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Coroners & Justice Bill chewed a new one by opposition

Mostly duff: Too few plums

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If you seek a textbook example of how not to draft law in 21st century Britain, then look no further than the Coroners and Justice Bill which emerged from committee stage last week in the House of Commons. That’s the pretty unanimous view of both Conservative and Lib Dem MPs, whose job it was to wrestle with the intricacies of this legislation over the last few weeks.

Meanwhile, the back story to the government's loss of its widely-criticised data-sharing proposals reveals a great deal about how personal political agendas have now broadly overtaken the consultative process.

Let's start with the good news: after a severe mauling both in and out of committee, government powers for unhindered interdepartmental data swapping (clause 152) are now back to the drawing board. The bad news is that increased powers for the Information Commissioner may have gone the same way: and no one is betting on these proposals not returning, tacked on to some other legislation in the autumn.

As Edward Garnier noted, "Jack Straw told the Sunday Telegraph, but not parliament, last weekend that he was dropping Clause 152 in the face of massive political and public opposition - but he is likely to stick something similar back into the Bill at Report.

"Once again the Government will face massive opposition in Parliament and outside... so they will need to come up with something radically different and far less threatening to individual liberty and civil rights if they are to get the Bill through."

However, there may be more to this story than meets the eye. We spoke to No2ID, who have been watching the slow evolution of this proposal. Their spokesman told us that "Transformational Government" - the idea of improving public service by kicking down practical and legal barriers to use of data - has long been a New Labour obsession.

There was the Varney Review (pdf), which waxed lyrical about the topic; MISC 31, a Cabinet Committee dedicated to bringing it about; and the Service Transformation Agreement (pdf) which clearly sets up the Ministry of Justice in pole position to lead "a cross-government programme to overcome current barriers to information sharing within the public sector".

However, everything tracks back to No 10 - including the Walport-Thomas Data Sharing Review. According to No2ID's claim, the Information Commissioner received a phone call informing him of this exercise at 6pm the day before the "consultation" went live. In other words, a tick-box exercise, rather than any genuine commitment to public involvement.

A recent avalanche of public and professional criticism has scared Labour backbenchers, who see nothing in these proposals for them. Jack Straw reached a similar conclusion. So another of Gordon Brown's pet projects bit the dust.

On the Bill as a whole, the Tory Shadow Minister for Justice, Edward Garnier MP (and QC) did not mince his words. He told us: "Like so many criminal justice bills brought forward by this Government the Coroners and Justice Bill is a statutory mess, a plum duff of a bill with very few plums and a huge amount of duff."

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