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Trials and tribulations of Britain’s justice secretary

24th January 2017

Ministry of Justice

Whilst it may not be quite the same as the legal jobs in central London you can find with LAW Absolute, the position of UK justice secretary is nevertheless worth learning about if you are a student or current practitioner of law.

The histories of the politicians who shoulder this responsibility – heading up what is arguably one of the government’s most important departments – have, like many ministerial roles, not always been happy.

In this article Ian Dunt, author and editor of Politics.co.uk, shares his thoughts on the track records of those who have held the post of justice secretary since its creation in 2007. As you will see, being in charge of the country’s prisons and probation service is, unsurprisingly, a job fraught with challenges:

It’s hard to find a single individual who has managed to grasp the nettle and deal with the perennial issues in Britain’s prisons. And it’s hard to find anyone who was singularly responsible for them either. Instead, fundamental problems to do with overcrowding and a lack of funding have been handed down from one justice secretary to another.

Charlie Falconer: 2007 - 2007

Lord Falconer

In 2007, when Tony Blair was still prime minister, home secretary John Reid decided he needed to break up the Home Office and set up a Ministry of Justice (MoJ), with Charlie Falconer at its head. It was a politically necessary move following years of scandals involving home secretaries claiming career after career - not least that of David Blunkett and Charles Clarke. As Reid said, the department wasn’t fit for purpose.

The plan worked pretty well. Policing, security, terrorism, drugs and all the rest stayed in the Home Office while prisons and probation moved to the MoJ. But the MoJ was and has remained the little brother of the Home Office. It lacks the clout of the department it was annexed from.

Falconer got a month in the job before Gordon Brown took over at Downing Street and swapped him out. But he did accomplish one interesting thing while he was there. At the time - as now - prisons were experiencing an overcrowding crisis. It was so severe the government was renting out cells in police stations and courts to temporarily house prisoners. The press were making hell for the government over it.

Falconer decided to release inmates 18 days before the end of their sentence. It was not an elegant solution and more of a bandage than the surgery that was needed. But it was a vanishingly rare moment in which a minister acted to reduce prison numbers. It took bravery to do so - a bravery that would rarely be seen in his successors.

Jack Straw: 2007 - 2010

Jack Straw

Straw wasn’t particularly pleased about being made justice secretary by Brown. He’d spent the years beforehand swanning around the world as foreign secretary with Condoleezza Rice, so being put in charge of prisons again probably seemed a bit drab. His time in the post did offer a sense of completion though. Straw helped kick off the New Labour era in government as home secretary and was there at the end, in a similar position, as justice secretary.

He was pretty similar in both cases: authoritarian and populist. Prison numbers increased massively during New Labour’s time in government and Straw played a significant role in that. He was also classically New Labour in his deference to the demands of the right-wing tabloid press. One story on stand-up comedy courses for prisoners, including convicted terrorists, and another on a Halloween party for female inmates prompted Straw to set up a ‘public accountability test’ for prisons. The result was a hopelessly cautious prison service which wasn’t prepared to experiment with rehabilitation methods.  But later, when the tabloid press demanded Straw turn liberal for a moment so reality-TV star Jade Goody could marry her fiancé Jack Tweed he quickly made sure he was exempted from his curfew for the ceremony.

All this time the prison service was creaking at the seams - there were too many people and not enough prison spaces. But at least Labour had money to throw at the problem. That stopped when the Coalition took power.

Ken Clarke: 2010 - 2012

Ken Clarke

Ken Clarke was one of the first ministers to agree to the massive savings to departmental spending demanded by the Lib Dem-Tory coalition. He went down to the Quad - meetings with David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander - and accepted huge cuts to his department.

But Clarke had a demand in return. He wanted to reduce the prison population. The lifelong front bencher thought he could see a plus side to austerity. Perhaps he could use it to finally force a change in the perennial problem that had tormented his predecessors - the overstuffed prison estate.

He misjudged it. Whatever Cameron had said to him in private, he didn’t back him in public. Soon he came to be seen as an unacceptably liberal justice secretary. “I find reasons to lock people up,” Theresa May said when she was home secretary, “and Ken Clarke comes along and lets them out.” Eventually, he was forced out and replaced by arguably the worst justice secretary of them all.

Chris Grayling: 2012 - 2015

Chris Grayling

To be fair to him, Chris Grayling inherited a double-sized mess from his predecessors. He had the prison overcrowding problem, but this time it was combined with the swinging cuts Clarke had signed up to. Put them together and you got a full-blown prison crisis.

Grayling had to cut staff in order to balance the books, but there were no cuts to inmate numbers, which kept rising. Soon enough there weren’t even enough officers to take prisoners out of their cells. Many spent 23-hours a day packed in, unable to be walked to the library or the gym or training. Tensions boiled over. Homicides, suicides and self-harm behind bars soared.

Other mistakes were Grayling’s alone. He launched a draconian crackdown on prisons, banning prisoners from receiving books and blocking researchers from investigating rape behind bars. By the time he left the position, even seasoned Conservatives disassociated themselves from what he was doing.

Michael Gove: 2015 - 2016

Michael Gove

Grayling’s reputation had become so toxic by the time he was replaced that the dial swung back in a liberal direction. Michael Gove took over after the 2015 general election and immediately scrapped some of his predecessor’s more authoritarian policies, including the book ban. He made a proud declaration, framed predominantly in patriarchal Victorian language, of liberal values of rehabilitation. It was an impressive start. His close relationship with the prime minister and the tabloids suggested to many observers that he might enjoy a stable enough base to deliver on it.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. In the early months of 2016, Gove came out for Leave in the Brexit referendum. Suddenly, he was distracted from his day job, firstly by the campaign, which he proved pivotal in, and then by his tragicomic leadership struggle with Boris Johnson. In the end both of them failed to secure a position in Downing Street. When Theresa May started handing out jobs, Gove’s name was not among them.

Liz Truss: 2016 - ?

Liz Truss

The former environment secretary is a much-maligned figure in Westminster, mostly because of a strange speech to the Tory party conference a few years back in which she became very excited about cheese. It was ridiculous enough to go viral and probably did her more damage than a serious scandal.

She is a technocrat who struggles to marshal the kind of confidence required by such a prominent position. That isn’t helped by the prime minister’s aggressive control over ministerial statements, which forces figures of Truss’ temperament to question themselves too often to be truly convincing. An early justice select committee appearance, in which Truss did not appear to understand her brief or even know what legislation she was presiding over, did not encourage anyone.

There are whispers that Truss is smarter than this in private, however. Some even believe that people around her understand the need to reduce prison numbers. At the moment there’s just not enough evidence to tell either way.

But regardless of her abilities or her judgement, she inherited a mess. She had the numbers problem, the funding problem, and then the additional problem of being a minister in a government which was completely focused on Brexit. Any other issue - especially a thorny, controversial issue like criminal justice - just doesn’t get a look in. Truss is unable to even try and solve the problems she faces. And yet the problems refuse to go away. More and more prison riots are bursting out as the fundamental problems of staffing and inmate levels are felt across the estate.

The history of the justice secretary role is essentially a history of hospital passes. Each time an individual leaves the post they pass on all the problems they received, usually with a few more thrown on top. Truss is arguably the unluckiest of the lot. Her in-tray is overburdened and there is no funding with which to address it.

Image Credits: Charles Hoffman, Steve Punter, Chatham House, Policy Exchange, UK in Japan- FCO, mrgarethm