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No place for palm tree justice

Although the suggestion has subsequently been effectively quashed, or at the end of the series of articles regarding comments of Harriet Harman something needs to be said about her proposals regarding the pension of Sir Fred Goodwin. It will be recalled that her suggestion effectively amounted to the idea that something could be done about the very large pension given to Sir Fred even if that involved Parliament passing legislation purely to deal with this issue (i.e. his pension).

Various issues regarding the European Human Rights Convention could be engaged by this suggestion were there any serious attempt to implement it, but there is a wider policy issue which I think needs to be addressed regarding the rule of law.

I understand Harriet Harman's frustration at the idea that the person who was at the helm during the RBS catastrophe (the question of "light touch" regulation and governmental responsibility is probably best left for another day), the consequences of which will be being paid for by the taxpayer for generations to come, should ride off into the sunset with the sort of pension that most people can only dream of if they won the lottery. Rewarding success is one thing. Rewarding failure is something else.

However the circumstances in which the pension came to be effectively sanctioned are perhaps unsurprising when one looks at the general approach of government and local authorities. In addition to the sums being borrowed through the banking crisis, government and local authorities are building up huge liabilities in respect of "gold plated" pensions for staff. Frequently staff are allowed to take early retirement with generous pension allowances. The machinery of government, whether national or local, does not seem to be adept at driving a hard bargain in respect of those who are not fulfilling the strict letter of contractual entitlement. A degree of failure, absolute or relative, rarely seems to lead to sacking as opposed to a generous negotiated pay out. Therefore it is perhaps unsurprising that no one either picked up on or challenged Sir Fred's pension entitlement. Even if they did, it would be interesting to know what view they took of their chances contractually of avoiding payment. (I do not know all the ins and outs, but presiding over a disaster is not the same as either being responsible for it or having breached your contractual duty so as to bring it about).

The biggest concern I have arising from the comment is the implication it has for the rule of law. It is nothing to the point that the suggestion effectively was that the law could be passed. Laws are supposed to be targeted at conduct, not individuals. As a non-smoker, I have some concerns about the laws against smoking which have been introduced (albeit understanding the motivation). Just imagine however if the law was introduced not in respect smokers generally, but a specific named smoker. This would be the equivalent of being able to target any individual and take anything off them merely by passing a law which related to them. Once laws are targeted at individuals, they are no longer laws at all. They are a mere pretext for executive action.

Whilst I am not suggesting that this approach either excuses the subsequent acts of vandalism against Sir Fred's home, or that Ms Harman would be anything other than horrified at them, the problem is that once you start to undermine the rule of law, it is a very short step to people deciding that there is no harm in taking things into their own hands.

I'm sure that I'm equally as unhappy about the Sir Fred situation as Ms Harman is, just as I'm sure we equally deplore vandalism against his home. As regards his pension however, however great it is, and however undeserved the government might regard it as being, undermining the rule of law is way too high a price to pay to do something about it.

Michael J. Booth QC