Talking Politics

Cameron’s war rhetoric masks a cynical power grab

The prime minister is using the rhetoric of war to justify rolling back a fundamental part of Britain's constitution.

When confronted by the realities of war, British governments have never hesitated to suspend or undermine Britain's civil liberties. Today David Cameron will put Britain on a "war footing" once again - with the express aim of trampling on restrictions on the government fought for over centuries.

The prime minister is using his speech to the CBI's annual conference to make the case for stripping back the limits placed on ministers. The government is frustrated by the limitations on its ability to get things done. It wants untrammelled power. Together, the list of things the PM wants to undermine or even get rid of form an important web of mechanisms which help prevent civil servants making costly errors. "Consultations, impact assessments, audits, reviews, stakeholder management, securing professional buy-in, complying with EU procurement rules, assessing sector feedback…this is not how we became one of the most powerful, prosperous nations on earth," Cameron will declare. "It's not how you get things done."

The assault extends to parliamentary scrutiny, too. The prime minister blames "bureaucratic rubbish" for making Whitehall more risk-averse - and includes the work of MPs under that heading. "When you have lobby groups lined up to criticise every action you take; parliamentary select committees ready to jump on every bump in the road; then the rational choice is to be cautious — even over-cautious," the PM says. "But for the sake of our country's progress we have got to cut through this."

Worst of all, though, is an attack on the system by which individuals and organisations can challenge the government in the courts. Meddling in judicial review - one of the most important ways in which a government can be brought to book by ordinary citizens - is an affront to Britain's constitution.

The rule of law is among the most fundamental of this country's principles. Its export has been a goal of British foreign policy for centuries. It was one of the values deeply embedded in the message of the Olympic Games opening ceremony. All this is why Britons should be enraged that its government has seen fit to reduce the role the rule of law plays in controlling those in power.

The reforms announced by Cameron in central London today are aimed at cutting down the irritation which the government feels at the legal challenges it faces. Cameron complains that they are a "massive growth industry". He's right. The number of applications has cut back from 160 in 1975 to nearly 11,200 in 2011, Downing Street says.

This is something to be celebrated, not denigrated. And not just because those in power want them cut back.

"Here's what we're going to do," the prime minister will tell business leaders this morning. The plan is a systematic tweaking of the rules to make them harder, not easier. "Reduce the time limit when people can bring cases. Charge more for reviews - so people think twice about time-wasting. And instead of giving hopeless cases up to four bites of the cherry to appeal a decision, we will halve that to two."

This is not the way to deal with the 7,000% increase cited by No 10. Addressing this increase is something best dealt with by the existing system. If an appeal to the law does not merit attention, a judge will find it to be so. Right now, judicial review applications are five times more likely to be refused than granted. Judges should decide which cases deserve more scrutiny - not the government.

Downing Street insists that the changes will deal with the troublemakers - the "weak or ill-conceived cases which are submitted even when the applicant knows they have no change of success". This is not the first time that a change to the rules has been proposed targeting a problem area, but ends up having a much more fundamental effect.

Take High Speed Rail 2, for example. The government's dodgy consultation provoked outrage from opponents to the plan to spend billions of pounds on a major transport infrastructure project. Given the west coast mainline fiasco, the world is well aware of Department for Transport officials' ability to mess due process up. So on December 3rd, campaigners will be in court questioning the government's performance in living up to the letter of the law.

"Costly and spurious judicial review cases can clog up the courts, place a heavy burden on the taxpayer and delay justice, and the risk of a judicial review can hold up major infrastructure projects," No 10 says. Projects like HS2, for example? These cases need challenging, not quashing.

Ministers are trying to make their lives easier. The government wants to hamper the ability of its citizens to point out the occasions when lazy or incompetent civil servants take shortcuts - or wander off the straight and narrow altogether. Today's announcement represents a step backwards for Britain's values.

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