Access to decision and policy-making is a right but not a privilege: David Cameron, lobbying, and regulation

13th April 2021

Let us start with one proposition, so as to see if it is sound or not.

The proposition is: that in a liberal democracy there should be no closed class of those who can seek to influence public policy.

Just as – in theory – any person can go to the lobby of the house of commons or write a letter to a member of parliament, any person can also attempt to speak to a minister or protest outside a ministerial office.

If this proposition is sound, then there is nothing, in principle, wrong with any person seeking to lobby any parliamentarian or minister.

And if that is a correct statement of principle, then it follows that the principle can be asserted by persons one disagrees with or disapproves of – including finance companies and former prime ministers.

Framed in this way there is a certain superficial plausibility to the contention that the former prime minister did nothing wrong in seeking to influence ministers about a company in which he had a personal interest.

Any wrongdoing would, it can be contended, be at the ‘supply-side’ of ministers and officials who wrongly were influenced by such lobbying, not the ‘demand side’ of the person seeking to obtain influence.

*

Let us now look at rules.

As the estimable Dr Hannah White explains in this informative and helpful article, it would appear that the issue of Cameron’s lobbying is not about whether rules have been broken but that there appear to be no rules to be broken.

And so we have a gap.

*

But.

There is something wrong.

It may be that there are no rules that have been engaged, still less broken.

And it may well be that one can (just about) aver that the general principle of openness means that any person from you to Cameron can seek to lobby a minister.

But it still seems wrong.

Yet a general sense of wrongness is not the same as effective regulation.

What can be done, if anything can be done?

*

Part of the problem is indeed with the ‘supply side’ – any approaches by any person, former prime ministers or otherwise, should be reported and logged, and those approaches must be spurned unless there is absolute transparency.

It is not enough that we have the ‘good chaps’ theory that, of course, no minister or official would be (wrongly) influenced.

The general principle that any person in a liberal democracy should be able to seek to influence a minister does not mean such approaches should be cloaked – the quality of openness that attends the former carries over to the latter.

*

Switching to the ‘demand side’ of seeking political or policy influence, the general principle that any person in a liberal democracy should be able to seek to influence a minister does not mean that there has to be an ‘anything goes’ approach.

Just as everyone has the ‘right’ to dine at the Ritz – but it an empty right when one cannot afford it – a right to lobby those with power is an empty right if one does not have connections or the know-how about making such access effective.

Unless lobbying is regulated then there will be a natural tendency for those with money – such as a finance company – and those with the best connections – such as a former prime minister – to have far more effective access and influence than others.

This then undermines if not negates the rights of others, as influencing decision-making, rule-making and policy-making becomes the preserve of those with better connections.

It is the right of the privileged, but one masquerading as a a general right of openness.

Any company should have the right to make representations to the government – but only on the same terms as as any other company.

This would mean that it is the merits of the representation that makes a difference, rather than the extent of the access.

And any lobbyist – of whatever background –  should not have a greater right of access than any other lobbyist.

This means by implication that there are certain individuals – such as former ministers and former senior officials – who if they are to be permitted to approach their former colleagues, should only do so under the full glare provided by absolute openness and transparency, and in accordance with published procedures.

And if such absolute openness and transparency and procedural certainty is not feasible, then they should not be able to directly approach ministers and officials at all – even if it is in respect of their personal interest (as opposed to on behalf of a paying client, which is a gap Cameron was able to exploit).

They can write a letter to a member of parliament, or wave a placard on Whitehall, like anyone else.

***

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Why the Deloitte clause for drafting ministerial answers is a further assault on civil service norms

25th March 2021

One of the marvels of modern story telling is, of course, Bagpuss.

And one of the most instructive stories of Bagpuss is The Mouse Mill, where the mice devise and construct a mill for the provision of chocolate biscuits.

[Spoiler warning for episode eight of Bagpuss.]

*

*

The mice, however, are not making the chocolate biscuits out of butterbeans and breadcrumbs as they aver.

They are instead simply recycling chocolate biscuits, thereby controlling both ends of a supply chain.

Until now, the mice’s chocolate biscuit factory was perhaps the most ingenious method yet conceived of having it both ways in the provision of a good or a service.

But now we have the Deloitte contract for track-and-trace, where they appear to be able to answer parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests about their very own services.

*

Over at the Huffington Post, the experienced and well-regarded political journalist Paul Waugh has disclosed that Deloitte are drafting the answers to parliamentary questions in respect of matters for which Deloitte are providing the government with services.

I have not seen the contracts, but on the safe assumption that Waugh is a reliable news source, we can trust the following report (emphasis added):

‘Four different contracts show that Test and Trace has been using Deloitte for “general management consultancy services” ranging from building testing capacity to stockpiling and logistics oversight.

‘But buried within the contracts are details of help provided with PR and communications, with a requirement to “draft and respond to parliamentary questions, Freedom of Information requests, media queries and other reactive requests” and to “support lines to take and Q&A’s in anticipation of queries”.’

*

You do not need to have suffered years of experience with government contracts to know that legalese here quoted by Waugh rings true.

It is certainly not the sort of wording anyone would invent – and so it is no doubt the case that this is an actual contractual provision.

And the legalese is precise – crucially the contractual wording is not about simply providing the information that would allow the civil servants to draft and respond to parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests.

Had that been the purpose and intention of that contractual provision, then that is what the provision would have said.

Instead the parties chose to use wording where the external provider is obliged to draft and respond – and not the civil servants.

As you will see, this detail matters when we come to the government’s rejoinder.

*

As Gemma Abbott, legal director of the Good Law Project, is quoted as saying:

‘We have a government so addicted to outsourcing that it has even outsourced being held to account.

‘If a member of the public submits an FOI request, or an MP asks a parliamentary question about the government spending millions on contracts with Deloitte, it seems that it’s Deloitte at the other end marking its own homework – it is beyond parody.’

Her point is well made.

*

‘…the mice put breadcrumbs and butterbeans in the top, and they work the mill, and out come the chocolate biscuits…’

– Bagpuss

‘Impossible, impossible, it isn’t true. I am going round the back to what is happening’

– Professor Yaffle

*

There is, of course, nothing wrong with any consultancy firm providing services to the government – and, indeed, there is an advantage to certain tasks being allocated to external professional advisers and service providers.

But there are certain tasks which should not be contracted-out and outsourced.

The problem here is not with Deloitte offering to provide the service of providing answers to parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests – for they are a provider of services – but the agreement of the government that this job be undertaken by external providers.

The real culpability lies with the government.

The effect of the transaction is that a service provider will be responsible for providing “draft[s] and respon[ses] to parliamentary questions, Freedom of Information requests, media queries and other reactive requests” about their very own services.

This cannot be right in principle.

*

At the end of the Huffington Post story there is a rejoinder from the government:

‘The government employs contractors in the same vein that private businesses do and responsibility for answering parliamentary questions, freedom of information requests and media enquiries rests firmly with a team of civil service communications professionals within the Department of Health and Social Care. Every single response is subject to the highest levels of scrutiny to ensure they are both factual and detailed.’

If this was the case, then it is difficult (if not impossible) to explain the legalese quoted in the news report.

Either the contractual wording sets out the true intention of the government or that press statement does – both cannot be (equally) true.

And if the government’s rejoinder is true, then the legal drafting quoted in the news report would (and could) have been different.

*

Why does this matter?

The constitutional significance of this is set out well in a thread by Alex Thomas of the Institute of Government:

*

So the contractual provisions – and presumably the services performed thereunder – are an assault on the norms of the civil service.

Another assault, to go with all the others.

This one, however, does not seem especially directed or deliberate – just a shrug and a signing of some contracts.

We do not even get the glamour of a chocolate factory, or the elusive near-satisfaction of chocolate biscuits being procured only to then be taken away.

The government should not sign any further contracts with the wording of this clause.

There should, of course, be a contractual obligation on service providers to assist the government in respect of freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions and to provide necessary information.

But contracting to provide the service of ‘drafting and responding’ is a significant step too far.

Having control of both ends of the line of accountability is inappropriate – a service provider to the government should not be ‘drafting and responding’ to queries about that service.

One should not be able to both have a chocolate biscuit and to eat it. 

***

Declaration: I was a central government lawyer 2003-2005 dealing with freedom of information requests on central government commercial matters.

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Why the high court was right to deny standing to members of parliament to bring public law claims – and why such ‘ornamental claimants’ are a bad thing

23rd February 2021

*

‘Now a cowboy needs a hat, needs a hat, needs a hat

‘And a pair of fancy boots, fancy boots, fancy boots’

– TikTok meme, circa 2020-21

*

Any legal case at its most basic needs two things.

First: it needs a question that a court can determine – a question of law or evidence that is capable of being determined one way or another by legal proceedings.

Say whether there had been a breach of a contract, or whether a theft had taken place, or whether a government department had acted within its legal duties.

And second: a legal case needs somebody to bring it to the court for that determination.

Sometimes – in criminal cases – that somebody can elsewhere in Europe be a magistrate themselves, or a prosecutor appointed by the state.

But in civil cases – where a party sues another party – that somebody has to be somebody willing and able to bring the case.

And – in England and Wales at least – whether a person can bring a case is described as whether that person has ‘standing’ to bring a claim.

*

Usually in civil cases it is obvious who can and should bring a claim.

The person who can bring a claim is the person who has been wronged.

A party to a contract can sue the other party to the contract if the latter is in breach, or a person who is victim of a tort can sue the tortfeasor (which must be one of the more glorious words in legal vocabulary), and so on.

In what is called ‘private law’ there is usually no problem identifying who can – and who cannot – bring a claim before a court.

*

But there is a gap – and that is in ‘public law’ cases.

(Public law is the area of law which deals with the special legal rules which apply to public bodies and others exercising similar powers.)

Who should be able to bring a claim that a public body is acting unlawfully?

The starting point is that a person directly and adversely affected should be able to bring the case before a court so that the lawfulness of what a public body has done or not done can be determined.

And so, for example, a person facing deportation or a person whose property is about to be blighted, and so on, can often bring a judicial review in respect of a relevant decision by a public body.

(A judicial review is when, literally, a thing is reviewed judicially to ascertain whether it within the powers of the relevant body.)

*

But.

And it is a huge but.

Not all unlawfulness by public bodies will be neatly accompanied by a person being directly and adversely affected.

Take, for example, the topical example of a contract awarded by the government to a supplier where there has been neither an advertisement nor a competitive procurement exercise.

In these circumstances there is not even a disappointed bidder who would have standing to bring a claim.

What should the law – more specifically, what should should a court  – do?

*

One answer, which appeals to those who delight in unchecked executive power, is that nobody should have standing.

That a public body should be allowed to act unlawfully generally unless a person can be found who has been directly and adversely affected.

But this cannot be in the public interest.

And so the courts – sensibly – have expanded the scope of who can bring public law claims in the public interest.

Accordingly, organisations with a sincere interest in an area of public policy, but with no direct financial interest in the outcome of a challenge, are often granted standing to bring a claim.

But how wide should this scope be?

And this is the question asked – and answered – in the procurement transparency case decided last week.

*

There were four claimants in that case:

(It is a pity they could not have added more parties with ever-shorter names so we could have had a pleasing upturned triangle of names.)

You will see that the second, third and fourth claimants are members of parliament.

Surely if anyone can claim to be able to be guardians of the public interest it would be elected representatives of the democratic chamber?

But the court held otherwise: that the three members of parliament did not have standing to bring this claim.

The court was right to do so.

*

The reason the court was right to do so goes to a fundamental principle in the constitution of the United Kingdom: the separation of powers.

This familiar phrase means, in practice, that different elements of the state have different remits, and that they should act as a check and balance on each other.

A person may well be elected to parliament –  but before the courts they are no different to any other person.

An elected representative has various privileges and rights – some of which can carry considerable weight and power.

For example, members of parliament have absolute privileges in what they say and do in parliament and can hold ministers to account.

But they do not also get any elevated right to bring legal proceedings against those same ministers.

(A member of parliament may have standing on other grounds, but not just because of the simple fact of their office.)

If members of parliament were accorded a special status to bring a public law claim, this would mean that there would be a significant overlap between parliament and the courts.

There would also be a tendency for the work of the courts to be further politicised and for proceedings to become openly partisan devices.

Of course: to a small extent there is already an overlap, and the courts will never be free of the general charge of politicisation.

(And the courts already recognise the attorney-general – an office held by a politician – as having a special status as custodian of the public interest in certain proceedings, though attorneys-general will not bring proceedings against their own government.)

As the judge correctly observed in the judgment last week:

“No doubt, the addition of politicians as parties may raise the profile of the litigation.

‘It may make it easier to raise funds.

‘But these are not proper reasons for adding parties.

‘In a case where there is already a claimant with standing, the addition of politicians as claimants may leave the public with the impression that the proceedings are an attempt to advance a political cause, when in fact their sole legitimate function is to determine an arguable allegation of unlawful conduct.’

One hopes that the fashion of adding (no doubt well-meaning) politicians as, in effect, ornamental claimants in public law claims will now come to an end.

If a non-partisan organisation has standing to bring a claim in the public interest then no politician is needed, and if there is no such organisation than a partisan politician is not a good substitute.

*

In the case last week, a large portion of the judgment was devoted to the issue of standing.

One can understand why the government wanted to object to the notion that anyone has standing to go to court to in respect of unlawful conduct by the government.

And more widely, the government and its political and media supporters are constantly seeking to narrow the practical availability of judicial review.

That organisations (such as the first claimant in last week’s case) are accorded standing in public interest cases is a boon for accountability and transparency.

But ‘add me as well’ lists of ornamental claimants savour of gesturing and gimmickry. 

A pleading is not – and should not be – a round-robin.

If members of parliament want to add their names to something then parliamentary motions and other Westminster devices are available.

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The real significance of the government’s defeat over transparency in public procurement – yes, the claimants overstated their case, but reaction of the government was extraordinary

22nd February 2021

 

Last week the high court held that the government of the United Kingdom had acted unlawfully in respect of certain contracts awarded during the pandemic.

The judgment is here.

In particular, the high court held that there had been a failure by the government to publish contract award notices within the appropriate time.

It is a significant case – even though the government sought to brush off the claim as ‘academic’.

And the significance of the case is also not quite what the claimants initially made it out to be when making the claim, and the claimants lost on their more eye-catching assertions.

In particular, the claimants failed to show there was a ‘systematic’ policy put in place of widespread non-compliance with the publication obligations, and nor did the claimants show that there was a deliberate policy to ‘de-prioritise’ compliance. 

They – and you – may believe that to be the case – but they could not show this to the court.

All the claimants could demonstrate to the court was that there was non-compliance by the government with the mandatory deadlines – which the government could not and did not deny.

(The government asserted that they were only ‘technical breaches’.)

In respect of this undeniable (and not denied) non-compliance, it was a difficult case for the claimants to lose in the event that it proceeded to a court hearing.

The legal equivalent of a good shot on goal.

And as the case did proceed to a court hearing, the claimants won on the issue of non-compliance – though they did not get the remedy they primarily wanted (and almost did not get a remedy at all).

The curious thing is not so much why the claimants won – there had been a breach that could not be denied – but why the government resisted the claim all the way to the high court (spending over two hundred thousand pound in legal fees).

Had the government simply admitted the breaches – but denied that the breaches were the result of any systemic and deliberate policy – and undertaken to publish the notices as soon as possible, then it would have been highly unlikely that the claim would have proceeded to a full hearing.

But the government did not, and so the claim did.

Something rather strange has gone on.

*

In this post I now set out the elements of the case, as can be identified from the content of the judgment.

I will then set out what the case was – and was not – about.

But before we get to the judgment, we need to first understand the purpose of the contract award notices and why it matters that they were not published in time.

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‘Public procurement’ is the term used to describe the purchase by public authorities of goods and services from the private sector.

For various reasons, public procurement is subject to special legal rules that are in addition to (and sometimes qualify) the general law of contract.

In essence, the special laws of public procurement are about procedure: that is, what a public body has to do (and cannot do) when going about awarding a ‘public contract’.

And if that public body does not comply with those legal rules then a court can determine that it has acted unlawfully.

What then happens depends on the nature of the breach and the practical use of any remedy.

A court may compensate a wronged bidder for a contract, or it can issue a mandatory order that a public body do something (or not do something) in particular.

Or a court may just declare the correct legal position.

Or if there is nothing to be done, then a court may do nothing at all.

(For more on what it means, and what it does not mean, for a court to hold that a public body has acted unlawfully, see my post yesterday.)

*

One of the reasons there is a special legal regime for public procurements is the need for transparency.

Transparency is a fundamental principle in the law of public procurement.

All sorts of things need to be published by public authorities (and some public utilities) when purchasing goods and services that would not need to be published by a private corporations making similar transactions.

In routine public procurement the principle of transparency is met by the publication, for example, of specifications and contract values, and of details of the procurement exercises to be followed and of the criteria to be applied.

Thousands and thousands of pages of this dry information are published every day: the dullest legal prose on the planet outside of a tax code or a trade agreement schedule.

Dull – but necessary and a public good.

And one of the things that should be published are contract award notices.

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A contract award notice is not, itself, legally that significant.

The parties to the tender exercise – the winners and (any) losers – will already have been notified of the contract award – and an aggrieved loser can bring a challenge if it acts promptly.

The purpose of the contact award notice is not for the benefit of the bidders and does not trigger or limit their rights.

The purpose of the contract award notice is for the benefit of the public

Contract award notices tell us which contracts have been awarded and for how much and so on.

Contract award notices also will alert investigatory bodies such as the National Audit Office to possible problems.

The alternative to a contract award notice is that nobody outside the government and any bidders would ever know what contracts had been awarded.

And so although contract award notices may not be legally that important – in that they do not trigger rights and so on – they are politically important.

Contract award notices are part of the tribute that public procurement pays to the principle of transparency.

And the need for transparency in the award of public contracts is a fundamental reason why we have special rules for public procurement in the first place.

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This need for the publication of contract award notices is all the more important when there has not been any advertisement or other publicity for the award of high-value contracts.

For in an emergency a public authority can dispense with a formal procurement process.

This is provided for in the United Kingdom by regulation 32 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015:

The government has relied on this regulation 32(2)(c) exemption for a high number of pandemic-related contracts.

Few sensible people would object – as such emergency provisions exist for emergencies, and this was an emergency.

The flexibility is built into the system.

But.

Although the need for prior publications can be relaxed under regulation 32, this does not mean that the need for subsequent publication is relaxed too.

Indeed, such notices become crucial, so that the public may know what is (and is not) being done.

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Contract award notices are provided for under regulation 50 of the Public Contracts Regulations.

You will see that the regulation is one of a number of provisions dealing with transparency:

The relevant part of the regulation is regulation 50(1):There are some exceptions to this thirty day publication obligation (for example, national security) – but the government did not seek to rely on those exceptions in the coronavirus procurements.

So although regulation 32 allowed the government to dispense with prior publication about public contract the government still had to comply with the regulation 50 obligation once the contracts had been awarded.

And in a substantial number of instances, the government did not do so.

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The judgment sets out the extent of the government’s failure to publish contract award notices in accordance with regulation 50:Note that this was set out in the government’s own witness statement.

(The mentions to the ‘policy’ are to a formal government policy on publications that was also breached – but for the purposes of this post, the policy adds nothing.)

Given that there was a legal rule that applied, and given that the government did not comply with it, then the only result is to conclude that the government had acted unlawfully.

There was no other outcome available to a competent court.

The wider (wilder?) claims of the claimants were found wanting: no probative evidence was before the court on this non-compliance being directed and cynical.

Of course, one may have suspicions and may regard those taking the government’s version of events at face value as naive.

But suspicions are not evidence, let alone proof, and the claimants’ assertion that the policy of delayed publication was part of a deliberate system fell flat in the (virtual) court room.

*

What also did not get traction was the claimants’ demand for a mandatory order – an order of the court to the government to comply with regulation 50 under pain of contempt of court.

And the reason why such an order was not made was because it was, by the time of the hearing, unnecessary.

The government had published the notices, although out of time.

Perhaps this late activity was because of this litigation.

Perhaps it was because, as the government’s evidence detailed, there were now more resources in place for such tasks.

But whatever the explanation: there was nothing left for a mandatory order to do – and so such an order was not made.

All that the court could do positively was to exercise its discretion to make a declaration that the law had been broken – and that is what the court did, though refusing to use words like ‘systemic’ as requested by the claimants.

But any declaration by a court is discretionary and it may well not have been made.

*

So this is case about non-compliance with a statutory deadline, which the government did not deny, and that had been remedied by the time of the hearing of the court.

And once at court, not a difficult case for the claimants to win.

So – and this is the curious question – why did this case ever get to court?

Why?

Here paragraph 153 of the judgment is fascinating.

(It is too long to screengrab or quote here – so click and read it here.)

For although the claimants undoubtedly overstated their case, the government’s reaction was extraordinary.

The government sought to claim that there was a special species of ‘technical breaches’ that were not really legal breaches at all.

The government also resisted until the very last moment any admissions as to what had happened.

The claimants may have had a free run at goal – but the government managed to intervene and score an own goal anyway.

If Alan Hansen were a legal commentator, one could imagine him wincing at almost every sub-paragraph of paragraph 153 of the judgment.

What on Earth was happening?

One can be fairly sure the fault is not with the government lawyers – their internal advice would have been much as I have averred above – to acknowledge a problem and to undertake to put it right.

(And the judge himself in this case was an experienced barrister in such public law matters – that is how he can set out the details in paragraph 153 in such a – well – systemic way.)

Someone in government insisted that this case went all the way to court – at the cost of over two hundred thousand pounds.

There may not have been a deliberate policy of delaying contract award notices – but there seems there was a deliberate decision to delay admitting that there had been legal breaches.

The claimants deserve some criticism for overstating their case without direct evidence.

Yet that overstatement is as nothing to the remarkable decision by the government to defend the legally indefensible at every step up to a high court hearing.

Perhaps this was a strategic decision by the government, in view of the other cases brought to challenge particular public procurement decisions, as opposed to this general challenge.

The government may well have nothing to hide – but it is certainly conducting its litigation as if it has.

*

The last word will be with the judge, who in paragraph 140 of the judgment summarises the fundamental problem presented by this case (which I have broken into smaller paragraphs for flow):

‘The obligations imposed by reg. 50 and by the Transparency Policy and Principles serve a vital public function and that function was no less important during a pandemic.

‘The Secretary of State spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements during 2020.

‘The public were entitled see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded.

‘This was important not only so that competitors of those awarded contracts could understand whether the obligations owed to them under the PCR 2015 had been breached, but also so that oversight bodies such as the NAO, as well as Parliament and the public, could scrutinise and ask questions about this expenditure. By answering such questions, the Government “builds public trust and public confidence in public services”: see §1 of the Transparency Principles.

‘One unfortunate consequence of non-compliance with the transparency obligations (both for the public and for the Government) is that people can start to harbour suspicions of improper conduct, which may turn out to be unfounded.’

Or they may not be.

And that is why transparency is important.

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Why a production company was not allowed to pre-record and broadcast the coronavirus procurement case – a guided tour of the court’s reasoning

20th February 2021

Physician, heal thyself – proverb.

Yesterday the high court handed down its decision in the challenge to the government’s lack of transparency in respect of coronavirus-related procurement.

The court held that the government should have been more transparent.

This blog will examine that judgment once it can be properly digested – but in the meantime, there are some paragraphs of the judgment are interesting in and of themselves.

These paragraphs set out why the court – in a case about transparency and the public interest during the pandemic – refused an application for a production company to pre-record the hearing for broadcast under the very legislation that allows the courts to be more transparent during the pandemic.

Which is a little bit ironic.

Don’t you think?

The court’s reasoning on why the hearing could not be pre-recorded for broadcast is set out at the end of the judgment in a section with the title “Postscript: recording and broadcasting”.

The reasoning is worth going through step-by-step so one can understand the limits of public transparency of the courts when dealing with cases about the public transparency of the government.

(Please note that some of the mild teasing of the court below should not be taken too earnestly.)

*

We start at paragraph 161 of the judgment:

‘161. Prior to the hearing, the Administrative Court Office indicated to the parties that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hearing of this claim would take place remotely using a video-conferencing platform. The Claimants invited me to give permission for a television production company to record and re-broadcast the proceedings in the interests of open justice. They made written submissions in support of that application. The Secretary of State resisted it, on jurisdictional grounds. I refused the application, indicating that I would give my reasons in writing at the same time as the judgment, unless the application was renewed orally at the hearing. The application was not renewed orally. These are my reasons for refusing it on paper.’

This is a useful reminder that judicial reasoning does not exist in a vacuum: judicial reasoning is about whether a court should do or not do a particular thing – usually whether to make an order.

Here, the reasoning is set out not because Mr Justice Chamberlain is going on some frolic of his own, volunteering his opinions on behalf of the judiciary of England and Wales on whether high court proceedings ought to be recorded and broadcast, but in response to a particular application by the claimants.

The government resisted that application – but not on its merits (though no doubt the government would not relish such proceedings being freely available). 

The application was instead resisted on ‘jurisdictional grounds’ – that is that such an order would not be open to any high court judge regardless of the merits.

You will also note that the judge mentions the application was ‘in the interests of open justice’ – and you will see that in nothing that follows does the judge deny that proposition.

The judge refused the application, and so what follows in this post tells why the judge made that decision – and why he did not (or could not) make any other decision on that application.

And the post ends by averring that this was an opportunity missed by the high court and such an application could have been granted on terms.

*

Next is paragraph 162:

‘Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 imposes a general prohibition on the taking of photographs in court and on the publication of such photographs. This prohibition extends to video recordings: R v Loveridge [2001] EWCA Crim 973, [2001] 2 Cr App R 29. Exceptions have been provided by and under statute. None applies to proceedings in the Administrative Court. Section 41 therefore constrains the inherent jurisdiction of the court: R (Spurrier) v Secretary of State for Transport [2019] EWHC 528 (Admin), [2019] EMLR 16.’

The judge starts at, well, the starting point.

Taking photographs in court and publishing the photographs is generally prohibited – which means it is generally a criminal offence to breach the prohibition.

The prohibition is set out in a statute that is nearly one hundred years old, the Criminal Justice Act 1925, section 41(1) of which provides:

‘No person shall—

‘(a) take or attempt to take in any court any photograph, or with a view to publication make or attempt to make in any court any portrait or sketch, of any person, being a judge of the court or a juror or a witness in or a party to any proceedings before the court, whether civil or criminal; or

‘(b) publish any photograph, portrait or sketch taken or made in contravention of the foregoing provisions of this section or any reproduction thereof [… ]’

*

But wait: the proposal is not to photograph inside the court – indeed the hearing is not even taking place inside a physical court room – so how is this prohibition relevant?

The judge explains that section 41(1) has been extended to also mean video recordings, even though such things did not exist as such in 1925 and the section does not expressly mention video recordings.

Unfortunately, the 2001 decision which the judge cites as being authority for section 41(1) extending to video recording – and thereby extending the scope of a criminal offence – is not itself easily found in the public domain.

The nearest one will find in a reasonable internet search is this brief case note – which tells us, unrevealingly, that the court of appeal decided an ‘appellant’s convictions were safe despite the police having unlawfully videotaped them at court and adduced the evidence of a facial mapping expert to compare that video with CCTV footage’.

How a member of the public could join that dot to what the court here is saying about section 41(1) applying to video recording is not plain – and so we have to take the judge’s word for section 41(1) prohibiting video broadcasts and recordings even though section 41(1) does not explicitly say so.

(Yes, I know one can access the 2001 judgment through subscription services – but this blog and and what it describes is an exercise in the public understanding of law using public domain materials.)

The judge then notes there are general exceptions to this general prohibition – see here – but tells us none of those exceptions apply.

As such he concludes section 41(1) binds the court’s ‘inherent jurisdiction’ – that regardless that the power of the high court is very mighty indeed, statute is even mightier.

And of course, the judgment he cites for this very important principle is also not (easily) found in the public domain either.

So again we have to take the judge’s word for it.

Welcome to open justice.

*

We now come to paragraph 163, which deals with how the courts have been specially allowed to conduct video proceedings during the current pandemic:

163. The Coronavirus Act 2020 inserted provisions into the Courts Act 2003 about “proceedings conducted wholly as video proceedings”. The first provision inserted was s. 85A(1), headed “Enabling the public to see and hear proceedings”. It empowers the court to direct that such proceedings may be broadcast (i.e. live-streamed). It also empowers the court to direct that the proceedings be recorded, but only “for the purpose of enabling the court to keep an audio-visual record of the proceedings”. Parliament could have authorised recording for broadcast, but did not.

Here the judge is describing what the law says – but also, by implication, what the law is not saying.

The law is set out in a section inserted into the 2003 Act by coronavirus legislation, which provides:

‘Section 85

‘If the court directs that proceedings are to be conducted wholly as video proceedings, the court—

‘(a) may direct that the proceedings are to be broadcast (in the manner specified in the direction) for the purpose of enabling members of the public to see and hear the proceedings;

”(b) may direct that a recording of the proceedings is to be made (in the manner specified in the direction) for the purpose of enabling the court to keep an audio-visual record of the proceedings […]’

*

Section 85 looks promising for the applicants – and the exception under sub-section (a) looks as if it could cover the envisaged broadcast.

On the face of it sub-section 85(a) could be read so to permit the pre-recording and broadcast as envisaged in the application – subject to any specifications of the court

(In my view, had parliament intended that such broadcasts could only ever be done simultaneously with the hearing then parliament would have said so, but it did not.)

But the judge dismisses this possible reading with a deft gloss in parentheses that the broadcast exception only means ‘live-streaming’ – but note, the relevant law does not explicitly mention live-streaming – just broadcasting.

And, of course, many things that are broadcast go through a pre-recorded stage.

There is not a rigid broadcast/record distinction in media production.

The judge decides the envisaged project would fall instead within sub-section 85(b), and he avers that any such recording can only be for the purpose of judicial record keeping.

(It would seem to me to be at least arguable that a direction would have been possible under sub-section 85(a) containing specifications as to the manner of how the proceedings should be broadcast – otherwise, it would ignore the fact that most broadcasts necessarily go through a pre-recording stage.)

As the court decides neither of the coronavirus-related exceptions apply under section 85, then the general prohibition stands.

*

The judge then, in paragraph 164, sets out the criminal offence that parliament created in the coronavirus legislation in respect of certain unauthorised broadcasts and recordings:

‘164. The second provision inserted was s. 85B, headed “Offences of recording or transmission in relation to broadcasting”. This makes it an offence for a person to make an unauthorised recording or unauthorised transmission of an image or sound which is being broadcast in accordance with a direction under s. 85A. Section 86B(6) provides that a recording or transmission is “unauthorised” unless it is (a) authorised by a direction under section 85A, (b) otherwise authorised (generally or specifically) by the court in which the proceedings concerned are being conducted, or (c) authorised (generally or specifically) by the Lord Chancellor.”

This means that if a hearing is live-streamed in accordance with an order, it will be an offence for anyone to record and re-broadcast such footage.

*

The judge then deals with what appears to be an ingenious attempt by the Claimants to get around the statutory regime using the wording of the criminal offence:

‘165. The Claimants relied on s. 86B(6)(b). They argued that it would make no sense unless the court had power to authorise recording or transmission other than under s. 85A. This is topsy turvy statutory construction. Both the heading and operative language of s. 86B make plain that it is concerned with the creation of an offence and with the delineation of its scope. The function of s. 86B(6)(b) is to make clear that no offence would be committed by a person who records or transmits footage pursuant to an authorisation by the court. That is not surprising. One would not expect something authorised by a court to give rise to criminal liability.’

Topsy turvy.

*

Of course, the language of ‘make plain’ and ‘made clear’ in law (as in politics) usually means that the thing being described is not actually plain nor clear.

And it would seem that the applicants do have a point here (if a weak one) as the relevant section does appear to acknowledge orders being made other than under the coronavirus legislation.

But such an acknowledgment does not, by itself, create jurisdiction to make an order – the applicants still need to show the legal basis for their application, and they did not convince the court that they had one.

Ingenious legal submissions almost always fail.

*

Having asserted that the relevant law is ‘plain’ and ‘clear’ the judge, of course, has to explain the law yet further, and he does so in paragraph 166:

‘166. Nothing in s. 86B purports to define or expand the scope of the court’s powers to authorise broadcast and recording. Those powers are set out in s. 86A. That provision would not have been drafted as it is if the intention were to empower the court to permit recording other than for the purposes of record-keeping.’

Of course, if the law was actually ‘plain’ and ‘clear” then the judge would not need to keep on explaining it, as the law would, well, be plain and clear.

And again the court overlooks the fact that most broadcasting requires a pre-recording stage, and parliament did not expressly limit broadcasting to simultaneous live-streaming.

*

Paragraph 167 then sets out that there is a general prohibition on pre-recording for the purposes of broadcast and that this prohibition stands in this particular case:

‘167. There is accordingly no power to permit proceedings in the Administrative Court to be recorded for the purposes of broadcast, even when the proceedings are conducted wholly as video proceedings.’

In other words: the court would not be able to make such an order even if it wanted to do so.

It is a question of jurisdiction, not the merits of the application.

The judge has therefore not decided against making the order as such, but has decided that he does not have the power to do so.

*

But what about open justice?

For just as the roles of judges, lawyers and parties are now performed online during the pandemic, what about those who would sit in the public gallery?

In the last paragraph of the judgment, the judge explains how this important issue is addressed:

‘168. This does not generally, and did not in this case, prevent the public from having access to proceedings conducted wholly by video in the Administrative Court. In line with the Court’s usual practice, the cause list published on the day before the hearing included an email address through which any member of the public could apply for access to the online platform. All 19 who applied were able to access and watch and listen to the proceedings in this way. The proceedings were therefore at least as accessible as they would have been if held in court.’

This is a good point, well made by the judge.

Anyone who wanted to see the proceedings was able to do so, in the same way a person can go along and sit in a court if they want to do so.

*

But.

‘Open justice’ does not mean openness only to the very limited extent of the time, effort and commitment of a determined stranger to sit in a far-away public gallery.

The high court should seize the opportunity provided by the coronavirus legislation to make its work more visible to the public generally – especially in public interest cases arising out of the government’s response to the pandemic.

The public gallery is just one manifestation of the principle of open justice, but it is not its only standard nor its only template.

That is, to invoke a phrase, topsy turvy.

*

The mild teasing of the court above does have a serious point.

In public interest cases where the hearing comprises lawyer-on-lawyer action (and not any witness evidence) there is no good reason for the proceedings not to be more widely available.

This is not to suggest a free-for-all – such broadcasts can be done subject to the specifications of the court.

But a properly produced and professionally edited version of a public interest court case would be a boon for the public understanding of the law.

It is possible to read section 85A as permitting such a broadcast and, if so, the high court did have the jurisdiction.

Another judge may have taken a more robust approach to the opportunity provided by the coronavirus legislation for such a broadcast to be permitted.

It was a pity that such a production was not possible here.

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What the AstraZeneca agreement actually says

31st January 2021

Was AstraZeneca under a firm obligation to supply the vaccine to the European Commission or was it only under an obligation to use its best efforts?

Only the agreement would tell us for certain.

And a few days ago it did not look like that politically controversial vaccine agreement between the European Commission and AstraZeneca was going to be published.

So, in that circumstance, this blog had a post which, on the basis of public domain information then available – including a published (and redacted) contract with another supplier – sought to put together what might be said about the AstraZeneca agreement.

That post is now superseded, for the AstraZeneca agreement has now been published, though in redacted form.

What this now-published agreement tells us, even more than before, is that AstraZeneca may have been wronged in the political row with the European Commission.

For, just as the European Commission was wrong in invoking article 16 (though that was promptly reversed), it looks as if it was also wrong in how it publicly characterised the contractual obligations of AstraZeneca.

*

Before we get going, some assumptions and provisos.

The AstraZeneca agreement is under the law of Belgium and is subject to the jurisdiction of the courts of Brussels – and I am not a Belgian lawyer.

This means there will be law relevant to the understanding of the agreement of which I will be unaware.

But as I am not providing legal advice but instead mere commentary on an English language legal instrument in the public domain, the fact that the document is under foreign law is not an absolute barrier – though please bear in mind this limitation.

The agreement is also redacted, and there may also be other legal instruments or texts that may be relevant, and so this post is on the basis of the information which is available at the time of writing.

I am also aware that there are versions of the agreement on the internet which purport to show the redacted text but I have not looked at any of these and I respect the confidentiality of the parties: this post is on the basis of the text published by the European Commission.

What follows is an account of what the AstraZeneca agreement says by an English legal commentator with some experience as a lawyer in commercial contracts and public procurement matters.

*

First, the parties.

The agreement is between the European Commission, acting on behalf of European Union member states, and AstraZeneca AB, incorporated in Sweden.

That this is the AstraZeneca entity that is party to the agreement may be significant, for (all other things being equal) only that entity will be bound by obligations on AstraZeneca in the agreement – and not any other AstraZeneca entity.

As we will see, this possible distinction may be important (or at least of interest) depending on which AstraZeneca entity is party to the prior agreement for the supply of the vaccine in the United Kingdom.

*

Moving on from the parties, we come next to the recitals.

Recitals are curious things in legal instruments – and tend to be far more popular (and numerous) in continental Europe than in England.

(Some European Union legal instruments have recitals that go on for longer than the operative provisions.)

The notion is that a recital does not (or should not) create a legal obligation in and of itself.

Instead, a recital should tell those considering the instrument what the background is to the document and thereby it gives a steer to how the operative provisions should be construed.

Recitals are thereby (or should be) an aid to construction and interpretation of a legal instrument.

(That said, in twenty years of experience of practical commercial law, I have seen recitals used for all sorts of naughty purposes.)

The key recitals in the AstraZeneca agreement are the following:

These recitals set out the shared understanding of the European Commission and AstraZeneca as at the time of the agreement (which was signed by both parties on 27 August 2020).

A breach of a recital – that is, if a recital is not factually true – does not (at least under English law) trigger any automatic remedy.

But a recital can have effect when it comes to construing the effects of other provisions.

The first of the three quoted recitals is interesting in that it shows the European Commission is already aware that AstraZeneca is scaling up its capacity for the broadest possible availability, separately from this agreement.

The second quoted recital then expressly affirms that this agreement is only ‘part’ of that scale-up.

And the second quoted recital introduces the phrase that has become famous as part of the current political controversy: ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’.

In particular, the recital records that AstraZeneca is committed to using ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’ to build capacity to manufacture 300 million ‘initial’ doses.  

The third quoted recital then says the supply of those ‘initial’ doses will be in accordance with the terms of the agreement.

(As these are only recitals, not that much – or perhaps anything – can be made of the second quoted recital not referring to ‘according to the terms of the agreement’ but the third quoted recital then doing so, but it is a curious omission.)

*

So much for the recitals.

But before we go to the operative obligations, we need to look at the definitions and at one definition in particular: ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’.

Here, unlike in English law agreements which tend to leave ‘best endeavours’ and ‘reasonable endeavours’ to a court to sort out (though I did once catch one naughty ‘Magic Circle’ law firm trying to expressly define in a contract the more onerous ‘best endeavours’ to mean the less onerous ‘reasonable endeavours’), the parties in this agreement have agreed a definition of ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’.

Indeed, like New York, so enamoured are the parties of the concept, the parties have defined the term twice.

There are ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’ for the commission and ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’ for AstraZeneca.

As we are concerned with the supply obligations of AstraZeneca, we need to know what the term means for them:

Here we need to remember that a definition is only a definition, and that the important thing is how the definition is employed in an operative clause.

But when we do see the term in an operative clause, all of this definition will be applicable.

And so there is a significant difference between an absolute obligation (‘[x] shall do [y]’) and a qualified obligation ‘[x] shall use Best Reasonable Efforts to do [y]’ – for the latter comes with all the baggage of the defined term.

*

Now come the operative clauses.

This being a bilateral supply agreement, the primary obligations will be for one party to supply a thing, and for the other party to pay for it.

In very (very) general terms, many of the other provisions of the agreement will be of secondary importance to these two primary obligations.

This post is not concerned with the payment obligations, many of which are in any case redacted, and so we will look at the supply obligations.

These mainly are in article 5.

The primary obligation of the supplier under this agreement is to do two things: to manufacture (so that the vaccine is ready for distribution) and to deliver.

And, in respect of the initial doses, this dual obligation is in article 5.1:

We can also see that this provision makes both the manufacturing-ready-for-distribution and delivery obligations for the initial doses of the vaccine subject to ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’.

(Articles 5.2 and 5.3 then deal with optional orders for further and additional doses.)

But then there is a further clause – which sadly warrants an Alan Hansen wince at its awkward drafting.

Article 5.4 provides:

Is this also a primary supply obligation?

Perhaps it is, and article 5.1 goes only to distribution and delivery, but it seems to me that the intention is that article 5.4 deals only with the location of the manufacturing (hence (a) the heading of article 5.4, though headings usually are not to be used for interpreting contracts, and (b) the text in the article which follows ‘provided’) – rather than it being the primary manufacturing obligation itself.

And the placing of the reference in that article to the United Kingdom is also odd, though this was probably a late amendment to make sure that the provision was Brexit-proof.

But for the purpose of this post, it does not really matter, as this obligation too is subject to ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’.

*

But, as the jurist Jimmy Cricket would aver, there is more.

If we now go down to article 13 we will see the representations and warranties of AstraZeneca:

And we can see at article 13(1)(e) what may seem to be a relevant promise by AstraZeneca.

Did AstraZeneca fail to fulfil its contractual obligations to the European Union by reason of conflict with obligations to third parties?

Did such obligations to third parties impede AstraZeneca’s performance of its obligations under this agreement?

A breach of article 13(1)(e) by AstraZeneca would be legally consequential – this is not just a recital – and (at least under English law) a breach would entitle the European Commission to compensation, if it could show that it caused damage, or even to rescind the agreement.

But it is not clear that the fact that AstraZeneca did have a prior agreement in respect of the United Kingdom such that it would mean that AstraZeneca was in breach of article 13(1)(e).

Article 13(1)(e) does not say that AstraZeneca promises to not have any other such obligations but that those obligations will not conflict with this agreement or impede performance of the obligations under this agreement.

And the relevant obligations under this agreement are, as defined, simply to use ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’ – so the other obligations would have to conflict with or impede not some absolute obligation, but only an obligation to use ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’.

Furthermore, and as we have already seen with the recitals, the European Commission expressly acknowledged that AstraZeneca was scaling-up manufacture generally, and that only part of this was for the European Commission.

That AstraZeneca had a prior agreement in respect of the United Kingdom was also well-publicised and it cannot be seriously posited as something unknown by and unforeseen to the commission.

Indeed, AstraZeneca was in a position to scale-up and so on because of this prior agreement.

In all these circumstances, it would seem to me to be difficult for the European Commission to rely on article 13(1)(e), and even if it could, it is not clear where that would get the commission.

And, of course, there would also be the possible difficulty that the Swedish AstraZeneca entity that accepted the burden of article 13(1)(e) is not even the AstraZeneca entity that has entered into any obligations in respect of the United Kingdom.

*

So, we can now go back to Wednesday 27th January 2021, when the relevant European Commissioner said:

‘The view that [AstraZeneca] is not obliged to deliver because we signed a ‘best effort’ agreement is neither correct nor is it acceptable.’

In view of what that agreement actually says – recitals, definitions, primary obligations, warranties, representations, and so on – there is reason to believe that this statement by the commissioner was incorrect and misleading.

As long as AstraZeneca fulfilled the definition of ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’ in respect of its obligations under article 5(1) of the agreement, then AstraZeneca has performed its side of the bargain.

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There is no good reason why any public contracts are not in the public domain – the AstraZeneca vaccine contract or otherwise

29th January 2021

Yesterday this blog set out in detail what could be worked out form public domain sources about the politically controversial AstraZeneca contract for the provision of vaccines to the European Union.

That post was an exercise in detective work, aided greatly by the publication of a redacted version of a contract with another supplier, the terms of which fitted neatly with the details disclosed by the European commissioner and the CEO of AstraZeneca in their public bickering.

In the comments below that post, some commenters were able to glean even more from public sources, including from further examination of the published redacted contract (and many of the commenters at this blog are awesome and experts in their fields).

It was an interesting and indeed fascinating exercise.

But.

It was something which should not have been needed.

For the actual contract should have been in the public domain to begin with.

*

There is no good reason why public contracts are not in the public domain.

(By ‘public contracts’ I mean contracts for the supply of goods, services and works –  including for major projects – to public authorities.)

There are (supposed) reasons – the cant phrase ‘commercially sensitive’ is often the excuse – but no good reasons.

But there are two good reasons why public contracts should be in the public domain.

*

First, the goods, services and works supplied under public contracts are paid for with public money.

And public authorities tend to be reliable payers.

Fortunes can and often are made from lucrative public contracts.

It is not unusual for a valuable public contract to be the security for all sorts of further commercial transactions, so dependable is a public contract as a high-value revenue stream.

A good part of the wealth of the City of London, and of those currently enjoying lockdown life in expensive suburbs, is based not on the hard cut-and-thrust of private sector life but on the soft cushions of public sector contracts.

(And this dependency culture contrasts with the complaints of backbench government supporters about the supposed dependency-culture of free school meals.)

The price of this access to public money should be the burden of transparency.

A private sector company should not have the benefit of these lucrative and low-risk public contracts, and also have the contract shielded from public scrutiny.

*

Second, turning from revenue to performance, there is a public interest in publication of how any public contract addresses issues of risk allocation and sanctions for breach.

This is not about prices – as the European commission showed in publication of the redacted vaccine supply contract, it is perfectly possible to publish the substance of how a contract manages risk without publishing (real or imagined) ‘commercially sensitive’ material.

How does the contract deal with foreseeable risks?

How does the contract allocate the burden of risks between the parties?

What happens if a provider is unable to provide the agreed goods, services or works?

This is the meat of any substantial contract – not just the list of what is bought and for what price.

If that is all a contract is then there would be no need for any contract to be more than a page long.

The bulk of a contract, other than for the most simple of transactions, deals with what happens when things do not turn out as agreed – and what can happen next.

And in any public contract what happens next in the event of any non-performance is as much a matter in which the public interest is engaged as in the performance.

But when a contract is – in its entirety – hidden from public view, the public have no knowledge of how that contract allocates risk – or indeed whether the contract allocates risk at all.

This in turn means there will be contracts where the risk of non-performance is loaded entirely on the public authority.

And with such contracts the supplier will not only have the benefit of a lucrative revenue stream but also the benefit of it being legally risk-free.

A public supply contract for cakes, and for the service of eating them.

*

Publication of such contracts would not, at a stroke, mean that problems of non-performance or overcharging will go away.

Public procurement has many problems, and non-transparency is only one.

But the ‘commercially sensitive’ cloak of invisibility serves no one other than the public officials and suppliers who are shielded from any meaningful scrutiny.

A public official can sign a bad deal (and then sign amendment after amendment to that deal), and no one will find out because it is all ‘commercially sensitive’.

A supplier can get away with either bad contracts or terms not being enforced against them, again because it would be commercially sensitive’ for the terms of the contract to be published.

*

Some of those in public procurement will view the above as harsh – and will protest: how could you be so offensive and so doubtful.

But such displays of (non-commercial) sensitivity are not a good reason for non-disclosure of public contracts.

If all is well, then nothing will be lost with publication of public contracts – and publication will provided public confidence that good contracts are being entered into at fair prices and with effective and enforceable allocations of risk.

And if all is not well, then…well.

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The EU-UK trade agreement – and the tale of two tables

Boxing Day, 2020

The post-Brexit agreement on trade and other matters is, it seems, in final draft form – although it has not yet been officially published.

What seems to be a copy of the final draft is here.

Proper analysis of the agreement will necessarily take time – though an initial glance showed about ten pages devoted to creating dozens and dozens of joint European Union and United Kingdom talking shops – committees, assemblies, talking shops, and so on.

This indicates that Brexit will in fact be a negotiation without end.

So while we digest this Christmas feast, let us look at a couple of Christmas cards.

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The first is a ‘scorecard’ made public on Christmas Eve.

This purports to show a sequence of heady United Kingdom ‘wins’.

It is too soon to tell whether this document accords with the actual draft agreement, but even on its own terms it is confused and unconvincing.

For example, if we look at public procurement, where the United Kingdom had no proposals, the outcome is dubbed a ‘mutual compromise’.

But on legal services, where the European Union in turn had no position, the outcome is dubbed a United Kingdom ‘win’.Some topics are artificially broken up, perhaps to claim more United Kingdom ‘wins’ (for example, Financial Services), and other ‘wins’ not substantiated by accompanying text (especially Law Enforcement).

Such inconsistencies and distortions mean that, even on the face of it, the ‘scorecard’ is not a reliable document to form a view on the draft agreement either for or against.

The table has been created by the United Kingdom government (or a supporter of government policy) as propaganda, not analysis.

*

The United Kingdom government, however, is not alone in presenting a table as a spinning exercise.

Again, it is too soon to tell whether this table is accurate in comparison with the actual agreement, though there are no obvious internal inconsistencies in the document.

And maybe significantly, this second table is not framed as ‘wins’ but is instead about losses – the scope and areas of coverage.

What is outside the agreement, as opposed to what was included.

Looking down the ticks and crosses indicate what the United Kingdom might be losing as opposed to ‘winning’.

*

Just as the number of talking shops to be created under the agreement show that Brexit will now become a negotiation without end, the existence of these two tables indicate that the merits of Brexit will also be an ongoing argument.

Brexit will be a contested subject for at least a generation.

This trade agreement may be bringing part of the Brexit story to a formal conclusion, but it certainly does not bring Brexit to an end.

***

POSTSCRIPT

The United Kingdom government has now published the final draft agreement and a 34 page summary – see here.

And the European Union has published its suite of documents here.

 

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When Virgin Care sued the NHS and how Virgin have since misdirected and misrepresented about what happened

1st May 2020

Even Richard Branson now admits it may have been “unwise” for Virgin Care to have sued the NHS.

The fact that a Virgin company once sued the NHS is no doubt inconvenient for Branson, and Virgin generally, as they seek support from the United Kingdom government during the current coronavirus emergency.

This post sets out the circumstances of the legal claim and why Virgin Care was not compelled to sue the NHS.

This post also sets out that the reported settlement amount of £2million that was paid to Virgin Care had to have been found from somewhere, presumably either from other services or through increased borrowing.

And this post sets out the systemic misrepresentations and misdirections from Virgin in seeking to cloak the inconvenient fact that Virgin Care once sued the NHS for money. 

In summary, this post avers that Virgin Care made a sequence of “unwise” decisions: to sue the National Health Service, to be party to a confidential settlement of that claim, and to have since then misrepresented and misdirected about what happened.

For even if, as Branson suggests, it was “unwise” for Virgin Care to sue the National Health Service, it would have been better if that was openly admitted to have been a cock-up, rather than a strategy based on confidentiality and misleading public relations.

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Let us start with what Richard Branson says about this in his recent open letter.

He (or a PR attributing the words to Branson) says:

“Much has been written about Virgin Care’s dispute with a commission over a contract a number of years ago. Some will say it was unwise for Virgin Care to do this, but the most important thing is that Virgin Care was never intending to profit from it and 100 per cent of the money awarded went straight back into the NHS.”

This statement is worth reading carefully.

The “a number of years ago” in fact refers to events as recent as in 2016 to 2017.

He accepts there was a “dispute” and admits “[s]ome will say that it was unwise for Virgin Care to do this” – though the “this” here is left unclear.

(The implication of the “unwise” comment seems to me to be an acceptance that Virgin Care could have done things differently, as it can hardly be “unwise” to take the only option available.  The word itself suggests there was a choice.)

Branson then sets out the defence that the money “awarded” (itself a strange word to use here, as we will see below) “went straight back into the NHS”.

Branson then earnestly assures us that this defence, together Virgin Care never “intending”(?) to profit from the dispute is “the most important thing”.

For the reasons set out below, you may take a different view as to what “the most important thing” was in all this was.

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Branson’s open letter links to a statement from Virgin Care dated 1st June 2019.

This significant statement was published by Virgin Care itself, and Virgin Care is responsible for the content and its headline.

The statement should be read carefully, not least because it was written carefully.

*

Anyone clicking into the Virgin Care statement from Branson’s open letter or because they wanted to find out about the matter themselves are met with a headline set on a picture of happy smiling children.

The headline is: “Why it’s wrong to say we sued the NHS because we lost a contract in Surrey”

Note what the headline does not say: it is not simply “Why it’s wrong to say we sued the NHS”.

And the reason the headline is not “Why it’s wrong to say we sued the NHS” is by reason of the weasel words “because we lost a contract in Surrey”.

Many who come across the headline will no doubt not realise the significance of those weasel words.

Those who come across the headline may even think that Virgin Care did not even sue the National Health Service.

Weasel words can make such a difference.

The presumed intention of the weasel words is to make the headline somehow technically true.

But even with a literal construction or interpretation, the headline is misleading to the point of conveying a false impression.

For Virgin Care did sue the National Health Service, and the basis of the legal claim was that Virgin Care was not awarded a contract in Surrey.

Without the non-award of the contract, Virgin Care would not have had what lawyers call “a cause of action”.

Perhaps the chosen headline is intended to read as meaning that the real, subjective intention of Virgin Care in suing the National Health Service was to serve some selfless, noble purpose.

Or perhaps there is a verbal sleight-of-hand with “because we lost a contract in Surrey” as the claim was based on a non-award (in this case, renewal) of a contract rather than the “loss” (that is, termination) of  a contract.

Who knows.

But as a matter of law, the headline gives a false impression.

And giving such a false impression cannot be an accident.

Having considered the (in my view, deliberately) misleading headline, now let us look at what Virgin Care has (carefully) chosen to say in the rest of their very own published statement.

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The statement begins with “Much has been written and said about the procurement process which the NHS in Surrey ran back in 2016…”.

You will recall that the statement in Branson’s open letter begins in near-identical terms: “Much has been written about Virgin Care’s dispute…”.

This suggests at least a similar approach to public relations, if not the same PR.

The Virgin Care statement then asserts “A lot of what has been written is misleading or misinformed…”.

Given that the chosen headline to this statement is itself misleading, this suggests that the publisher of this statement has a rather brass neck.

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So you can understand what then follows in the Virgin Care statement, this post now will explain a couple of things about the law of public procurement.

First: the law of public procurement provides special rules for public bodies when purchasing goods, services and works: in essence, public procurement exercises should be competitive, transparent and fair, with bidders being treated equally (including any incumbents bidding again) and, if there is a breach of these special rules, the bidders adversely affected should have a legal remedy.

Second: a disappointed tenderer can, before any contract is executed, seek to have the procurement exercise suspended and/or re-run if there has been a breach of these special legal rules; and if the contract has already been executed, the disappointed tenderer can seek an award of damages as a money remedy (and sometimes other remedies) for a breach of the special legal rules.

Knowing these two things about the law of public procurement are important for understanding the predicament of Virgin Care and the options that were available to it when it did not win this particular Surrey National Health Service contract.

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The contract in question was substantial: a five year contract for providing certain children’s services to the Surrey National Health Service.

The contract was reportedly worth £82million.

Virgin Care was the incumbent, and was re-bidding to carry on providing the services.

Virgin Care thought highly of the services they had provided for the previous five years:

“Our bid was based on five years’ experience of running the services, making improvements which would make a real difference for families and taking on up to 20% additional demand each year without any additional funding from the NHS.”

Surrey National Health Service, however, took a different view and awarded the contract to another provider, who is still in place providing the services.

The loss of any public contract is a hard hit for any service provider, but that is the nature of public procurement: bidders know that there are fixed terms and a serious risk of another bidder winning at the next contest.

Virgin Care were unhappy at not being selected and sought, as is their right, feedback on why they had not been selected.

There was nothing wrong with this, and it is a sensible move for any disappointed tenderer so that future bids can be improved.

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According to Virgin Care, this feedback indicated “flaws” and raised “concerns” about the procurement exercise:

“When we asked those questions in Surrey, we became seriously concerned there may have been flaws in the process and asked the commissioners to look again at how things had been done to make sure they had picked the right provider.”

Again, there can be nothing wrong with this.

There is a question – which I have put to Virgin Care but got no answer – why Virgin Care had not identified the flaws and raised the concerns before in the procurement exercise.

And there is the question of what these flaws and concerns were – and given these were in respect of a high-value contract for children’s services to the National Health Service – there is a public interest in these flaws and concerns being open knowledge.

Virgin Care will not say what these flaws and concerns were.

There is a report that there are confidentiality and non-disclosure terms in place between Virgin Care and Surrey National Health Service, as part of the settlement of this claim.

But such agreements should not prevent the publication of information in the public interest.

There can be (in my opinion) no good reason for the alleged flaws and concerns not to be published.

After all: what about the happy and smiling children?

*

Surrey National Health Service proceeded to execute the contract with the current provider.

Perhaps it was wrong for Surrey National Health Service to do this, and that the procurement exercise should have been suspended or re-run.

(If a procurement exercise is suspended, the incumbent provider often obtains an extension on its current contract.)

We do not know whether it was right or wrong for Surrey National Health Service to execute the contract, and so we should give Virgin Care the benefit of the doubt and assume that Surrey National Health Service should not have done this.

What then?

There is no question that Virgin Care could sue, like any disappointed tenderer where there has been a breach of the public procurement rules.

And the possibility of such legal claims is important for ensuring that public bodies abide with the rules.

And it may be that it was in the commercial self interest of Virgin Care to sue, despite the claim that it is not a profit making entity.

And there was probably a duty on the directors of Virgin Care to consider all their options.

But what followed was a choice.

Virgin Care chose to sue the National Health Service and to obtain a money remedy.

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Now, let us go back to the Virgin Care statement, and to two paragraphs in particular:

“The commissioners refused to discuss our concerns with us and signed a contract with their new provider. Although our ideal outcome was that the process was redone properly, and everyone had a fair opportunity to win, signing the contract meant the CCG had turned this into a claim which could only be settled with the payment of damages.

“In other words, it was the NHS commissioners who made this dispute about money.”

Insofar that once a contract had been executed with the new provider, these paragraphs set out that the only legal remedy available to Virgin Care was to sue for damages.

This is probably true (though other remedies may also have been available depending on information we do not know).

But these sentences give a false impression that Virgin Care was compelled to sue.

The National Health Service commissioners “turned this into a claim which could only be settled with the payment of damages” and “it was the NHS commissioners who made this dispute about money”.

These statements are ugly, and convey an unfortunate impression of victim-blaming: it was the National Health Service that made Virgin Care bring a legal claim, Virgin Care did not want to do it, really it did not, genuinely.

Virgin Care did not have to bring a claim, and Virgin Care could have chosen not to do so.

Virgin Care, aware of “flaws” could have brought these flaws to public attention, or made a complaint, or requested an investigation.

Virgin Care could have taken the view that any litigation would be costly for the National Health Service and that it would not be a good use of the National Health Service’s scarce resources.

Virgin Care, of course, may have had the right to sue – just as McDonald’s once had the right to sue the McLibel Two.

Virgin Care may have even had a strong case, though we do not know what the alleged flaws were.

But it was entirely a decision for Virgin Care.

And as Branson now seems to admit, an “unwise” decision was taken.

*

Once the claim was brought, it appears there was a quick settlement of the legal claim, with payments reportedly totalling £2million being paid to Virgin Care.

That there was a swift settlement tells us nothing about the merits of the claim.

A public body can prudently seek to settle quickly when it faces a strong claim.

And a public body can prudently seek to settle quickly a claim with little or no merit, instead of enduring costly litigation.

We do not know the merits of the claim, despite the alleged “flaws”.

What we do know is that the reported £2million had to be found from somewhere, as it would be an amount additional to what would be paid for the contract that had been awarded.

Surrey National Heath Service would have to pay for both the services and a settlement amount on top.

Logically, the amount had to come from elsewhere in the budget (and thereby from other services.

Perhaps even services for happy smiling children.

Or it had to come form further borrowing, presumably at interest.

You may think that the National Health Service needed that money more than Virgin Care.

The defence offered by Virgin Care – and indeed by Branson – is that the £2million was given “straight back” to the National Health Service – presumably by the provision of other contracted services.

If so, this does not necessarily mean the money was given “straight back” to those same parts of the National Health Service that now had a £2million gap because of the settlement.

And you may think that the National Health Service itself was in a better position to know what to do with £2million than any external service provider exercising its selfless discretion.

You may be impressed by this defence of Branson and Virgin Care.

Or you may not be.

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What seems to have happened here is that Virgin Care “unwisely” sued Surrey National Health Service and that Branson and Virgin more widely are embarrassed by this inconvenient fact.

The adverse publicity from this legal claim certainly offsets the £2million obtained.

But what Branson and Virgin should do, in my view, is openly admit that Virgin Care cocked up by suing the National Health Service, even though it was entitled to do so.

Instead, as set out above, there has been a doubling-down.

Things are confidential which should not be confidential.

Headlines, sentences and paragraphs misdirect and misrepresent the law and the facts.

The National Health Service is made out to be to blame for a decision of Virgin Care.

All these were also decisions.

They are decisions just as “unwise” – if not more so.

Virgin Care sued the National Health Service when it did not need to do so, and since then Virgin has not been plain about what happened.

And this perhaps is “the most important thing”.

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The extraordinary Sir Simon McDonald “clarification” – a guided tour

22nd April 2020

Yesterday a senior civil servant gave evidence to a select committee.

In that evidence was a fascinating exchange, and it is worth watching carefully.

Later that day, the civil servant sent an extraordinary “clarification”.

This is a guided tour of that supposed clarification letter.

One theme of this tour is that the letter is not one would expect from a senior civil servant seeking to clarify something otherwise unclear, and that the letter instead makes the situation far less clear.

The letter also appears to have had more than one author, and it appears that it is a document negotiated between the civil servant and others.

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“EU VENTILATOR PROCUREMENT SCHEME”

The letter has a title, and it is worth noting for what follows that it is about the ventilator scheme. 

“I wanted to clarify a point…”

You may think that the point that was made to the committee was clear, and that its clarity is what caused the political fuss.

(Here it is also worth considering whether the letter was entirely voluntary, or whether the civil servant had insisted on a ministerial direction to write the letter.)

“…the EU’s Ventilator procurement scheme – the Joint Procurement Agreement”

This is where the letter starts becoming (ahem) unclear.

From the title it would seem we are looking at just one of the recent procurement rounds under the joint procurement agreement.

But the addition of the text after the hyphen makes it less clear what is about to be denied in the next paragraph.

“Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, I inadvertently and wrongly…”

Anyone who knows about how careful senior civil servants are in drafting formal documents would at this stage affect an Alan Hansen-like face discussing some footballing defensive disaster.

Some would even say that the “due to” is a tell that someone other than the civil servant was involved in drafting this letter (more on this later).

The “misunderstanding” is not stated.

The word “inadvertently” adds nothing to the “misunderstanding” and is surplus.

The word “wrongly” is vague, because it is not clear which of the following propositions is wrong.

And we are not even half way through this sentence.

“…that Ministers were briefed by UKMIS on the EU’s Joint Procurement Agreement scheme and took a political decision not to participate in it”

Something inside this text is “wrong” but it is not clear whether it wrong in part or in full.

The insertion of “by UKMIS” is eye-catching, as it means ministers could have been briefed by others.

And the text does not say Ministers were not aware – and that would have been easier to write.

The reference to “the EU’s Joint Procurement Agreement scheme” is also not clear – the United Kingdom has been a signatory to the agreement since 2014 and is still a signatory following Brexit (now along with fellow non-members Iceland, Norway and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and so the United Kingdom was (and is) already participating in it.

And what does “political decision” mean?

Why not just “decision”?

The longer this letter goes on, the less clear it becomes.

And then the next two sentences are a cracker.

“This is incorrect.”

What is incorrect?

He has already stated something is “wrong” – but surely this is not some sly double-negative?

The preceding sentence is so jumbled and tortured it is not clear what is being negated by “This is incorrect”.

“Ministers were not briefed by our mission in Brussels…”

But could have been briefed by others.

“…about the scheme…”

Which scheme?

The ventilator procurement scheme by itself, or the joint procurement agreement scheme more generally?

“…and a political decision…”

As opposed to another sort of decision?

“…was not taken on whether or not to participate”

Why is this so specific?

Was some other decision taken?

And now we come to the third paragraph of the “clarification”, where things get even more unclear.

“The facts of the situation are as previously set out.”

Where and by whom?

“Owing to…”

So the supposed author does know better than to use “due to” earlier in the letter – hmmmmm.

“…an initial communications problem…”

This is vague in two ways – why “initial” and why no express mention of the supposed email?

A communication between whom?

Between the European Union and the United Kingdom?

Or within the United Kingdom?

“…the United Kingdom did not receive an invitation in time…”

But as part of the decision-making meetings before the procurement, the United Kingdom would have been aware of the procurements.

It would not have had to have waited until the invitation to know about them.

This would be like Mr Bean being surprised when sending himself a Christmas card.

“…to join in four joint COVID EU procurement schemes.”

Notice the subtle switch to the plural – “schemes”.

This letter starts off about the ventilator scheme, then it calls the joint procurement agreement a scheme, and now it is talking about four schemes.

Which scheme does the “political decision” in the proceeding paragraph now refer to?

“As those four initial schemes had already gone out to tender we were unable to take part.”

What does “we were unable to take part” mean here?

Is it limited to the past tense?

Can we take part now?

And how does this accord with other statements about the United Kingdom now taking part?

“The Health Secretary has set out the Government’s position on this going forward.”

The ugly “going forward” indicates that someone else was involved in the drafting of this statement – no senior civil servant would happily use such a phrase in formal correspondence.

But more generally, what does this statement mean – what is the “this” in that sentence?

“…this clarification…”

This letter is the opposite of a clarification.

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Senior civil servants are, like lawyers, wordsmiths.

A formal document, such as a letter to a select committee, should be a considered, structured and coherent composition.

But this letter is all over the place (Alan Hansen wince).

The letter is tortured and awkward, and this indicates that the letter was a negotiated document – and negotiated to the point of strangulation.

The particular sentences may be all correct, but there seems to be gaps between sentences, and other things seem cloaked (especially “scheme”/”schemes”).

The overall letter smacks of evasion and misdirection.

The civil servant’s statement was clear, and this clarification is not.

Something is up here.

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