Irvine: power, but no time to use it?

THE LORD Chancellor Lord Irvine of Lairg's appointment to seven of Labour's 19 cabinet committees is proof of just how key a figure he is in the new Labour administration.

The interdepartmental cabinet committees are regarded by constitutional experts as the powerhouse of government – as opposed to the Cabinet which, many argue, merely rubber-stamps decisions which have already been made.

As chair of the committee on Queen's Speeches and future legislation, Lord Irvine will have greater control over the destiny of his own proposals than his predecessor, Lord Mackay. And with such a huge Labour majority, Lord Irvine will not have to worry about a controversial bill being scuppered in Parliament. If he has the inclination to take control of the reforms of the legal aid and civil justice systems and steer them to a successful conclusion, the means is certainly within his grasp.

But Lord Irvine's pivotal role in the Labour administration might actually serve to stifle legal reform. He may be too busy to pay sufficient attention to his own department.

There is evidence that this is already happening. Could Lord Irvine's heavy workload be behind the decision to put on hold the Labour manifesto pledge to establish an independent judicial appointments commission? Could it be that Lord Mackay, a Lord Chancellor who had extremely radical ideas but not the power to implement them, has been succeeded by a Lord Chancellor who has all the power in the world to implement reform, but not the will to do it? Some members of the legal profession, with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, would relish this situation.

If Lord Irvine lets him, it could fall to his deputy, Geoffrey Hoon, parliamentary secretary at the LCD, to get things moving.