Westminster and Whitehall have a laissez-faire approach, not to the economy but to the polity.

31st July 2021

Another Saturday.

Today’s Financial Times revealed how some are paying for access to ministers and policy-makers.

Tomorrow’s Sunday newspapers will reveal more problems in respect of the government – and more about those paying for access to ministers and policy-makers.

(This, of course, follows the extraordinary and extravagant decisions by ministers and officials in respect of procurements, including in respect of the pandemic.)

And as this thread on Twitter shows, the supreme court – which will be followed by other courts – appears to be making it more difficult for policy to be subject to judicial review.

All this in the context of what this blog avers is an ‘accountability gap’ in Westminster and Whitehall in respect of the formulation and administration of policy.

It is almost like watching a landscape painting being done in reverse, with an ever greater empty space in the middle of a canvass.

The space where accountability should be.

We have an increasingly unregulated State – a laissezfaire approach, not to the economy but to the polity.

Anything goes – whatever minister and officials in each department can get away with.

Anything goes – with only the lightest supervision by the judiciary and the legislature, and with many supervisory bodies rendered impotent.

And when anything goes, all sorts of things will go on.

**

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Why both the Science Museum and Shell were unwise to agree to a ‘gagging’ clause

30th July 2021

Last night Channel 4 news revealed that the science museum in London had agreed to a ‘gagging’ – or non-disparagement – clause in a sponsorship agreement with Shell.

This revelation has been a reputational disaster for both parties.

Here is Greta Thunburg:

In my view, both parties deserve this flak – as it was an unwise provision to have in such an agreement.

They only have themselves to blame.

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One difference between a good contract lawyer and a wise contract lawyer is to know the difference between a provision being available for an agreement and a provision being appropriate for such an agreement.

The agreement here was a sponsorship agreement – and in the normal course of things, and as between private commercial parties, such a non-disparagement clause would be unexceptional.

Such a clause does two things.

First, it expressly regulates what a party can and cannot do.

Second, it provides an express basis for terminating a contract (or for some other legal remedy) if the provision is breached.

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In this particular case, Shell could well have ‘taken a view’  – to use a common commercial lawyers’ phrase – on the risk of whether the science museum would disparage Shell.

And if so, whether Shell would really want to rely on such an express provision in ending the sponsorship agreement.

Yes: there was a risk of disparagement – but did it really need to be dealt with on the face of the agreement?

Really?

Or was it a risk that could be better managed by other, less legalistic means?

A far greater risk – and one which was entirely foreseeable, and indeed has to come to pass – is that the clause itself would be disclosed.

Shell was contracting with a public body in a highly sensitive political and media context.

There was a strong chance – indeed a virtual certainty – that at some point the terms of the sponsorship agreement would enter the public domain.

And when this happened, that the reputational fall-out would be far worse than any disparagement that the clause itself would ever manage.

The insertion of such a clause in such an agreement was a media catastrophe in the making.

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Some lawyers may bleat that such a clause was ‘reasonable’ – and they are right insofar that such a clause would be sensible in a normal sponsorship agreement between private parties.

But the very same provision can be absolutely lacking in reasonableness in this media and policy sensitive context.

To the extent there was any serious risk of disparagement by the science museum of Shell, then Shell should have taken the view that there were far better and less legalistic means of addressing the risk.

And the science museum should in turn have insisted that there should be no clause that would limit their ability to discuss any of the issues relevant to the sponsorship.

In essence: this was not a contractual clause that Shell should have insisted on.

And it certainly one to which the science museum should not have agreed.

**

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The urban legend of the boiled frog, Loki’s branching timelines, and public policy after Brexit

29th July 2021

I am still putting together my detailed piece on the Lugano Convention issue.

This is about how the European Commission has effectively vetoed the United Kingdom’s late (and panicked) application for participation in an arrangement for enforcing judgments in European Union and EFTA member states.

The piece looks at the causes of the current predicament – but also at the consequences.

The ‘so what?’ of any law and policy situation.

And sometimes the ‘so what?’ is not urgent and immediate – it is not eye-catching and headline-prompting and retweet-generating.

But it is serious all along.

And one only notices when it is too late.

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Here the usual analogy is with the poor boiling frogs of urban folklore.

In reality, of course, the frogs, like other animals, would escape if they can when in ever-hotter water.

But a good analogy will never die, even if immersed in boiling water.

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Another analogy – which is currently uppermost in the minds of fantasy and comics geeks (like me) – is that of branching timelines.

In Loki – a wonderful piece of television – the conceit is that there is an omnipotent and omniscient bureaucratic authority that monitors and regulates the timelines of the universe(s).

From time to time (pun intended), a thing happens on a timeline of a universe that means that there are stark deviations to that timeline.

And when those deviations in turn mean that there are significant new branches of reality, the bureaucrats-in-uniform intervene to correct the timeline.

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Brexit is a new branching timeline in the history of the public policy of the United Kingdom.

Our public policy is now diverging from European Union public policy – slightly at first, and only becoming obvious over time.

But over that time, there will be many multiplying differences and discrepancies.

Those gaps will become wider and deeper.

But we are not in Loki.

There may not be some big-bang ‘nexus’ event to alert everyone to the huge gaps that will soon exist.

And we also do not have a time variance authority to step in to return us to the ‘sacred’ timeline from which we have departed.

We do not have the fantasy of some omnipotent and omniscient authority (and still less an omnibenevolent one).

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This lack of a big-bang ‘nexus’ event is something, perhaps, that those campaigning for the United Kingdom to (re)join the European Union will not have as an advantage.

There may be no one spectacular sudden public policy failure to to which they can point.

Just a thousand inconveniences and misadventures, which will be endured and resented, but that will not mobilise and motivate a political movement.

We will be stuck with it.

We will be like a frog, but not one able to jump from boiling water

Instead, we will be a frog trapped in a bottle of our own making

**

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Exclusion from the Lugano convention – is this the legal cost of political toxicity?

28th July 2021

I am currently putting together a piece on the United Kingdom’s exclusion from the Lugano Convention, following Brexit.

The convention provides for the enforcement of judgments in European Union and (all but one) EFTA states – in essence, a judgment of a court in the United Kingdom can be enforced in Italy or Denmark and so on.

Without the convention, enforcement of a domestic judgment is less easy – and far more expensive and time-consuming.

The United Kingdom is seeking to re-join the convention from outside the European Union – but the European Union is effectively vetoing the application.

See this CNN thread here:

One thread in this sequence struck me – and my upcoming piece will be an assessment as to whether such a serious charge is valid:

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If there is validity in this charge then this is indeed a concrete – and consequential – example of the ‘moral hazard’ of which this blog has previously warned.

Such infantile politics must have seemed very clever at the time – with claps and cheers from political and media supporters – but now the effects could be manifesting.

What is less clear is whether this is a serious legal problem as well as a political failure – will it make much difference in legal practice?

Or is its legal significance overblown – event if it is a political embarrassment?

I will post a link to my piece in a day or two when it is published.

**

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We need a stop-and-think approach to policy, not a stop-and-search policy

27th July 2021

Today there was a crime policy announcement.

Yet again, something or other will be ‘tougher’.

Like historians who say the middle class is always rising and the gentry always declining, crime policy is always getting ‘tougher’.

How can anybody involved in formulating and promoting this ‘policy’ keep a straight face?

Even the details of the policy are risible.

Pure ‘law and order’ theatre.

Convicts in high-vis jackets – for show.

A police officer with contact details – for show.

Stop-and-search policies without the need for suspicion – for ‘confidence’.

No thought, no substance – no thinking about rehabilitation, no thinking about a sensible and proportionate drugs policy.

And none of this new.

It is a staple for home secretaries of both main parties to want to introduce -in effect – the public humiliation of chain gangs.

As if that would have any beneficial effect for anyone.

There is already a police officer designated in charge of a case.

And indiscriminate stop-and-search creates tensions and conflicts in communities – and leads to the lack of confidence in the police.

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All shallow-showy or counter-productive stuff.

Nothing serious, even from a ‘small-c’ conservative perspective, let alone from a sensible liberal perspective.

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What we need is not a stop-and-search policy but a stop-and-think policy.

But – as this blog has previously averred – we have politicians more interested in ‘Law and Order!’ – complete with capitals and an exclamation mark – than actual law and order.

This is newspaper column material – but without even a reasonable suspicion of serious policy.

Appropriately, the best response was from cobblers:

**

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Politics v law and policy – a response to Dominic Cummings

26th July 2021

Late last night, Dominic Cummings posted this tweet, with a screengrab of a tweet from me from March 2019:

As a change from my usual daily blogpost, here is my thread in response:

Happy to deal with any comments below.

**

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Threats to doctors and nurses and lifeboat crews – and why laws and law enforcement are not enough

25th July 2021

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‘…we are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making an enemy of our own future.’

– Marwood, Withnail and I

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Every so often it seems that the culture wars are coming to an end, and then you get extraordinary things like this:

A speaker tells a crowd in Trafalgar Square that doctors and nurses should be ‘hung’.

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People are abusing lifeboat crews.

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Doctors and nurses and lifeboat crews are perhaps the last individuals that would be insulted and threatened in a decent modern society.

Without any of the mirth of the Withnail and I film, we can echo the sentiment that our country is drifting (ever further) into area of the unwell.

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Those who defend such abuse may seek to say that it is only ‘freedom of speech’.

But no society has absolute free speech.

An immediate verbal threat of harm is not a protected speech act – just as forging a cheque or planning a robbery are not protected speech acts.

And dealing with threats to inflict hurt on other humans is what the law has, in part, always been about.

But to say a thing is against the law is not the same as saying the law would be effective in prohibiting such abuse.

Indeed, the laws as they stand would cover such utterances – and the law has not deterred the threats from being made.

And even if individuals were arrested and convicted, there is no reason to believe the nastiness of the culture wars would abate.

The ultimate issue here is not a public order problem with a neat legal solution.

The issue is cultural and political and social – and so only looking to the law would be an error.

There is a need for cultural and political and social leadership: for arguments to be won, and for behaviours to be discredited.

Laws and law enforcement will be part of that, of course, but they are not a complete answer, or close to it.

Once we are deep inside the arena of the unwell, there is no set of law suits or prosecutions with which we can bound free.

Those who threaten doctors and nurses and lifeboat crews should be prosecuted fully and fearlessly.

But such prosecutions would not make the problem go away.

Something deeper and more disturbing is afoot.

Brace, brace.

**

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Why ‘there’s been so little thinking about this’ – the accountability gap again

24th July 2021

Read this tweet about Whitehall.

 

This sentiment also could have expressed many times during the course of Brexit.

This general thoughtlessness is now a feature of political decision-making and (lack of) policy-making in the United Kingdom – at least in that part which is governed from Whitehall and subject to the (lack of) scrutiny of the parliament in Westminster.

How has this come to pass?

One safe assumption is that human nature – even in the context of politics – has not changed.

Politicians – like people generally – will tend to be thoughtless unless there is a reason not to be.

Politicians will tend to seek to get away with what they can.

If this assumption is valid, then the question is what enables politicians to get away with such thoughtlessness.

Perhaps politicians have always been like this – one can think of the Poll Tax or the invasion of Iraq – as illustrations of thoughtlessness in policy-making.

Perhaps it is that Brext and Covid have both been so destabilising, all that has happened is that the general political gormlesssness has been exposed by being thrown into relief.

Perhaps.

But it also can be contended that – as this blog has averred many times – there is an accountability gap within the United Kingdom polity.

This means government departments know there is little or nothing to check and balance misdirections, misadventures and maladministration.

This gap – even if it has always been there – appears to be widening.

Ministers are now open in their disdain for parliament and for serious media scrutiny: they do not even now pretend.

The cabinet office increasingly seems to brazenly revel in being obstructive in respect of freedom of information and parliamentary select committees.

The public ombudsman system – expressly responsible for investigating maladministration – is so impotent that it may as well not exist.

And even those bodies which do show spirit and dedication in holding the government to account – some select committees and the national audit office – are ignored by ministers and much of media.

In between general elections there is no real accountability – and even the policy mandates conferred in general elections are ignored.

In all these circumstances, the wonder is not that we have so much thoughtlessness in the making of decisions and policy – but that we ever get any at all.

**

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The ejection of a Member of Parliament for pointing out the lies of the Prime Minister is a practical example of the function-failure of the UK constitution

The suspension of the member of parliament Dawn Butler from the house of commons is a significant example of the function-failure of the constitution of the United Kingdom.

Butler’s suspension was because she called the prime minister a liar on the floor of the house of commons.

But as the current prime minister casually and freely lies in the house of commons (and elsewhere) this suspension creates a constitutional mismatch.

In essence: there is no real sanction for a prime minister (or other member of parliament) for lying to the house of commons, while there is a real sanction for those members of parliament who point it out.

It is an extraordinary – and counter-intuitive – constitutional predicament.

There is something very wrong here.

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How did we get into this mess?

First, it must be understood and accepted that there is a problem with prime ministerial dishonesty.

Perhaps there always has been – and our current prime minister is no worse than his predecessors – but even if this shruggy view is accepted, there is no doubt the current prime minister lies and lies.

That Hamlet’s father and Jacob Marley were both dead to begin with, and that Boris Johnson  lies, are fundaments in English culture.

One source for the prime minister’s ongoing dishonesty is this particularised, non-sensational list put forward by leaders of six parties in the house of commons to the speaker:

There are similar examples in almost every session of prime minister’s questions.

A more sensational compendium is in this widely viewed video from Peter Stefanovic:

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The reason to emphasise the prime minister’s actual dishonesty as a real concern is that the supposedly pragmatic constitution of the United Kingdom is supposedly good at practical (if inelegant) solutions to actual problems.

This, we are told by constitutional fogeys, is why our constitution is cuts above the formal codified constitutions of foreigners with their ‘rigid’ rules.

Well.

Here is an actual constitutional problem in need of a practical ‘flexible’ solution – and we ain’t got one.

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The second aspect of the problem is that the rules of parliament (which are distinct from the law of the land) in effect prohibit members of parliament from accusing other members of parliament of dishonesty – regardless of whether there is any dishonesty.

It would even be against parliamentary rules to say of a member of parliament that they are a liar even if the lies have been admitted.

The formal guide to the rules of parliament is known as Erskine May, and the relevant passage about accusations of dishonesty is:

‘Expressions when used in respect of other Members which are regarded with particular seriousness, generally leading to prompt intervention from the Chair and often a requirement on the Member to withdraw the words, include the imputation of false or unavowed motives; the misrepresentation of the language of another and the accusation of misrepresentation; and charges of uttering a deliberate falsehood.’

This is not an absolute bar to making accusations of dishonesty against other members of parliament – there is a formal but ineffective way:

‘If a Member wishes to pursue accusations of a kind not permitted because of these principles, the proper course is to table a distinct motion about the conduct of the other Member.’

The issue with such a motion is that – even if passed: so what?

Erskine May also does have a section on misleading the house, which provides:

‘The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.’

To which the issue again is: so what?

One may as well cast a line into the Thames, catch an improbable and unpolluted fish, and slap that unfortunate fish on the dispatch box.

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The wider predicament is that the constitution of the United Kingdom is premised on what the historian Peter Hennessy has long characterised as the ‘good chap’ theory of government.

Here is Hennessy’s phrase being used back in the innocent days of 2005 where the concern was merely memoirs by former officials.

More recently, in 2019, here is Hennessy and another author explaining in detail the failures of the ‘good chap’ theory – a report which should be read by anyone with an interest in constitutional affairs.

In essence: the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom work as an honour-based system based on those with power exercising self-restraint.

All it takes is a knave to disrupt and undermine the system – and there is nothing within the system to check and balance such knavery.

This complacency is why there are more ready sanctions against those who accuse ministers of dishonesty than there is against the dishonesty of ministers – for the latter, according to constitutional fiction would not (or should not) happen.

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There is merit in having a general rule against lightly making serious accusations in the houses of parliament.

But the counterpoint to such a rule is that there should be a practical means of addressing the problem of ministerial dishonesty.

Otherwise we have the current situation: wonky, lop-sided and discrediting.

That Butler should face a serious a sanction while Johnson does not defies common sense and it should should defy our constitutional arrangements too.

Some may say all this shows that there is a need for a ‘written’ (or codified) constitution.

But the solution to this problem does even not need such a drastic (and unlikely) change – and the problem of executive dishonesty happens in states with written constitutions too.

The solution would be for constitutionalism to (again) be taken seriously by politicians generally.

Constitutionalism (a theme of this blog) is the notion that there are political rules and principle that are above partisanship.

The reason why the prime minister can get away with such dishonesty is that a majority of the house of commons let him.

If a majority of the house averred that such conduct was unacceptable, regardless of party or faction, then the speaker would have the powers to address the issue.

As it stands, the speaker is given the powers to deal with accusations of dishonesty, but not the dishonesty itself.

It would not need a written constitution to solve this problem.

It would instead take resolution – and, literally, resolutions.

It would need members of parliament to take constitutionalism seriously.

And until members of parliament take constitutionalism seriously again, we are going to have the now-familiar sight of our dishonest prime minister sitting safely at the dispatch box, dismissively shaking his head – while those who point out his lies are ejected.

And that is because the constitution is dismissively shaking its head too.

**

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Explaining the attack on judicial activism that never happened – three theories

22nd July 2021

The great theatre critic Kenneth Tynan said somewhere that any good theatre critic can describe what the the theatre of their day was doing – the challenge was to explain what the theatre of their day was not doing but could be doing, and why.

This is the same challenge for all commentators, including those of us who seek to explain what is happening – and not happening – with law and policy.

And, as this blog described yesterday, there one thing that is not happening is the government not making a full frontal attack on judicial review in the new courts  bill published yesterday.

(On this, see also Helen Mountfield QC at Prospect today.)

It is always weird when nothing happens when something is expected to happen.

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“Without venturing for Scrooge quite as hardily as this, I don’t mind calling on you to believe that he was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances, and that nothing between a baby and rhinoceros would have astonished him very much.

‘Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling.’

– from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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Law and policy commentators were yesterday expectant of a rhinoceros, if not a baby.

So what was finally published – a mild piece of legislation – has given us a fit of trembling.

What have we missed?

And what can explain what happened?

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So far there are three broad theories.

The first is that this is a political false flag.

That the government has an illiberal plan – but for some reason is misdirecting us with this bill.

And indeed, as the eminent admiralty law jurist Gial Ackbar once averred, some things can be a trap.

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Could the ministry of justice really be planning to introduce a raft of amendments late in the passage of the bill, so as to force illiberal measures through?

One would hope not – and one expects ministry of justice officials and lawyers to have more dignity than their home office counterparts.

And – in general terms – bills often start off more contentious than they end, so it would be unusual for such a game of constitutional bait and switch.

That said, one should not let one’s laser field down: this government will seek to be illiberal if it can get away with it.

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If it is not a trap, there are two other possible broad explanations.

One is that put forward by this blog yesterday – which I will call the DAG theory, if only to distinguish me from Ackbar.

This theory is government-facing – and goes to the notion that there is (or was) actually a problem of judicial activism being a myth.

I first put this argument forward in my Prospect column last year, where I set out why there was a discrepancy between the (supposed) fears of the government (and its political and media supporters) and the reality of mundane administrative law decisions.

It would thereby not be a surprise that when the government came to actually legislate – rather than speechify – there was no real problem to solve with primary legislation.

The government had walked up a stair and passed a problem that was not there, and the problem was not there either yesterday, and indeed it had gone away.

If so, this is a similar to previous situations, where the government has sought to ‘reform’ the human rights act or to deal with ‘compensation culture’.

It is always difficult to make laws against turnip-ghosts.

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But there is a third theory, which you may find more plausible than either Ackbar’s or my own.

And that was put forward on Twitter by Alexander Horne.

Instead of my government-facing explanation, Horne argues that it is the policy of the courts that has changed.

And that because there is now no problem of judicial activism, it follows there is no need for a solution.

Horne makes good points.

There is certainly a shift in the supreme court under the new president Lord Reed – and Reed is, as this blog set out in a previous post, a judge who can write that judges should give the assessments of the home secretary more respect with a straight face.

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Where Horne and I agree is that there is currently no problem of judicial activism that needs solving – the difference between us is that I aver it was a turnip-ghost all along.

Whichever theory is correct – Ackbar, DAG or Horne – there will be some commentators and campaigners who will contend that even the two proposed reforms are too much, and that they must be opposed loudly and brashly, and deploying the language of constitutional conflict.

But a good advocate knows that one should choose one’s battles.

The government’s proposals should still have the benefit of anxious scrutiny – just in case Ackbar is correct.

But one should be wary that the language of fundamental opposition to the government be devalued, for if is wasted here then it will have less purchase when it is needed.

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A final word to the Judicial Power Project – a group with the strange view that the primary problem in the United Kingdom constitutional is judicial power and not the lack of checks and balances on either the executive or the legislature.

It would appear that the Judicial Power Project are underwhelmed with the reforms they have so long campaigned for.

You would need a heart of stone not to laugh.

**

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