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Conference season ends and parliament returns

09 October 2015

Richard Messingham considers the end of the party conference season and looks ahead to the return of parliament.

After nearly three weeks, the party conference season is finally over, with many in the political world eager for the return of parliament and the proper start of the political year. Aside from a short, four day break in November, this session will last a full two months until the Christmas recess, with a number of key pieces of legislation keenly awaited and anticipated by the Law Society.

The Law Society has had a presence at all three conferences, most recently at the Conservative conference in Manchester. This conference was a landmark event for the party, the first where it has held a majority in the Commons for nearly two decades, and there certainly was a feeling of celebration and purpose.

We organised a number of events, starting with a reception, in collaboration with the Society of Conservative Lawyers and kindly hosted by Addleshaw Goddard. In attendance were a mixture of local practitioners, MPs, and both the attorney general Jeremy Wright and his predecessor, Dominic Grieve, who is now chair of the Society of Conservative Lawyers. Following an introduction by vice president Robert Bourns, the attorney general gave an insightful speech into the contribution of the legal sector, and in particular, its vital role in the prosperity of Manchester. He also spoke of his firm, unwavering, and sometimes politically unpopular commitment to the sanctity of the rule of law in government, something echoed by his predecessor, Mr Grieve.

On the final evening of the conference, the Law Society co-hosted a business reception with Conservative Home, with the business secretary Sajid Javid MP. Mr Javid, formerly an investment banker, praised the legal sector in England and Wales, and how this country's status as a jurisdiction of choice made doing business here so successful.

Of particular note in the speeches in the main conference hall was the omission from both prime minister David Cameron and lord chancellor Michael Gove's keynote speeches of proposals to replace the Human Rights Act. The policy featured prominently at last year's conference, when Mr Cameron mentioned the Human Rights Act four times during his keynote address. However indications remain that the proposed replacement, the British Bill of Rights, will be published in draft form in the next couple of months.

Sunday 4 October

Speech by Michael Gove MP, lord chancellor and secretary of state for justice

Michael Gove addressed party delegates at the Conservative Conference on Sunday, providing a suitably congratulatory speech to the party faithful on the (still relatively recent) electoral victory of his party in May. However, much of the rhetoric interestingly was focused on the injustices in society, including the growing gaps in equality, gender inequality, as well tackling the "excesses and abuses of capitalism: abuses which undermine the system that generates so much growth and opportunity".

He stated that his party supports the reform of banks, will tackle vested interests and make it easier to challenge big business and monopolies who don't give working people a fair deal. "It is our duty as Conservatives to be the party that most aggressively fights for economic fairness", the chancellor said. The lord chancellor closed by asserting that the Conservative party is the most dynamic force for social progress in Britain today."So let us today pledge ourselves to be true to the mandate we won against the odds, to be modern, compassionate Conservatives dedicated to social justice, and to fight for the poorest more passionately than anyone else."

Monday 28 September

Conservative Conference fringe event: Securing our human rights?

Speaking at an event entitled ‘Securing our human rights? Challenges for the Conservative party in 2015' were:

  • Security minister John Hayes MP
  • Conservative Intelligence and Security Committee chair, Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP
  • Matrix Chambers barrister and Equality and Human Rights Commission panel member Helen Mountfield
  • Solicitor general Robert Buckland QC MP

The event, which was chaired by Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen, was hosted by Amnesty International UK and Conservative Women's Organisation.

Opening the discussion, the chair said that her organisation had emphasised the importance of maintaining the Human Rights Act. She said that when the UK government "did the wrong thing", other countries followed in its step and it undermined the work done to promote human rights across the world. International conventions were important and needed to be maintained, she stressed.

Mr Grieve noted that work was underway on a new British Bill of Human Rights, but added that the text of the ECHR would be included within it. This would be necessary to prevent the UK breaking the Convention, he said. Mr Grieve stressed that the Bill of Rights could not be allowed to contravene the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and raised concerns that the UK's withdrawal would allow such countries to evade the judgement of the court, noting that Russia had already cited the UK's stance on this issue as an excuse for its behaviour. The consequences for the UK would be uniquely damaging, he said, and the ECHR was part of a long tradition within Britain of codified rights.

The benefits of a British Bill of Rights would be minimal, he said, and the reputational damage would be great.

Mr Hayes said repealing the Human Rights Act would not weaken the protections of British citizens. It was also a fallacy to suggest that rights were a creation of the modern age, he argued, and were instead based in "truth", which was permanent. It was difficult to establish a widely applicable norm for shared assumptions of human rights, he argued. The best way to guarantee rights, he concluded, was not to rely on abstract concepts or "European concoctions" and instead emphasise the importance of British traditions and institutions.

Helen Mountfield noted that British courts were able to disregard the decisions of the Strasbourg Court if it felt they were mistaken. In addition, she rejected the notion that parliament was overridden by the court and noted that the court's decisions were not forcibly implemented. Further, she stressed the value of the court in preventing the exploitation of rights. She noted that courts valued and took into account the fact that decisions were made by democratic organisations.

Finally, Mr Buckland expressed dismay over the "monopolisation" of human rights by the Left, arguing that the Conservative party was "the strongest guarantor of liberties". He noted that the convention had been necessary at the time it was written, and remained relevant in the context of crises such as the migrants' crisis. The term human rights was now being used as abuse, he argued, and it was vitally important to have a debate as to whether the country could do better than the Human Rights Act. While the Act had provided a mechanism to provide challenge to some of the issues the courts would have faced, he said, there was a strong case to do better.

Law Society fringe reception with the Society of Conservative Lawyers

The Law Society ran a joint event with the Society of Conservative Lawyers in the offices of Addleshaw Goddard's Manchester office. Of note was the speech by both the current and previous attorney generals, Jeremy Wright and Dominic Grieve. Much emphasis was played on the strength of the rule of law in this country, which was contextualised by their own positions within government, highlighting how maintaining legality potential legislation, in their positions as the highest lawyer in the land, would often make them unpopular with colleagues and their policy ambitions. Mr Wright went further by praising the legal profession in Manchester and the North West, and of the dynamic and increasingly expanding economy of the region, underpinned by the work of solicitors.

Tuesday 29 September

Second keynote speech by the lord chancellor, on justice

Michael Gove spoke for a second time at party conference, wearing his ‘justice secretary hat' on this occasion. Notably, Mr Gove neglected to directly mention the Human Rights Act (which was also absent from the speeches of Mr Cameron and Ms May), and key focus was on the inefficiencies, delays and injustices of the criminal justice system, with too little focus on the victims of violent crime. Stating that "justice delayed is justice denied", and that the rule of law is the "surest protection the weak have against the aggression of the strong", he confirmed his commitment to reform. However, the concept of liberties and rights was touched upon, in the context of Britain's status as a jurisdiction of choice, with "an unparalleled global reputation as the home of honesty, due process and fairness." He went on to state how this reputation is built on the foundations of English common law, and that the liberties which define what is to be British - freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment - are ancient rights safeguarded over the centuries by our courts and our parliament. Mr Gove was clearly hinting towards the sovereignty of parliament, rather than the European Convention of Human Rights, when he affirmed the he "wants our courts and our parliament strengthened to defend our ancient rights and safeguard our precious liberties."

Law Society reception with business secretary Sajid Javid

In collaboration with Conservative Home, the Law Society co-hosted a reception with guest speaker Sajid Javid, the secretary of state for Business, Innovation and Skills. Mr Javid praised the legal profession within the context of the business community, and indeed on the strong reputation of English common law. The Business Secretary said that "30 per cent of the world's population live under English common law. That population altogether represents about 20 per cent of the world's GDP", and that, when put into context, the contribution that English law has made to the world is huge, and is often underestimated by a lot of people that work that the law firms, solicitors and barristers makes to the British economy. Mr Javid also highlighted the diplomatic role that the English legal system makes, drawing on his experiences in his previous career in finance. He said that while working in international banking that English law was always used to do business, despite the country of operation or nationality of his clients.

Wednesday 30 September

Keynote speech by prime minister David Cameron

Addressing the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, prime minister David Cameron declared that delegates could be proud of the "journey of the modern, compassionate, One Nation Conservative Party." Noting his promise not to fight another election as the party's leader, Mr Cameron declared that he was "in just as much of a hurry", as he was, to secure the economy, tackle the scourge of poverty and tackle the "shadow of extremism". Following on, the prime minister sought to address the vexed question of Britain's EU membership, declaring: "I'm only interested in two things: Britain's prosperity and Britain's influence. That's why I'm going to fight hard in this renegotiation – so we can get a better deal and the best of both worlds."

Read the full speech

Tags: justice | politics | Westminster weekly update | Parliament | Conservatives

About the author

Richard Messingham is head of public affairs at the Law Society. He and his team are responsible for supporting the president and CEO to manage the Society's relationships with Parliamentarians, Ministers, civil servants and other major stakeholders of direct relevance to solicitors.
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