The Ministry of Justice is Ken's real problem

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 9 June 2011 in Diary
Diary
Forget the predictable tabloid outrage about Ken Clarke's sentencing proposals. The real problem the justice secretary needs to tackle is the effect of the cuts to the justice system, says Jerry Hayes

Whenever I hear the names Hollobone and Bone there is the comforting sound of flapping white coats in the distance. Mercifully, however deranged their frothings might be, we know that matron is always on hand with the liquid cosh.

But today the Hollobone-heads have excelled themselves. They hog the front page of that organ of truth, reason and propriety, the SUN, demanding that Ken Clarke be sacked for being too “soft”.

Now there’s a thought.

Are they referring to that old softy who took on the police unions, the prison unions, the health unions, the BMA and the Royal College of Nursing, fought his corner and emerged without a scratch? Ken is an old bruiser who is canny enough only to pick fights that he knows he can win. He is unflappable.

The only time I’ve seen him lose his composure was many years ago in Annie’s Bar. We were enjoying a jovial pint when a journo rushed in and announced that he’d heard that Peter Walker had resigned from cabinet. Actually, he hadn’t, but we weren't to know that. Ken went as white as a sheet, gripped his pint like a lifeboat, gulped it down, uttered the words, “oh, fuck”, and slipped out into the night to find a telephone.

This is why I am intrigued about why he launched his now defunct policy of giving a 50% discount to those who plead guilty at the earliest opportunity. It was always a turkey. Judges, barristers, solicitors and the police thought it was nuts. And it had Tory backbenchers howling like Gordon Brown at a full moon.

And which pointy headed official persuaded him that this barmy scheme would save £134m? Probably the same one who is destroying the independent Bar and running solicitors out of Dodge.

Could this have been a ploy to show that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is not fit for purpose? That the Treasury is demanding cuts that will bring the justice system to its knees? I hope so, because very soon vulnerable children will be waiting over a year before their fates will be decided by the courts. Firms of solicitors thrown to the wolves and a free and independent Bar will be a misty memory of the past.

The trouble is that the MoJ was created in its present form purely as a power base and ego massager of that old Gromyko of Labour politics, Jack Straw. For reasons beyond modern psychiatry, the hopelessly inadequate Jacqui Smith was appointed Home Secretary. Straw took all the best bits, and created a massive department with over 80,000 civil servants. And it just doesn’t work.

Hardly a week goes by without promises being broken or a madcap scheme floated, the most pernicious inherited from Straw. I will give a few examples.

There is an obsession that big is beautiful. So by stealth, the number of firms of criminal solicitors is to be cut from 200 to 40 in London in the next year. Insanity. And the publicly funded criminal Bar is being destroyed.

The last act of Straw was to bring forward a statutory instrument cutting barristers' fees by 13%. Before that we took a pay cut on the promise that we would be paid after 21 days. The old, cheap and fair scheme whereby prosecution, defence and the clerk of the court agreed the page count has been abandoned. It is now in the totally incapable hands of the Legal Services Commission who were described by a Commons select committee as “not fit for purpose”. Now we have to email everything to bureaucrats in Liverpool. Most of us haven’t been paid a penny in three months. And it will get worse.

What would happen if hospital consultants and GPs were treated like this? The whole system would unravel.

And that is what is happening to our justice system, once the envy of the world. It is falling apart. Not enough clerks and not enough ushers means that it takes nearly a year for criminal cases to get to the Crown Court, with the accused often awaiting trial in jail.  And there will be gross miscarriages of justice. This is echoed by Alan Beith’s justice select committee.

This is the real challenge for Ken. If doesn’t make his department fit for purpose, the Bones and Hollobones might just have a point.

Jerry Hayes was Conservative MP for Harlow between 1983 and 1997. He practises as a criminal barrister in London.

Tags: Alan Beith, Jack Straw, Jacqui Smith, Ken Clarke, Ministry of Justice

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