Never let it be said that nothing ever changes in politics. In fact, with the announcement on court charges yesterday it seems we are uncovering a new law of politics – whatever policy Chris Grayling enacted as Secretary of State will, inevitably, be repealed by a colleague clearing up his mess at a later date.
In October the Government were quite exceptionally defeated in the Lords on a motion condemning the mandatory court charges that were introduced by Chris Grayling, who is now Leader of the House, when he was the Justice Secretary. After only 8 months in post, the new Justice Secretary Michael Gove has yesterday announced he’ll be scrapping the charges.
This U-turn is warmly welcomed by everyone who actually wants to see justice. One magistrate wrote to me to say that because of these mandatory charges, many innocent people in his courts were pleading guilty. He says that he recently had to impose—he had to, because it is mandatory on the magistrates—the court charge of £150 on a homeless man who had stolen a £1.90 sandwich from Sainsbury’s. That is not the rule of law; it is cruel injustice. And our papers and comment pages have been overflowing with similar stories for months: the reversal by Michael Gove is not just welcome, it’s overdue.
But it adds to a long list of changes the new Justice Secretary has had to overturn because of the failures of the Leader of the House in his old job. There was the petty and vindictive ban on friends and relatives sending books to prisoners which even the most ardent believers in punishment rather than rehabilitation thought went too far. You might also remember the plan to build jails and execution centres for the regime in Saudi Arabia, a country whose justice system routinely crucifies, beheads, and lashes – a regime that execute journalists. Last but not least we had the U-turn over the botched plans for an ill-conceived vanity project for a modern day borstal, a Secure College that cost taxpayers £6 million before it was scrapped.
Since taking over the Ministry of Justice from his spectacularly incompetent predecessor, Gove has spent much of his time trying to fix the omnishambles that is Chris Grayling’s legacy at the MoJ. The Leader of the House is to be completely airbrushed from history it seems, and there’s few in even his own party who seek to stop this process or defend his legacy. One has to wonder how long the complex and incomprehensible veto known as “English votes for English laws” will survive once the Leader of the House is gone.
But all this does actually matter. It’s not just knockabout politics for critics of Grayling to rejoice in his incompetence, it marks a second failure of judgement from the Prime Minster to again reward the complete incompetence of a Cabinet Minister by moving them to Leader of the House. For let us not forget that newly ennobled Lord Lansley was Andrew Lansley the Health Secretary whose top-down changes to the NHS were so ill-conceived and disliked by the medical community they had to be subject to an unprecedented ‘pause’ in the legislation.
Yet after seeing such incompetence the Prime Minister moved him to Leader of the House; with Grayling following it seems that the PM likes to use the position to gently put cabinet failures out to pasture. After the junior doctors’ fiasco, perhaps the bookies would like to start reducing odds on Jeremy Hunt to be the next Leader of the House. Lansley lasted one year, ten months and ten days in the job. Assuming that Grayling staggers on for the same amount of time, he’ll be gone on the 18th of March 2017. I’ve already set a reminder in my diary to send a letter of congratulation to Mr Hunt.
Gove occupation with u-turning has a direct impact on our services and on our politics. On the Tories’ watch the prison system is in crisis. The latest annual report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported overcrowding, staff shortages and rising levels of violence, warning that the situation was unsustainable. As he said in his report: “The outcomes we reported on in 2014/15 were the worst for 10 years. Too many of the prisons were places of violence, squalor and idleness. That is bad for prisoners, bad for staff and bad for the communities into which these prisoners are going to be returned.” The new Justice Secretary should be giving this his full focus, but instead he’s having to clean up after the incompetence and wrong-headedness of his predecessor.
It’s often said that all political careers end in failure, it just seems that Grayling’s seems to failing before it has ended.