From commons to court, John Stevenson MP covers an immense amount of ground – legally and geographically – in his day-to-day life. As MP for Carlisle, and Managing Partner of Bendles Solicitors, he sees the law from both perspectives – peoples’ lives, and public policy – and the interplay between the two. This issue, he shares his insights as to his life in the legislature and law.
A solicitor since 1990, who joined Bendles in 1992, became a partner in 1994, and an MP in 2010, Stevenson still maintains his involvement in practice – putting in the hours with the firm, as well as client-facing time – and constituency surgeries.
So how did Stevenson get here? He contemplates: “In Parliament, there's a lot of people who have law degrees, or have practised to some extent, and there's still one or two practising barristers… I think myself and Fiona Bruce are the only two practising solicitors – and solicitors are probably the rarer breed rather than the barrister in Parliament. How did I get in? My passion when I was younger was politics. I did history and politics as my degree. I always thought one day I would get into power. I hoped to get into Parliament. But obviously, my parents very sensibly said, ‘You’d better go out and get a career first, John.’ I'm obviously educated in Scotland and came down to England to do English law and ended up doing becoming an English solicitor. I went to Newcastle, I did a bit of travelling, came back and ended up in Carlisle in the practice. Law and politics does have quite a lot of synergy, if we're honest.”
“I came to Carlisle in the early 90s, and obviously had a career in local law firm, but at the same time got involved in local politics, became a Councillor. Then, in 2006, I was selected as the candidate for the Conservative Party for the election. Then Carlisle is an interesting place – that had begun to change. It was a traditionally Labour seat, and I always like to think it was one of the first red wall seats, in reality, that we were the crack in the wall in Carlisle in 2010. And I was obviously selected as a candidate and then campaigned hard in 2010. It was a marginal seat, and to some extent I still very much treat it as being a marginal seat.”
On how he manages the balancing act involved in combining politics and practice, he notes: “…sometimes relatively easily and other times with great difficulty. It depends what is the most active and what is the busiest of the two. So there is a bit of a balancing act. But to a certain extent, I think that government ministers have themselves effectively got ‘two jobs’. They are still a constituency MP, but at the same time, they're a Minister of State (except I would never equate myself to being a government minister). I think there's a degree of comparison in that, as well as being the constituency MP, I live in my community. My constituency is Carlisle. My practice is in Carlisle. Therefore, to a certain extent, there are certain advantages – because you are very aware of what is going on in the constituency. You're meeting constituents in two capacities. So, from that perspective, it can be beneficial. But there are occasions when it is challenging.”
Despite occasional challenges, Stevenson finds they are far outweighed by the benefits for those he represents – especially in terms of life beyond London. He reflects: “the Westminster bubble, to some extent, does actually exist. You can get very much caught up in politics. And then you come home, and you speak to people, and you realise that the big issue that you thought was consuming the country, in actual fact was getting little or no coverage – and people were getting on with their daily lives. And sometimes you become acutely aware that, sometimes, we as politicians start doing things that will actually impact adversely on everyday life. We should be more aware of what people are doing in their day-to-day – and what's irrelevant to that.”
With time as both a solicitor and in surgeries with constituents, Stevenson sees a lot of this “I think that's most common in the surgery, the Parliamentary political surgery I do – you get a lot of constituents that come in and I think we can be divided in two. One, a failure of public services – it can be housing, it could be planning, or … whatever. And then people with other issues. Quite often their solution is law. And quite often, I have to say to them, ‘go and see your solicitor.' Go and have a word with your solicitor and ask them advice.” On the possibility that sometimes, the ‘political’ issues he faces in surgery might often have legal roots, Stevenson agrees, adding: “I suspect that's a common occurrence for many of my fellow MPs. But quite often, as an as a as a solicitor, you can cut through quite quickly to what the issues are and the solutions. Therefore, you can hopefully signpost people to better or more specialist advice.”
As one of the few lawyer-politicians (and the even rarer solicitor-politicians), Stevenson is in an holistic position in terms of his exposure to the reality of the lives of those he represents – both as his clients, and as his constituents. Considering the approaches of lawyers versus politicians, Stevenson suggests: “Sometimes I think lawyers and I would include myself, we can be too procedural to play too safe and not think outside the box sometimes in the way that others can.”
Stevenson still maintains a hands-on approach to his firm, and the issues it faces – including national reforms to probate practice, an area on which he feels strongly: “The Probate Registry had a superb service, until about three years ago, when the government wanted to digitalise it. And as a practitioner, I saw that firsthand. I did our Westminster Hall debate on the back of it. And interestingly enough, every so often I get contacted by people up and down the country with issues surrounding the – to put it bluntly – the underperformance of the probate registry. It's actually a direct example of where continuing to be in practice has been a direct benefit to my role as an MP. I still think it's got quite a long way to go… I know they are trying hard to improve the service… I think it's important that we as MPs permit the government to try and make sure that they do perform as we would expect them to.”
Stevenson also suggests: “I don't think the [legal] profession has got quite the same respect as it did have 25 years ago... I think that, at one level, good – because maybe people should be more challenging. But at another level, I think it's there's a risk there, because I think lawyers do help society function in a way that people don't probably realise. Buying and selling houses, you know, undertakings… I just think we're the lubricant of making sure commercial deals happen… the lawyer always makes these things happen. And sometimes I think we don't sell ourselves as well as we should in terms of the added value that we can bring to society. Not the financial value - the added value.”
As for the biggest changes to practice during his time with the firm, Stevenson resoundingly replies: “Technology. We are still doing wills and broadly the same way that we did 20 years ago. But 20 years ago, I had a one page terms and conditions signed. Now the terms and conditions are longer than the will itself by a considerable margin. And you sort of sit there and go, ‘Have things changed so fundamentally that we need that?’ I just sometimes think, do we need as much regulation? Would we be any worse off?”
On recent changes to probate, specifically the introduction of video-witnessing of wills, Stevenson comments: “I was absolutely against it. And it was interesting that it was introduced by a statutory instrument with no debate. I think personally it was a misuse of legislation because it was came under the Telecommunications Act of, I think, 2008, rather than coming under legislation leading directly to wills. Wills legislation, the Wills Act 1837. 200 years, a degree of certainty, everybody knows how it works, of course. And if you are going to change it, it should be done properly with a consultation, with proper Parliamentary debate, et cetera, and primary legislation, in my view. So I'm very much against that. I just think it's going to open up the potential for further problems where we don't need them. It was unnecessary, because that area of law is well established. I think technology is great, but let technology make sure it's in the right place, before we try to start reforming certain parts of our legal system?”
On the legislative process more broadly, Stevenson opines: “I sometimes think is one thing I have noticed as a politician. It's almost like feeding a machine. Parliament needs to be active. So therefore, governments feel they must bring forward legislation and there's this constant sausage machine of legislation. And I sometimes think, actually, do we need to be passing as much legislation? Should we not take more time over it and maybe spend more time on it so that we get it right, rather than having to reform it to the later date, or get the judges to sort out the mess that Parliament creates? That's been an interesting dynamic as a politician. And I'm not I'm not convinced that the making of our laws is as good as it could be in terms of Parliamentary procedure either. Credit to the draftsmen who do the legislation, because it's extraordinary skill. But I think sometimes we don't allow enough time for pre-legislative scrutiny. And then the actual process of going through Parliament could do, I think, with some refinement. And the government should be as scared for a proper debate and approving by MPs in terms of legislation, because what you find as they get an awful lot of last minute amendments by the government, that just go through with little or no debate. It would be far better if there was a greater level of debate on those points.”
On the timing of the legislative process, Stevenson adds: “unless legislation is really urgent because there is an emergency…, I just think we should allow the legislative process to be timetabled in a better way.”
As for the use of sunset clauses in statutory drafting, he considers: “…with sunset clauses… for example, the counter-terrorism legislation - where you can bring in some real extreme powers that could be exercised. I do think every so often Parliament should be going, hang on, do we really still need that? If we don’t… And Covid legislation is another obvious example, a two year limit, I think, on it.”
On Statutory Instruments, Stevenson takes the view that: “…just as a matter of principle, I think they should be used more sparingly – and not necessarily for driving through the law through as such, but maybe for the form of the documents, or the procedure rather than the fundamentals of the law. Secondary legislation…. should not be used in the way it is presently being used – as if it's primary legislation.”
On human rights, he reflects: “…we have challenges about our human rights and legislation and police rule, police powers, et cetera. But overall, we still live in an incredibly free country, and we should be more careful with our democracy than we sometimes are. I think it's more precious than many people realise.”
On the question of whether the role of an MP is becoming more international, Stevenson takes the opposite view. “I think the role of MP has actually gone in the other direction, in that we do a lot more at the constituency level.” Perceiving an increase in individual issues in which MPs find themselves involved, he adds: “I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. I think an MP primarily is there to represent their community at Parliament, [for] legislation and [to] hold governments to account. And sometimes I think we can get more and more caught up in what is happening in the constituency rather than concentrating on national aspects.”
However, on contemplating the effect his assistance has upon the local community, Stevenson offers: “…at the end of the day, it's always for them to judge, and you should never take your electorate for granted. But I think partly because I was a lawyer locally, I was in the Council, I was quite involved in the community in so many different ways. I live locally. I get off the train from London, I'm in the middle of my constituency, go shopping on Sundays in Tesco. And you're very much part of a community, which I think helps. And it means that you are acutely aware of what is going on. You're also dealing with the local businesses, seeing what is good and what is bad. Locally, I think it gives you, I would argue, almost a greater insight into the building blocks of my city. I think it makes you very aware of what is going on in people's lives, because you can become a little bit distant from it. You can become accustomed, to a certain extent – from the everyday challenges that people do have. But I also think, unfortunately, there's a big debate in politics about this, about people having second jobs, outside interests, and to what extent we should, or should not, be allowed to have them. I would argue strongly that we should have a mixture, and that people should be allowed to have an outside interest, provided it's declared, it's transparent, and it's open. And if people don't want to go down that route, that's also fine. But I do actually think it does bring outside experience and outside awareness of what is going on in a different way.”
On the role he plays in representing local interests at a national level, in the political arena of the past decade, Stevenson recalls: “As a backbench MP, I've experienced coalition government, small majority government, and majority government. And if I was honest, as a backbench MP, you had far more influence when it was small majority or no majority. Because once a government has its majority of 80 – and don’t forget the coalition government had a majority of about 80 as well – they can ignore your MPs far more easily, then they can when they’ve only got a majority of 10 or 15. It's interesting, the dynamics of Parliament in different scenarios and how the impact of Parliament can be greater, as it was during the May years, and to a certain extent the coalition years – or right now, with a big majority, it's more difficult.”
On potential future reforms, he muses: “I still think we need to reform the House of Lords. The danger is, a majority of 80 in one chamber could allow a government to… I think it was Lord Hailsham who described it as an ‘elective dictatorship’? And I just think sometimes you've got a majority of 80 and you've got a chamber that doesn't feel as strong because it's appointed, effectively – or it's hereditary. And I think our democracy would benefit from a slightly stronger second chamber, that's more willing to assert itself. But the only way you can achieve that is having some sort of democratic accountability.”
On the House of Lords’ composition, Stevenson suggests: “I think its composition has got to change… To a certain extent. It has been effective at times. And obviously, when there's a small majority in the House of Commons, it can be more effective and assertive. But I think right now, it's not fulfilling the role I think it should have, which is to be, not to be an equal with the House of Commons, but to be a little bit more challenging. And the only way you'll do that is by creating greater legitimacy within the House of Lords. And that's got to come from the electorate. Because our democracy's interesting because Parliament can pass an Act of Parliament in a day. We have no written constitution. Parliament is effectively sovereign, in our democracy. And I sometimes think we need sometimes we need more of a check.”
To this end, political involvement is an historical element of Bendles that goes back centuries. Stevenson contemplates: “Now, it's interesting. The firm [began in] 1805. I think we worked out as being, and it's had three Bendles, and they died out in 1916, when the last Bendle ceased to be a partner – and I think we've only had 23 partners. Now, in 200 years, that is quite small, but the there were two Bendles who were Mayor of Carlisle. Then, in the past, we've had one partner’s sister was the mayor of Carlisle, and one of our partner was a Councillor. So we have a bit of a political heritage to some extent.” On the political composition of the firm, he adds: “…within the partnership, there is a range of political views. We don't we don't discuss politics in great detail at times.”
On future challenges, Stevenson mulls: “I think I think Bendles has challenges like any other law firm. I think law is changing... I think there will be a degree of consolidation within the legal profession. I think the demands of regulation, technology, changing environment, makes it makes it challenging. And we have a particular size. One of the reasons we acquired the estate agent was partly defensive, because it meant we had to with a stream of work coming in, but also with a degree of diversification. And I think that those are probably our two overriding ideas. One is to continue to try and diversify – and also look for different income streams.”
The firm now also trains solicitors too. Stevenson notes: “We didn't used to, but we changed our philosophy a few years back and realised that we had to bring in… the next generation of lawyers. Two are just enjoying entering their second year. We have, probably one, who will start next year – and we've got two paralegals who we hope will ultimately go on to become trainees. So we're very receptive to that.”
In terms of his advice to young lawyers? “I think it's more challenging for them. I don't think they get the financial rewards that were there before I'm talking non-sort of London Magic Circle firms – I’m talking more traditional high street. I think it's quite hard work. They've got to be very much committed to it and acknowledging that. I think the hardest part is going on holiday and coming back from holiday! But having said that, I still think it can be very satisfying. A legal background is really beneficial. I would say it's challenging – and be aware of the challenges.”
As for any budding politicians among the legal ranks, Stevenson firmly advises: “Get a career first... Don't go into politics too young. Get a career. Do something different in life so that you bring that experience to politics. There is a degree of criticism and it's not, you know, some people wanting to vastly become a political aide and then go straight into politics. Now, there's space for that. Don't get me wrong. But I think the dangerous we are creating a political class, and I don't think that's healthy, who know nothing other than politics. You need that mixture. And therefore, I would say to somebody, go and get a career – and once you've done that, if you still want to do politics, fine, go for it. But it's not all it's cracked up to be. And I mean, in the modern age, dare I say, social media can be deeply unpleasant as well… I think people have to be aware of that now.”
Was there anything he would have done differently, if he had the benefit of hindsight? “To a certain extent, had I had a 10,000 majority back in 2010, I might have actually given up the law and tried to become a government minister – although 2010 was a great achievement from my personal perspective, and something I'm very proud of. If interest in Westminster is a divided between those who represent marginal seats and those who represent safe seats, and if you represent a safe seat, you can pursue our Westminster career in a way that those in marginal seats can't. You're in danger of always losing your seat – and therefore you have to work on it. If you have a safe seat, you can concentrate on a more ministerial career. I would say that would probably be the slight disappointment in terms of my political career.”
On his proudest political achievement, Stevenson concludes: “actually… getting elected in 2010 and my election helped change a government. And there's not that many MPs that can say on their election the government changed. So that was quite significant.”
As for the legal equivalent, he thinks for a moment. “Probably nothing really to do with law directly, but just changing the firm. We were in a Victorian building, a small firm. We've now moved into a more modern building, bought an estate agent, acquired another law firm, tripled our turnover. That's been satisfying - to see a firm develop and grow.” With Stevenson’s combination of client care, constituency, and community, his next steps, professionally and politically, will be worth watching.
John Stevenson MP (Carlisle), and Manging Partner of Bendles, was interviewed by Chaynee Hodgetts FRSA, our Features and Opinion Editor, Mature Pupil Barrister with Nexus, the Chambers of Michael Mansfield QC, and Honorary Lecturer in Law: bendlessolicitors.co.uk...