Profession faces united front at LCD

In his first interview since his appointment, Keith Vaz talks to Ryan Dunleavy about legal reforms and New Labour values.

The legal profession faces a united New Labour front at the Lord Chancellor's Department with the appointment of Keith Vaz.

Vaz – who has been both a barrister and a solicitor – is a party man to his bootlaces.

Speaking in his first interview since taking up the post of Parliamentary Secretary of the Lord Chancellor's Department, he says, without a hint of irony: “I believe in every New Labour policy as if it was written by my own hand.”

Vaz has barely got his feet under the desk but he is already happy to offer a few suggestions to the profession's regulatory bodies.

“They [the Law Society] should introduce a 'Clause 4' to their rules,” he says. Clause 4 of the old Labour constitution called for the “common ownership of the means of production… and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service”.

Vaz argues that such a move would ensure social responsibility, but when it is pointed out that such concepts are distinctly “Old Labour”, he quickly returns on message and reaffirms his commitment to the party's programme and Lord Irvine's initiatives.

Questions on almost any subject are taken as a green light by Vaz to launch into a party political broadcast.

His praise of New Labour starts with sentences like: “Our grandchildren are going to look back on this government as the great reforming government of the century.”

There is no doubt that when it comes to overhauling the legal system, Vaz is right behind Lord Irvine. In fact, he idolises the man.

“I've always admired Derry. He is a radical and reformist. He will be the century's greatest Lord Chancellor,” he says.

All of Irvine's legal reforms, including the changes to legal aid, are talked of as if they are the best thing not only for society but also for the profession and, furthermore, that they are the only things that will ensure justice.

“The Access to Justice Bill will provide justice for ordinary people,” he says.

He denies that they are a cost-cutting exercise, but concedes that the Lord Chancellor's Department does not have a bottomless well of money.

He says: “Money must be spent thoughtfully. We want quality, but right now cash is not being spent in this way.”

Critics may be hoping that Vaz's wife will be able to lobby for the profession as the Government plans to remove access to Crown Courts in many criminal cases, vastly reduce legal aid and cut back on experts in court.

Maria Fernandes, Vaz's wife, sits on the Law Society Council, which this week “strongly opposed” Jack Straw's proposals to remove the right to jury trial.

Critics, however, may be disappointed. “We never talk about our jobs at home,” Vaz says. “She has her responsibilities and I have mine.”

He goes on to say: “The so-called war between us and these professional bodies has been blown out of proportion by the press.

“Our relationship with them is better than it has been with previous governments. We have an open door policy. All they have to do is come here and talk to us.”

Vaz argues that as a politician it is not his job to interfere with the way the legal profession performs. He says the Lord Chancellor's Department has little to do with lawyers.

He says that he understands lawyers. “We are a complex bunch, but one thing we all have in common is we entered the profession because we want to help people,” he says.

The legal profession may have been hoping that a new face at the Lord Chancellor's Department would have been accompanied by a new set of ideas but it seems it is likely to be disappointed.