there is therefore no hard contradiction.

But the better view is that the Political Declaration should be taken seriously – even if it is not binding.

Indeed, that the Political Declaration is not binding makes it more important that the government takes it seriously.

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What does it mean for a formal commitment to be “binding”?

Not all formally negotiated documents are (legally) “binding” – so what is it which gives them this quality.

In general terms “binding” means that there are formal sanctions available in the event of the breach.

These sanctions may not necessarily require the party in breach to specifically perform the commitment.

The sanction may be that the other party can terminate the agreement, or that there is some remedy or benefit for the other party.

But whatever the sanction, the notion is that the agreed commitment can be enforced against the party in breach so that the other party does not suffer the disadvantage of the breach.

Making a commitment (legally) binding is one way of showing that the party undertaking the commitment is being serious.

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In foreign affairs and international politics, however, a preoccupation with whether a formal serious commitment is “binding” or not is in good part a legalistic red herring.

A serious formal commitment is intended to be taken seriously and formally: that is its very point.

And this is regardless of whether it is technically “binding”.

Resiling from an obligation on the technicality that it is not legally binding is not to take such a commitment seriously.

(A useful comparator are the United Kingdom’s pre-Brexit financial commitments to the European Union – there were question marks over whether they were legally binding – how could they be litigated? which court? – but this was not the point: the United Kingdom had made a commitment and was expected to stick to it.)

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All this said, there may be a good reason for a country to depart from a formal serious undertaking.

And both the United Kingdom and the European Union knew that the Political Declaration was not (legally) enforceable.

Both sides accepted it could and would be departed from, in certain circumstances.

The crucial question would be: how and on what basis?

And in this way, the Political Declaration is, in effect, a test for a post-Brexit United Kingdom.

How seriously does the United Kingdom take non-binding commitments and assurances?

Do the words matter?

The less seriously the United Kingdom takes non-binding commitments, the stronger the signal to the European Union that anything important needs to be tied down in strict legal provisions.

This is why the daft posturing of the United Kingdom about casually breaking the the Political Declaration matters.

It matters as much, if not more, than if the Political Declaration was “binding”.

In effect: the Unite Kingdom is sending a signal of “don’t trust us, insist on strict legal obligations”.

And this signal is not just being sent to European Union – the signal is now being broadcast to every nation in world, to all the countries where, post-Brexit, United Kingdom may want to have “trade agreements”.

The United Kingdom may think it is saying to EU “screw you” but in fact it is telling the world “screw us”.

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Brexit was an opportunity for the United Kingdom to show the world how serious it was about having an independent trade policy.

Instead, the United Kingdom keeps showing the world how lacking in seriousness it is in entering international commitments

One day this lesson of moral hazard will be learned – if not by current ministers then it will be understood by future ones.

But that may be too late, as something important will already have been lost, and it will be hard to regain.

The United Kingdom government is still not taking Brexit seriously.

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The discharge of the mandate – the real significance of Brexit Day, 31st January 2020

31st January 2020

Today is the last day of the United Kingdom being a member state of the European Union – at least for some time, if not forever.

That said, there is remarkably little that will change immediately.

This is thanks to the selfless and deft actions of many Members of Parliament – many of whom no longer have seats – in ensuring the United Kingdom averted a “no deal” Brexit.

Because of elaborate withdrawal arrangements – the hidden wiring of Brexit – there will be substantial continuity until at least 31st December 2020.

This hidden wiring will allow Brexit supporters to revel in the lack of immediate adverse effects – even though many Brexit supporters opposed the withdrawal arrangements as long as possible.

In a way, they have managed to have their cakes and to eat them.

But the lack of sudden drama does not rob today of all significance.

For today is the day when the referendum mandate is discharged, and things can start afresh

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The referendum question back in June 2016 was:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

And at 11pm today, local time, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union.

Of course, some Brexiters insist there is a lot more to the mandate than the simple question of membership: taking back control of money, laws, borders, and so on.

But such things must be written in invisible ink, because the referendum question does not expressly include them.

The referendum question as posed was on membership alone.

And at the end of today the United Kingdom will no longer be a member.

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There are those – perhaps they are already typing comments below – who will dispute that the referendum was capable of giving rise to a mandate, or will aver that the mandate was invalid because of corruption and illegalities.

As a “mandate” here is a political rather than a legal concept, this is an argument without end – and it is now an argument without any point.

To the extent that there was doubt as to the political validity of the 2016 referendum the December 2019 general election result has settled the matter.

No doubt, like a Civil War re-enactment society, there will be those who sill want to re-fight – even re-litigate – the 2016 referendum.

But to those it must be said there are real political battles – battles the outcomes of which are very much up for grabs – ahead.

There is now a clean battlefield.

And that is because the mandate has been discharged.

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When a mandate has been discharged, it comes to an end.

The thing which was mandated has been done, the mandatory order is fulfilled.

And when a mandate comes to an end, it has no further purchase.

The United Kingdom’s future as not a member state of the European Union is capable of  having many shapes and forms.

The only requirement is that the United Kingdom not be a member state of the European Union.

These outcomes can range from the united Kingdom becoming the North Korea of the North Sea…

…to a relationship so close to the European Union that, but for the technical legalistic question of actual membership, is remarkably similar to the current position – even on freedom of movement.

And between these two positions are an infinite number of other possible arrangements.

The referendum result, in and of itself, does not rule out any one of these non-membership outcomes.

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Here the speech this week of Michel Barnier is the most important development of the week – other than the fact of departure.

The EU is proposing an Association Agreement – which means common institutions and processes.

And because of Boris Johnson’s insistence on there being a relationship deal in place by the end of this year, the case for such an agreement is compelling – as it will remove the need for bespoke co-decision, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for different areas.

Every regulatory and structural issue can then be handled within the Association Agreement’s framework.

And in turn the structure, institutions and processes of the Association Agreement can then provide a sustainable basis for a long-term relationship between the United Kingdom and European Union.

(A relationship that can endure until and unless a later political generation ever has an undisputed mandate for the United Kingdom to rejoin.)

Nothing here should be a shock – for all this is set out in the Political Declaration , accompanying the Withdrawal Agreement.

And the embryonic institutional apparatus is provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Both of which have been endorsed by by the government and its Brexit supporters.

(Though they may not have read and understood what they were signing up for, as with the earlier joint declaration.)

Of course, there is no inherent reason why at the end of this year the Withdrawal Agreement will morph seamlessly into an Association Agreement.

But there is no inherent reason why it will not either.

Both outcomes are now perfectly possible, as are many others.

And that is because today the mandate has been discharged, and things can start afresh.

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Brexit, public procurement, and Dominic Cummings

9th January 2020

Yesterday on the Financial Times website is a post by me on the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings’ approach to public procurement (set out most fully here).

Articles for the FT and any other mainstream media site have to be a certain length and in a certain style – but here I can add more background and explain more fully what this is about and why it (probably) matters.

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To start with: what is public procurement?

One good way of understanding public procurement is the difference it makes to what public authorities can and cannot do, compared with what private individuals and companies can and cannot do.

A private individual or a private sector company can – at least in theory – contract with whoever they want, subject to the general law of the land.

A private individual or private sector company seeking a supplier is not generally obliged to hold competitions, to advertise, or even contract with the lowest or most economical seller.

(Yes, there are various laws against racial and sexual discrimination, and so on – but the commercial aspects of the bargain are largely unregulated for private entities.)

In essence, a private individual or a private sector company is free to make a bad bargain, and to pick and choose its suppliers as they wish.

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And, but for the law of public procurement, the same would be the general position for public bodies, subject to their general legal power (or “vires” as lawyers would call it).

But public bodies are not generally free to make a bad bargain, or to pick and choose its suppliers as they wish.

Public bodies cannot just hire and fire suppliers as they wish.

The law of public procurement instead regulates what public bodies can and cannot do when they are making purchasing decisions – whether for goods, services, or grand development projects – from paper clips to aircraft carriers.

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Public procurement is about process – the principles and procedures public bodies must follow when making purchasing decisions.

The principles are broad and apply to all purchases, while the detailed procedures – set out in long regulations – are usually for high-value purchases.

The principles of public procurement are straightforward and commendable.

Purchasing authorities must advertise and specify what they want; they must set out and follow a transparent process; they must apply evaluation criteria consistently; they must treat tenderers equally and must not discriminate in favour of incumbent suppliers or national champions; and, in the event the public body fails to accord with such principles, the disappointed tenderers must have a remedy.

Much of the applicable law for these principles comes from the European Union.

This is because the law of public procurement is as much a part of the EU Single Market as competition law or the law regulating State aid.

Public contracts are lucrative, and so the markets for those contracts should be opened up to all potential suppliers, especially those from outside the member state.

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Described in the way above, the law of public procurement is a Good Thing.

Who could possibly be against?

Well.

There is a difference between neat theory and messy reality.

In practice, the law of public procurement (at least for high-value contracts) is not only subject to these broad, sensible principles but also prescriptive codes set out in pages and pages of regulations, paragraph after paragraph, sub-paragraph after sub-paragraph.

These regulations convert any major purchasing decision into an elaborate, lengthy administrative process.

And this thereby means that purchasing decisions are (or seem to be) often captured by process.

And as tender exercises are expensive and time-consuming, they in turn tend (no pun intended) to be dominated by large specialist companies who can afford to sink months (even years) of time and thousands of pounds on each bid, without any guarantee of success.

Often the suppliers assume that they will lose more of these bids than they will win, and their commercial models reflect this.

And when they win, they can then sub-contract the work anyway.

Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) do not have a real hope of winning these tenders – as any long tender process is a huge burden, with a great deal of work without the prospect of any payment.

For SMEs to bid for such contracts routinely is impossible.

And the public sector bodies will not have any problem will this: there is a process to follow, and they have no costs pressures for the process to be any speedier or cheaper for anyone else.

Some public procurement exercises are conducted at the most leisurely of paces, without any thought for the commercial burden this places on potential suppliers.

The result is, in practice, a cosy, settled relationship, with the same small group of suppliers bidding for each high-value contract.

There will also be familiar faces: the same procurement professionals on both sides, meeting again and again, and then swapping sides as those with experience of purchasing for public authorities become valuable recruits for the suppliers.

There is, at least in my experience as a former government public procurement lawyer, a problem here.

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But it also can be said that the law of public procurement, like democracy, is the worst system, apart from all the others.

While the law of public procurement is over-prescriptive and uncommercial, a sudden abolition of the law of public procurement would create even more problems.

Without a law of public procurement, there would probably be even fewer tenders.

Settled incumbents would seek extensions and amendments, and officials would nod-along as this would be the path of last resistance.

For all its manifest faults, the law of public procurement does force public authorities to specify and openly advertise its requirements, and it ensures that the risk of a disappointed tenderer challenging a decision means that a process is followed as consistently and transparently as possible.

There is not even any legal requirement on public authorities to go for the lowest price, as it is open to set price against other factors for the most economically advantageous tender (or “MEAT” – yes, public procurement is a MEAT market).

Yes: at the margins, the approach promoted by Dominic Cummings, of appointing brilliant and charismatic project managers to hire and fire suppliers, could achieve some brilliant outcomes.

But for the mundane reality of the thousands of purchases public bodies make each day, there is the case that the law of public procurement ensures a bad situation is not as bad as it could otherwise be.

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So what can be done?

As a former central government public procurement lawyer (and I still practise in the area), there seems to me to two things which could be done to improve public procurement.

One before the public procurement exercise begins, and the other more-or-less comes afterwards.

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Before major procurements, there is a tendency of officials (and politicians) to over-specify and to set “bespoke” specifications (often called, without irony, “solutions”.

For major IT projects, for example, the specifications can seem like a flip chart of the inane “brainstorming” you get at one of those dire team “away days”.

(Shudder.)

The focus, of course, should be on commercially off-the-shelf products where possible, and on systems which have already been tried and tested.

For, believe it or not, public sector bodies are not the only large entities that procure complex works and services.

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And then we come to the contracts – the “terms and conditions”.

(Oh dear.)

Many of the supposed public procurement disasters – from PFI to superfluous aircraft carriers – are not directly down to the process followed but to the contracts signed at the end.

A contract, of course, is a legal instrument that regulates foreseeable risks for parties in a transaction.  

But for many major government suppliers the contract is not used to regulate risk but to eliminate it.

To make sure that the supplier gets the benefit of the contract price regardless of performance.

Hence the penalty payments, early cancellation fees, change control procedures, and so on.

What is distasteful about this is that government suppliers already have the happy benefit of the public bodies being reliable payers.

Public bodies rarely default on contract payments.

But government suppliers, and their lawyers, want more – and go through contracts seeking every possible amendment so as to free the supplier from any risk.

And they often get away with this for two reasons.

First, public bodies sometimes do not have access to experienced and skilled commercial lawyers capable of seeing the implications of often innocent-seeming provisions.

Such contract lawyers tend to work in the private sector.

Second, suppliers use what leverage they have – knowing that certain projects are politically driven and “too big to fail” – so as to insist on contractual protections.

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The law of public contracts and public procurement can be improved – and Cummings and others are right to highlight its many problems.

But more important than wiping away procedures (even if they are far too prescriptive) is more transparency and better legal advice.

This, of course, is anathema, to Cummings, who dislikes both lawyers and freedom of information.

Nonetheless, if public bodies were to publish all public contracts after they were let – and no cynical hiding behind “commercial confidentiality” – then suppliers would be less relaxed about going for one-sided contracts.

As this is about public money, and as suppliers get the benefit of reliable payment, there is no good reason for non-disclosure.

Public bodies should also be stricter as to the burdens that lengthy procurement exercises place on suppliers, so as to avoid SMEs being squeezed out by the conglomerates.

And public bodies should be under a positive obligation to set out publicly the worst case scenarios of contracts (penalty payments, early cancellation fees, change control procedures, and so on) before any contract is signed.

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As the UK leaves the EU, there is a case that the law of public procurement can be reformed.

The crucial principles of equal treatment and transparency need not be threatened by this.

Nonetheless, some public procurement regime will be required if the UK is serious about entering into post-Brexit international trade agreements – as access to lucrative UK public contracts are among the most valuable things the UK can offer in trade negotiations.

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The law of public procurement can be less detailed and prescriptive, as Cummings as others aver.

But this will not solve all the problems.

As I conclude in the FT piece, Cummings has not fully set out the specification of the problem, let alone procured a solution.

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Three things not happening on this election day

12th December 2019

“The hustings are over, the bunting is down, the mad hysteria is at an end. After the chaos of a general election, we can return to normal.”

(Blackadder, third season, episode one)

Many people will be commenting on what is happening today so this post offers commentary on three things which are not happening.

The first thing that is not happening is that we are not considering the currently suppressed report into Russian interference in the politics of the United Kingdom.

One would think that publishing such a report would be a prerequisite of a government seeking to go to the country.

But no.

The second thing that is not happening is that parliament is not scrutinising either the withdrawal agreement implementation bill or the withdrawal agreement which the bill implements.

Neither document has yet had any detailed scrutiny, even though the United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union by automatic operation of law on 31st January 2020, which is just over a month away.

Given that the bill was supported at its second reading by a majority of MPs you would think that the time before 31st January would have been spent ensuring that the 580-page plus withdrawal agreement – that deals with a range of complex and consequential provisions – was properly scrutinised.

But again, no.

The third thing that is not happening is that we are not about to enter the final year of the five-year parliament elected in 2015.

The 2015 general election gave the Conservatives a comfortable majority, which they then converted into four years of political chaos and successive general elections.

The irony is that the Conservatives are promoting themselves today as a solution to the current political disarray, when it was the Conservatives getting their first majority since 1992 which is the direct cause of what is now going on around us.

One would think a sufficient number of voters would realise this and desert the party whose misuse of a majority led to this mess.

But, yet again, no.

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A test for constitution-mongers

17th June 2019

(Title page from the Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790)

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Constitutional law should be boring.

For ages, the subject was boring – entire pages, sometimes entire chapters, of UK constitutional law books would have no leading cases from the lifetimes of those teaching the subject, let alone those being taught.

The party battles and the political crises would come and go, but the settled practices of the constitution would carry on much the same.

And now  it is the most interesting time to be a constitutional lawyer in England since the 1680s.

(That last sentence is deliberately limited to England, as the constitutional histories elsewhere in the United Kingdom are different.)

This is not to say we have (yet) a constitutional crisis.

So far, our constitution has been (fairly) resilient in the face of executive power-grabs and novel predicaments.

The executive was stopped by the courts from making the Article 50 notification without parliamentary approval.

And the executive was then stopped by parliament (using at times some ingenious and arcane procedures) from taking the UK out of the EU without a deal.

Of course, neither of these outcomes were inevitable and could have gone the other way – and the latter may still happen on Hallowe’en.

But to the extent a constitution exists to resolve tensions so that they do not become contradictions, the UK constitution has done (generally) well so far with Brexit.

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Over at Prospect magazine I have done a short piece on the constitution.

My argument in essence is that the test for a codified (or any) constitution is that it can recognise and regulate tensions between the elements of the state (the main elements being the executive, the legislature and the judiciary).

Some who read perhaps too quickly (if at all) raced to characterise my piece as an argument for an uncodified constitution.

But I am ultimately neutral on the form of any constitution – I am more interested in how well it functions.

Neither a codified nor an uncodified constitution is inherently superior.

The test is a practical one.

And the test for those who urge codified constitutions (who Edmund Burke wonderfully called “constitution-mongers”) is to show how their models and proposals would work.

It is not enough to assert that, of course, a codified constitution would be better as a matter of principle or of faith.

Show us the proposed constitutional code – the detail and the drafting –  and let it be examined and tested.

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I expect to be blogging here more often, instead of spending time on Twitter.

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