Here’s a long-standing Conservative policy that has served that party very well over the years and continues to be alive today: Incrementalism.
Loss of freedom: Every day the Coalition government tries to take something away from you; at the moment, it’s your right to criticise.
This is the process of putting several changes into a single policy – or using one change as an excuse for another – so that, even if the main aim is defeated by public opinion or Parliament, others are achieved. Their plans progress by increments.
This week we are seeing it in several ways.
Did you think Chris Grayling’s announcement about Legal Aid was a victory for common sense and freedom? Think again.
He announced yesterday that plans to cut the Legal Aid bill by awarding contracts only to the lowest bidder have been dropped, after they attracted huge criticism.
The policy had been mocked because it meant smaller legal firms would be priced out of the market and replaced by legal outbranchings of large firms like Tesco or even Eddie Stobart. For these companies, there would be no financial incentive to fight any cases and they would most probably advise defendants to admit any crime, even if they were innocent. Meanwhile, habitual criminals, used to accepting the advice of their regular representative, would distrust that of the man from Eddie McTesco in his ‘My First Try At Law’ suit and would most likely deny everything. Result: The innocent go to jail and the guilty go free.
That was the headline issue; it has been defeated.
But Grayling still intends to cut Legal Aid fees by 17.5 per cent across the board. How many law firms will find they can’t operate on such lowered incomes?
The government’s war on immigrants will be stepped up with a residency test; only those who have lived in the UK for more than 12 months will be eligible for Legal Aid. Otherwise, for poorer immigrants, there will be no access to justice here.
Thousands of cases brought by people who have already been imprisoned will no longer be eligible for legal aid. Grayling says it won’t be available “because you don’t like your prison”. One supposes we are to hope this loss of one more right will not adversely affect people who are fighting wrongful imprisonment, or who have crimes committed against them while they are in prison, but we should all doubt that.
There is one block on Legal Aid that we may support, in fairness: An income restriction meaning that people with more than £3,000 left over every month after paying their “essential outgoings” will not be entitled to it. That’s a lot of money, and people earning this much should definitely be paying their own legal fees and not asking the taxpayer to do it for them.
According to the BBC report, Labour’s shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the dropping of ‘price competitive tendering’, as the plan to award contracts to the lowest bidder was known, was “a humiliating climbdown”.
It would have been better for him to take a leaf out of the charity Reprieve’s book. Its representatives said blocking Legal Aid to immigrants who have been here less than a year would deny justice to people wronged by the UK government, ranging from victims of torture and rendition to Gurkhas and Afghan interpreters denied the right to settle here. Legal director Kat Craig said the government wanted to “silence its critics in the courts”.
Another attempt to silence critics of the government is the Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill, which is due to be discussed in Parliament next week.
The publicised aim of this legislation was to curb what comedy Prime Minister David Cameron himself has called “the next big scandal” – but none of the measures in the first part of the Bill would achieve this. A statutory register of all consultant lobbyists – those working for independent companies who represent the interests of others – as recommended by the Bill, would have prevented none of the lobbying scandals in which Cameron has found himself embroiled during his premiership.
Instead, it seems likely that this will make lobbying by smaller-scale individuals and organisations more difficult, while larger concerns, with in-house lobbyists, may continue to walk through the doors of Number 10, chequebook in hand, and buy any policy they deem beneficial to their business. If this Bill becomes law, they’ll be rubbing our faces in it.
The Bill was introduced on the very last day that Parliament sat before the summer recess – and ministers waited until the very last moment to bolt two new sections onto it. There had been no consultation on the content of these sections, and the timetable proposed for the Bill meant there could be only limited discussion of them.
These were the provisions for gagging political campaigners who do not belong to a political party, and for tying up trade unions in excessive and unneeded red tape. The only possible reason for the first of these is to stop anyone from publishing material that criticises the government in the run-up to the next election – a totalitarian move if every there was one.
And the restriction on trade unions, having their memberships audited independently, is totally unnecessary as the unions already adhere to very strict rules on membership. The real reason would appear to be a plan to make union membership a matter of public knowledge in order to allow businesses to ‘blacklist’ anyone in a union – stop them from getting jobs.
The Bill “will now undergo more detailed scrutiny from MPs”, the BBC website story states. This scrutiny will last a mere three days, next week. This is far too short a period, and rushed onto the Parliamentary schedule far too early, for MPs to subject it to proper scrutiny.
Some of the provisions will be altered, but the Tories are sure to get their way in others. The possibility that union members will be ‘blacklisted’ seems extremely likely, since this is something Coalition partners the Liberal Democrats are not keen to oppose.
And then there is Iain Duncan Smith, who came under fire from the National Audit Office yesterday, over his extremely expensive and utterly unworkable bid to remake social security in his own image – Universal Credit.
The report hammered the project for the poor leadership shown throughout – nobody knew what Universal Credit was supposed to do or how its aims were supposed to be achieved, the timescales imposed for it were unrealistic, the management structure imposed on it was unorthodox and (it turned out) unworkable, there were no adequate measures of progress, and nobody working on the project was able to explain the reasoning behind any of these decisions.
Smith himself, whose likely inadequacies as a bag-carrier in the Army have led to him being labelled ‘RTU’ (Returned To Unit, a sign of shame in the armed forces), was revealed to have lied to Parliament last year, when he claimed the process was running smoothly just weeks after having to order a rethink of the entire project.
How did he explain himself?
He blamed the Civil Service.
So now the issue is not whether Universal Credit will ever work (it won’t) but whether the British Civil Service – described in this blog as “the most well-developed, professional and able government organisation on this planet” – can do its job properly.
The article in which that description was made also described ministerial attacks on civil servants as “the Conservatives’ latest wheeze”. Michael Gove has already hammered morale in his Education department by making huge staff cuts and then employing his ignorant mates to impose their stupid views on the professionals.
It also foreshadowed RTU’s outburst this week, quoting a Spectator article that said, “If Universal Credit is a flop, then it will prove our current Whitehall set-up is failing. But if it succeeds, it will be no thanks to the Civil Service either”.
So the scene is set for the government to attack the very people who try to enact its policies. This blog stands by its words in the previous article, when the plan was described this: “Blame the Civil Service for everything, cut it back, and leave the actual mechanics of government unusable by anybody who follows”.
Meanwhile, ministers such as Mr ‘Denial’ Smith have made the British government an international laughing-stock.
Sydney Finkelstein, Professor of Strategy and Leadership at the Tuck School of Business in Dartmouth, in the USA, tweeted the following yesterday: “Shocked to hear top guy not take full responsibility for bad execution. Never happens in America.
“140 character twitter not enough to convey amateurism of leader who can’t lead.”
He might not be able to lead, but – by devious means – he and his odious ilk are getting almost everything they want.