Why can’t we be more like Canada?
When Justin Trudeau, the new Canadian Prime Minister (who, let’s face it, looks like he might have actually listened to some music that was made after 1870, which is a good start), introduced his new Cabinet back in November 2015, the contrast could not have been more stark between them and the lumpen, out-of-touch shower who were thrust upon Britain by Theresa May post the Brexit vote.
The major difference appears to be that Trudeau is not only willing to appoint 50% women but, perhaps more importantly, to appoint Ministers who actually have some practical and/or professional experience directly relevant to their ministerial portfolio. (See link to Guardian report here.) He’s got – gasp! – a Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, who is a doctor. A Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, who is a retired astronaut. A Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan, who is a decorated military veteran of the British Columbia Regiment and former Vancouver police officer to boot. Ministers who you might expect not only to have some actual knowledge of the area their Ministry covers, but also to have to some genuine interest in it and commitment to it as well.
So as members of the Bar took in the news that May had appointed Liz Truss as Justice Minister and Lord Chancellor, we realised that where Canada had been given Jody Wilson-Raybauld – who worked as a provincial Crown prosecutor in Vancouver and also has years of experience developing financial administrative law in Canada before her appointment – we had been lumbered with a woman whose most famous, and most toe-curling, public pronouncement had been a party conference speech on the topic of cheese. See the link here if you don’t believe me: it’s extraordinary.
So on 21.7.16 Liz Truss was sworn in, to general astonishment and perturbation from just about every lawyer I’ve come across. At that time, there were various senior people at the criminal Bar who suggested that we give the woman a chance. Let her show that she was capable of getting on top of her brief and knowing her onions. From her cheese.
The rest of us down here in the rabble feared that the appointment of the MP for South West Norfolk heralded a new era of doom for the justice system, a return to the bad old Grayling days where criminal lawyers were routinely spun as fat cats in the media as the full horror of having a Lord Chancellor who neither knew nor cared about the rule of law or the operation of the justice system took effect.
Probably we had been lulled into a false sense of security with the appointment of Michael Gove. There at least was someone who appeared to have a genuine appreciation of the importance of the justice system, even if he had no direct experience of working within it.
So it was with bated breath that I awaited Truss’s first appearance in front of the Justice Select Committee, an event which finally took place on 7.9.16 (see the link to the JSC session on Parliament TV here). Unfortunately, having viewed the session I can report no allaying of our fears. Because it appears that either she hasn’t got to grips with the department or she has no interest in matters of law or justice. Liz Truss had, well, pretty much nothing at all to say.
(Pic by Shutterstock)
It wasn’t an auspicious start when Truss revealed that she’d apparently spent two years on the JSC previously. Who knew? I certainly didn’t detect that any specialist knowledge had rubbed off on her, as she nervously and tentatively tiptoed around the big topics that the Committee members naturally expected her to be able to deal with. After all, she’s now been in post for six weeks, so she’d have at least been expected to read the papers. Us barristers often have to take a trial overnight, never mind have six weeks to prepare.
Truss began by thanking the Chair Bob Neill (Conservative, Bromley & Chislehurst) for giving her the opportunity to set out her objectives. Bob looked all ears, but the trouble was that over the next 90 minutes, the new Lord Chancellor failed to set out anything except for her own lack of expertise and interest. Even worse, throughout her dismal performance, she appeared to be sporting a unpleasant permanent smirk, no doubt contemplating all those fat cat lawyer types that she’s planning on skewering on the Ministerial barbecue, Grayling-style.
Truss has, she told the Committee, three priorities. The first, she pontificated, is “making sure our prisons are places of safety and reform”. So it was rather unfortunate that she was soon telling the assembled throng that she was not committing to any specific pieces of legislation at this stage. “But I will be setting out my plans in due course.”
Bob Neill’s ‘astonished face’ suggested he was taken aback to hear that, due the fact that the reform of prisons – in the form of the proposed Prisons and Courts Reform Bill – was the centrepiece of the Queen’s Speech in 2016. “Are we not going to get one?” queries Neill.
Truss’s chin quivered. She smirked vacantly. “As I said, I’ll be laying out my plans in due course.” Once she’s found them, obviously.
Apparently, the second priority for Truss and her civil servants is “looking at the overall justice system and making sure it works for everyone”. Well, I’d venture to suggest that making it work for ANYONE might be a good start. How about cutting out all the wasted time spent waiting in Crown Courts for the video link/wifi/digital case systems to actually fire up, for starters?
And the third priority is (not surprisingly) the Bill of Rights. About which probably the less said, the better.
So, back to prison reform. Neill soon cuts to the chase. How, in her unprotected department, which has already endured huge cuts at the Treasury’s behest, is all this going to work? After all, doesn’t the bulk of the MOJ’s spend go on prisons?
Truss warbles that apparently £1.3billion has been secured in Treasury funds for new builds. And as for the rest, she wants to look at what the Think Tanks are saying.
Yikes! Truss is the former deputy director of the Think Tank Reform, a right wing microcosm of hot air babble whose previous pronouncements have included the idea that the NHS should be run like Tesco (see link here). Just check out the W@*k Tank’s Janet and John guide to the ‘reform’ of public services here. It is enough to make Satan weep warm, salty tears.
Truss then wibbles about “reducing the silos” in the department and looking at the way “people flow through the system”, all the time glancing down at her papers, though she seems to have remarkably few of these. The camera pans around to an angle behind her to shoot from above, revealing the somewhat sceptical faces of various Committee members and the fact that she is wearing a spectacularly ill-fitting bra.
There is a lot of talk about “how we look at the system overall”, but no meat on the bones. She’s still talking a lot but saying nothing. She looks like a rabbit in the headlights when Alex Chalk (Conservative, Cheltenham) asks whether, with the current statutory frameworks, this has led to too many or too few people in our prisons?
Truss sort of purses her lips but it ends up in another nervous semi-smirk. I sort of know that feeling, as I was once prosecuted into the ground myself by Chalk at Southwark Crown Court. And we were only on a mention.
“Of course,” Truss garbles, “we live in a democracy…” (Smirk) “What I’m interested in is outcomes!” When she says that, like a small child who’s just done its first poo on the potty, she looks inordinately pleased. No one else is, though. How can she still be saying absolutely nothing at all about how key issues such as the funding of the justice system, the diminution in access that’s developed over the past six years, the fact that the prisons are full to bursting and rank with drugs and violence will be approached? Except that we’re interested in outcomes, natch.
Neill is back on the thorny topic of funding. He reminds Truss again that the MOJ has taken a bigger hit in terms of cuts than any other department: the pips have been squeezed so far, there’s nothing left that can be squeezed out. Is she prepared to go to the Chancellor and ask for more money?
Truss probably thinks she’s pulling her ‘considered face’, when she actually looks as if she’s sucking a lemon. “I think the important thing is that we look at the evidence” – we barristers can give you evidence, the system’s been cut to buggery and it’s fucked – “and we’ll put together a plan, the details of which I will announce shortly.” She’s had six weeks to prepare something more than this, and her civil servants have had years – is this the best she can come up with?
Neill isn’t giving up, though. What about the Lord Chancellor’s role in upholding the independence of the judiciary, he queries, not unreasonably? Is there any threat to this?
Truss (‘serious face’): “We need to be vigilant to watch out for threats to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary…”
Which would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic, since the last time I checked the biggest threat to the rule of law was the MOJ itself, cutting services here, driving hard-working lawyers out of the profession there, closing local courts all over the shop.
Dr Rupa Huq (Labour, Ealing Central & Acton) then decides to get clever and comes up with some figures. That’s actual evidence, to you and me. What about the plummeting number of employment tribunal cases – down from 724,243 to 258,460, a 70% reduction in a year? Doesn’t this look like a denial of justice to those who can’t afford to pay?
No wonder Truss is nervously sipping her water. She blathers for a bit, then returns to a familiar mantra. “We’re investing in a better court system! Victims can testify remotely! Being able to do things online, like we do our banking or accessing health services is A Good Idea!” Do we have a Justice Secretary who seriously thinks becoming involved in the justice system is like carrying out a banking transaction? Give me strength!
But no, there’s more. “And in terms of legal aid, we do have a generous system…” Now, where have we heard that one before? Huq presses her as to whether she will look again at the 2012 LASPO Act. Truss is now blinking furiously, just like you don’t want your client to do when they’re answering questions in the witness box. She blusters. “I will look at specific areas but in principle we do have a system that is generously funded…”
Chalk is back on the case: “Is it a proper use of court fees as a revenue raiser for Central Government?” Truss appears blindsided by this, as if it’s something else which had never occurred to her. (Reform probably suggested the idea!) She looks down at her meagre notes, shiftily. “We’re still making decisions in this area and we’ll be discussing it further.”
With who, FFS? You’re the bloody Justice Secretary! “But it’s important that those who take cases to court make a contribution where they can afford it.” So, how about the CPS “making a contribution” when they “take a case to court” and it fails miserably? Oh wait…
(Pic by iStock, possibly of Liz Truss’s Great Plan for the justice system. Or possibly not)
Chalk’s not letting go. “So is that to the MOJ budget or to Central Government coffers more generally?”
Truss squirms under his gimlet gaze. Er, she’d have to look into that.
Do we actually learn anything else, or is the rest of the session another whole lot of nothing? Well, apparently prisons will be “held to account but empowered to deliver reforms”, she “doesn’t have the figures” regarding the recent Aitchison Report (why not?) and she “doesn’t yet have the information” about whether the proposed new prison building programme timetable is realistic (again, why not?). But she’ll tell us all about it in due course. Well, that’s alright then, but we may all have fallen off the twig before she gets around to it.
There’s an awful lot of “I’d need to look into those details”, “I’ve heard of that, I’ll have to get back to you” and “it will be in the plan in due course”. And an awful lot of absolutely sod all concrete planning, detail, insight. Oh, and she doesn’t entirely favour the Danish approach, in answer to Philip Davies (Conservative, Shipley) and his bristling indignation about the possibility of prisoners getting behind-bars conjugals. What he’s doing on this Committee is anyone’s guess. It’s like having Bernard Manning at a meeting of Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers & Listeners Association.
The whole debacle is perhaps best summed up by this exchange with Victoria Prentis (Conservative, Banbury), who asks about the recent and much derided probation reforms (for reform, read sell-off). What’s Truss’s assessment as to whether it’s achieving its objectives?
Truss: “This is something we’re looking at.”
Prints: “So you have no answers.”
Truss: “Not yet.”
And that is the problem. On any topic within her remit, Truss had literally nothing to say. She appeared to know nothing, have no ideas, no plan, no brief, no clue. To describe her answers as vague would be to describe Mr Humphries as slightly camp. When she doesn’t have an answer, she tries to look inscrutable, but it just looks as if there’s nothing behind the eyes.
Matters become even more sticky for the hapless Lord Chancellor when Alberto Costa (Conservative, South Leicestershire) moves onto the thorny topic of the British Bill of Rights. What is the point, he asks, of a British Bill of Rights if we’re going to stay in the European Convention? Why repeal the Human Rights Act?
Truss shuffles, the rictus smirk reappearing. “What the British Bill of Rights will do,” she trills, “is protect our rights… but in a better way!”
Costa’s not satisfied by that. He points out that the HRA allows you to exercise your rights under the ECHR in a British court, where previously you had to toddle off across to Europe. Would she be removing the right for British citizens to exercise their Convention rights in a British court?
Truss’s eyes bulge. She looks for all the world like Compare The Meerkat. (Who’d probably be more impressive as a Lord Chancellor, if we’re being honest.) She hadn’t thought of that one. And no, she didn’t have any details.
She’s visibly struggling when Richard Arkless (SNP, Dumfries & Galloway) tries to pin her down on whether human rights are now reserved to Westminster, and appears surprised when Arkless points out that such issues appear to have been devolved under the relevant legislation. Perhaps that’s another one she’s going to “look into” in due course?
And when Dr Huq raises the issue of the £700million court IT programme and asks how she can be sure its objectives will be met, Truss appears for all the world like one of those dolls I had in the 1970s, where you pulled a cord in its back and that started a little record playing, that was cunningly concealed inside its chest, which played the same sentences over and over again to make the doll talk. Perhaps that’s the reason for that spectacularly ill-fitting bra.
“Rolled out in chunks! Very effective! Making criminal hearings easier! Prisons! Great stuff!”
It wasn’t just me or fellow lawyers who were unimpressed by this abject performance. Private Eye had also spotted the Justice Secretary’s serious shortcomings, in an excoriating piece in their latest issue: always worth a click here.
Perhaps the reasons why Truss officially had Nothing To Say were because a week later she was releasing the spectacularly depressing and ill-thought out Transforming Our Justice System paper (see link to paper here and link to BBC story here). In it, “tomorrow’s justice system” is imagined as a place where the dispensing of justice is like ordering your online shopping, where lawyers are told to find ways of “simplifying working practices” (translation: do more for free), where she has the gall to pretend that the reforms are amongst other things about meeting the needs of defendants and lawyers (is she having a giraffe?) when this is all about meeting the needs of the Treasury and no one else.
Frankly, we preferred it when she kept her trap shut.