Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Tuesday, 22 September 2009 12:00 UK

Questions over attorney general

By James Landale
Deputy political editor, BBC News

So will Baroness Scotland stay or will she go?

We are at that stage of a political row where Gordon Brown is standing by his beleaguered minister and has declared that no further action is necessary.

The defence is that the attorney general did not knowingly employ an illegal immigrant and she did check all the right papers.

Baroness Scotland
Lady Scotland oversees criminal prosecutions in England and Wales

I am told she examined her cleaner's passport, a letter from the Home Office, her P45 and references from past employers, as well as her National Insurance documents.

Lady Scotland's error - and breach of the law - was not to make any copies.

Senior government sources have told me that she is hugely apologetic, but insist that what she has done is comparable to being fined for failing to pay a congestion charge or a fixed penalty notice for a driving offence, albeit on a large scale.

They insist that this does not and should not preclude her from remaining attorney general and say she shares the same view.

Political pressures

Should someone lose their job, they ask, just because they forgot to photocopy something?

They also point to the UK Border Agency statement which says "the wider investigation is ongoing" - the suggestion being that there is more information to come about the case which perhaps might mitigate Lady Scotland's position further.

Sometimes Number 10 calculates that the cost of defending a minister is greater than letting her go

That then is the case for the defence and for now the government is holding firm, but these situations are more often than not determined by political pressures rather than the specific facts.

Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have said that Lady Scotland should resign.

They don't believe she can remain the government's chief legal adviser when she has broken a law she herself drafted and piloted through Parliament.

If that momentum grows, then the pressure might become too much and Lady Scotland might choose to stand down.

That is frequently the pattern, particularly if the prime minister of the day is overseas - as he is now - and is following the row piecemeal and from afar.

Sometimes too, Number 10, if a row rumbles on, calculates that the cost of defending a minister is greater than letting her go.

One difference in this case is that no political party has much to gain from seeing Lady Scotland sacked.

She is a low key figure in Westminster, not a high profile scalp, and she is largely respected across parties.

There is also this: How many other politicians have employed foreign migrants as cleaners or plumbers or builders?

Did they all check - and copy - the right documents? This might just stay the hand of some who were thinking of having a go at the attorney general today.



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