The independence of the legal profession is being threatened by government ‘diktats’ ordering that the websites of three legal quangos be closed, the chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) told a House of Lords debate this week.
Baroness Hayter said that the Legal Services Board, LSCP and Legal Ombudsman (LeO) have been told by the Ministry of Justice to take their websites offline and replace them with government-approved sites by 31 March.
Hayter said that the three bodies had been informed by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude of the move in October last year, sparking criticism from those involved. She said that LeO chair Elizabeth France complained to Maude, saying that ‘there was no justification for an ombudsman, set up to demonstrate independence from government regulation and the profession and spending no government money’, being forced to use the government’s .gov web address.
‘It raises serious constitutional issues about the independence of the governance of those bodies – something to which the government seems a little deaf,’ said Hayter. ‘If the government were to come up with a wheeze to close our website, I would prefer us to have no website at all rather than being an arm of the government’s.
‘I hope it will not come to that, with all its implications for transparency, to say nothing of my role as chair. The secretary of state, I am sure, would remove me fairly promptly if I were to disobey in those ways.’
The Lords were debating the Public Bodies Bill, and welcomed amendments intended to prevent ministers gaining too much power over the operation of quangos.
Hayter said: ‘When the LSB was set up, there were many – I am sure sincere – assurances as to the independence of the Legal Services Board from political interference. It is very much for that reason that I am delighted about the [amendments]. However, in the meantime, another part of government has taken a quite serious swipe at the LSB, as well as my own Legal Services Consumer Panel, and at the new Legal Services Ombudsman.
‘To my knowledge there is no legal basis for such a diktat from the Cabinet Office and there is, of course, no saving of public money.
‘I ask the minister, is this a new way of exercising control and undermining the independence of a body by finding another route, having discovered that [the amendments are] unacceptable to the house? Are the government really committed to operational independence of those bodies which were set up to take decisions free of political interference?
‘We need to ensure that the government is committed to the continuing independent decision-making of those bodies.’