Why Baroness Scotland has to go

September 22, 2009

Laurence Copeland- Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. -

“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” Shakespeare, Sonnet No. 94

The Bard’s words sum up one of two reasons why the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland, ought to resign in response to being fined 5000 pounds for employing an illegal immigrant in her home. We have a right to expect nothing but the highest standards from any government officer, especially the country’s top legal officer.

However, the lilies-that-fester issue is not the only one involved here. Although this case may not look to most people as serious as many of the scandals of recent years, it has an additional dimension which is absent from run-of-the-mill cases of ministers (or judges or senior policemen) caught exceeding the speed limit or cruising a red-light district.

Just look at the excuses being wheeled out on behalf of the Baroness. They all amount to saying that the law as it currently stands makes demands on prospective employers that are so bureaucratic, time-consuming and complex that nobody should be surprised if even the Attorney-General, with all the resources at her disposal, gets it wrong.

If this is the case, it is an appalling state of affairs, and, far from strengthening the defence, actually makes the case for her departure unanswerable. After all, it may be possible to argue that the average person cannot be expected to conduct a thorough investigation of the residence status of every child-minder, window-cleaner or gardener they employ (though, if this is conceded, 5000 pounds might sound like an unjustly harsh penalty for anyone earning less than the Attorney-General!).

But can the same defence be mounted for the head of the country’s legal profession, given that she is not only a member of the government, and as such ought to take her fair share of the responsibility for creating this bureaucratic nightmare, but that she is also reported to have had a hand in drafting the law?

One would expect her to carry a more than equal share of the blame for intervention in the labour market in a form that is a deterrent (or, insofar as a fine may be unavoidable, a tax) on employment, as well as an affront to democracy, since it puts  ordinary folk (and apparently even the Attorney General) in a situation where it is well-nigh impossible for them to operate within the law. (Nor ought it to be any defence, however true, to say that there are many other legal minefields strewn in the path of the innocent citizen.)

In other words, far from being an argument in her defence, the fact that an employer’s obligations under the law are so onerous is actually an indictment of Lady Scotland’s performance as a minister, and an additional reason to demand her resignation. The fact that she has fallen foul of her own law is simply poetic justice, or as Shakespeare put it, she is hoist with her own petard.

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