Should Baroness Scotland lose her job?
By Jessica Pham
Who would have thought that a simple mistake could result in a £5000 fine, the resignation of an indignant Parliamentary aide and general public outrage? Two weeks ago, Baroness Scotland was fined £5000 for failing to photocopy documents, proving her housekeeper’s right to work in the UK. It was an easy mistake. Politicians do not step down over minor driving offences; why should Baroness Scotland, who compared her breach of the law to ‘driving into the City and not paying the congestion charge’ on Sky News, lose her job?
Baroness Scotland regarded it as an ‘administrative, technical error’ but the small businesses which have been ruined by the technicalities of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 would strongly disagree. A small business that unknowingly employs an illegal worker is hit hard; Baroness Scotland’s fine, on the other hand, does little to offset her recent £170,000 expenses allowance. Under the immigration law, if an employer does not know their employee is working illegally but has ‘complied with any prescribed requirements in relation to the employment’, the employer is excused from paying a penalty (Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 s 15(3)). Yet to be thorough on these prescribed requirements would involve reading 80 pages of guidance notes, of which the summary is almost 40 pages. Failure to perform these extensive checks could result in a penalty of up to £10,000 per worker. The severity of this law is clear. If even the Attorney General could not conform, what can be expected of small businesses?
The Attorney General is the government’s chief legal adviser and ‘guardian of the public interest’, with years of experience as a senior barrister. The legality of the Iraq war is just one of the issues that falls upon an Attorney General to decide, so one would hope that Baroness Scotland is up to scratch on legal matters. She is in a unique position: her very job demands meticulousness in the law, which she has seriously undermined by breaking it.
Moreover, Baroness Scotland helped to push the law through Parliament. She stated on at least two separate occasions in Parliamentary debate that ‘ignorance of the law has never been a defence’, yet Gordon Brown asserted that as she ‘did not knowingly employ an illegal worker… no further action is necessary’. This hypocrisy is reinforced by Scotland’s analogy between hiring an illegal immigrant and not paying the congestion charge; to the small businesses facing fines of thousands of pounds for what Scotland herself called an ‘administrative, technical error’, there is no correlation. There is thus no surprise that her refusal to step down has evoked outrage.
Now, let us consider how many politicians stepped down over the expenses scandal: the slightest undermining of a politician’s reputation is normally a call to resign, yet Baroness Scotland is stubbornly refusing. Perhaps Gordon Brown is the only one to support this decision. Whilst we can acknowledge the Attorney General’s achievements – her successful legal career and being the first black female QC, for example – the recent revelations have strongly challenged her effectiveness as Attorney General. After all, you would not expect a senior barrister to overlook technicalities in a law, much less the person who pushed it through Parliament.