Secretary of State for Justice

The role of Secretary of State for Justice was created in 2007 (upon the abolition of The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs). The first holder of the post was Charles Falconer (now Lord Falconer of Thoroton) and since then there have been a further 5 Secretaries of State for Justice.

The question that this article raises for discussion is “Should the head of the Justice Department be an elected official?” The point I put forward is that it should not.

The Secretary of State is an elected official, a politician and therefore will only use political rhetoric when it comes to making public statements for the department under their control. They will not affect real change because just as they start to make inroads into reform, they are removed from their post by a cabinet reshuffle or by a general election.

It has become apparent that when there is a cabinet reshuffle the post then gets a new incumbent. For example, when David Cameron resigned and Theresa May was appointed leader she removed Michael Gove and replaced him with Liz Truss. Gove replaced Chris Grayling (at the rejoice of every serving prisoner that I know!) who replaced Ken Clarke etc. What therefore is the exact purpose of a post that can wield no actual change?


Secretary of State for Justice a temporary role?

It seems to me that the role has become what the old Secretary of State for Northern Ireland used to be when the Prime Minister handed out cabinet roles, the short straw. It is ostensibly a temporary role at best. In the last 10 years, there have been 6 Secretaries of State for Justice (2 Labour & 4 Conservative). Every one of them has had different views, and not just political.

It is plain for all to see that the constant ebb and flow of holders of this post creates uncertainty for those involved in the Criminal Justice System. Just as one comes up with some sort of reform idea, they are removed from the post either by an election or by a reshuffle. The incumbent, keen to make their mark, then undoes their predecessor’s deeds and starts again. But for how long will they be in office? Will they do anything that, in the words of the greatest civil servant of all time Sir Humphrey Appleby, would say, “could be deemed as courageous”? From what I know of politics, I can say with some conviction that they will do nothing that could endanger their political career.

Therefore, prison reform (that is on everyone’s lips at the moment) cannot be devised nevermind be implemented. The current white paper on prison reform is the classic example. It plugs the dam but does not contemplate building a new one. That will be left to the new holder of the office. The problem being that if this “pass the hot potato” game continues nothing will change.

I submit that the role should be an appointed one by Parliament and not an elected one. This would then give the holder of the office a real chance at affecting reform as they would not be held accountable by the Prime Minister but by Parliament on behalf of the public. Perhaps the Justice Committee could call that person to account and demand change instead of recommending that the Secretary of State listens to advice and perhaps read the papers issued by those much more qualified than they.

To have someone in charge of justice who has no experience in the very vocation to which they are appointed the highest office seems nonsensical to me. How can they speak knowledgeably and without rhetoric if they have no understanding or grounding in the subject?

The position should be salaried, accountable and the holder should be subject to dismissal if they fail.

Real change takes time

To affect change takes time, we understand that, but no real change has taken place since the post was created. Previous Home Secretaries and Justice Ministers have placed inane rules and regulations in place only to have them later repealed. The IPP law was introduced in 2005 and later annulled in 2012 by the then holder of the office Ken Clarke. However some 4 years later there are still over 3000 serving IPP prisoners. Some of Chris Grayling’s arcane rules for prisoners, such as limiting the number of books one was allowed to keep, the permission to wear one’s own clothes, were immediately overturned upon the appointment of his successor, Michael Gove.

Mr Gove in his tenure had some innovative ideas and was welcomed with open arms by my fellow prisoners. He felt that education was a key ingredient of prison reform and vowed to make that, along with the humane treatment of our country’s prisoners to be at the core of his tenure at the Ministry of Justice. However, due to politics, he was unceremoniously removed from his post after only 14 months to be replaced by our current Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss.


Riots, murder and escapes

Since her inauguration, she has presided over some of the worst riots since 1990. The litany of disasters that have occurred is chilling, to say the least; 4 riots, 1 alleged murder, 2 escapes, numerous absconds and the highest level of self-harm since records began. She is faced with the lowest staffing levels of prisons in decades and the lowest morale of both prisoners and staff since the Mountbatten report in 1966. Recently she had to take the Prisoner Officers Association to court to force them to work.

My submission is that if we were to remove the political wrangling from the post then the holder of the office could actually get on with their mandate. I put it to you that the mandate of the role should not be “to make sure there is enough space to house our criminals” rather it is to ensure the housing of our criminals BUT also to assist them in their rehabilitation to become better members of society.

Political merry-go-round

If the post were to be held by an employee answerable to Parliament then there could be regular checks on the success of the individual, and a failure to meet the benchmarks set by Parliament would lead to the person being removed from their role. As it stands, if the current Secretary of State fails in her job, she is purely removed from the post but remains in the cabinet at the will of her Prime Minister. Where then is the incentive for her to excel at her role? Does she not spend most of her time, wondering when the next election will be or if what she is about to enact will damage her political career?

Whilst finishing this article. The news broke of a full-scale riot at HMP Birmingham, a prison run by private contractor G4S. This riot was nothing to do with the prison being in the private estate or not. It was a riot by disconcerted prisoners. It is too early to pass comment on the exact cause and outcomes of the “incident” but what can be mentioned is the lack of comment emanating from the Ministry of Justice. One is minded of when there are terrible storms in England and the minister responsible makes a beeline for the scene of the incident. Where then was the Secretary of State for Justice to be seen in Birmingham?

If as I propose, the head of the justice department was called to account over this riot then he/she could be hauled in front of Parliament to explain the breakdown of the establishments directly under his/her control rather than just issue a statement threatening those who did riot with “the full force of law”. He/she would actually have to understand that unless they “bucked up” their job would be in jeopardy and they could soon find themselves on the unemployment line rather than just having to move office.

The opinions in The Freethink Tank’s Opinion category are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.