Home front

Since New Labour was elected, the Home Office legal team has been under pressure. Legal head David Seymour talks to Brendan Malkin about effective housekeeping

Two weeks have passed since the Queen’s Speech. However, there is little letup in the workload of the person largely responsible for its creation: David Seymour, the Home Office’s legal adviser. You might not know the name, but Seymour is one of the most important people in government. Whenever you read a newspaper story about a Home Office proposal – be it electronic tagging, identity (ID) cards, even changes to burial law – Seymour will have been involved.

But unless you are involved in government legal work, chances are you will not have heard of him. Certainly, he does not go out of his way to court publicity. He claims never even to voluntarily read newspapers – “My daughter said I should read more novels,” he says. With The Lawyer in the room he checks himself after a quick glance at his two press officers, and adds: “Actually I do read the press cuttings” (which are placed on his desk every morning by his communications staff).

A major part of Seymour’s role is to maintain a constant watching brief on judgments being handed down from the courts. They are the main reason for a review of existing law or new legislation.

For instance, the High Court recently ruled that the Home Office should introduce a more flexible policy towards the time it takes to decide whether asylum seekers at Harmondsworth Detention Centre should be allowed to remain in the UK.

This case is among some 6,500 government-related cases handed down by the courts each year. For each one Seymour has to consider whether government policy should be changed as a result. He has to do the same for the 2,900 judicial reviews of government decisions also handed down annually. In reality, says Seymour, only around 20 have any “serious policy implications, and all of these will be test cases”.

But this still involves deciding which are serious enough to pursue. For those that are, a choice of possible legal changes are sent by his department to ministers, who then pick the ones they like best. Seymour’s teams then disappear into their rooms for approximately nine months to draw up bills before they are sent through Parliament for debate and implementation. This usually takes 18 months and requires Home Office lawyers to work alongside parliamentary counsel, the Treasury Solicitor’s Department and the Attorney General’s Office. “The work requires a lot of lateral thinking and getting the law right,” says Seymour.

The process is similar when implementing the ever-growing number of European Community (EC) laws into English legislation or ministerial demands for reform in laws governing key Home Office jurisdictions, such as crime enforcement, prison services, immigration and Northern Ireland. Liaising with officials within these sectors is a key part of Seymour’s job.

The job itself has very little routine. Seymour runs a department of 50 lawyers, split into 10 teams, which manages “internal issues”. This means anything from employment matters to training.

Timescales for drawing up legislation change regularly. The toughest was preparing for the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, which came out in the aftermath of 11 September. “I had to set up a dedicated team to do the job so they focused on nothing else but this,” says Seymour. “They couldn’t cope if they were distracted by other things.” Seymour also earned his pay – he worked on the bill for seven days a week. But having spent four years as legal secretary to the Attorney General, Seymour is used to pressure.

A variety of legal skills is also required in his job. The current ID card proposals require his teams to focus on the “facilitation” and technology parts of the bill, which draw on a variety of different laws such as data protection, crime, and EC law.

Seymour relies on lawyers who can take the initiative. “In the changing role of the government lawyer, we’re encouraged to get involved early on,” he says. “I tell lawyers not to wait to take advice but that they need to be a part of a team helping everyone else.”

The need to be proactive stems partly from the department’s heavy workload. This has increased dramatically under New Labour, with its large legislative programme and the consequent upturn in the number of judicial review challenges to aspects of it.

Some of the pressure has been eased by expanding the legal department. In 1997, when New Labour took office, there were just 18 lawyers in the team. However, some of the current 50 face the axe as the Government plans to slim down its departments.
Improving efficiency has also helped to manage the work growth.
Seymour recently reorganised his legal teams to include an EU specialist team, which deals mainly with so-called “third pillar arrangements” concerning Europe-wide cooperation on cross-border policing and a joint commercial and employment team.

The latter focuses on “non-core” work such as handling recruitment, internal employment issues from staff and Home Office properties. Despite caseload pressures, much more of this work is being handled in-house rather than outsourced.

Part of this extra pressure falls on Seymour. Recently he attended an away day to work out how best to handle such issues as a complaint from a member of staff, or how to have a “joined-up” policy in relation to developing lawyers’ careers and skills. It is an extra layer of work which means Seymour has to rely increasingly on the proactiveness of his legal team to take some of the legislative burden from his shoulders. After 28 years in government civil service, Seymour’s work seems to just keep on getting harder.
David Seymour
Head of Legal
The Home Office

Organisation The Home Office
Sector Government
Legal spend £3.5m
Legal capability 50
Legal adviser David Seymour
Reporting to Home Office Permanent Secretary John Gieve
Main law firms Beachcroft Wansbroughs, Field Fisher Waterhouse, Masons and Pinsents