Post Office Horizon Scandal: What is Parliament doing about it? - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 33 transcript

3 May 2024
©Bob Neill MP
©Bob Neill MP

Should Parliament simply overturn the convictions of postmasters caught up in the Post Office Horizon scandal? That’s what the Government proposes to do through the Post Office (Horizon system) Offences Bill. But quashing of convictions is normally a matter for the courts. Some MPs have misgivings about setting a constitutional precedent as well as practical concerns about how the Bill will be implemented. We talk to the Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill MP.

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00:00:00:00 - 00:00:17:08 You're listening to Parliament Matters, a Hansard Society production, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn more at 00:00:17:10 - 00:00:43:18 Welcome to Parliament Matters, the podcast about the institution at the heart of our democracy, Parliament itself. I'm Ruth Fox, and I’m Mark D’Arcy. Coming up, the calm before the storm. Westminster braces for the local election results. Will they save Rishi Sunak or will they sink him? Act of conscience or cynical turncoat? As conservative MP Dan Poulter switches to Labour, what does it take to cross the floor of the House of Commons? 00:00:43:20 - 00:01:01:23 And should Parliament simply overturn the convictions of postmasters caught up in the horizon scandal en masse? We talk to chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill, about this and much more. 00:01:02:00 - 00:01:21:11 But first, Ruth, let's get started on those local elections now. We're speaking in that kind of caesura, that missing of a beat period where the voters are out there voting. The politicians can't really say or do much more than get out their voters to the polling stations. And so all is quiet until the results come. And the results this time are going to be rather dragged out. 00:01:21:12 - 00:01:42:04 The agony is extended, you might say, because with all these big metro mayoralties, they will be counting votes into Saturday afternoon. So quite a long time for the results to unfold. There'll be good news and bad news for all the parties, doubtless, as the results dribble out and Rishi Sunak will then have to handle the political aftermath. 00:01:42:05 - 00:02:02:07 But before we get on to that, both of us, I think, battled through the morning mist this morning to get to our respective polling stations, and the one thing you didn't have to battle was vast crowds of eager voters trying to get in there. We were the only people in our polling station, my other half and I when we went in, glancing at the register it looked like about 20 people had voted at about 8:00 in the morning. 00:02:02:07 - 00:02:19:11 So a pretty derisory turnout in my neck of the woods in Sussex, where the voting was purely on who's going to be the next police and crime commissioner. Well, same for me in an East Hertfordshire. So we just got a vote on the police and crime commissioner as well. And I actually asked the polling station staff, what's the turnout like? 00:02:19:11 - 00:02:34:16 And they said, oh, you’re our sixth voter and this was 8 a.m., so I was the voter that put them over the top. They've officially now had more voters than polling stations staff in the station. So it was slow. I think it's fair to say they were hoping for better as the day wears on. But I don't know about you. 00:02:34:16 - 00:02:54:03 I've had no literature, no leaflets, no information about who the candidates are, why they're running, what they're running for, no information, really, about what the police and crime commissioner does. So I had to look it all up myself online to find out. We are, shall we say, very engaged voters. You know, we go to the trouble of looking it up and know where to look for it. 00:02:54:04 - 00:03:31:01 If your average voter is not that engaged in politics, why would you bother? Frankly? Well, that's the question. And I think that somewhat hangs over the results of these elections, particularly for things like the police and crime commissioners. If they are elected on an absolutely derisory turnout, how legitimate are they as political figures and for Westminster as MPs and politicos ponder the results of these elections, how much can they tell from elections with very, very low turnouts, where the people who do vote are mostly the hyper engaged end of the spectrum? 00:03:31:03 - 00:03:58:02 I mean, we always know local election turnouts are much lower than general elections. And I suppose our seats are unusual in that they haven't got actual local elections for the council or mayoral elections. You get a better sense of what's happening in those seats than you will in ours. Well, the mayoral elections, I think, will be certainly a bit livelier because there are big local names, big local personalities, the Ben Houchen's, the Andy Burnham's, people like that who are in the local headlines rather a lot. 00:03:58:06 - 00:04:17:24 There's some new mayoral teams as well in places like North Yorkshire and the East Midlands. And folks, this will have a whole new political structure to get involved with and learn how to understand and operate over time. So interesting questions to look at there. But the key thing, of course, is the feedback that will come into Westminster about Rishi Sunak's own leadership. 00:04:17:24 - 00:04:41:10 And as I say, we're speaking before the polls have even closed. But there's no doubt that a lot of Westminster is bracing itself for a potential leadership challenge to Rishi Sunak. If the results are really, really bad. And just this morning an opinion poll put the conservatives a whole 26 points behind Labour. They were on 18%, Labour on 44%. 00:04:41:12 - 00:05:14:09 And actually, even more alarming for the conservatives, the Reform Party was only three points behind them on 15%. And so essentially, the comparison that will be going on in the minds of conservative MPs and party activists is do these results stand up? Those kind of opinion polls, or do they contradict them if they contradict them, if the conservatives are doing much better than that on the ground in actual results and actual votes, then Rishi Sunak may be able to breathe a sigh of relief and be able to tell people that the fightback has started and he is gaining traction. 00:05:14:11 - 00:05:34:10 But if those results more or less confirm those opinion polls, well, what then? There's three factors in there to bear in mind. We've talked about turnout is an unknown factor, but it will be lower than a general election. So it will only tell you so much. You've got to look at the swing, the size of the swing, you know, from conservatives to the Labour Party, from conservatives to reform and so on. 00:05:34:14 - 00:05:55:05 But of course, one of the factors then to bear in mind, the third factor is that reform is only standing, I think, something like 1 in 6 seats. So it's not running a full ground operation across the country in all these elections. So you wouldn't expect, therefore, it to be performing in line with its polling numbers? Well, its national share will be distorted by, by that factor. 00:05:55:05 - 00:06:18:24 But there is a question about reform, which is the extent to which it's a political party, or is it a platform? Is it a platform for Nigel Farage and the kind of vehicle that provides the logo on the podium from which he speaks? Or are there lots of reform activists out there running lively local campaigns, conducting get out the vote operations, contesting local elections vigorously in a large chunk of the country? 00:06:19:05 - 00:06:41:02 And that's a big test for them. Is this an all singing, all dancing political party in the sense that most of the others are? Yeah. Well, I don't think they are. For the local elections. The question is, can they get themselves scaled up for a general election for all 600 seats, whatever it will be? And the question I think that was going to rise in the next couple of weeks, what is Nigel Farage going to do? That is going to be in the heads of conservative campaigns. 00:06:41:04 - 00:06:57:13 My assumption has been to this point that he probably doesn't want to run again in a constituency because he's run was it 6 or 7 times and lost every time. He doesn't want to go down to defeat again. On the other hand, the temptation to bury the Conservative Party, as he sees it, may be too great to resist. 00:06:57:15 - 00:07:12:02 So he might come back. But on the other hand, you know, he's earning a lot of money. Got a lot of hands here. Yes, he's he's he's earning a lot of money outside, you know, doing his, his broadcasting and so on. I've kind of assumed he's going to want to go off to the states and sort of campaign with Donald Trump. 00:07:12:04 - 00:07:28:08 Is he really actually going to want to stay in England and campaign on the ground for reform? Well, it's a measure of Nigel Farage's achievement that everybody's talking about him. And what's he going to do more or less, regardless of what kind of organization there is there for him to pick up in the shape of the Reform Party. 00:07:28:10 - 00:07:51:21 But I do wonder whether his dance of the Seven Veils he's been performing well, you know, will he won't he drop a little hint here, drop a little hint there about what he's going to do actually reflects genuine personal indecision or whether it's a publicity maximization strategy. Just really subtle hints every now and then for people to get terribly excited about and generate the aura of a leader in waiting coming down from Mount Olympus to lead us. 00:07:52:02 - 00:08:17:18 Yeah, wind everybody up and then, let down if he doesn't though. Yes, he can go too far, can’t he, with it. I think a lot is going to depend over the next few days. Obviously, as you said, the results are coming out over a period of sort of Friday, Saturday and into Sunday. Some of them apparently, we don't have this big result on a sort of Friday morning after the poll, because not everybody is counting through the night as the as they used to. General elections 00:08:17:18 - 00:08:47:05 you do have to count through the night, because you have to start counting within a couple of hours of the polls closing. But for local elections, I think, especially if the local councils are cash strapped and don't want to pay a lot of overtime, they can basically hold their count in office hours. Yeah. So the conservatives have sort of been arguing that good results are if Ben House shouldn't hold on to the mayoralty in Tees Valley, if Andy Street holds on in the West Midlands, well, we're not going to know the Tees Valley results probably until Friday lunchtime is the best estimates and that's the first big one. 00:08:47:06 - 00:09:06:23 That's the first big one. And then Saturday lunchtime for the West Midlands. So before that we'll obviously have got a lot of local council and police and crime commissioner results out by then. So it will be interesting how they manage the communications of this over the course of a long weekend. Indeed. And the other thing you've got to look at is, of course, the magic word, the swing. 00:09:06:24 - 00:09:35:23 Yeah. Ben Houchen polled, I think, 71% the last time the Tees Valley mayoralty was fought, so he could hold on and still see a massive swing against him, which would not be good news for conservative MPs within the Tees Valley region, even if he was still there. Yeah, and that's the critical point. They may hang on by hair's breadth to some of these seats, but as you say, if the swing against them has been very, very significant, that's the kind of swing that's going to take away a lot of those red wall seats come the general election. 00:09:35:23 - 00:09:54:06 And remember that the presentation of results is almost as strategized as the elections themselves. sufficiently long in the tooth to remember back in the 1990s was when Ken Baker was the Tory chair, former chair of the Hansard Society. Indeed. And, it looked like the conservatives were going to take a terrible drubbing in a set of local elections. 00:09:54:06 - 00:10:10:16 And he managed to focus attention on the results in Bradford and Wandsworth and Westminster. And when the conservatives held all those, they were then able to say, look, this is a triumph, when in fact they took a terrible drubbing across the rest of the country. Well, that seems to be what the conservatives are doing, you know, focusing it on these two parties. 00:10:10:16 - 00:10:38:09 If we save these two seats, this is a big result for the Conservative Party. The problem, I think, with that is, of course, those two mayors are quite independently minded. They've got big independent profiles, both separate to their party and separate to their party leader. So I'm not sure really what it does tell you actually. It tells you that actually being separate two different two standing apart from your party, presenting yourself as a more independently minded individual is beneficial. 00:10:38:11 - 00:10:59:24 It's the mayoralty where people haven't got that profile and which are more therefore in tune with the party position, but perhaps tell you really more accurate sense of how the party is perceived by the electorate. Well, a couple of strands in that really. First of all, the mayoralty. So I think when they were originally conceived, really supposed to be a bit like nonparty figures or at least more independent figures. 00:11:00:04 - 00:11:25:11 So they weren't necessarily automatically robotically toeing the party line. And these were a product of the coalition years. What they in sort of 2010 know these local devolution deals that yeah, the government was setting up. But the second thing is, of course, that if you are running as someone who's distant from the government, don't blame me for that loss in Westminster, then it's quite hard for that lost in Westminster, although they'll doubtless try to take it as a vindication that that person has survived. 00:11:25:11 - 00:11:49:23 I mean, lots of tales of conservative councilors at a much more local level trying to distance themselves from the National Party. I mean, one of the things you can follow on social media is people putting out images of local leaflets, literature that the parties have been putting out. We said we've not had any in our area, but the Swanage Conservatives put out a sort of a leaflet stroke letter and it says putting it mildly. 00:11:49:23 - 00:12:09:20 Swanage Conservatives have become just as angry, upset and frustrated as so many members of the public at aspects of government conduct and the behavior of MPs of our own party who've brought the party into disrepute. But whatever we do here, however much we work, we cannot affect these things and naturally we don't feel we should be held responsible for what goes on around Westminster. 00:12:09:22 - 00:12:31:14 So we hope you will not use these important local elections to make a token gesture against the government and wait for it. Ask behaving MPs, because the only effects of that will be felt here on our work for Swanage in Dorset. there's lots and lots of examples where local parties are putting out literature which haven't got party logos on, not in the party branded colors. 00:12:31:20 - 00:12:50:23 No images of prominent senior party members, Rishi Sunak and members of the cabinet really trying to disassociate themselves with the National Party. And I have some sympathy actually with that whole idea, because actually you're voting for local councilors, so maybe you should look at the performance of the local council. You're voting for police and crime commissioners, look at the performance of the police and crime commissioners. 00:12:51:00 - 00:13:11:17 But nine times out of ten, a vote that's cast in a local election is cast on national party lines. And driven by national political angst. So that's showbiz, I'm afraid. Well, talking of political angst, should we talk about Daniel Poulter MP crossed the floor of the House of Commons this week? Doctor Dan, a conservative MP in Suffolk since 2010. 00:13:11:17 - 00:13:34:18 Before that, a conservative councilor in two different authorities. He served as a councilor in Hastings and then in Reigate in Surrey, and now has crossed the floor of the House, as the technical term has it, to become a Labour MP on the basis that, as a doctor, he's become increasingly distressed about the state of the NHS, and said that he couldn't look his NHS colleagues in the eye because of what the government was doing to the NHS. 00:13:34:19 - 00:13:53:11 Of course, this is absolutely, exactly what Sir Keir Starmer wanted to be able to say and he's had great fun saying it and he's had great fun taking this as a vindication of his party's position. But it's one of those things that you I think people outside politics don't necessarily understand what a big step it is to change parties. 00:13:53:13 - 00:14:16:00 It's a huge thing for someone who's been kind of marinated in one political party or another for probably decades, to simply shrug that off and go and work with people that you previously been condemning and treating as the enemy, and denouncing in public statements. Because Rishi Sunak had a bit of fun digging up some statements from Dan Poulter attacking the Labour Party that were really quite recent. 00:14:16:02 - 00:14:41:12 So it is quite a big deal to switch colors like that, because suddenly all your mates are no longer your mates and are probably sort of cutting you dead in the corridors. And he's been he's been dumped from the WhatsApp group, dumped from the WhatsApp groups. And people start wondering how long ago you took the decision. And have you been a sort of sleeper agent, gauging the mood of the party, passing intelligence to the other side, all that kind of thing? 00:14:41:14 - 00:14:59:02 It's inevitably a pretty uncomfortable experience, and you're probably treated with a certain level of suspicion by your new colleagues as well, because not that long ago you were the enemy. Yeah. I mean, there's that sense of betrayal on the one hand, that's sort of the breaking of those bonds of trust with your local constituency party, with your whip. 00:14:59:04 - 00:15:19:08 The people who worked for you at the last election are thinking, what did I do that for? And Dan Poulter has been an MP since 2010, so he's not a newbie. He's just come into Parliament in a couple of years. He's he's been in the House for a good few elections. It's been a minister and you can understand the sense of betrayal that his local constituency party would have. 00:15:19:13 - 00:15:44:08 But on the other hand, you know, you can also appreciate that from his perspective, it feels like the party that he joined has changed from under him. And that's quite an interesting syndrome that you've got to think about here, because it's become increasingly common. This is not the party I joined. Do something that you could have said as a Labour MP under Jeremy Corbyn, and quite a number of them did, and went off to form the independent group, that short lived breakaway super Tiggers. 00:15:44:10 - 00:16:05:08 You could say it as a conservative MP, if you feel that the Conservative Party has shed its previous pro-European credentials, that with David Cameron and earlier leaders, you could say it a Republican regular or this kind of George Bush mold. Now that Donald Trump's taken over that party, what do you do when your party is suddenly not the same organization you thought you joined? 00:16:05:10 - 00:16:32:07 Yeah, quite. actually looked up the numbers for MPs who've changed party allegiance. And as ever, the House of Commons Library has done the research so I don't have to. Since 1979, apparently 204 MPs have changed their allegiance. Yeah. So that encompasses all those who sort of left Labour for the SDP, who left the SDP for the Liberal Democrats, as you say, the Tigers, it includes conservative MPs who left for Ukip. 00:16:32:13 - 00:16:55:06 You know, I wonder if that's individual MPs, because some of the people who joined the independent group, for example, ultimately ended up in the Lib Dems. So to their account for change, ratting and ratting and ratting again. Yes, that's right, I'm a rat. And right again to save the party. I love it for Churchill's life, but it is still a quite impressive total and it's also quite a bad sign for the party that people are leaving. 00:16:55:06 - 00:17:21:20 I mean, remember at one point in the 2000 there was a rash conservative MPs joining the Labour Party. Alan Howarth, who became a Labour MP for a Welsh mining seat and then a Labour peer, you had Peter Temple Morris, Quentin Davies Sean Woodward, Robert Jackson. There’s a whole load of people who switched parties for one reason or another, and it does kind of reflect a certain level of disintegration. 00:17:21:20 - 00:17:40:01 There's a strong sort of late period John Major vibe about some of this. Well, that's why there's been speculation, you know. Has he been promised something, you know, is there an inducement to cross the house? Is there an inducement to, you know, your political career in the Commons, maybe over his buddy standing down at the general election, but has he been promised something like a peerage? 00:17:40:02 - 00:17:58:06 Well, he's standing down from his his seat in Suffolk. Is he going to suddenly pop up in the Welsh valleys in a traditional mining seat with some veteran is standing down, or is he going to be the Lord Poulter shortly after the next election? We don't know. And it's they're not saying and there's no reason and they're not saying. 00:17:58:07 - 00:18:18:10 I think one of the things that people outside Westminster are a lot more squeamish about is the kind of promises and deals that are made behind the scenes in Westminster around this sort of thing. I mean, there was a story floating around last week that at one point Nigel Farage had been promised several peerages for Ukip if he stood down in favor of the conservatives. 00:18:18:12 - 00:18:45:15 And, you know, frankly, that's flatly illegal under the Lloyd George era legislation about trading in peerages. Yes, quite. Well, should we move on to a theme that we've picked up a number of times in the podcast, the quality of legislation or lack thereof, and the way in which the government or successive governments, but but recent governments in particular, have been running through late changes to legislation and the implications of that, because we've had a couple of interesting examples in the last week. 00:18:45:18 - 00:19:05:10 Yes, the renters reform bill was back in the Commons for detailed consideration a couple of weeks ago. And, vast amounts of amendments were dropped in on top of this in quite a short period of debate. And this kind of mid-air rewriting of legislation is one of the things that seems to be happening with increasing frequency at the moment. 00:19:05:12 - 00:19:39:12 In this case, it was largely about watering down the removal of no fault evictions, which is a highly controversial subject. It's a long standing government promise to change the law. So it wasn't so easy for landlords to evict their tenants. But at the same time, it raises all sorts of problems, not least. And this is something we'll probably be talking to Bob Neill about a bit later on that if you're not going to have a no fault evictions process, you may be having to send an awful lot of eviction proceedings through the civil courts, which are already buckling under the caseload that they face. 00:19:39:12 - 00:20:04:20 So there's a serious issue there. So what we had is for the the bill, 36 new government clauses at report stage. So just to flesh that out, the principles of the bill are dealt with at second reading. It then goes to a committee of MPs to consider, and we talk about it as line by line scrutiny. It isn't line by line, but it's the more detailed scrutiny you call light fiction. 00:20:04:20 - 00:20:22:08 But it’s the more detailed level, you discuss the principles of the bill at second reading, you get down into the operational detail, nitty gritty of the clause by clause, text it at committee. Committee proposes amendments. It then goes they report back to the House. You then have a report stage where they consider amendments. 00:20:22:12 - 00:20:42:15 So you're kind of on to the third round at this point of scrutiny. And the government comes forward with 36 new clauses. Now, some of that may arise out of the committee stage, where we think, actually we do need to to address that, we need to to make some changes to the text. And here's our proposals. But 36, it's a lot to be debated in a day. 00:20:42:19 - 00:21:00:00 Plus, that's before you get to any amendments that the opposition parties want to propose, or indeed government backbenchers, because there were quite a lot of those as well. And, yeah, it's the sort of thing that if it were happening in the House of Lords, first of all, there'd be a row. Yeah. people in the House would also say, this is no chip shop. 00:21:00:02 - 00:21:23:07 Secondly, the House of Lords would spend 2 or 3 days of committee stage consideration of that number of amendments, and then a day of report stage consideration. So that would be a much more thorough processing of what the government was offering up than you get in the House of Commons. And this all comes back to, I'm afraid, the dirty little secret of the House of Commons, which is that it is not great as a legislative chamber. 00:21:23:07 - 00:21:44:16 And I'm being very polite. Well, I won't name the MP, but she's quite a senior MP who's been in the House for many years. I suggested this week in a meeting that I thought MPs were largely abdicating their responsibilities in the legislative scrutiny process. I think it's fair to say she didn't really agree and didn't like it, but I stand by the comment, this is, you know, a good example of what's going on. 00:21:44:21 - 00:22:02:18 I mean, 36 of these clauses, they were all on different aspects of the bill, and yet they were all grouped together for debate in amendments at the same time. I mean, back in the day, you would have had, you know, even just a few years ago, you would have had some kind of selection of those amendments into groups, and you'd have had more focused debates of those debates on each section of that. 00:22:02:18 - 00:22:23:12 Yeah. But when you've got, you know, your one day of debate report stage, it all gets jammed in together and consequently, you get a completely unfocused debate and plenty of stuff just drops off the end and is never really talked about at all in the House of Commons. And then the House of Lords basically has to follow the comments around with bucket and spade red pencil afterwards, which is just not the way the laws should really be written. 00:22:23:12 - 00:22:50:22 You'd hope for better know. And it's not the only example of odd things happening in legislation this week. We have the tobacco and vapes Bill currently before one of those public bill committees where the line by line scrutiny doesn't actually take place, but we all pretend it does. And public bill committees can now take witnesses. So when you're investigating the workings of the bill, you can call in interested parties to explain how such and such a clause is going to affect them. 00:22:51:00 - 00:23:15:03 So it's a slightly more focus on a select committee hearing, for example. But on this occasion there was a peculiarity. Yeah. So when we looked at this, I mean, the whips and the committee members decide who they want to call and they call people who are going to, as they see it, make the arguments that are constructive and in in favor of the case they want to make, whether they're in opposition or in government. 00:23:15:05 - 00:23:40:07 So it's a more politicized and tribal process than it is for appearing before a select committee, for example, Pensions Society staff have been asked to appear before a public bill committee to talk about delegated powers. It's not been unknown for somebody from the whips office to call and try and find out what it is you're going to say, or to make some helpful suggestions about what they'd like to say, to which we offer a straight back and say, we've put out a briefing paper. 00:23:40:07 - 00:24:04:18 That's what we're going to say. We're not engaging in discussion any further. But for this backroom vape spill, they've called 34 witnesses to give evidence. But the interesting fact there was that there none of them are from the tobacco or vaping sector. So the people who who were really raising concerns about the bill, very practical concerns. Of course, they've got a big vested interest, but they raising some practical concerns, none of them. 00:24:04:18 - 00:24:29:03 And nobody seems either from the consumer organization. So there's plenty of public health officials, health and medical professions, trading standards and so on, but not from the retail sector. And just to remind people that the tobacco and vapes bill is essentially going to stop young people from smoking by progressively raising the age at which it is legal to buy both tobacco products and vaping products. 00:24:29:05 - 00:24:52:24 And that's a pretty big deal you'd have thought for the industry. So it's quite remarkable that the industry isn't invited. Yeah. And and the reason for that, one assumes, is that because actually on this bill, the government and the opposition broadly agree, the opposition is, you know, broadly supportive of what the government's trying to achieve and therefore isn't sort of bringing in people who are opponents of the bill or raising big questions about it. 00:24:52:24 - 00:25:13:14 So, you know, unusually, you've got this kind of, unbalanced, I think, set of evidence sessions and this is, of course, remember the personal project to some extent, of Rishi Sunak, who thinks that getting rid of smoking in a couple of generations time is well worth doing and so brought in this legislation, but which an awful lot of his troops actually don't like. 00:25:13:14 - 00:25:31:02 They're not instinctive banners of things on health grounds, and I suspect that this will be one of the selling points of any rival candidate who challenges Rishi Sunak for the leadership after these local elections. If that happens, that one of the things that promise to do is scrap this bill? Yeah. Any hopes for it to be one of his legacy issues, I think, doesn't he? 00:25:31:06 - 00:25:57:03 Yeah. But talking of, retail industry witnesses not being invited to come in and give evidence, we've got another example on the select committee corridor where retailers were invited to give evidence. 15 retailers were invited in to give evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee for their inquiry into sustainability of the fashion industry, and they've all declined. And there's some big high street names on this list John Lewis, Marks and Spencers, Sainsbury's, Tesco's. 00:25:57:05 - 00:26:21:15 So they're not turning up. Yeah. This is an issue that the Environmental Audit Committee, which is this kind of green watchdog, if you like, within the parliamentary system, has been looking at for quite a while now. Back before the 2019 election, it was chaired by a Labour MP called Mary Creagh, and she was extremely keen on taking a look at the environmental cost of disposable fashion throwaway clothes. 00:26:21:17 - 00:26:41:03 I think the industry had quite a bruising encounter with the committee on that occasion, so maybe that's one reason why they're not coming. But it does highlight another one of the irritants about the working of Parliament, which is that actually Parliament doesn't have a workable system to compel witnesses to appear before its committees. It's not just the Dominic Cummings. 00:26:41:03 - 00:26:59:14 It's one of the sort of high, awkward squad who cannot be compelled to appear before parliamentary committees. It's whole industries can just decide. Shrug. We don't we don't want to engage with this and there's no come back. Yeah, the chair of the committee, Philip Dunn, said that, he was disappointed. I think that's a pretty poor performance, he said. 00:26:59:14 - 00:27:21:17 And I think, well, I think that's probably an understatement. Okay. Once upon a time, Parliament could send the sergeant at arms out to grab someone off the street, and bring them into Parliament. If necessary, sling them into a cell in Parliament until they were willing to do what Parliament wanted. But those days are gone. There's no police powers now for parliamentary officials to go out and fill someone's collar. 00:27:21:19 - 00:27:39:19 And if they were to try to do it, I imagine a horrible legal tangle would follow. So that just doesn't happen anymore. There isn't a subpoena system where they can require people to appear in the way that the US Congress has, and there is a sort of ongoing rumbling debate about, really, shouldn't we have some kind of power to compel people? 00:27:39:21 - 00:27:58:11 I mean, various occasions when people from big multinational companies have shrugged and refused to appear before the business committee, and that's been a huge irritant. That was, of course, the Dominic Cummings case, where he refused to appear at one point to talk about, his role in the vote Leave campaign and the use of data by that campaign. 00:27:58:11 - 00:28:22:20 A whole lot of other things in front of Damian Collins is a culture, media and sport committee, as it then was. Yeah. Dominic Cummings, as caustic did later turn up to the health committee to give evidence about the whole, situation regarding Covid. But that's part of the problem. You know, on the one hand, the House Commons is snubbed by the witnesses when it suits them, when they've got something they really want to say and they want to make their case, they're happy to turn up in Parliament to take them. 00:28:22:20 - 00:28:45:14 So difficult. Interesting thing did happen. Just by way of an amusing aside, interesting thing did happen in the House of Lords this week. We had to tide votes in a day to tide folks in a day. And that's that's, of course, means that the proposition you're voting on doesn't get passed. It's not like the Commons, where the speaker has a casting vote and will always use it in favor of the status quo. 00:28:45:16 - 00:29:06:04 If there isn't an actual majority for something in the House of Lords, it falls. Even if it's got as many votes for it as against. So we had two votes from the Victims and Prisoners bill and good turnout. I mean, there's only like 408 peers voted on one division and about 440 odd on the second. So peers had turned out. 00:29:06:06 - 00:29:24:03 But yes, two tied votes. And of course, this is not something we see in the Commons very often because the government got an inbuilt majority and whipping is, you know, three line whips on tight votes are the norm. But in the Lords it's something that you see not frequently but more regularly. So it's actually the third tide vote this year. 00:29:24:07 - 00:29:42:22 And that does suggest, though, that conservative peers, when they want to, can turn out to vote with the government in a way that they just weren't turning out during the Rwanda bill. It highlights something about the nature of the Conservative Party's block vote in the House of Lords at the moment. Yeah, come up with that. Should we just have a short break and we'll be back in a moment. 00:29:42:24 - 00:30:05:22 88 years ago, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, sitting together in the House of Commons smoking room, paid a 1 pound subscription and so became the first members of the Hansard Society. The challenges facing our democracy are different to those that motivated them to help found the society in 1944, but they are just as urgent. So, to mark this important milestone, 00:30:06:01 - 00:30:27:12 we're launching the Churchill-Attlee Democracy Lecture, and we're delighted that former Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed to give the inaugural speech on Tuesday 14th of May. She’ll reflect on her life in Parliament, drawing on the unparalleled insights she's gleaned during her time as prime minister and as a backbench MP with a wealth of experience in the corridors of Westminster. 00:30:27:14 - 00:30:47:16 Her lecture will explore what's wrong with Parliament and why and how it must change. So why not join us as we honor the legacies of our first members, Churchill and Attlee, with what promises to be a thought provoking exploration of the challenges facing Parliament in the years ahead. Go to the Hansard Society website, and book your ticket. 00:30:47:16 - 00:31:31:00 Now that's Ruth, we're back and in a few moments we're going to be talking to Bob Neill, the conservative former minister who now chairs the Justice Select committee about, well, the whole work of his committee and all the various different issues that are on its agenda. But one of the issues fairly close to the top of that agenda is the new legislation dealing with the aftermath of the Post Office Horizon scandal, the attempt to exonerate as a bloke, all the subpostmaster voters who were convicted on the basis of evidence from the horizon accounting system that turned out not to work and turned out to be convicting people falsely. 00:31:31:02 - 00:31:49:20 And the idea there is that if you don't approach this almost as a job lot, there are going to be people waiting an awful long time for their individual case to grind its way through the courts, and the only feasible way to do the job in any decent length of time is to have a kind of mass exoneration of the subpostmasters. 00:31:49:20 - 00:32:08:16 And this, you would have thought, would be quite an easy business. But there are all sorts of constitutional issues here. First of all, should Parliament be doing this sort of thing rather than the process going through the courts, even if it does grind exceeding slow? And second, Parliament isn't doing it for all of the United Kingdom, and in particular it's not doing it for Scotland. 00:32:08:16 - 00:32:31:12 And that provoked quite a lot of emotion when that was discussed in the House of Commons. Yeah, there was quite a lengthy debate at the beginning because the government had a motion to extend the scope of the bill so that it covers the postmasters in Northern Ireland, but it's declining to do so for those in Scotland. And that let the blue touch paper with the SNP, who were pretty annoyed. 00:32:31:14 - 00:33:00:14 Now this reveals quite an interesting constitutional bit of friction here because, oddly, the Scottish National Party is asking the UK government and the Westminster Parliament to legislate on behalf of an issue affecting people in Scotland rather than the Scottish Parliament. I'm the UK government in Whitehall is saying no, you in in Edinburgh, the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government should take responsibility for this and legislate for it, and it's usually the other way round. 00:33:00:17 - 00:33:29:09 The SNP frequently complains the Westminster Parliament should keep out of Scottish affairs, and is legislating where it's really the business of the Scottish Parliament. Yeah, but this time that the roles seem to be reversed. And that's because there doesn't seem to be total unanimity in Scotland about whether this is the right thing to do. That Lord advocate for Scotland, the head of the separate Scottish legal system, has queried whether this is appropriate in the context of the way the Scottish system works. 00:33:29:12 - 00:33:53:05 Well, actually the First Minister, I mean Humza Yousaf, before he stepped down, he'd indicated some concern about it. But the Scottish Lord advocate, who's appointed by essentially the Scottish Government, nominated by the Scottish Government, approved by the Scottish Parliament, Dorothy Bain KC, she's expressed concern because of the differences in the Scottish legal system and the different approach to prosecutions that they have. 00:33:53:07 - 00:34:21:01 They put much more weight on corroborative evidence in their cases and their argument was that in mass exoneration was not appropriate in Scotland. Now the government, all human in London, is that whereas in Northern Ireland there is unanimity in the political and legal community that whilst nobody is happy with mass overturning of convictions by Parliament instead of the courts, everybody accepts that it's a pragmatic, speedy solution. 00:34:21:03 - 00:34:40:07 That consensus does not exist in Scotland. There's clearly bigger qualms in the in the legal community and amongst the politicians, and hence London's view is in light of that, over to the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament. Bring forward your own bill, get it through the Parliament as quickly as you can and deal with it yourselves. But the SNP in Westminster is not happy about that. 00:34:40:07 - 00:35:00:15 Well, indeed, Marion Fellows, who you could say is the SNP equivalent of James Arbuthnot or Kevin Jones, the MPs and other parties who pursued this issue was pretty upset when it was debated in the chamber. Yeah, so we'll have to wait and see what the Scottish Parliament does now. A Scottish Government presumably will have to be working up a bill as quickly as possible and like before the Parliament to get on with it. 00:35:00:15 - 00:35:29:13 And it's not like they don't have other distractions right now. I'm quite well over to Sir Bob Neill. Sir Bob, welcome to the podcast. But can we start on this horizon bill? You've got some misgivings, I think, about whether a blanket exoneration is the right way to go. I have yes, I think come as you probably know, is that our set committee had a hearing about it with them for, I think, very distinguished witnesses, three serious academics and Joshua Rosenberg, I think is a fantastic legal journalist. 00:35:29:15 - 00:35:49:10 I think the consensus was that it was the least worst way of doing it was. So I think the phrase that was used when I sort of accept that, but that doesn't stop me having misgivings. And it's really this I totally get right that the great a gross injustice was done to these people, and we need to get that sorted out as swiftly as we can. 00:35:49:12 - 00:36:14:11 But my concern is the constitutional precedent of Parliament interfering in what are in fact, individual decisions of the courts. It isn't like changing the law as a matter of policy, you might say random Supreme Court judgment, for example, or something that kind is effective, saying that the number of individual cases which resulted in convictions by the courts should be overturned without reference. 00:36:14:11 - 00:36:35:20 Back to the courts. I think as a lawyer, that just makes me wary. There may be no other practical option in the timescale available, but I do think we've really, really got to emphasize that the exceptional nature of this, because you certainly don't want that becoming any kind of precedent. And the government's argument is precisely that. Nobody's happy with this, but this is a pragmatic, speedy response. 00:36:35:22 - 00:36:56:10 What's the alternative? If it were to go through the courts, the lady chief justice, when she gave a judgment, actually in a horizon related appeal, made it quite clear, as she did to our select committee that she believes it could be done very quickly by July, with cooperation. What would be required would be, of course, for the prosecution to offer no evidence. 00:36:56:10 - 00:37:15:03 Now, a route that some of us have suggested will be firstly, you have to get the Crown Prosecution Service to take over the prosecutions. That shouldn't be too difficult. The government is after all, the sole shareholder in the Post Office. They could take the Post office to say, look, you should surrender any interest in these. They've already said they won't defer. 00:37:15:03 - 00:37:33:01 The prosecutions wouldn't be too difficult for the attorney to speak to the DPP and say, look, please give this top priority. Maybe that might require a little bit more money. And I'm I was thinking if you if you look at the state of the evidence post Wyn Williams, you might conclude you can't say these convictions are safe, any of them. 00:37:33:06 - 00:37:58:18 And then the Court of Appeal could list them in bulk, and then it could just be job done a few moments later and up. And you wouldn't have had to have legislated in this very difficult area. That would still be my preference. I think there was a bit of desire on both front benches for a bit of political machismo, almost to say we politicians have seized this and got it done, and I it understand it, because the most serious point, perhaps, is there is a concern that some of the people are quite elderly and frail. 00:37:58:18 - 00:38:17:23 Now. How long will they be with us? One hates to say. Secondly, it's a prerequisite of the compensation scheme. To have the convictions for that might not be necessary. If you thought about that, the more difficult point, which I think is, is perhaps the best bit in the government's favor, is that in some cases the evidence files are no longer available. 00:38:18:00 - 00:38:39:22 There's also the issue that at the moment, a criminal appeal procedure puts the onus on the defendant that works when people are engaged and are willing to do so. That works if the criminal Cases Review Commission has reviewed their cases. in some cases that has happened, some case it hasn't. But if there's nothing, no evidence to review, then you do have a problem. 00:38:39:24 - 00:38:59:04 Or if there are people who are just so disillusioned and destroyed by the process that they don't want to go anywhere near it. At the moment, that creates your problem. So that's why I do see the government side. But I think the evidence files are no longer available. What's happened to them? In some cases? I think the evidence at the inquiry was that the Post Office had destroyed them. 00:38:59:10 - 00:39:16:21 That may simply be a document retention policy, I hope it's simply that classically cock up rather than conspiracy, if I'm allowed to say that on the podcast. it really works very. But where the post office is concerned, I'm not sure whether. Well, salute. Well, I'm afraid you would. You would worry because, yeah, there are lots of other ramifications, but we are where we are now. 00:39:16:22 - 00:39:35:09 The good news was for what it's worth, the government bill was quite an important amendment at report stage in the Commons this week, which was to say that the provisions wouldn't apply to any convictions after the act comes into force. And that's stating the obvious. But it's probably necessary to state the obvious. But some might be suggesting a sunset clause. 00:39:35:11 - 00:39:57:06 This does something similar. So once this unique set of events is dealt with, then it really shouldn't have any further effect as a piece of legislation. And as I understand it, once the bill gets royal assent, then pretty much immediately the convictions are quashed. Yes, the convictions are quashed upon the act coming into force. But there's a few other practical things that have to be done. 00:39:57:12 - 00:40:17:23 Firstly, they'll requires the Secretary of State to notify all those persons that they're aware of, that their convictions has been quashed. Let's suppose you want to apply for a job. Suppose you want to go to the states. You know, you need to be able to have something which you can show when you fill in a form saying you don't have a conviction, or if you had a conviction, it was quashed. 00:40:18:00 - 00:40:37:12 Yeah. So that has to be done. And if they can't trace the people, they have to take reasonable steps to try and notify, for example, their next of kin if they died or another authority if they can't find them, which probably we understand will be things like the Criminal Records office to try and make it expunged. So there will be things that have to be done after that. 00:40:37:14 - 00:41:01:06 And how big a player in all this is your Justice Committee been? Obviously, it's been the business committee that was doing a lot of the probing around the original facts of the horizon scandal. But when it comes to the legal handling of it, how much influence and leverage has your merry band managed to have on this? Well, I was pleased that the transcript of our evidence session was referred to quite often in the in the course of the committee stage, actually, of the bill. 00:41:01:11 - 00:41:33:15 I think that had an influence. I hope that it may be causing ministers to think again about the position of cases which were referred to the Court of Appeal, and the Court of Appeal dismissed them as only a small number. But the anomaly there is that Parliament has chosen, as a matter of policy, to apply a broader test as to the relevance of horizon evidence, and the Court of Appeal did, in the case of Hamilton, which was a leading case, Court of Appeal said it had to be essential to the prosecution to quash the conviction. 00:41:33:21 - 00:42:01:17 Parliament has chosen to say don't have to be central, just if it was a prosecution that happened in a post office capacity whilst horizon was operating. So anybody who's been convicted since the date that this applies to onwards, who worked for the post office, and if they've got a horizon system in operation, but if they got a conviction for something that that will be overturned, that will be overturned, even if actually it's nothing to do with horizon, and they were just taking money out of the two. 00:42:01:18 - 00:42:25:15 Yes. And that the policy decision which Parliament has taken is it's pretty well accepted in English law. There's a maximum that better ten guilty men go through raid that one innocent man is convicted as a pretty stablished common law position. There's an acceptance, I think, that some people will be fortunate in consequence of this, but that as against the much greater damage that was done, that's a small price to pay. 00:42:25:18 - 00:42:47:02 That's not something that concerns me most. What I think would be unfair if you've got a situation where somebody applied for leave to appeal the Criminal Cases Review Commission thought it was worth sending to the Court of Appeal, but only perfectly legitimate at the time test that the Court of Appeal was applying their conviction wasn't quashed. Someone else? 00:42:47:04 - 00:43:04:11 Same set of facts. But the Criminal Cases Review Commission thought it wasn't strong enough to go to the Court of Appeal. They be exonerated, and the person actually thought it was arguable for the Court of Appeal, but lost because of the narrow test. Yeah. And on the basis, worse off on the basis that more information has come out about the Post Office since those Court of Appeal cases. 00:43:04:11 - 00:43:24:20 Yes, I understand there was a desire not to trespass on decisions of the judiciary any more than necessary, but I've been persuaded actually, by that evidence session. I must say that that would be proper to treat everybody. Alex Chalk had a good phrase, probably we ought to say that everything that when Horizon was operating in the post office, prosecutors, it’s all the fruit of the poison tree. 00:43:24:22 - 00:43:45:21 and therefore it's all unsafe. So have we shifted thinking on that? I'd like to think, yes, we have that. We made a worthwhile contribution. Let's talk about another piece of legislation in your area that's generating quite a lot of heat at the moment. And that's the proposal to get rid essentially of, prison sentences that go for under a year, which is highly controversial from several points of view. 00:43:45:21 - 00:44:03:01 One, the government argues that it's necessary because the prisons are just too crowded, and short sentences don't seem to do much good anyway. To a lot of your colleagues on the conservative backbenches think that this is being soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime to go in it. Phrase where do you stand on very much in favor of what the government's doing? 00:44:03:06 - 00:44:37:09 I wish they'd done it sooner. there is a practical political motive that we simply are running out of prison spaces, and therefore you've got to make space. And I don't have a problem with that, because in prison, let's just take a step back. Prison is in an immensely expensive. It's about 47,500 pounds a year, to have a person in an adult prison more if they're in the young offenders institution, unless society is prepared to put much, much more money than we do at the moment into prisons, that's going to be unsustainable financially and therefore prison has to be rationed. 00:44:37:11 - 00:44:57:01 The logic, therefore, is that prison is for the people who are dangerous the organized criminals, the violent people, the sexual criminals. Those are the people. Anyone would say they deserve to be inside and sometimes inside for a long time. But many of the people that get these short sentences, they're certainly a wretched nuisance to, let's say, shopkeepers and others. 00:44:57:03 - 00:45:16:05 But what underpins it is that their life is chaotic, and that's usually because some other emanation of the state has not picked up on those problems. Earlier on, the mental health teams didn't pick up on it. Maybe social services didn't when they were kids, maybe the education system didn't, other elements of the health service didn't. Housing people didn't. 00:45:16:05 - 00:45:45:10 So all of those things then are then dumped on the court system and the prison system. So you're quite right. They don't work effectively because anyone who's been in the system will tell you the three things that give the best opportunity of somebody staying out of trouble, ideally not getting into it to start with. But if they if they've made a mistake of getting back on track, the three things are a job, a roof over their head, and a family or relationship. 00:45:45:12 - 00:46:02:02 Now, a short sentence or two often disrupts all three of those things. They could lose their job. They could lose their flat, they girlfriend or boyfriend or partner. Very often will walk away and move on and they come out. The only people have got to go to other people that were associating with when they were committing the crime. 00:46:02:02 - 00:46:20:15 To start, it becomes a vicious circle. But if you don't send them to prison, they presumably will have to be looked after by the probation service and do some kind of community sentence. And the probation service is in no better shape than the prison system, is it? It's not. But in fact, investment in the probation service will be less expensive than the costs of running prison. 00:46:20:15 - 00:46:40:08 It's not going to cost as much as that 47,500 dollars a year to fund up to operation service properly, which it does need and where, I'm afraid. some very ill judged reforms by some of my own side have to say, put it into a very poor state where we're trying to improve it, but it will be a cheaper, a more effective way to do it, to give more resource to probation. 00:46:40:11 - 00:47:03:17 And that way we've got, you know, all the technology. We got tags much better. We need to think of better. Quite tough actually sentences in the community. We've got that mixture of punishment. There's nothing wrong with punishment when people have transgressed, but it's got to be also constructive and rehabilitative, and investment in probation and alternatives would make sense economically as well as I think, socially as well. 00:47:03:19 - 00:47:26:07 You've also written to the Secretary of State about your concern. The committee has written about the concerns of the proposals to send foreign prisoners back to overseas prisons, to help reduce the problems on capacity in UK prisons. You have some concerns about that. Who would go when when they would go? You know, I think there's a bit of that. 00:47:26:07 - 00:47:53:11 I think there's two bits to distinguish here. There's a well-established arrangement for returning foreign national prisoners in the UK to their home countries to serve their sentence. I don't have a problem with that. And ironically, we haven't done anything like as much of that as we might be able to. The idea that cause me concern, the committee concern, it was the thought that we would actually rent space in some prisons to send British prisoners there to relieve the capacity problem. 00:47:53:13 - 00:48:11:20 And that's where the concern is about who would you send? How would you square that with your obligations? under the bill, how would you actually do the rehabilitative work? How would you, for example, start getting them prepared for release? How are you going to get the probation service in to see them? And so the European Convention on Human Rights, yes. 00:48:11:20 - 00:48:38:20 For example, the right to family life, which if they do have family who want to visit them, which is all to be encouraged, how do you keep. Yeah, how do you do that? If you're in Holland? The cultural things are different. Language issues, unless your committee had a satisfactory response to the government, has been pretty guarded in its response, probably because I think more thoughtful heads in government, if I, frank, know that this was a bit of a gimmicky idea that some advisers maybe came up with somewhere, I suspect not in the Ministry of Justice, actually. 00:48:38:22 - 00:48:57:21 don't weigh, a death, that it's not likely to fly in practice. Much better to get behind an idea to take out the short sentence. Prisoners. And the other thing I'd say we need to do is our rather big problem about the pressure on the prison population is the number of people who are on remand awaiting trial. 00:48:57:23 - 00:49:17:19 That's gone up nearly 6000. You know, that's grown. But progressively. That brings us to another point, though, which which is they've talked about the prisons being vastly overcrowded. We've talked about the probation service needing to recover from the reforms in inverted commas that were made quite a while back. You've also got the courts with massive backlogs in every direction. 00:49:17:19 - 00:49:31:23 When you're talking about the civil courts or the criminal courts, I mean, the justice system as a whole is in a terrible mess right now, isn't it? And presumably nothing much is going to be done about it till after the next election, when someone or other is going to have to bite quite a number of bullets. That's right. 00:49:31:23 - 00:49:55:05 It is very fragile indeed. And that's me being cautious about the language. It's not something that's entirely new, you know, going back to when I was in practice as a barrister, you know, 20 or 30 plus years ago, it was rocky at times then. And the real problem is that no government virtually in my professional lifetime, has adequately funded the justice system. 00:49:55:10 - 00:50:16:05 Labour governments didn't. Arguably, perhaps with the exception of Roy Jenkins, conservative governments haven't either. And that's unfortunately, when it comes down to crude politics, there aren’t any votes in it. But that does mean that at the moment you've got a situation of it's both a downstream department. So it picks up all a lot of the detritus that's been caused elsewhere in society. 00:50:16:05 - 00:50:47:18 And it's also an unprotected department, you know, in in spending terms, that's a very bleak thing to hear. Someone who's in charge of monitoring the whole system, actually saying that it's a backwater. There are no votes in it because the consequence is all so real and so dangerous and could hit almost anybody in society. Absolutely. And that's why one of the things I've tried to do throughout my time as chairman is to be blunt about the situation that confronts us, and they make the case that if we want as a civilized society to have a functioning justice system, we've got to be prepared to put money into it. 00:50:47:20 - 00:51:11:21 We've got to put money into it wisely. Simply building more prisons, for example, to warehouse people, isn't the solution. What you do need to do is to fund the system as a whole. There's a little bit of pot of money goes in here, a little bit of money goes in there often to do a bit of firefighting. But we don't take an holistic approach to funding the system because as you observe, they're all interrelated. 00:51:11:22 - 00:51:34:09 Delays in the courts create pressures in the prisons, inadequacy of staffing information creates both problems for the courts, because you don't get a report before you sentence this person, you really need to have reports, or you don't have the necessary courses done and the necessary resettlement organized for prisoners. You've got to fund the whole lot in a holistic way and in a joined up fashion. 00:51:34:11 - 00:52:01:24 And you've got as a society to say, having a working justice system. And we've we've talked largely around crime, but the same applies as you fairly observed in relation to civil courts, too. I think they are a readily available and efficient means of individuals resolving their disputes. That's the important part of a civilized society, we ought to say, a proper justice system is as much an important social service as having a proper education system. 00:52:01:24 - 00:52:22:11 We need to make the case about that. And that's what I've tried to do by being pretty forensic. I hope, about exposing the pressures and the shortcomings in our system at the moment to try and shake. I'm afraid my colleagues and I think broader society and to say whether there's votes in it or not, you need this to make it work, because actually nobody thinks it will affect them. 00:52:22:17 - 00:52:41:24 But one day it does. You've been chair of your committee for, what, just over four years now? And and with what we potentially weeks at most seven months away from a general election, one of the things we've picked up about select committees in the last year or so, really, is that they've been struggling to get members to attend. 00:52:42:01 - 00:52:56:24 Members are obviously under pressure to do lots more in their constituency Parliament. The House of Commons hasn't been operating in the normal way of a sort of three four day a week parliament. It's almost down to two and a half days really, in terms of activity when lots of members are present. What's it been like on your committee? 00:52:57:01 - 00:53:14:09 The only question I've got to say so I've been chair of it for nine years. Oh, I became chair just after the 2015 election. You have to be reelected at the start of every parliament. Yeah, yeah. but I was really I was elected in 2015 and reelected in 17. And then in 19. There's a term limit that means this parliament would be the last I could share it. 00:53:14:11 - 00:53:31:15 It is a problem, I think. I don't think it's unique to the Justice Committee. Inevitably, two things happen in of course, with Parliament active, it's been a very long running one. It's come more, it's running its term. There's a lot of churn on select committees, because you'll start off with quite a few new members, and there will be ambitious and someone will get jobs. 00:53:31:17 - 00:53:50:01 You know, when I started off in 2015, we had two bright young Tory members, Alex Chalk and Victoria Prentis, on the Select Committee on the things that went on that went on to higher things in the in the law. You lose them because they get jobs. Same as. Yeah. My very good Labour colleague Maria Eagle has now been promoted to the opposition frontbench. 00:53:50:01 - 00:54:13:07 And this year I think you get nearer to the election. People worry more about their constituency, start looking over their shoulder, and some people are less willing to give their seats emotional to be prepared to commit the time that you do need so that you've got consistent attendance and that you can actually do the preparation first, you know, I was told the select committee was I did with a barrister, you know, you only cross-examined. 00:54:13:07 - 00:54:31:02 Well, if you prepared well, you got to mug up the brief. And that does take a bit of commitment. So I think it's probably a function of the latter end of a parliament. And the fact that we've had this revolving door, of people coming on the committee being really keen to get jobs and then when they're next minister, next frontbench. 00:54:31:02 - 00:54:47:10 So maybe be other things have then come along that engage the interest. I think we'll leave it there as well. Thank you very much for joining us on the pod. There's a delighted to to say support Neill. Well, Ruth, just before we go, time to deal with a few questions we've had put in by listeners. take it away. 00:54:47:13 - 00:55:11:05 Yeah. So we've had one from Keith Claridy. He says, hypothetically, what would happen if the Prime Minister's party retained a parliamentary majority but the Prime Minister lost their seat? Would that trigger a new leadership race? And then he goes on to say, I love the show and eagerly await every new episode. Thank you for this wonderful podcast. So thank you for those very kind words. 00:55:11:05 - 00:55:41:24 Got you're enjoying it. So Mark, bit of a constitutional conundrum. Well, I think the first thing to say is it's quite difficult to imagine the circumstances where a party simultaneously wins an election but loses its leader. I suppose it's not impossible, but it seems improbable. But if it did happen, what then? there wouldn't be time. Or it wouldn't be very convenient for a party to have a full dress leadership race with hustings around the country in a stately process, taking six weeks or something before they came up with a new leader. 00:55:41:24 - 00:56:05:18 Because any incoming government wants to hit the ground running, and the newly reelected government wants to get on with its agenda. So that would be a bit awkward. I've been I've been racking my brains for kind of historical precedents here. AJ Balfour, who was the conservative leader in the run up to the 1906 Liberal landslide. He'd actually stop being prime minister shortly before, and the liberals have taken over and immediately called a general election. 00:56:05:23 - 00:56:28:12 AJ Balfour lost his seat. But in those days, elections were somewhat different in the way they were conducted. So what happens now? And he had time to do a quick, soft shoe shuffle to another constituency and quickly make himself the candidate there and get elected back to the Commons. So he didn't almost didn't miss a beat. But it misses the point that you're raising here because he wasn't prime minister and he wasn't going to be prime minister anyway. 00:56:28:14 - 00:56:53:08 A bit more recently, not all that much more recently, that was the situation where surrounding Douglas Hume, as he then wasn't, was appear was chosen as conservative leader, taking over from Harold Macmillan in the early 60s and had to renounce his peerage, something that was made possible by Tony Benn, curiously enough. But that's another story. He renounced his peerage and then had to fight a byelection to get into the Commons. 00:56:53:13 - 00:57:16:10 Now he was conservative leader. He was kind of prime minister in waiting. But what would have happened if he hadn't won that byelection? I mentioned they would have had to have been some other quick leadership election then. Actually, leadership election isn't quite the right phrase, because in those days the conservatives didn't elect their leader. They emerged from what was rather scathingly described by Ian MacLeod, I think, as the magic circle process. 00:57:16:14 - 00:57:29:16 So it could all have happened quite quickly, but someone else would have had to have been found to take up the reins at that point. And they doubtless would forever have been described as the party's second choice. Yeah, it's a bit of a millstone around your neck, so there isn't an exact historical precedent that we can grope for? 00:57:29:16 - 00:58:02:03 No, I mean, I think if you sort of think about the constitutional principles, the party leader does not have to be prime minister and vice versa, and also the monarch, the sovereign must not be without a constitutional adviser. So there has to be a prime minister appointed. So if the Prime Minister of the day lost his or her seat, but their party got back in, then I think you'd be in the scenario where what the party did would be up to them in terms of choosing the party leader, that would be a separate track of activity for the party to resolve. 00:58:02:05 - 00:58:30:12 But the cabinet or the previous cabinet, assuming that they were however many of them had got back in, they would in effect have to decide from within their ranks and within a number who they would essentially propose to the sovereign should take over as Prime minister. And you could imagine that the private secretary to the sovereign at that point would be spending rather a lot of time on the phone and finding out what was going on so that this could all be done as seamlessly as possible, and hopefully without the sovereign having to make an actual choice. 00:58:30:12 - 00:58:47:11 Yes. Yeah, they'd have to be some very, very rapid movement to try and get someone in place to serve as Prime Minister on the principle that the King or the Queen's government has to be carried on. So it would all have to move pretty damn fast. Yes. And they'd have to be able to then command the confidence of the house. 00:58:47:11 - 00:59:12:01 So you'd be in to the state opening of Parliament to confirm that, indeed, the choice and the whatever they had managed to cobble together did indeed have the requisite level of support. And if your party turned out not to entirely support you, then we're really off to the races and probably another, another general election. I mean, there have been people who've suggested that there ought to be a formal vote of confidence in a new government at the start of a new parliament, just to sort of set things in stone a bit. 00:59:12:01 - 00:59:31:24 But we don't normally quite do that. In a sense, the vote on the King's Speech is the closest you come to that, and that's usually a pretty done deal. Yeah. So moving on. We've had another question from Barnaby Jackson. He asked a question about Rwanda and about something that Sir Robert Buckland has said on another podcast. another podcast. 00:59:31:24 - 00:59:53:05 There are there are others. And I confess, Mark, I appeared on it. Mr.. Robert Buckland, last week, I should say it was a temporary, temporary, operation. So I'm not going to get into the details of that because, I mean, we'd have to replace Robert's words to get into what Barnaby was asking about that. But he does say that, how can anyone deem Rwanda a safe country now? 00:59:53:07 - 01:00:13:01 forever, just because of assurances that risks are not just mitigated, but eliminated? Well, that's not really a Parliament Matters podcast type questions in or about Parliament. It's more sort of a policy issue. But what we have talked about, of course, on the podcast is these are exactly the kinds of issues that the House of Lords were raising during the debate, exactly the kind of concerns that they had. 01:00:13:03 - 01:00:30:10 Yes. And if you go back and look at the Lords debates, you can see, for example, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, David Anderson, a crossbench peer, thundering away on this very point to proposing a mechanism to underpin this whole issue of whether Rwanda's safe or not. There would be a committee that would advise the Secretary of State on whether it was. 01:00:30:12 - 01:00:49:17 But the government has absolutely refused to accept and it's been rejected several times by the Commons. And now the Rwanda bill is a law without any such mechanism within it. So Parliament has deemed Rwanda's to be safe. And that's it, right up to the moment when someone decides to change that. Yeah. And the other element, of course, is it's also a treaty with Rwanda that the government has now chosen to ratify. 01:00:49:17 - 01:01:08:13 I again, without agreeing to what the House of Lords wanted, which was debate on that before they did. So. So there we go. We've also had a more a suggestion rather than a question from Nick Walker, who I think might be a former House of Commons clerk. I'm not sure, but, he says very much enjoying your podcast. 01:01:08:13 - 01:01:28:07 Before we get into a general election campaign or a conservative leadership campaign, depending on the result, I was wondering whether you'd be able to have the leader and shadow leader on separate editions to explain their plans, if any, for reform of the Commons and perhaps the Lords if they win the election, perhaps also the Lib Dems and the SNP spokespeople for their thoughts as well. 01:01:28:09 - 01:01:52:10 It's to quote the song in My Fair Lady. Wouldn't it be lovely? Yes. I mean, it would be, it would be great. And it's something, Nick, that we have talked about. Well, one of the issues is, is obviously getting key players to be willing to say something on the record that's meaningful and interesting. and there's a kind of a sort of reluctance to put much, much flesh on the bone of their ideas and thoughts at this particular moment in time. 01:01:52:12 - 01:02:11:18 It's not my longstanding gripe that, however much opposition has complained about using the full power of government to tank legislation through as soon as those oppositions pupate and emerge from their chrysalis as governments, they do all the things that they have been complaining about before in their previous incarnation, so they're always very careful not to foreclose the option. 01:02:11:22 - 01:02:31:16 Yeah, but in the interest of transparency, Mark, I should perhaps say that I mean, I've had a couple of meetings with Lucy Powell, the shadow leader of the House of Commons. so the Labour spokesperson in the last couple of weeks, you know, talking about things like delegated legislation or proposals for reform, talking about legislation, improving legislative process and so on. 01:02:31:18 - 01:02:50:19 And the mood music is positive. Good. You know, they're in listening mode thinking about what they want to do. But we'll have to wait and see what their plans crystallize us. We'll keep our fingers crossed. And with that, Ruth, I think we've reached the end of this particular podcast. We'll be back next week, doubtless, to discuss the aftermath of those local elections. 01:02:50:23 - 01:02:58:03 Indeed. See you next week. 01:02:58:05 - 01:03:18:04 Well, that's all from us for this week's episode of Parliament Matters. Please hit the Follow or Subscribe button in your podcast app to get the next episode as soon as it lands, and help us to make the podcast better by leaving a rating or review on Apple or Spotify and sharing your feedback. Our producer tells us it's important for the algorithm to give the show a boost. Tell us more about the algorithm. 01:03:18:06 - 01:03:44:16 What do I know about algorithms? You know, I write my scripts with a quill pen on vellum and then send it by carrier pigeon. Well, before we go, a quick reminder also that you can send us your questions on all things Parliament by visiting We'll be discussing them in future episodes, including our special Urgent Questions editions dedicated to what you want to know about Parliament, and you can find us across social media @Hansard Society. 01:03:44:22 - 01:03:59:23 To get more content related to the show and the wider work of the Hansard Society. 01:04:01:14 - 01:04:17:18 Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. For more information, visit We'll find us on social media @Hansard Society.

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