Sion Simon, Keith Vaz and Law Officers’ advice

by Carl Gardner on January 6, 2010

The DCMS minister Sion Simon has been speaking for the government in the Commons this afternoon, and is in an embarrassing situation: it appears that government lawyers have advised that the Video Recordings Act 1984 should have been notified to the European Commission under the “Technical Standards” Directive, 83/189 (since replaced by Directive 98/34). Since it was not, its provisions are unenforceable; the government has therefore now notified, and by means of the Video Recordings Bill is repealing and reenacting the 1984 provisions. The bill is going through in effect in a day. Oops!

Technical standards notification is one of those nightmare issues that arises occasionally in government – the need to notify is always unwelcome and easy to miss, and when you suspect you should have notified something in the past, a feeling of gloom overtakes you and you’re tempted to bury the file in a long-untouched cabinet. I felt a bit sorry for the minister who had to take this to the House. It wasn’t his failure that caused this problem of course.

Sion Simon’s turn at the dispatch box, then, wasn’t perhaps one he’ll look back on with great pride. But on one point he was unfairly made to appear foolish by Keith Vaz, who asked him whether his legal advice had come from the Attorney General. Simon explained he could not say whether it had: it was the advice of DCMS’s lawyers having consulted lawyers elsewhere in government. I’m certain that both the Cabinet Office’s specialist EU lawyers and the Law Officers will have advised on this; it’s unthinkable DCMS would be given the slot for a bill like this without the Attorney’s agreeing their legal view. But there is a convention that ministers do not disclose either the fact that the Attorney has advised on a particular matter, or the content of the advice. It’s a convention very rarely breached, for instance in cases such as Iraq. It’s also taken pretty seriously: I’ve had the job of “enforcing” the convention within government myself in the past. The minister’s technical standards headache would just have got a bit worse had he leaked the Attorney’s advice too.

Keith Vaz gave a give me strength shake of the head following Sion Simon’s non-reply; but Vaz used to be a minister himself, and surely knows about the convention. Doesn’t he? He also seemed to think DCMS might have tabled the bill without having taken any advice from qualified lawyers at all – which was also a surprising (in the Whitehall sense) thing for an ex-Home Office minister, and select committee chairman, to think.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 simply wondered January 7, 2010 at 23:05

keith vaz of course has never made a mistake!
.-= simply wondered´s last blog ..self-serving scum =-.

2 Peter Hargreaves January 8, 2010 at 13:47

Keith Vaz. A man with an “interesting” parliamentary career but it does include a persistent campaign against violent video games (e.g. Manhunt). I would have thought that Mr Vaz would have simply welcomed the government’s attempt to correct this technical defect.

By the way: what is the rationale for this convention? Why could it not be simply stated whether the Attorney had advised or not? Isn’t parliament supposedly the place where the Attroney’s actions can be examined?

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