Changing the law - and society

Two Westminster events today - and one on Friday - can be seen as preliminary skirmishes for some of the big social/criminal policy battles of the next Parliament.

Today's events are the departure of Lib Dem Home Office Minister Norman Baker - in a huff over the Conservatives' brusque dismissal of his call for a more permissive drugs policy - and a battery of amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill, on the law on prostitution, deal with the case for rethinking long-standing criminal law policies that critics say are not working.

And so does Friday's Lords committee stage proceedings on Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill.

What all three have in common is that they attack a long-established criminal law approach to an issue. Norman Baker spent much of the weekend arguing that the traditional prohibitionist approach to drugs policy has failed and that a new strategy, perhaps based around the kind of policies tried in Portugal, might be better.

The Home Affairs Committee made a tentative suggestion along those lines a few years back.

Similarly, on prostitution, the former Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart - backed by an impressive cross-party alliance which includes the Conservative former deputy Chief Whip, John Randall, and the Home Affairs Committee Chair, Keith Vaz - proposes rewriting the law to scrap the offence of soliciting (from the 1959 Street Offences Act) and criminalise the clients who pay for sex.

She argues that women coerced into prostitution should be treated as victims, and helped to get out of the trade, not criminalised.

Lord Falconer, similarly, wants a specific acknowledgement that individuals have the right to end their own life under certain circumstances.

These three proposals don't just attack long-standing pieces of criminal law; they also challenge the social thinking underpinning them - and taken together they would suggest a society with a rather different ethical view of itself.

What all three also have in common is that, despite commanding considerable sympathy, they are unlikely to be immediately successful. Wide-ranging reform of the drugs laws and drugs policy is probably furthest away.

Today's Mactaggart amendments may produce some promise of a Home Office review of the law on the sex trade, but look unlikely to be passed. And even if Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill does get through the Lords (which is far from a done deal) it is unlikely to get debated in the Commons, let along through committee, report and third reading - although I would not be stunned to see a general debate on Assisted Dying organised by the Commons Backbench Business Committee.

But what raising all these issues does, is keep up the pressure. All three are certain to resurface in the next Parliament - and, in particular, a new look at the sex trade, which is a major component of modern slavery and a huge part of human trafficking, looks highly probable.

The supporters - and opponents - of these three changes will need to be prepared to fight, fight and fight again. The parliamentary history of this kind of cause is littered with examples of determined campaigners pressing the same issue again and again. The anti-hanging campaigner Sydney Silverman brought in abolition bills year after year in the 1950s and 1960s, until he finally won the day.