The Accountability Gap and the State of the United Kingdom

19th June 2021

Here is a challenge.

Think of a normal, day-to-day process of the United Kingdom state.

And then try to think of examples when that process has succeeded in holding the state accountable – that is against the government’s wishes.

It is not easy.

Freedom of information is impotent.

The public services ombudsman is inefficient (at best).

Debates on the floor of the house of commons – and ‘opposition days’ – provide little more than Westminster theatre.

The prime minister casually lies at the weekly set-piece of political accountability, without any sanction or shame.

Written parliamentary questions take an age to be answered – and the answers given are often useless.

Government press offices are expensive exercises in not providing any help other than to the careers of those who staff them.

The only exception is that, from time to time, a parliamentary select committee can publish a report that hits through – though this often is down to the capabilities and qualities of whichever clerks work for the committee, than to the MPs and peers which formally comprise the committee’s membership.

And so because the normal processes of the state are generally so weak that we end up with ad hoc processes such as inquires and court cases to force the state into accounting for its actions (and inactions) against its will.

Think here of the post office scandal litigation, and think of the Hillsborough and Daniel Morgan panels.

And there are other examples.

(And imagine how many examples there are where there have not been such determined campaigners dedicated in getting at the truth.)

Ad hoc exercises in practical accountability such as court cases and panel inquiries are, however, often undermined (as this blog averred yesterday) by a legal inability to force disclosure against the state’s will or interests.

And each success in forcing accountability by means of a court case or an inquiry usually has equal and opposite significance as an example of failure of the institutions of the state to have held other parts of the state properly accountable in the first place.

In particular: the failure of parliament to be an effective check on the executive.

There is a severe accountability gap in the state of the United Kingdom.

And it is from this gap so many other political problems emerge.

***

Please help this blog address the accountability gap.

If you value this daily, free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary for you and others please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.

***

You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

***

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

 

 

Garbage In, Garbage out – how ‘disclosure’ failures undermine inquiries

18th June 2021

Techies have a phrase for it: ‘garbage in, garbage out’.

Or GIGO, for short.

What this means, of course, is that the quality of the outputs of any given process are determined by the quality of the inputs.

This basic, rather obvious point is often missed by those who demand ‘inquiries’ into all sorts of apparent state failures.

The emphasis is often placed on it being ‘judge-led’ or whatnot – that is, the form that the inquiry should take.

But this is to prioritise form over substance.

And this is because any inquiry – and indeed any formal decision-making process such as a trial – is only as good as the information to which it has access.

If you control the flow of information to an inquiry (or trial) you then have significant control over the outcome.

In particular, if you control what information the inquiry does not get – even though that information is relevant and available – then you, in effect, neuter the inquiry.

This is why any duty of disclosure is a crucial element in respect of any inquiry.

If the police (in the examples of the Hillsborough inquiry and the Daniel Morgan independent panel) or the post office (in respect of the horizon scandal) deny documents exist, or refuse to give access to information, or simply refuse to disclose incriminating or embarrassing evidence, then the inquiry will be undermined.

And this is regardless of the qualities of the judges or other heads of the inquiry, or the scope and eloquence of the terms of reference, or the public interest in the matter.

GIGO.

And any entity that faces criticism or embarrassment – or even criminal liability – will not willingly disclose evidence which can be used against it.

Nor will the individuals that comprise those entities.

They will hire specialist lawyers, skilled and experienced in ‘managing’ disclosure – who will ensure the interests of their clients are protected without any law being actually broken.

All of this should not be any surprise.

And so why the obligations of disclosure are perhaps the most important thing to get right if you want any inquiry to be of any use.

Not who is the judge or on the panel, or what the terms of reference are, and so on.

Let the inquiry get the evidence that matters.

Otherwise: GIGO.

**

Thank you for reading.

If you value this daily, free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary for you and others please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

***

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

Judicial review, Dominic Cummings and ‘Potemkin paper trails’ – and why courts require reasons for certain decisions

11th June 2021

In three tweets in a thread posted this week, Dominic Cummings, the former assistant to the prime minister, refers to ‘Potemkin’ paper trails and meetings.

*

What does he mean?

And does he have a point?

*

What he is alluding to, of course, are the ‘Potemkin’ villages, where things in bad conditions were dressed up to be in good conditions so as to mislead others.

In the context of judicial review, Cummings presumably does not mean that bad reasons would be dressed up as good reasons.

What he instead intends to mean is that there could be artificial reasons and contrived meetings the purpose of which was to make a decision judge-proof.

To a certain extent, he has a point.

In the judicial review case in question, had there been evidence of officials conducting any form of evaluation exercise then the tender award may have been harder to attack legally.

And such an exercise could, in reality, have been nothing other than going through the motions rather than anything that could have actually led to another agency actually getting this valuable contract.

But this is not the reason the courts require reasons for certain decisions – and it may not have changed the judgment in this case either.

*

Judges and courts are not stupid and naive.

Judges and courts know full well reasons can be artificial and contrived.

The judges were once barristers and solicitors and, as such, they would have had considerable experience of advising clients on providing reasons for certain decisions. 

The purpose of requiring reasons for decisions – and for ministers and officials to say they are true reasons – is to make it more difficult for bad and false decisions to be made.

For example – take the decision by the government to seek a prorogation of parliament in 2019.

No minister or official – or adviser – was willing to sign a witness statement (under pain of perjury) as to the true reason for advising the Queen to prorogue parliament.

And without such a sworn (or affirmed) reason, the government lost the case.

Reasons also provide a reviewing court with a basis of assessing whether a decision was so unreasonable that no reasonable decision could have made it, and also of assessing whether relevant considerations had been included and irrelevant considerations were excluded.

Providing reasons does not provide an escape route for cynical and irrelevant and unreasonable decision-making.

But it is an impediment, and one that makes it harder for ministers and officials to get away with bad decision-making. 

*

And in the recent judicial review, it is not clear to me (as a former central government procurement lawyer) that even an artificial ‘Potemkin’ exercise would have necessarily saved the decision from legal attack.

Awarding a high-value contract to cronies where a nominal (though documented)  exercise of discretion had not shown any actual objective advantage over other possible suppliers would still have been open to legal attack.

So this is not necessarily a case where the failure to provide a ‘Potemkin’ paper trail is to blame for the loss of a legal case.

The pram may well have fallen down the stairs anyway.

*****

Thank you for reading.

If you value this daily, free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary for you and others please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

Why is it so difficult to prosecute for the sale and purchase of peerages?

7th June 2021

A person is in the news because they donated £500,000 to a political party days after taking a seat in the house of lords.

This post is not about that person.

I have no idea about the circumstances of that appointment. and so I do not make any allegations in respect of those circumstances – and this is not just safe libel-speak, I genuinely do not know, and nor (I suspect) do you.

(And anyone commenting below who makes an allegation of criminality in respect of that appointment – or anyone else – will not have their comments published – this is not Twitter, you know.)

This post is instead about the legislation that is usually mentioned when such appointments are made: the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925.

It is a curious statute – not least because the offences it creates appear hardly to have ever been successfully prosecuted.

(The one early exception appears to be Maundy Gregory.)

 

*

The legislation has one substantive clause that in turn creates two offences.

The first offence is (and in language itself as cumbersome as the name, title and style of any obscure peerage):

‘If any person accepts or obtains or agrees to accept or attempts to obtain from any person, for himself or for any other person, or for any purpose, any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour to any person, or otherwise in connection with such a grant, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.’

Let’s try to make sense of this word-soup.

This first offence relates to the person who is (in effect) on the supply-side of a relevant transaction – the person ‘accepting or obtaining’ the ‘inducement or reward’.

This supplier has to be shown to (a) accept, (b) obtain, (c) agree to accept, or (d) attempt to obtain [x] in return for [y].

The [x], in turn comprises two things: (a) any gift, money or valuable consideration which also has the quality (b) of being an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of [y].

This means proof of a ‘gift, money or valuable consideration’ is not enough: there also needs to be proof of its purpose.

The [y] is the most straightforward: ‘the grant of a dignity or title of honour to any person, or otherwise in connection with such a grant’.

What all this means is that showing there is cash and an appointment is not enough: there has to be proof of intention to the criminal standard of proof – that is (in general terms) beyond reasonable doubt.

*

The second offence deals with (in effect) the demand-side:

‘If any person gives, or agrees or proposes to give, or offers to any person any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour to any person, or otherwise in connection with such a grant, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.’

There is no need to unpack this like the first offence – but you will notice that again there is the need to prove that the ‘gift, money or valuable consideration’ is for the purpose of bing an inducement or a reward.

So, as before, showing there is cash and an appointment is not enough – there needs to be proof of intention.

*

Those with good political memories will recall the ‘cash for honours’ investigation of 2006-2007.

This investigation included the extraordinary moment of a dawn-raid on the home of a government official and the questioning by the police of the then prime minister.

All very dramatic.

But nothing came of it.

No charges were brought.

The Crown Prosecution Service provided detailed, legalistic reasons for their decision not to prosecute.

The CPS averred that not only did it need to prove intention (on both sides) but also that it also had to prove that there was an agreement:

‘If one person makes an offer, etc, in the hope or expectation of being granted an honour, or in the belief that it might put him/her in a more favourable position when nominations are subsequently being considered, that does not of itself constitute an offence. Conversely, if one person grants, etc, an honour to another in recognition of (in effect, as a reward for) the fact that that other has made a gift, etc, that does not of itself constitute an offence. For a case to proceed, the prosecution must have a realistic prospect of being able to prove that the two people agreed that the gift, etc, was in exchange for an honour.’

These CPS reasons were compiled and endorsed by some very clever criminal lawyers – though the rest of us may struggle to see the absolute need for proving an agreement under the 1925 Act.

Nonetheless the CPS insisted:

‘In essence, the conduct which the 1925 Act makes criminal is the agreement, or the offer, to buy and sell dignities or titles of honour. Section 1(1) is drafted in wide terms and captures any agreement in which a seller agrees to procure a peerage in return for money or other valuable consideration. Section 1(2) is also drafted in wide terms and captures any agreement in which a buyer agrees to provide money or other valuable consideration, in order to induce a seller to procure a peerage.’

*

If the CPS are correct in this interpretation and construction of the statutory offences, then this makes it hard, if not impossible, for the offence ever to be prosecuted successfully.

And, even without the CPS gloss, the requirement to show intention made the offence hard to prosecute in the first place.

There may be other laws which may apply – for example, fraud legislation – but not the one piece of legislation that actually has the sale of honours as its dedicated purpose.

For, as long as those involved make sure there is no paper-trail and that the choreography of nods-and-winks are done in the right order, there is no real danger of any prosecution under the 1925 Act.

What the 1925 Act prevents is the blatant Lloyd-George style of an open market for the sale and purchase of honours.

For a statute to only regulate (in effect) the seemliness of the trade in peerages and other titles is a very, well, British (or English) thing to do.

Otherwise, the 1925 Act is an ornament, not an instrument – and so it is as much a mere constitutional decoration as any ermine robe, and is just as much use.

*****

Thank you for reading.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post for you and others commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters.

If you value this free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary for you and others please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, or of £5 upwards on a monthly profile.

*****

You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

The Prime Minister’s disregard for rules-based regimes

6th June 2021

This is just a short post today – more of a signpost – to point you towards an interesting and thought-provoking post by Hannah White at the Institute of Government.

Her post brings together various examples of the contempt in which the current prime minister holds a range of rule-based regimes – showing that for Boris Johnson, to echo Leona Helmsley’s supposed words, rules appear to be for little people.

There are, of course, a number of problems with the prime minister’s approach.

For example, a great deal of the constitution of the United Kingdom is based on self-restraint and convention – and, although many prime ministers have breached constitutional norms, none have done so as openly and unapologetically as the current prime minister.

Another problem is that – especially at the time of this pandemic and also as the United Kingdom adjusts to its post-Brexit future – there will be a need for various rules to be followed as well as made.

And it is difficult to insist on others keeping to the rules when the head of the government himself sees compliance with rules as, at best, optional.

And perhaps the biggest problem is that there is a sense of checks and balances simply not mattering any more – a further move towards a central command polity.

Of course, in our present day hyper partisan political culture, few will care about such things.

The constitution of the United Kingdom is now, essentially, whatever Boris Johnson can get away with.

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

The Ghost Regulation of Brexit – how Leave campaigned for the repeal of a regulation that never existed, and why Remainers should not gloat

5th June 2021

To the extent there was a positive case for Brexit, it was in the broadest terms – ‘taking back control’ and so on.

The impetus was primal – it did not matter what we were to be taking back control of, we were taking back control, and that was enough.

Remainers may scoff at this, but this was a basis on which Leave won and Remain did not – and the glaring fault of the Remain side was a lack of an equal and opposite positive case.

But.

One problem of any general case is that it can lack in the particulars.

And it was a feature of the Leave side that they rarely specified what would actually change in substance if the United Kingdom (were/) was to leave the European Union.

A consequence of this vagueness was that once the referendum vote was made for Brexit, there was a range of possible models for the further relationship with the European Union, from hard Brexit to Brexit-in-name-only.

Another consequence was a sense of ‘what now?’ – like the dog who caught the car.

Of course: given the general case for Brexit, this did not matter – and it still does not matter.

A case not made on detail is not defeated by that lack of detail.

*

Yet the case for Brexit does produce some telling (and entertaining) examples.

The journalist Marcus Leroux showed one recently on Twitter.

First, the question:

Then the answer given:

That was (presumably) in 2016 – but earlier in 2021 Longworth was still citing this ergonomics directive:

(I have checked – the ergonomics directive was an example given in that 2021 Times piece.)

And here is the good (and fun) kicker:

The directive never existed.

It is a ghost directive.

And yet from at least 2016 to 2021 it was cited as an example of the point of Brexit – and published as such this year in a national newspaper.

Leroux continues:

And here is the passage in the 2013 government report (three years before the referendum):

Cogito ergonomics sum – or not.

*

Of course, Remainers may gloat at such a prize example of idiocy – but it no more discredits Brexit than if it were true, because that was not why people voted and campaigned for Leave.

And the fact it has taken until 2021 for this to be exposed (at least to my knowledge) shows it was not uppermost in the minds of many following Brexit.

There is also, no doubt, ghost facts on the Remain side as well.

That said, this ghost regulation shows that it was perfectly possible for the United Kingdom to resist unwanted regulations in the European Union before 2016.

And there is the prospect that the regulatory regime the United Kingdom develops now was also possible within the European Union.

If so, this means – in a practical regulatory sense – there was no point in Brexit.

But at least we took back control, and we caught the car.

*****

Thank you for reading – please now help keep this blog available for the benefit of you and others.

If you value this free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary for you and others please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, or of £5 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post for you and others commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters.

*****

You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Podcast – discussion with Alex Andreou on the upcoming Daniel Morgan report and its potential significance

31st May 2021

In this podcast released today (but recorded last Friday) I discuss with Alex Andreou the significance of the upcoming Daniel Morgan report – and also the recent attempts by the home office into bullying the independent panel.

Andreou is a superb podcast host, combining a formidable intellect with a luxurious, melodious voice (in contrast to my high-pitched Brummie Wednesday Addams) – and we hope that this will be a useful primer in the run-up to the publication of the report expected in mid-June 2021.

You can hear it on one of the links here.

*

Some early reviews:

 

Did the Home Office blink? – the significance of today’s announcement of a date for the Daniel Morgan report

28th May 2021

Today came the news that the publication of the report on the Daniel Morgan independent panel should be on 15 June 2021.

This is the report into the 1987 death of Daniel Morgan, the collapse of the many subsequent investigations and prosecutions, and the existence of (and the relevance of) any corrupt relationships between the police, the private investigation industry and the press.

The statement of the panel is here and should be read in full

This is, of course, welcome news.

It ends the stand-off between the panel and the home office – and, on balance, the home office has given way more than the panel.

The late intervention of the home office – to demand a last-minute ‘review’ of the report – is now unlikely to frustrate the publication of the report.

Delay and blocking

This statement means that, unless something happens to prevent it, there is now a fixed, imminent date for publication.

This should prevent the report being delayed indefinitely by the home office sitting on it during this (supposed) review.

If the objective of the home office was to provide room for delay (or even prevent) the publication of the report, then that objective looks like it has been defeated.

There is a little wriggle-room for potential further delay – but not as much as if there was no date set at all.

Redactions

The statement also deals with the issue of any home office redactions.

Any redactions that the home office insist upon will be identifiable – and so, it would seem, contestable in court.

Each redaction would be an action by the home secretary that could – at law – be looked at by the high court for its reasonableness and relevance.

Any redaction would thereby not necessarily be the end of the matter – but just the prelude for litigation.

The redactions cannot just be silently made, with no one to know.

Again this is a set-back if the objective of the home office was to have room to make such silent redactions.

Forewarnings and leaks

If, however, the home office had as its objective that it would be forewarned of the content of the report, this objective has been achieved.

This means that if – and it is only an ‘if’ – there is anything politically significant in the report then the home office will not have a shock and so will not be bounced.

It also means there is the possibility of leaks from the home office – perhaps to the media – in the days before 15 June 2021.

This is notwithstanding the controlled conditions for the review of the report – which will remind those with longer memories of Robin Cook and the Scott report.

Making sense of the Home Office intervention

As this blog has already averred, there appears to be no good reason for the late home office intervention.

The purported reasons do not add up – and they appear to be improvised and cynical.

As I set out in detail here, the choice of ‘national security’ and ‘the human rights act’ as grounds appear to have been for providing the maximum litigation cover for any home office delay, and not because of any genuine concerns.

I am not a conspiracy theorist by inclination – conspiracies do, of course exist, but usually to hide cock-ups, as only then will a number of people have the motivation and focus to act in concert.

As such I do not think there is any conspiracy between the home secretary and others to try and block or delay or gut the report.

The home secretary may well be (as a lawyer would say) on a frolic of her own in all this, without contact with anyone else with an interest.

It may well be that the home secretary simply did not like the idea of something being published by an independent panel beyond her control or involvement.

But whatever the true motive for the home office’s late bullying intervention, the statement today means that it is more likely than not that we will see the report published in two weeks, and possibly with few if any redactions.

The panel and its lawyers should be commended for facing off this illiberal and misconceived intervention.

*****

Hello there.  Thank you for reading – now help keep this blog available for you and others.

If you value this free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary for you and others please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, or of £5 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post for you and others commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters.

*****

You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

How to treat the parliamentary evidence today from Dominic Cummings

26th May 2021

Dominic Cummings, the former assistant to the prime minister excites strong opinions – and it is difficult to escape those strong opinions when you write or think about him.

But the attempt should be made – as what he had to say at today’s remarkable parliamentary committee hearing may or may not be important.

The approach I would recommend is as follows:-

First – avoid confirmation bias – especially when it is from an unexpected source.

Many of the things he said confirm the prejudices of those critical of the current government generally and the prime minister in particular – and there was glee to hear him, of all people, say these things.

You should be especially wary of things which affirm what you think must be true.

Second – be aware of the selective nature of the evidence.

For example – some ministers were damned, but other ministers – such as the chancellor responsible for ‘eat out to help out’ and uncertainty over furlough payments – were not criticised

Nor was the cabinet office minister blamed for any difficulty in his department.

If this was a general critique of ministerial competence then it was lopsided – and almost vindictive.

Third – be aware also of motivation.

The former assistant to the prime minister wants, of course, to be vindicated – not least because of the Barnard Castle tarnish.

He has an understandable desire to have been right all along – and his failures only being that he did not do more sooner.

And fourth – there is the issue of honesty.

The former assistant to the prime minister once admitted that the £350million-a-week promise for the NHS was a convenient lie.

He was also one of those ministers and advisers who could not and did not sign the statement of truth (under pain of perjury) about the true reason for the prorogation – and it was the lack of such a witness statement that meant the government lost the case in the supreme court.

Indeed, the fact that if he said something untrue today may have been a contempt of parliament holds no fear for him – as he already has been held in contempt of parliament and with no consequences.

It was a win-win situation today from his perspective – he could take the benefit of absolute parliamentary privilege to make serious allegations, but with none of the sanctions for that benefit being misused.

Nonetheless, a lot of what he said ‘rang true’ – and it may be that there will be evidence that substantiates his many general and detailed claims of wrongdoing by others – some of which are highly serious.

And nothing he said should be dismissed out-of-hand just because he was the one who said it.

Everything he said may be true.

But everything he said, for the four reasons above, needs to be corroborated.

Today was great political theatre – but more is needed before any reliance can be placed upon this great political performance.

*****

Hello there.  Thank you for reading – now help keep this blog available for you and others.

If you value this free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary for you and others please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, or of £5 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post for you and others commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters.

*****

You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.