Tuesday 15 February 2011

Abuse of Power...and language

There was an odd section in Michael Gove’s speech yesterday in which he sought to play down the term “abuse of power”.

Gove was accused of doing just that by a High Court judge last week after cutting funding earmarked to rebuild schools. But when Andy Burnham brought it up Gove replied…

“He will be familiar with the fact that ‘abuse of power’ is a judicial term that has been in use since 1603 and, in particular, has been applied in judicial review cases since 1985.

“It has been applied to Cabinet Ministers on both sides of the House.

“It is a matter of open debate that judicial review is there to ensure that decisions taken by Cabinet Ministers can be reviewed in the Court.”

Gove’s intention was to negate the significance of the term by suggesting in the first sentence that it has been used for years, in the second, that it is something lots of politicians have been accused of, and in the third, that the courts shouldn’t even have the power to say such things.

Let’s take those sentences one by one. It’s rather banal to point out when “abuse of power” first came into use. After all, the terms theft, adultery and murder have all been around for longer, but have no less meaning for it.

I’m not comparing Gove’s abuse to murder of course – simply saying that offences do not ‘go off’ like milk or cheese, they do not become less important over time.

The second sentence is a political defence. He’s saying to Burnham – “Labour politicians abused power when in Government too”. Maybe they did, but the public will think “it’s you who’s doing the abusing right now”.

In the third sentence, it is as though Gove knows that directly questioning the judge’s power to review ministerial decisions is pushing it. So his words are carefully chosen and rendered a little inane.

That it is “open for debate” as to whether judicial review can be used in the way it has is neither here nor there. After all, everything is “open for debate”.

The fact is that judicial review has been used in the way it has. Gove’s decision has been overturned. The judge says an abuse of power has been committed.

So what does that term "abuse of power" really mean? Improper use of authority by someone who has that authority because he or she holds a public office.

That is the single fact that Burnham and Labour should have pushed home last night, they should not have strayed from that point.

As it was at times they played into Gove’s hands by getting into a debate about whether BSF was a good programme or not. That meant the Education Secretary got off lightly in what could have been a highly damaging encounter.


Scott said...

"Gove’s decision has been overturned."

No, it hasn't.

Gove has to review some decisions, and he is not under any judicial obligation to reverse any of them.

Lobbydog said...

Yes it has. "Overturning" the decision does not necessarily mean the money is granted, merely that the decision making process has now moved one step back, because the decision taken was unlawful and hence invalid. That is what has happened. Read the judge’s full statement.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, whatever Gove does or doesn't have to do, there's no getting round the fact that this was a balls up, Gove should admit that at least.

Rightisright said...

It's all semantics - the end result is probably going to be that the schools get cut - and don't forget why that is, because of Labour's debt. You can't say it too often.

Frank Hudson said...

Gove’s reference to the historical usage of the term, politicians on both sides of the aisle and then asking if power of courts in such matters is very interesting. There are several layers in his response which highlight the complexity around accountability and the role of judicial review in scrutinizing decisions made by Cabinet Ministers.

Within a city as diverse as New York, where legal and political debates often mimic those on the world stage, discourse about power dynamics amid government branches reverberates. This reminds one about checks and balances even for what seem to be very specific occurrences like nyc towed vehicle. Reviewing decisions ensures responsibility and equity, key tenets that reverberate beyond political rhetoric.

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