A dark TV studio. Contestants stand behind oval shaped podia, each of them fanned out at an equal distance from each other, the line of them curved around a central figure. A female dressed all in black. A smart trouser suit with a three quarter length jacket. A look of disdain on an unsmiling face.
The camera focuses on each contestant in turn. The man behind the first mini lectern smiles weakly for the camera, the make-up girl has not managed to entirely stop the studio light reflecting off his bald head. He speaks, “Hi Maura, my names Chris and I am the first non-lawyer to be Lord Chancellor.”
The camera immediately swoops to the next face. Another male. Older this time. More hair but not by much and silvery white. “I’m Tom. I am in the Lords and work in Justice. I have been at the heart of Government pretty much forever.”
The first female contestant is introduced. Smartly turned out in a business suit and a smile that says she is to be taken seriously. She looks directly in to the lens of the camera and says “My name is Helen, I used to be a Legal Aid solicitor but don’t let that put you off me.” The audience, quiet until now, titters at this little quip.
Fourth in the male dominated quintet introduces himself, “My name is Damian. I live in Ashford. I am married to a barrister but don’t let that put you off me.” The smile on his lips remains fixed as his joke passes in stony silence. The camera lingers for a moment, just long enough to make his discomfort palpable before focussing on the final contestant.
“My name is Harry, journalist, author and, before you go mentioning it Maura, member of the Bullingdon Club and distant relo to the PM himself.” Harry allows himself a smile, content that he has already taken the sting out the quizmaster’s infamous barbs.
The camera fixes on the host. “So, the contestants for the Weakest Link MoJ special are here. Who will last less time than Applied Language Solutions? Who has less brain cells than second homes? Who will tip the balance for the scales of justice? Lets see as we play……The Weakest Link.”
The studio lights dim further as Maura turns to face the contestants, dramatic music heightening the tension. The questions begin.
“Chris, who failed to deliver on the terms of their £284 million contract to provide security to the London Olympics?”
“Errr…. The army??” replies Chris.
“No, G4S. Tom, who lost the contract to run Wolds prison in the same year that an inspectorate report found ‘concerns about a number of issues, including the availability of drugs, a lack of staff confidence in confronting poor behaviour, weaknesses in the promotion of diversity and limited work and training provision’?”
Tom thinks for a moment. “The Prison Service.”
“No, G4S. Helen, who had to drop out of the contract process for tagging offenders when it was revealed they had been massively over-charging the public for services that had not been provided?”
“The answer must be the Prison Service.”
“Wrong. It’s G4S. Damian, which company is still being paid £1.2 billion to run HMP Altcourse, £1.5 billion to run HMP Parc and also pockets £175 million to provide facility services to the Court Service amongst many such contracts?”
A pained expression crosses Damian’s face, he shakes his head, “Sorry Maura. The answer is there but my minds gone blank.” He looks down at his little desk before him and sighs. “Pass.”
“Not surprisingly, G4S is the answer. Harry…..” Before the question can be started Harry enthusiastically shouts “Bank”. You can almost hear a weary tone in Maura’s voice as she continues, “Harry, which operatic vocal quartet came to prominence on the X-Factor?”
Quick as a flash Harry answers “G4S”. Just as he does the dramatic music returns to signal the end of the round. Maura tilts her head to one side, “Close Harry,” she says, “very close. The correct answer was G4.” She pivots once again to take in all five contestants. “Well team, that wasn’t very impressive. Not a single correct answer and, unlike G4S, not a single pound banked. So, who is more Judge Judy than Baroness Hale? Who is more Marshmallow than Marshall-Hall? It is time to find out as you vote off…..The Weakest Link.”
As the contestants begin to scribble with a plastic stylus on a screen a voice-over, with a hint of ashtray about the voice, chimes in, “Statistically in that round Harry was the weakest link as he tried to bank when there was no money. And as no one else got a single question right the others all tied as the strongest link in that round.”
“Right, time to reveal who you think is the weakest link” Maura tells them with that clipped manner of the school teacher.
In the next 30 seconds each of the first four contestant press a button to reveal a single name written as by a child on an Etch-a-Sketch. Simultaneously each of them declare “Harry”. At the end of the crescent a somewhat forlorn looking Harry reveals Helen as his weakest link.
Maura addresses Damian, “So Damian, clearly nobody leaked the questions to you did they?” Again Damian looks uncomfortable, “No Maura.”
“It can’t have been the pressure of TV, what with you having been a journalist before entering politics, so what made your brain freeze?”
“Well, you see, there are just so many big corporations these days running different aspects of the criminal justice system sometimes it is a bit difficult to keep up with who is doing what,” Damian splutters.
“I see. Not difficult to see how they get away with ripping the public off then is it?”. Not one of the contestants will meet Maura’s eye as she speaks.
Harry clears his throat, “Yes, Maura.”
“Why did you vote for Helen?”
“Well, Maura, she gave an obvious wrong answer. Anyone in the know would realise we don’t sell…..errr….outsource the running of the prisons to the prison service because that would be insourcing and no one as ever heard of that so…she….was clearly a weak…..I mean….the weakest link.”
“I know Harry, but you got your question wrong as well as shouting ‘bank’ when there was nothing to bank…..” Maura says with a touch of something bordering pity in her voice.
“That was force of habit. The boys in the Bullingdon are forever playing bank when there’s no money to be had so it just popped out,” laments Harry.
“Harry, you are the weakest link…..goodbye“. And with that icy send off, Harry departs the scene, head bowed. Maura turns to the remaining four, “you survive. Well let’s see who is about to be moved to Fisheries? Let us learn who is destined for higher office and who is packing their bags for Northern Ireland as we play……The Weakest Link!”
“As none of you managed a single correct answer in the last round we will start with Chris again…..Chris if the Ministry want a Legal Aid budget of less than £1billion by 2014 how much does it have to save from Criminal Legal Aid?”
A look of confidence flashes across Chris’s face, “20%” he declares in what he believes is an authoritative way.
“Wrong,” replies the host, “the correct answer is ‘not one penny’. Tom, beginning with ‘U’ what describes a proposal that removes the rights of prisoners to bring actions against the State, bars people from receiving funding because of where they were born and simultaneously makes the whole process of Judicial Review harder and more expensive?”
“Hang on a minute, it wasn’t me that this began with,” Tom complains, “it was all Chris’s idea. He was the one….” Maura inerrupts, “Steady on Tom, I didn’t say ‘you’, I said ‘U’…..as in the letter, which word beginning with the letter ‘U’ describes the proposal to limit the individual’s ability to challenge the Government?”
“Oh I see, gotcha, right…Which word…” Tom mumbles to himself, “beginning with ‘U’…..stops Judicial Review….. Got it Maura,” Tom beams as he speaks clearly now, “Useful. Such a proposal is ‘useful’!”
“The answer I was looking for was ‘unconstitutional’.” Maura turns to Helen, “Helen, which South London firm of solicitors was paid £200,000 in Legal Aid after your appointment to the Ministry?”
“Mine!” Helen immediately answers. “Or rather my husband’s….”
“It’s not the answer we have here, that says Grants Solicitors…..but I am being told in my ear we can accept that. Damian, your question, who decides whether the Prosecution should appeal a sentence as unduly lenient?”
“The P-prrrime-Minister,” stammers Damian, “no, wait, the press….nope, hang on….both.”
“Wrong. Again. It’s the Attorney-General,” Maura is interrupted by the dramatic music, “and that’s your lot for this round. So who is the Cambodian defendant with a Mandarin interpreter? Who is a level 1 advocate “acting up” in a level 3 trial of issue? Who is more My Lacklustre than My Learned Friend?”
As the competitors turn their attentions to scribbling their betrayals the voiceover reminds us that Helen, being the only person to answer a question correctly all evening is the strongest link, whilst the three men are equally weak as each other.
Maura looks at the players with increasing disdain, “Who is going getting the go direct to jail card? Who is having their licence revoked? Lets reveal, the Weakest Link.”
Moments later the three male contestants are stood behind their electronic scrawl nominating Helen whilst Helen herself glowers behind her vote for Damian.
“Chris, you haven’t answered a single question correctly all night. It’s almost as if you would be better avoiding the questions if you have no answers. Why Helen?” asks Maura.
“If you have a team of people working at the same level sometimes you just have to say ‘Sorry Guys, this has been a difficult conversation but we are all in it together, it’s just that one of you guys has now gotta be on the outside in the cold, in it with us, in here.’ And that person has to be Helen. Which I am sure she understands.”
The look on Maura’s face tells us she barely understands a word and Helen certainly seems scarcely comforted as she departs the studio floor.
“And then there were three. Is it three wise men or three men in a boat without a paddle and without a clue? Does MoJ stand for Ministry of Justice or Ministry of Jokers? Starting with you Chris…. which member of the cabinet takes an oath to ‘respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and discharge my duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts for which I am responsible.’?”
For a moment Chris looks stunned, “Me. That’s me!”
“CORRECT. Now Tom, which politician, who has not succeeded in an election since 1979, is doing everything he can to make sure the Lord Chancellor does not fulfil his oath?”
“That’ll be me,” cries Tom.
“A miracle. Yes, that’s correct. Now Damian, which is more expensive, the Crown Court or the magistrates?”
“Easy,” claims Damian, “the Crown Court.”
“Right again. Lets keep moving. Chris, statistically which type of sentence is more likely to cut re-offending? A short custodial sentence or supervision by the Probation Service?
“Don’t tell anyone but its Probation,” Chris says, wistfully.
“Wonders never cease, that’s correct. Tom, how often do magistrates commit cases to the Crown Court where the Judge then imposes a sentence less than the maximum available in the Mags?”
“40% of the time,” answers a now cocky Tom.
“What a run. Correct. Now Damian, where should the more complex and serious criminal cases be heard?”
“Too easy, the Mags,” crows Damian.
The dramatic music cues the end of the round. Maura looks visibly drained as she tells Damian, “With that wrong answer you ended the round with no money banked. So which of you is destined for the woolsack and which of you is getting the sack?” And now Maura pauses and looks at her cue cards of acerbic wit. She looks back at the three most senior people in the Ministry. “You know, none of you are the weakest link. Because you are all a shower of shite,” she begins to remove her earpiece and turns to walk away. She glances back at the stunned contestants and continues, “Not one of you has a clue what you are talking about. Not a clue.” As she walks off stage she can be heard saying “Get my agent on the phone. Hook me up with Ant and Dec. If these three are in charge I am beginning to think I am ready for I’m A Barrister, Get Me Out Of Here. Eating a kangaroo testicle has to be better than this…..”