If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Scotland the Brave

This business of Baroness Scotland and the housekeeper is troubling me. Specifically: how the hell is she still Attorney-General?

On the face of it, I have some sympathy for the woman. After all, she looked at the Tongan lady's documents and they seemed OK. She has been fined a whopping £5000 for failing to take a photocopy, which seems a very harsh penalty for a minor oversight. I'm on her side - the hard-working woman against the over-mighty state.

Until I remember that it was Baroness Scotland who introduced the law in question when she was a minister at the Home Office. The Government were worried about public concern over illegal immigrants and, rather than take action to stop the illegal immigration, they took the rather cowardly step of putting the onus onto employers and lorry drivers to stop it, with huge fines and threats of imprisonment for those who, even inadvertently, broke the law. And for the employers, they deliberately scotched the 'inadvertent' defence by insisting that the only defence available in law was to show that you had seen, and photocopied, the worker's documentation. (That's a new one, by the way - "guilty unless you can produce paper evidence that you are innocent", rather than "innocent unless we can prove you are guilty".)

The legislation seemed to me at the time to be unnecessarily harsh and a little vindictive to employers, but then Labour always seem to view employers as the incarnation of everything that is evil. So it is ripely ironic that it is this specific requirement that she seems to have fallen foul of, and which has brought her this fine and a humbling if insincere public apology.

But then I remember that she is the senior law officer in all the land. There is no-one higher or, to put it another way, no-one who might be expected to know, and obey, the law more than she. I would have thought that, when someone is appointed to the position of Attorney-General, pretty much the first thing they must think to themselves is: "I need to be really careful about how I behave from now on." 'T's will be crossed, and 'i's dotted, if only to maintain the unimpeachable integrity that the office demands. The Attorney-General is the person who advises Government about things like the legality of going to war. And yet she can't get something as simple as a photocopy right? On a law that she herself helped to draft? God help us.

And now we see her in the news, laughing it off as a technicality, an 'administrative mistake', something like not paying the congestion charge. Does she have any idea how contemptuous that sounds to the ordinary voter?

But I think it is more serious than just failing to take a photocopy which, I would agree, is a technicality. If we go back to the day when she inspected, as she says she did, the Tongan lady's documents. Either they were apparently in order, in which case the housekeeper must have forged them, and should expect prosecution for that. Or they were out of date, in which case the Baroness knowingly employed an illegal worker, which makes the whole thing much more serious. A third possibility (and the most likely, in my view) is that she didn't look at the documents at all, but took the lady's word for it. She's married to a solicitor, after all, which means complete respectability, doesn't it? Don't answer that. If she didn't see any documents, that is negligence of the highest order.

Even looked at in the kindest way, she is guilty of a careless handling of something that the Government of the day were trumpeting as the solution to a very serious problem. Taking a more cynical view, she has knowingly flouted a law which she herself brought to the statute book. Either way, she cannot stay in post. As Iain Dale points out, "Am I right in thinking that if a magistrate had been fined £5,000 for breaking the law, he or she would have been thrown off the bench?" The days when politicians got caught out and resigned in shame are long gone. Now, even breaking the law is just a case of getting into the media, laughing it off, and carrying on as if nothing had happened. And all the while, respect for the rule of law continues to vanish down the toilet.

I loved her final comment:

She said she was confident that "having seen the example made of me there won't be any woman in the country who won't be now reaching for that passport and making sure she's got the copy".

Well, only those women who can employ servants, Baroness.


  1. Laws are for little people who need to be controlled. We have that message loud and clear, thanks to New Improved Labour and their one-statute-a-day approach to relentlessly criminalising the silent majority. We expect them to ignore those laws, along with any sort of moral or ethical obligations. The only surprise would have been if the Baroness had admitted to being bang to rights and done the decent thing.

    I'd be interested if, like the MPs expenses furore, a court of law would consider it fair enough for an ordinary defendant to plead "administrative error". Okay then, case dismissed, next please? Perhaps not.

    In any case, the Baroness has the full backing of Big Gordo - so she is patently guilty as sin on those grounds alone.

    Simply, they don't get it. They never will. They don't listen to those of us who have to live with their godawful, petty, vindictive legislation. They don't care that it is unworkable and incomprehensible, yet punishable with draconian spitefulness, because they don't have to suffer the consequences of transgression.

    All that is left to hope for is that when this corrupt to the core bunch of shysters leave office, their legacy will not be that this is an acceptable way for the political classes to behave. A fragile hope, though: the precedents have all been set now.

    Almost makes you want a return to the refreshing honesty of rotten boroughs, doesn't it?

  2. I had a great insight into this mindset when I was involved in travel planning for my employer a few years ago. We had a planning meeting with local public transport people and someone from the Council. The issue (this place is a large, rural county) was the low take-up of 'park and ride' places that the Council had spent a lot of money building alongside main roads. I pointed out that their existence had not been advertised and that even I was completely unaware of them.

    The Council lady's reply was that they shouldn't need to advertise them - it was up to people to find out. I pointed out that you can't find out about something that you have never heard of. Her reply was instructive: why should we make all the effort? We will just force them into using them; it's for their own good.

    That year, the Council bought up a piece of prime town-centre land and made it into a Council car-park - no-one else allowed to use it. They park in the most convenient place, for free, while they are talking about imposing taxes on employers for car-parking spaces to get people onto public transport. The hypocrisy was breathtaking.


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