Financial Secretary to the Treasury Mark Hoban crashed and burned on Radio 4 this morning. When asked whether he had conducted a formal study of the impact of the government’s spending proposals on disadvantaged groups, he didn’t have a clue what the interviewer, Justin Webb, was talking about. That this is a legal requirement was clearly news to him and he repeatedly avoided answering the question.
As this was going on, UNISON, the public sector union, announced that it would mount a legal challenge against Andrew Lansley’s NHS white paper on the grounds that the NHS constitution is legally binding and prevents the government from implementing any change without major consultation.
Some commentators have already spotted the potential legal booby-traps in the measures brought in by the Labour government in its dying days. Legislation giving people legal entitlements to public services and stronger equality laws were always going to make it more difficult to cut public spending. Theresa May anticipated this back in June and warned George Osborne about it before the budget.
Commenting on Mark Hoban’s debacle, the Spectator’s Frazer Nelson accused the government of completely missing these ‘New Labour landmines’:
Labour transferred power from parliament (where it was about to lose power) to the courts (where the lefty judiciary reign supreme). Their calculation was that if they did this quietly enough, and in technicalities, the Cameroons would not wise up to it because of their aversion to detail.
Actually, they didn’t do it that quietly. Polly Toynbee, one of the Labour Party’s most prominent supporters in the media, explained exactly what they were up to back in June 2009. She even described the legislative programme as ‘a spending landmine’.
These spending landmines are starting to go off. There will almost certainly be more legal challenges to the government’s spending programmes. As with the civil service redundancy scheme, the government may find that it has to repeal legislation before it can implement its programme. That will slow things down and take up time that the Coalition had hoped to use for other bills.
It remains to be seen whether the judiciary is as lefty as Frazer Nelson thinks, and whether it will uphold any or all of these challenges. All the same, the Coalition should have a contingency plan in case it needs to spend the next year unpicking Labour’s legislative landmines.
Update: The Equality Act is not in force yet so Justin Webb was jumping the gun here. (See Darren Newman in the comments thread below.) Unfortunatley, Mark Hoban didn’t seem to be aware of that either.