Harman's waiting game pays off
18 June 2001
Not every Government law officer has been prosecuted for contempt of court. Add to that a history of offering legal advice to the Grunwick strikers, the Trico equal pay campaigners and victims of police abuse by someone who is proud to be labelled a radical socialist feminist, and you would expect this story to be controversial.
For the new Solicitor General is Harriet Harman - back in office after a couple of years away. Upon her appointment, many lawyers asked "Why?". When you have more than 400 MPs, many of whom dream of their bottoms squeaking on the leather of a ministerial Rover, giving a second chance to anyone is something of an indulgence.
Harriet Harman's background as a lawyer is part of the answer, but so too is Tony Blair's guilt and fear about a failure to deliver in a second term.
The law is in Harriet Harman's blood. Her mother was a barrister who later set up a solicitor's practice, Harman & Harman, with one of her other daughters. Harriet made her legal and political name in the 1970s, first as a solicitor at Brent Law Centre and then as legal officer to the National Council for Civil Liberties (now simply named Liberty). It was there that she was prosecuted for contempt of court for handing over documents to a journalist concerning a case about conditions in Wakefield Prison. She turned her struggle with the then government law officers into a campaign about freedom of the press and prisoners' rights. It was a campaign she finally won at the European Court of Human Rights - a victory that brought about a change in the law.
Harman, with her boss, the new Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, will advise ministers on the human rights implications of their bills and policies. This is uncharted waters for a government that is proud of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights but quaking ever so slightly about how it might affect its everyday freedom of action. Top of the Solicitor General's Red Box, marked "Advice Needed", is the Proceeds of Crime Bill. The Home Office is pledged to seize more of the assets of more of the nation's criminal fraternity. An abuse of their human rights? That is a question for Harman, who will certainly be making her voice heard behind the scenes, but may also have to appear in court to defend the Government's actions.
Ever since 1461, the Crown's second law officer has, together with the Attorney General, sworn an oath to sue the Queen's process "after our cunning". The job is to be part legal adviser, part guardian of the public interest bringing contempt of court actions, and part minister responsible for the Government's legal offices - the Crown Prosecution Service, Serious Fraud Office, Treasury Solicitors and the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland.
That list provides a second reason why Tony Blair may have turned to Harman. The Prime Minister wants the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to deliver. You have heard it said of the NHS that it cannot complain anymore that it lacks the funds. It is true of the CPS too - ministers boast of a 23 per cent real terms budget increase and now they want results. Harman's crime as the Minister for Social Security was not that she
failed to deliver, but that she delivered rather too effectively. Gordon Brown said "cut", and cut she did, with predictable howls of protest. Blair and Brown know that she will do what is wanted.
Which brings us to guilt. Few departures from government have been as brutal as Harman's ejection from the Department of Social Security. Her extraordinary restraint ever since - with barely a word out of place - has produced its reward. It is quite a comeback. The Solicitor General job used to have the tag of "the most anonymous minister in Whitehall". Not for much longer.