We must reel in Grayling and his legal reforms

image

Kat Houghton

Since they were revealed, Chris Grayling’s legal aid reforms have been met with widespread criticism. Recently the Justice Secretary was forced to drop his plan to prevent those receiving legal aid from choosing their own solicitors: a state interference which Tory backbenchers argued was ‘un-Conservative’. However, many still have deep misgivings about Mr. Grayling’s other proposals. These criticisms share a common complaint: that little or no consideration has been given to possible ramifications for the justice system.

For example, there are concerns that by creating one fee for criminal trials, there will be a conflict between the financial benefits of a client pleading guilty and the client’s best interests. Another worry is that the proposed 75% reduction in legal aid firms would lead to the collapse of small firms which provide vital specialised legal advice. Some, such as Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson, have argued that the £37,500 eligibility threshold would lead to an increased number of unrepresented defendants. In 1995, the Equal Opportunity Tribunal of New South Wales compared the length of trials where both parties were represented with those where only one side had representation, and discovered that trials where the claimant was unrepresented lasted twice as long from referral to completion.

As the Australian legal system is closely modelled on our own, it is likely that similar patterns would occur in the UK. The difference in trial length is in part due to the lack of legal training that lay people have. I recently witnessed a case of unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal with an unrepresented claimant. Proceedings were frequently halted when the claimant struggled to find evidence in a poorly organised set of notes, and the judge was repeatedly required to provide lengthy explanations of legal terminology and procedure. An influx of unrepresented defendants would likely lead to an increase in costs, not a reduction.

On the other hand, it cannot be ignored that there are cuts that need to be made to the Ministry of Justice’s budget. Fortunately, there are more effective ways of reducing costs by modernising procedure and increasing efficiency. Unfortunately, Mr Grayling appears to have overlooked these. In 2006, the National Audit Office reported that “£173 million was spent last year on trials and hearings in magistrates’ courts that did not go ahead as planned”. There are many reasons that trials are delayed or adjourned. During my time as a mini-pupil I saw trials delayed due to simple administrative errors, such as misplaced documents or failure to book interpreters. In making improvements to the process by which cases are prepared for trial, many of these administrative errors could be avoided. 

In 2012, the National Audit Office published a report on local projects’ attempts to improve the Criminal Justice System. In Kent, a trial system was run which attempted to reduce the number of processes between charging a defendant and a trial at Crown Court, reducing the chance for administrative error and improving victim and witness care. Under the project, trial readiness increased from 45 per cent to 70 per cent: an additional 250 trials ready to proceed when they reach court. In Warwickshire, the Justice Centre was created to provide a “‘one-stop shop’ for services to victims, witnesses, suspects and the wider community”. By housing services such as Warwickshire Crown Prosecution Service and victim and witness support in the same building, the hope was to share resources and simplify the procedure for victims and witnesses. The results indicated the project would annually produce around £650,000 of non-cashable savings and around £800,000 of cashable savings, as well as improving effective trial rates and witness care.

Put simply, there are possible ways of reducing legal spending without damaging the legal system.

The legal aid proposals are currently undergoing review, with a debate in Westminster Hall and a published second consultation on the finalised proposals due in September. The reasons for success in the projects listed in the report above include “good strategic governance structure” and “establishing a sound understanding of the needs of service users before commissioning services”. Perhaps if Mr Grayling were to learn from other successful projects and be mindful of the long-term impact his reforms will have on those who require legal aid, he will be able to produce an efficient and fair system of which we can all be proud.

Human Rights Act: Some questions for Mr Grayling and Mrs May

Craig Prescott 10.51am

Over the weekend, Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, indicated that a Conservative majority government could repeal the Human Rights Act. Meanwhile, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has suggested withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) itself.

These are two very different things, and there is some muddled thinking involved here; but if both were to be pursued the policy could be called ‘Withdrawal and Repeal’.

As Mr Grayling has admitted himself, there needs to be a lot of work put in to the detail (to put it mildly). But as work towards possible 2015 manifesto pledges starts, here are some questions and issues that need to be considered.

  1. Why? It can’t be for political advantage. At the last election, 3.1 per cent of people voted for a political party who advocated ‘Withdraw and Repeal’, namely UKIP. By contrast, a combined 52 per cent of the electorate voted for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who did not. Whatever Mr Grayling and Mrs May may think, the electorate has shown time and time again disinterest in tinkering with constitutional matters. This does not look like a massive vote winner to me, in face of more pressing matters such as living standards and the broader economy.
  2. Replacement? A British Bill of Rights has been suggested, but to what end? The content of such a Bill of Rights is likely to be similar, if not identical, to the content with one or two additions (such as a right to a jury trial) to make such a document ‘British’. Take a look at the Articles incorporated into English Law by the HRA, the Right to Life, Prohibition of Torture, Prohibition of Slavery and Forced Labour and the Right to a Fair Trial and so on. Would you like to live in a country that does not provide in law for these  protections? As one of the finest judges of recent times, Lord Bingham stated in his book the Rule of Law, countries that do not make such protection in law tend not to the best of places to live. Belarus or North Korea? Another issue is how are the courts going to interpret any such legislation. Experience before the HRA suggests that on the whole, the courts will take notice of the ECHR, as they do of other international treaties and case-law for interpretative guidance.
  3. Leave it to Parliament? If ‘Withdrawal and Repeal’ is pursued, then the position will be more akin to the days before the HRA, but without a route of appeal to Strasbourg. This is a dangerous option, as it risks pitting the courts and Parliament in direct opposition. It is easy to think that human rights began with the HRA, but that neglects the strong - if imperfect - vein in the common law that protected people’s rights before the HRA. One could go back to the 17th century, but during the 1990s the courts began to recognise at common law certain rights as being of ‘fundamental’ status, such as access to justice. This fundamental status means that the courts require strong signals from Parliament before the courts hold that they can be interfered with. This is an open-ended category of right, creating a clear risk of an ongoing conflict between the courts and Parliament, potentially giving more scope to the courts, the exact opposite of what the Lord Chancellor, Mr Grayling, wants. Such an approach would be destined not to end well.

There are other issues to consider. The devolved institutions are required under the devolution framework to comply with the ECHR at all times. Any amendment of this requirement is likely to require their approval, which the Commission on the Bill of Rights indicates will not necessarily be forthcoming as approval of the ECHR is generally seems to be higher outside of England than within it. (This raises concerns that the Conservative Party becoming ever more an English, and not British Party). Further, the EU is engaged in an ongoing process to become a signatory to the ECHR, meaning that even if ‘Withdraw and Repeal’ is pursued, the ECHR will still be a highly relevant to UK law as long as Britain remains a member.

All of the above is not to say that the human rights architecture of the UK and Europe is perfect. Far from it. There are issues over the length of time it takes to hear cases, and the number of appeals possible in human rights litigation are both issues about which courts themselves have voiced concerns. A close look at the process shows that the vast majority of the time, it is these problems which lie at the root of problems with human rights. After all Abu Hamza still got deported to America. Is it really necessary to embark on such a hazardous journey, jeopardising a central tenet of the unwritten constitution that Parliament and the courts respond to each other in a dialogue and understanding, to solve a problem which for the vast majority of the electorate is simply not there?

Ultimately, the problem that Mr Grayling as Lord Chancellor (who has a duty to uphold the rule of law) needs to grapple with is that some human rights are innate in the liberal democracy to which he wishes to belong and to strengthen. Any human rights apparatus constructed does not create rights but merely recognises them.

Craig Prescott is a member of the School of Law at the University of Manchester. Follow him on Twitter @craigprescott

The Decay of Relativism: Man is flattened for the good of Man

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 10.49am

Western history, almost uniquely universal in its claims, marches us up inexorably to the guilt of the twentieth century and hastily concludes that no idea or value should ever be worth harming a person for.

Man must therefore be circumscribed. He must be domesticated.

This philosophical adendum to the world wars chimes nicely with the political mood that endlessly flirts with what Orwell described as, “the underlying motive of many socialists [:] a hypertrophied sense of order… a desire to reduce the world to something resembling a chessboard”.

The problem with this uninventive outlook is of course that if you take away values worth dying for, you tend to take away the values worth living for. If men died in trenches for values that could not withstand the onslaught of the decadently dessicated intellect; men now risk not really living in a world full of banal simulcra.

Nature abhors a vacuum. The state necessarily fills it. It arbitrates and acts as the sole moral agent. A soft, pragmatic nihilism is the result while the relics of a Christian legacy can be relied upon to provide some form of vision - a cogency between past and future. However, in the long term, genuine nihilism or its opposite, absolutism, present themselves as solutions to the deficiencies of the current system.

Both trends are already apparent. Nihilism a la Dark Knight Rises is evident in the justice system that treats both parties as victims of circumstance. Absolutist values too are elevated from constituent parts of discourse into the demarcators of progress. If an argument or a fact contradicts one of these beacons (e.g. equality) it is discounted as incorrect; not because of some innate falsity but because it transgresses the social gravity placed upon the value.

So the West plays out its end game. Even to relativist stalwarts relativism is necessarily relative to its time. It is intrinsic to its very nature that nobody should be truly willing to suffer for relativism.  Not even its most vocal servants, the self-hating white middle-classes.

We stand therefore at the blurred frontier of late civilisation and barbarism. Ibn Khaldun, echoed in Spenger, and later in the English historian AJ Toynbee’s A Study of History, famously wrote about how the Empires that abandoned the values of early civilisation usually fell to barbarians or to civilisations that did not.

Relativism may be a luxury we cannot afford if we still believe the West is worth fighting for. But the rot may have set in. I’m not sure many of us really think anything worth dying for any more.

No Cabinet minister deserves to stay in post more than Theresa May

Giles Marshall 10.24am

John Reid, now Lord Reid, used to be Tony Blair’s ‘man for all seasons’. Regularly shuffled around key ministerial posts, the ebullient Scot was Mr Blair’s blunt, aggressive point man.

Yet even Reid was aghast on arrival to the Home Office, memorably describing it as “not fit for purpose”.

Great office of state it might be, but this ministry has long been seen as the graveyard of greater and lesser political careers. Of those lesser, it buried one of Gordon Brown’s more bizarre appointees and the first woman to hold the office, Jacqui Smith.

However another woman, Theresa May, could now be gradually revising a role that is supposed to lead to failure and frustration.

One of David Cameron’s strengths as Prime Minister has been his willingness to maintain a stable Cabinet team. For all the angst this can cause lower down the political greasy pole, the undoubted benefit is seen in a maturing grip on their departments by a number of reform-minded ministers. Amid the mire of local elections, polls and poor Budgets, it is easy to forget just how radical this Government actually is.

Education and health are prominent briefs where reform - of the effective, root and branch sort - genuinely is taking hold, thanks largely to their Secretaries of State, Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley.

But it is Theresa May who has been the quiet toughie, and is beginning to show her true quality, tenaciously pressing for reforms on many levels at the catastrophic Home Office.

Granted, it does not always feel like that. The Abu Hamza extradition case looked badly handled; it was followed by one of the frostiest receptions ever afforded a Home Secretary at the Police Federation conference.

Nonetheless, consider this. First, Mrs May acted upon the collective wisdom of the Home Office’s lawyers when pursuing Hamza’s extradition. And whatever ire she felt for it, she calmly took responsibility for the decision, refusing to pass blame, and doggedly continued to pursue the result that most Britons wanted to see. It was a textbook case of ministerial responsibility that has become so sadly rare in recent years.

Second, in facing down the Police Federation, Mrs May was taking on one of the most powerful vested interests in Britain, believing correctly that policing has to change. The Police Federation is a union in all but name and acts in the way that all public services unions act. They seek to preserve inefficient working methods for the good of the lowest calibre of members, rather than seeking to create a bridge between professional delivery and public expectation. The country’s police forces remain highly regarded, but not uniformly so. I joked to one non-political friend that Theresa May had better hope she didn’t suffer a burglary or suchlike, as she might not be able to rely on police support. “Just like the rest of us then,” my friend replied, not entirely cynically.

Theresa May continues to challenge Home Office shibboleths in her demands for changes to judgements on deportation made against foreign criminals living in Britain. The weight of the human legal establishment is set to come down on her, but does anyone seriously doubt either the necessity for such changes, or their popularity?

Theresa May proved that she is a politician with iron in her soul when she challenged the Conservative party, as its chairman, not to relish its role as the ‘nasty party’. She spends her time mastering her brief rather than pursuing it for personal PR - and sometimes this can rebound on her. However, she is a formidable and capable operator, unafraid of challenging vested interests in pursuit of reform.

For all his dislike of unnecessary changes to his Cabinet, Mr Cameron shall soon find himself having to organise a reshuffle. Let us hope it is limited. Whoever is shuffled, the Prime Minister should keep his maturing reformers in place. And no one seems to be earning the right to carry on more than the dogged, flak-carrying Home Secretary.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Justice for Sierra Leone but a failure for human rights?

Alexander Pannett 1.00 pm

On Thursday, Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, was found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone.

The verdict will come as a great relief to the millions of West Africans who were victims of his oppressive machinations and the grotesque abuses in Sierra Leone that were perpetuated by his proxy RUF militia.

Whilst this is a landmark case for the development of international human rights, behind the celebrations lies a faltering legal path whose successes may be due more to the dictates of the powerful rather than of the law.

Ever since the Nuremberg Trials of the Second World War and the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly, the concept of human rights has grown in stature in international law.

Its genesis lies in the Enlightenment with the increased recognition of the rights of man (though not yet equal rights for women) as set out in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789.

As the Enlightenment developed into Modernity, the rule of international law and protection of individual rights was seen as the best way to prevent the horrors of the Holocaust and World War from happening again. This led in 2002 to the International Criminal Court being finally created in the Hague; a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.

The ICC may be a useful tool in bringing war criminals to justice but it is doubtful about how effective it really is at increasing the recognition of human rights around the world.

America, China and Russia have not ratified the Rome Statute, therefore not allowing their citizens to come under the jurisdiction of the ICC, and most of the accused brought before the ICC have so far come from impoverished, developing countries.  Consequently, the ICC has received criticism that the court is a tool of powerful countries, used to legitimate their dispensation of justice as framed by the values of the strongest not of the weak.

Justice should be the language of a community not of the powerful. By removing the mechanisms for justice away from communities where crimes have been committed to courts run along different values, customs and procedures, the development of the ICC unfortunately raises the specter of judicial colonialism.

Much as former British colonies rightfully ended their reliance on the British Privy Council as their final court of appeal, independent nations should ensure that judicial procedures are developed and grown by their own societies, strengthening the local rule of law rather than out-sourcing such an important foundation of society to those who know little of their culture.

This is why the new National Transitional Council of Libya is reluctant to hand over Seif al-Islam Gadhafi to the ICC, seeking instead to try him locally. Whilst the ICC and UN Security Council will likely protest, it is a hypocritical position born from Great Powers wishing that their dictates be obeyed rather than from a strong desire to see the Libyan justice system grow and develop. 

Such hypocrisy is apparent when Great Powers demand that former dictators of impoverished states who are no longer of any use to them are brought to justice, whilst Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir, President of Sudan and an ally of China, and Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan and a strategic friend of the West, are protected from prosecution despite allegations of serious human rights abuses.

I am not suggesting that Charles Taylor, one of the most callous tyrants in recent history, should escape justice. Only that the $50 million cost and time of the five year trial could have been better spent developing the justice system and human rights in Sierra Leone, where 70 per cent. remain in poverty, by basing the trial there and relying on the local judiciary and the local law’s approach to human rights as much as possible to ensure a fair trial. 

Whilst the development of a notion of human rights is an important development towards the peaceful co-existence of humans, we should be wary of subscribing to a paean of universalism that is in reality a mask of the dictates of the powerful.

Law is a language born from compromises between differing beliefs and ambitions. An international law that promotes human rights must be applied locally and allow for dialogue between all cultures to set its values if it will be a true protection for the weakest amongst humanity. It should not be an abstract and Euro-centric ivory tower that hurls its commandments down the mountain.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

Another example of a politician not understanding how small businesses work

Craig Barrett 10.45am

I was fascinated as ever to read yet another article about rescuing businesses by a politician seeking to depict banks as villains and distressed entrepreneurs as martyrs. Though I agree with the sentiment - namely that we should encourage entrepreneurial spirit - the overall framing is flawed.

The article in question, by the Tory MP George Eustice, appeared yesterday on ConservativeHome. Mr Eustice seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of business rescue in this country, commenting unfavourably on the provisions of the Enterprise Act 2002 and the administration regime. The legislation has its flaws but it has been been to operate effectively by participants in the insolvency sector.

Making the same mistake as Peter Mandelson did when concocting the regime, Mr Eustice has gazed dewy-eyed across the Atlantic towards Chapter 11 of the US’ Bankruptcy Code and decided therein lies the solution. The debtor retains the right to retain control of their assets once a business has begun to fail, and has the luxury of court protection against interference.

Yet the best comparison I can think of would be for us to have allowed Gordon Brown to remain as Prime Minister in perpetuity until he had turned around the economy, without fear of interim challenge.

In fact, UK businesses have always enjoyed a flexible rescue culture, irrespective of legislation.

Working on the correct basis that it is rarely in anyone’s interest - including that of the bank - to see a company fail, the London Approach (as it used to be called) pioneered debt restructuring so as to make it possible for a business to survive and often without entering an insolvency process.

Mr Eustice comments that the terms attached to debt often become more onerous as part of a restructuring but omits to mention that these new terms are often a trade-off for write-down of total debt and/or an extension of the term of the debt. A business is given some breathing space but in exchange for ensuring that a bank does not make too much of a loss. Banks are commercial organisations that need to turn a profit - and they will only do so if they are allowed to strike deals on commercial terms (particularly as so many people seem to howl with grief when state-owned banks lose money).

For a bank, appointing an administrator or a fixed charge (LPA) receiver is a last resort - either the business or asset is a basket case or, more rarely, management has adopted the ostrich approach and only an outsider could rescue the situation.

In either case, it is not as straightforward as Mr Eustice might believe. An administrator owes a duty to all creditors and a fixed charge receiver - while being under a contractual obligation to the mortgagee - also owes a wider duty in respect of value of the asset over which he as appointed.

To suggest that a fixed charge receiver is tantamount to an old style administrative receiver is to stretch a point somewhat - fixed charge receivers have no ability to trade, which was the keystone of administrative receivership.

Yes, the costs of receivership are borne by the borrower but only in the sense that they become part of the overall debt. Why should a bank bear the cost of enforcement in order to recover what is owed to it? Mr Eustice appears to be suggesting that borrowers who default should somehow escape paying for the recovery costs relating to their own breach of contract.

I also fail to understand why Mr Eustice suggests that an insolvency practitioner would be required to seek permission from a court before selling a business or an asset. Mr Eustice is clearly unaware of the pressures the courts are currently under. It takes several months merely to get a date for an initial hearing. How would a business trade during this time? Who would fund it? The only way to keep a business going while an administrator waits months for a court hearing would be to ask the bank to fund it - the same bank that Mr Eustice seems hell-bent on attacking.

These proposals also pay no regard to one of the prime considerations of Britain’s business rescue culture - that of rescue. The flexibility inherent in the system means that businesses are often sold on without interruption to service - the uncertainty of awaiting a court verdict on a sale proposal would cause most customers of a distressed business to trade elsewhere, thus eroding whatever value remained. By being able to act quickly, an insolvency practitioner can maintain value to the benefit of all creditors.

Finally, to suggest that administration protection should be extended to sole traders or partnerships misses the key point that as these businesses have no requirements to make public filings, counterparties would have no visibility of their financial position. If a businessman wants the protections available, incorporation is the only way to ensure that protection. Widening the administration protections for sole traders and partnerships would actually result in more abuse of the system than any measurable overall benefit.

In fact, had Mr Eustice done a bit more digging, he would probably have concluded that the retail banks are currently being very supportive of businesses. It is possible to argue that a recession is good for the overall economy as it assists with trimming dead wood and streamlining and strengthening sectors.

Currently, the most pressure on SMEs comes from HMRC’s seeking to ensure prompt collection of taxes. If Mr Eustice is concerned about business survival, might I suggest that he has a quiet word with officials at HMRC?

Britain’s small and medium-sized businesses are what will return the country to prosperity. Therefore we must do all we can to encourage them. However, banks who lend to such businesses share a similar entrepreneurial spirit and we must ensure that an appropriate balance is maintained between the interests of creditors and the interests of debtors. Sadly, Mr Eustice has, like so many others, chosen simply to attack the creditors.

Follow Craig on Twitter @mrsteeduk

Is it time to review government policy on drugs?

Alexander Pannett 11.15am

The fecund lands of Latin America have always attracted interest in their abundant resources.

From mines to agriculture, the region is particularly rich with potential for human development.

In recent decades, the coca leaf has been one of the more infamous products to have dominated the region’s trade. Used as a constituent of Bolivian tea, as well as a mild, traditional stimulant when chewed, it is now most widely used for producing cocaine.

Consequently, the USA has insisted that the coca leaf’s cultivation be banned, which has antagonised Bolivians who see the use of the coca leaf as an important part of their national identity. At the same time, demand from America and the wider West for cocaine has soared. This has driven cultivation and the huge profits it generates into the arms of organised crime.

For four decades, the “War on Drugs” has been fought by the USA and its allies against organised crime’s stranglehold of the illegal drugs industry. There has been only limited success in tackling the production of illegal drugs.

Where one area has its production cut through action by the authorities, production increases in other areas to compensate.  The $8 billion Plan Colombia reduced coca production there by 65 per cent, while production increased 40 per cent in Peru and doubled in Bolivia.

However, the biggest failure of the war on drugs is its inability to reduce the soaring demand in rich consumer nations such as the US. It is this demand, and the huge profits, that fuels production and gives organised crime the resources and firepower to intimidate and corrupt law enforcement agencies.

The more punitive and aggressive governments act in their approach to drug enforcement, the more violent and ambitious the drug cartels become. In Mexico, it is estimated that as many as 50,000 people have died as result of the ongoing government war against the drug cartels.

The failures and escalating violence of the drug wars has started calls by Latin American governments of a major re-think of the strategy behind drug enforcement. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has proposed the establishment of a taskforce of experts, economists and academics to analyse the realities of global drug addiction, trafficking and profiteering.

Other leaders have been more forward and called for the legalisation of drugs. It is also not just the more liberal-minded who are calling for an end to the drug wars. Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina, a general during the country’s “dirty war”, came to power promising an “iron fist” against drug consumers. He recently called the war on drugs a failure and argued that “consumption and production should be legalised” within certain limits.

There certainly seems to be much benefit in re-casting drugs as a social problem of dependency on stimulants rather than a criminal concern. This is the approach that is taken with alcohol and cigarettes, the most popular legalised drugs in society.

Regulation of drugs would raise quality, removing dangerous products from the streets. It would also lower prices and raise tax revenues that would pay for the health and social services needed to provide support to those suffering from drug abuse.

Consumers could still be required to be a certain age - 18, say - before they could purchase drugs (just as with alcohol); advertising would be banned (as with tobacco); drug-driving would remain illegal; and the law relating to liability whilst intoxicated would remain the same.

Substances could also remain banned if they are deemed to be above a certain addiction threshold. This would encourage legal drug producers to concentrate on creating the stimulating rather than addictive effects of drugs.

The negative side of legalisation is that it would likely lead to higher use as drugs would become more available. This would likely lead to higher numbers of drug-related health issues in society. When prohibition was introduced into the United States in the 1920s it reduced alcohol-related illnesses dramatically. As the monetary cost of drinking tripled, deaths from cirrhosis of the liver declined by a third. This improvement in health, however, hid and fed rampant criminality and a dis-respect for the law by all sections of society.

The law must protect us from other humans but, concerning our own bodies we have seen progressive strides, from abortion to sexual freedoms, in allowing humans the choice to do what they will with their own selves. Considering both the law and society already accept the right of humans to intoxicate themselves through alcohol, tobacco, coffee and other legal stimulants, it may be time to accept other drugs onto this list.

It would be naive to assume that the vast death toll and social cost of drugs in the Americas will not soon reach Europe. In many deprived areas it already has. To pre-empt such a social disaster we should respond to the call of Latin American governments and review our own government policy and attitudes towards drugs.

A drug-free utopia, after all, is a fantasy we could never achieve naturally.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

It is pure folly to reduce the number of MPs

Craig Prescott 11.58am

At the last general election, both coalition parties pledged to reduce the size of the House of Commons. The Conservatives offered a 10 per cent reduction (manifesto is oddly no longer available online), while the Lib Dems (link here) wanted to cut the number of MPs by 150. The eventual Coalition Agreement is actually weaker than both parties’ original pledges, as Parliament will only be trimmed by 50 MPs from its current level of 650.

This 600 figure was created by the negotiating teams during those ‘Five Days in May’. That episode revealed one of the worst aspects of our unwritten constitution: essentially, just six chaps in a room determined how many MPs will sit in the main chamber of our national legislature. In most other countries in the world the number of seats in the legislature is defined in a constitution - in the USA, each state is allocated two Senators - and the process of changing this is considerably more laborious than chatting over some tasty biscuits.

There is no underlying rationale for this reduction. For the Liberal Democrats it was part of a grander constitutional scheme, the only part of which that may emerge is House of Lords reform (but even this could be in difficulty).

For the Conservatives, the rationale is one of reducing cost both in line with ‘deficit reduction’ but also as part of the response to the MP’s expenses scandal.

Another justification, considerably more viable, is to equalise the number of constituencies. A fundamental principle is that each vote should count as equally as possible. However, it does not automatically follow from this that the number of MPs had to be reduced. Any party gain is likely to be minimal. Psephologists believe the bias against the Conservatives will be reduced, but only by 3 per cent.

As far as I can tell there has never been any serious consideration as to the optimal sum of MPs. There should have been some thought dedicated to this before committing to a final number, and it may well be the case that considerably more or fewer MPs would be needed.

My view is that Parliament would be better served by more rather than fewer MPs. The reduction of MPs will not be followed by a corresponding reduction in the number of Ministers (the ‘payroll vote’). This is a shame. Much has been made of the quality of the 2010 intake and the fact that MPs are more rebellious in this Parliament than at any point since 1945.

Furthermore, there have been procedural reforms to enhance the role of the backbench MP, in particular the creation of a Backbench Business Committee. Parliament matters again.

But fewer backbench MPs means fewer types of people being represented in Parliament, at a time when people are concerned (whether rightly or wrongly) about a so-called political class with little ‘real-world experience’ outside of Westminster. Reducing the number of MP’s does nothing to alter this perception. While expertise is often an argument against House of Lords reform, expertise is also provided by MPs in the commons. The current chamber comprises of the usual smattering of lawyers and businesspeople, but also doctors, academics and economists and former members of our armed forces.

On certain major issues such as the EU and human rights, it is groups of backbenchers rather than the leaderships of parties that tends more closely to represent the views of the electorate.

The ‘gene pool’ for Ministers is also reduced. This may have been one reason behind Gordon Brown’s ‘Government Of All the Talents’, as by the time he became Prime Minister, he had, to some extent, run out of suitable backbenchers.

Parliamentary committees could also be harmed. This is a growth area in MPs’ workloads, so it is inevitably going to be more difficult for the smaller number of MPs to fulfil their commitments in this area alongside all their other commitments without an increase in resources (which will hinder the overall intention to reduce the cost of politics).

The greatest irony in all of this is that should Scotland separate from the rest of the UK in in the forthcoming referendum (whenever that is held), the cost of politics in Westminster will be reduced at a stroke, and the opportunity to revisit constituencies would have emerged. Boundaries could then be equalised without any of the harmful side effects mentioned above.