The Sketch: Simon Carr

How the battle of the Wills turns into just another pointless exercise
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The Independent Online

The official opposition, as it is calling itself, descended on the government like a wild, Highland combine harvester: Charles Kennedy chose Scottish questions to aim his blades at the pleasant young Advocate General for Scotland.

Mr Kennedy's question deserves full, tape-recorder-quality rendition: "For the first time since 1977 a joint statutory instruments committee of this parish of Westminster is meeting to consider, and this obviously doesn't happen very often, to consider that the legal circumstances as applied to this house and to Westminster at the time of this enactment, were they in fact in order, presumably, with regard to the fact that the Skye Bridge toll legislation was passed under a classified statutory instrument." It winded us all. We only came to when the Advocate General had stopped advocating, or generalising or whatever the Advocate General does.

By then it was time to press our ear to another cranny in the constitution.

Mr Wills, a suave card from the Lord Chancellor's Department, was defending with a measured ferocity our system's separation of powers. This he did by supporting to the death the right of the law lords not only to pass legislation but also to interpret it on appeal.

Mr Wills has the knack: he attacks the opposite of what is proposed by defending its converse. Or is it the other way round? "Isn't it one of the strengths of the lay magistracy that they are locally involved in justice?" a Tory asked.

Mr Wills told us how deeply committed the Government was to local justice. From that we assumed that he was going to abolish it and replace it with an entirely centralised system. "Local justice in a rural area is quite different from rural justice in a metropolitan area," he claimed. That would certainly be the case if it were the other way round. Maybe it is the other way round. We could argue about that, but let's not.

"We must be quite sure that what we have is a criminal justice system that delivers for all those people who need it to deliver," he declared heroically. We could only hope Downing Street has been alerted to this radical shift in approach.

David Lidington's suggestion that the Government was against "the over-local nature of magistrates' justice" was rebutted with the words: "He should read what ministers actually said on the subject!" Mr Wills didn't say how that would help. It fell to Bill Cash to deliver a devastating blow.

A civil service memo had been found in a pub revealing that before the consultation process had finished, a 400-clause Bill had already been prepared, and that the closure of many magistrates' courts was the second-highest priority.

"The consultation will be a sham," Mr Cash asserted. The minister said: "We are conducting this process properly, not through documents left in pubs."

Yes, you see, that's how process is properly conducted: the "documents in pubs" element is absent. Or, in this case, present. "It is a full-blooded process of consultation which we have made quite clear will continue to the 31st of January next year."

A perfect example of government in action. Energetic and pointless activity which will almost certainly make things worse.