The government’s Brexit problems were foreseeable and foreseen – but ministers did not care and went ahead anyway

12th June 2021

Some things remain true even when they are said again, and again, and again.

One of these truths is that a Brexit done at speed was never going to go well – and that the government of the United Kingdom refusing extensions (either to the Article 50 period or the transition arrangements) was gross irresponsible idiocy.

Ministers placed themselves under self-inflicted pressure and suffered self-imposed weaknesses.

All to ‘get Brexit done’.

Another of these truths is that if the United Kingdom left the single market then one of three things would have to happen.

Either the United Kingdom would have to stay aligned with the single market anyway, or there would be a border on the Irish mainland, or there would be a border in the Irish Sea.

Any other possibility would be fanciful, if not fantasy.

A further truth is that there was little point going through with Brexit until and unless the United Kingdom had a settled and realistic view of what would then follow, in terms of its relationship both with the European Union and with the rest of the world, and in terms of what would happen in respect of Northern Ireland.

But on this basis the United Kingdom still does not know what we want, though we want something.

The only possible merit, from a Brexit point of view, of this rushed, muddled and directionless Breixt is that, if the process had lasted any longer, it may well have been reversed.

There may have been other Brexits possible in theory, but this was perhaps the only one possible given the politics before the 2019 general election.

This is not a merit from any sensible and objective view, but perhaps it explains why this botched Brexit did happen, instead of any other.

All to ‘get Brexit done’.

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

11th June 2021

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

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What does he mean?

And does he have a point?

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

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

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

To a certain extent, he has a point.

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

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

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

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Judges and courts are not stupid and naive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pram may well have fallen down the stairs anyway.

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Beware Lord Frost’s ‘legal purism’ line – for it means a disregard for the rule of law and is strategically unwise

 9th June 2021

There is a new line-to-take.

This line is that a requirement to comply with legal obligations is to be dismissed as ‘legal purism’.

This line is being promoted at the moment by Brexit minister Lord Frost in respect of the obligations of the United Kingdom under the Northern Irish Protocol (obligations that, of course, Frost himself negotiated and endorsed).

Frost avers that for the European Union to require the United Kingdom to comply with this obligations is to take a ‘purist’ approach.

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For many years the United Kingdom was protected from the European Union’s legal(istic) approach to its engagement with ‘third countries’.

As one of the big three member states, it generally got its way internally, and had a number of opt-outs for things it did not like.

Trade agreements were left to the European Commission to negotiate: the United Kingdom just benefitted from the results like a teenager benefiting from the washing and ironing magically being done.

And now we are on the outside – looking in on an international organisation that, more than any other in the world, is a creature of law.

And the European Union takes law very seriously.

We are going to have to get used to it.

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That said: it is not unusual for a party to a serious agreement to want to re-negotiate terms.

And mocking Frost for wanting to change something he so recently approved can only go so far, and it does not rid us of his perceived concerns.

Perhaps there is a case for the protocol to be amended, or perhaps not.

But, either way, it is a folly for him to approach the problem by dismissing legal obligations as ‘purist’.

For, if this is the United Kingdom’s casual approach to law, why would one expect the United Kingdom to abide by any replacement legal obligations?

By attacking the very notion of legal compliance, Frost is not helping the long-term interests of the United Kingdom.

What he is doing is a silly thing, and he should not go there.

The rule of law matters – pure and simple.

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How Neil Gaiman kept control of the Sandman characters

8th June 2021

How can a creator keep control of the characters they create when the intellectual property in those characters are owned by others?

In the DC and Marvel universes there are thousands of characters, the intellectual property rights in which are owned and exploited (and tightly policed) by the relevant corporations.

Usually the creators – writers and artists – will be subject to contractual provisions that assign the intellectual property rights in the characters they create to the corporation hiring them for their work.

(Note that there is not really an ‘intellectual property right’ in characters as such – what we are talking about here is a mish-mash of copyright, trade marks and other legal rights that, taken together, mean that the rights holder can prevent anyone else from using the character.)

Much of the time this does not cause any problems.

But it means that usually creators lose control of their creations – and sometimes this can be rather a shame.

For example, Jack Kirby radically extended the DC universe with his New Gods – but now the characters he created are just part of the DC universe, and Darkseid is just another supervillain among others.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen characters – who were carefully placed in their own self-contained world – have now also (and regrettably) been put into the DC universe, and Dr Manhattan is now just one super-duper powered character among others.

But.

There is one group of characters owned by DC that have not been absorbed into the wider universe and made available for other writers and artists to exploit.

These are the Sandman characters created by Neil Gaiman (and various artists).

The character ‘Death’ has not become a member of the Justice League, and “Destruction’ has not been brought out of retirement to battle with Darkseid and Dr Manhattan.

The Sandman world has somehow kept its integrity – even though (a) it would be commercially valuable for DC to exploit the characters in other titles and (b) nothing at law could stop DC from doing what it likes with its characters.

So why has the Sandman world not gone the way of the New Gods and Watchmen and been squeezed dry by the Warner corporation (that owns DC) seeking to maximise profits from its assets?

This has long puzzled me.

And so I asked Neil Gaiman himself:

And – wonderfully – he replied and at length – and the reasons are interesting:

‘It goes in several stages (and could go away tomorrow).

‘1988-1992 Sandman was selling. Nobody quite knew what I was doing. Whatever it was it was working. I had no power or control, but DC people were fans and Dave McKean and I had won a battle not to have Morpheus on covers.

1992-1994 Vertigo happened, and Sandman was the Vertigo flagship title. People wanted to know what would happen when Sandman was done, and I’d explain that if DC let it end then, I’d keep working with DC. If not, I wouldn’t. And the powers at DC wanted to keep me on board. And graphic novels collections of ongoing comics were, as of The Doll’s House, a thing. And they were selling and selling. So the loss of an ongoing comic wasn’t a disaster.

‘1995-2015 Sandman is allowed to end. I do occasional books for DC. In 2003 ENDLESS NIGHTS is the first graphic novel to turn up on the NYT bestseller list. Paul Levitz (and Diane Nelson, when Paul leaves) and Karen Berger, and when Karen leaves, Shelly Bond are always supportive.

‘Meanwhile many attempts to make Sandman movies and TV happen and fail, without my involvement.

‘Warners was always aware that Sandman is, in their words, a jewel in the crown, and once Good Omens had happened, and they realised that I knew what I was doing in TV more or less, they realised that it would be better for Sandman if I were actively making it.

‘I’ve always been aware that they own the characters I created for them when I was 26, and legally can do whatever they want with them.

‘But I’ve tried to make it a more attractive proposition for them to work with me than to end the working relationship, and they’ve always stepped up.’

[Lightly edited – the original tweets are here.]

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This is absolutely fascinating from an intellectual property law perspective.

Scheherazade-like, Neil Gaiman used commercial and creative imperatives to keep achieving what he could not enforce at law.

And Warner has had the wit and sense not to just exploit these particular assets in the way they had done with the Watchmen characters.

(Though the recent Watchmen television series shows how allowing another great creator access to prized characters can sometimes work well.)

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There is a misconceived notion that intellectual property rights in characters (and not just comic book characters) always have to be exploited to the full.

Had Warner freely exploited the Sandman characters as it had done with others, we would now be unlikely to have the upcoming Sandman series with Neil Gaiman as show-runner.

Sometimes holding off exercising legal powers leads to better outcomes.

For, as the eminent jurist Benjamin Parker always averred, with great power comes great responsibility.

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

7th June 2021

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

This post is not about that person.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All very dramatic.

But nothing came of it.

No charges were brought.

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless the CPS insisted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Prime Minister’s disregard for rules-based regimes

6th June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5th June 2021

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

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

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

But.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The journalist Marcus Leroux showed one recently on Twitter.

First, the question:

Then the answer given:

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

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

And here is the good (and fun) kicker:

The directive never existed.

It is a ghost directive.

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

Leroux continues:

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

Cogito ergonomics sum – or not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Computer says ‘guilty’ – the scandals contained within the Post Office miscarriage of justice scandal

 4th June 2021

One of the successful appeal barristers in the Post Office miscarriage of justice scandal has given a powerful and important speech, which you should click on and read here.

Almost every paragraph contains devastating stuff – mistake and abuse, after mistake and abuse.

So immense a miscarriage of justice was the whole affair that it is difficult to get one’s mind around the scale of what went wrong.

I think there were three particular scandals that comprise the wider scandal – though this is not an exhaustive list.

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One scandal is the extent of what went wrong and how long it took for anything to be put right – the number of people involved and affected, and the length of time it has taken for there to be any justice.

Here it should also be noted that had it not been for exemplary judging in the civil case by Mr Justice Fraser, there may still not be anything approximating any justice in this case.

A huge, horrible system failure of the English legal system.

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A second scandal is just how many managers and lawyers in the Post Office knew that there were injustices – or did not care that there were injustices – but pressed on with the prosecutions and resisting the civil claims anyway.

Here the failure is not so much of a system but of individual professional decisions made by many who could and did know better.

The aggregate effect of all these bad decisions was immense – but each decision could and should have been different.

It is not good enough for those who made those bad decisions to hide behind any system failures – each should be held accountable for their individual decisions.

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A third scandal is the most basic of all – and is more fundamental than the failure of the legal system and the failures of managers and lawyers.

This scandal is about human credulity.

This scandal is about how mere shortfalls on a computer system were capable of being sufficient evidence in-and-of-itself for postmasters and postmistresses to be criminalised.

Computer says: guilty.

Here the scandal is not about systems or decisions – but about the nature of evidence and proof itself.

A problem of general gullibility.

As the appeal barrister Paul Marshall says in his speech:

‘One of the features of these miscarriages of justice is that, in almost all cases, the only evidence against the defendant in question was a shortfall shown in the Horizon computer system.   If you remember only one thing from this talk, bear in mind that writing on a bit of paper in evidence is only marks on a piece of paper until first, someone explains what it means and, second, if it is a statement of fact, someone proves the truth of that fact.  

‘The simplest explanation for the Post Office scandal is that documents generated by the Horizon computer system were routinely treated by lawyers and judges as though statements of fact that were true, without bothering to consider how their truth should be established.  It was taken as given that what a computer record showed was correct. The shallowness of this approach is reprehensible.’

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Even if the legal system had worked better, and even if Post Office managers and lawyers had made better decisions, there was always going to be a problem if such uncritical deference was given to computer records.

A computer should never be the one to, in effect, pronounce guilt.

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Blogging and comments

3rd June 2021

Yesterdays post on the proposed National Flagship was popular – and under the post are a number of informed, informative and insightful comments, many of which are far more interesting than the head post.

The pride I take in blogging is not so much in my own posts – the quality of which will vary, depending on the topic and on the time and energy and available – but in the comments which my posts can elicit.

In particular, it is wonderful when a post prompts comments that not only add substantially to a discussion but also may not exist for the benefit of others but for the head post.

And that is also why I pre-moderate my comments, taking as much care over which comments are published as newspaper used to take over the ‘letters to the editor’ which were published.

(I approve about nineteen out of every twenty comments – because the moderation policy deters daft and dappy commenters event trying.)

So rather than read a law and policy post from me today, may I encourage you to go back to yesterday’s post and take time to read the comments.