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Interview: Sadiq Khan, shadow boxer
Sadiq Khan was in characteristically energetic mode at the Labour party conference recently, headlining fringe events on criminal justice, youth offending and human rights. Last week he paused for reflection at Portcullis House opposite parliament, allowing the Gazette an opportunity to ascertain how far Labour has progressed with justice policy ahead of a general election expected in 2015.
The former human rights solicitor and rising star of the Labour Party became MP for Tooting in 2005. Gordon Brown appointed him minister for communities and local government in 2008, and minister of state for transport the following year. Khan thus became the first Asian – and the first Muslim – to attend cabinet.
Khan’s south London seat was a key target for the Conservatives in the 2010 election but he held on to it, albeit with it a reduced majority. He then spearheaded Ed Miliband’s successful campaign to become party leader and was rewarded with his current appointment, shadowing, until recently, the Tory ‘big beast’, Kenneth Clarke. Greeting me with a firm handshake, Khan begins by apologising that he has a tendency to speak too quickly. He assures me he is working on it, but his delivery remains quickfire; notwithstanding the fact that he is in an awkward position when it comes to discussing policy.
He is all too aware that in the present economic climate most government departments are being squeezed and that Justice appears particularly exposed. In Whitehall terms, notes Khan, the MoJ’s £8bn annual budget is quite small, compared to the NHS’s £106bn; £40bn at Defence; and Education’s £35bn. Yet it has to cover expensive things such as prisons, and following Clarke’s spending review commitments, that budget must come down by £2bn.
To compound the department’s travails, the Conservatives opted to abandon one of their key money-saving plans – halving the custodial sentences given to those who plead guilty – after Clarke’s comments about rape seemingly rendered the policy untenable. Khan knows, therefore, that the challenge of becoming justice secretary in 2015 would be considerable. He must fashion policies that reduce crime and reoffending, keeping the public safe, while at the same time cutting the running costs of the justice system.
But, stresses Khan with confidence, ‘that’s justice in a one-nation government’, echoing the phrase adopted by Miliband in the latter’s speech to conference. ‘Look,’ he says, in a tone reminiscent of both Tony Blair and Miliband, and with the same open-hands gesture, ‘we’re already in election mode’. He is anxious not to fall into a trap for which he has criticised the Conservatives; of over-promising in opposition policies which cannot be delivered in government. Khan is a pragmatist who invests faith in a concept to which most politicians pay only lip service, though it is familiar enough: ‘joined-up government’.
He says: ‘We are not in a silo of justice. The justice secretary has to work with other departments.’
In the cause of cutting offending, he returns to the Blairite mantra of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Addressing the party faithful in Manchester, Khan declared a ‘war’ on reoffending, which he says costs the country £11bn a year, about as much as it cost to host the Olympics. Too many of those emerging from prison and probation revert to a life of crime, he observes, and breaking that cycle will produce less crime, fewer victims and cheaper justice.
Prevention is a key element of his strategy. Citing figures that show two-thirds of first-time offenders are under 18 and a quarter under 21, he reasons: ‘If you can get people to 21 without them offending then, with the exception of some politicians, they generally won’t offend later in life.’ Improving education is key and Khan points to Labour’s achievements in government, including the establishment of pre-school Sure Start centres, reduced school class sizes and the introduction of the Education Maintenance Allowance, which he claims contributed to the fall in youth offending.
But he worries that this good work is now being undone, stressing: ‘Our prisons are full of poorly educated people – over 70% of men who are in prison have a reading age of 11.’
Khan appears genuinely shocked by the high percentage of people in prison with mental health problems. He reflects that over 70% of prisoners have two or more mental health issues. ‘We’ve replaced the Victorian asylum with the Victorian prison,’ he told Labour’s conference. ‘Festering in prison with serious mental health problems that can be treated and should be treated is morally wrong.’
That is why he pledges that a Labour government will create a minister for mental health who will work closely with the Department of Health to address the issue of how people with mental health problems engage with the criminal justice system. Khan is also alarmed by the high number of women in prison. Some 28% have no previous conviction, more than double the proportion of men. It is unacceptable, he says, that 17,000 children are separated from their mothers because the latter are imprisoned, especially as most women in prison are the daughters of women who have also experienced prison.
Khan is keen to break that vicious cycle. He wants to emulate the success of the Youth Justice Board – which he says has halved the number of young people committing a first offence and cut by a quarter the number locked up – through the creation of a Women’s Justice Board. In his search for workable and cost-effective policy options, Khan is drawn to the idea of restorative justice, where victims are given the opportunity to tell an offender the impact their offending has had. Impressed by the programme used in Northern Ireland, which has helped cut reoffending by half, he sees this as an example to follow.
Khan also pledges to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, another Labour initiative of which he is proud, to cover the delivery of public services by private companies. Taxpayers, he says, are paying for these services, but providers are not subject to the same scrutiny as those in the public sector.
‘We need to level the playing field and they must be covered by the act,’ he adds.
These policies may lack the headline-grabbing force of his Conservative counterpart’s ‘bash a burglar’ and ‘two strikes and you’re out’ initiatives, but Khan is unfazed, dismissing Chris Grayling’s tough talk as empty rhetoric aimed only at raising the morale of backbenchers and party activists.
In Grayling, Khan faces an opponent very different from the avuncular elder statesman he shadowed in Clarke. It is believed Clarke did not want to leave Justice but was removed because he was seen as too liberal. Khan echoes what many commentators have observed, that prime minister David Cameron did what all Tory leaders do when they are in trouble and lurched to the right. But attack dog Grayling is thought to have been Cameron’s second choice for the Justice position; and only got the job because Iain Duncan Smith did not want to leave the Department for Work and Pensions.
So the scene is set for a compelling face-off between two men at almost polar opposites of the political divide. Khan, the Tooting lawyer with a declared sympathy for human rights and the rule of law, verses the canny former BBC producer and non-lawyer populist who famously compared Manchester’s Moss Side to the US crime drama The Wire. On the key battleground of access to justice, however, what is notable is not the din of combat, but rather the sound of silence.
Grayling did not mention legal aid at all at the Conservative party conference. And despite the fact legal aid accounts for a quarter of the MoJ’s budget, and the recent passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, it barely got a mention in Khan’s conference speech either. All of which could be viewed as distinctly ominous. It might be concluded by legal aid’s defenders that following LASPO, which will see huge areas of law removed from the scope of public funding, there is not much more to say and the political caravan has moved on.
Though Khan will talk about legal aid to the Gazette, he does not have good news to impart. Yes, he is deeply concerned about the impact that LASPO will have on vulnerable people and law centres that face the double-whammy of cuts in funding from local government. His local Citizens Advice bureau, he laments, has already closed, and the local law centre is struggling.
But he cannot promise to reverse the cuts, and for criminal practitioners the future looks bleak too. Some practitioners will be encouraged that Khan does not expect price-competitive tendering (which the government plans to consult on next year) to be on Labour’s agenda if elected in 2015. But their morale may not be buoyed when they hear the reason why. The legal landscape, Khan predicts, will be very different in 2015 and there will be ‘far fewer’ criminal solicitors – so price-competitive tendering will not actually be necessary.
As a former human rights lawyer, Khan believes passionately in the Human Rights Act. He dismisses Cameron and Grayling’s ‘noises off’ about scrapping the act in favour of a bill of rights, asking, almost derisively, which rights they would seek to omit. ‘What really amuses me, though, is that they don’t understand their own history,’ he adds. ‘The European convention on human rights (ECHR), on which the act is based, was drafted by Winston Churchill and British lawyers.’
He points out that the act brings the ECHR into domestic legislation and means British citizens do not have to go to Strasbourg and wait decades before they can assert their rights. ‘If it didn’t have the words “human” or “rights” or “European” in, I suppose they’d be happy with it,’ he quips.
Khan’s own party has a mixed record on civil liberties and his own voting record is instructive. He voted against his party on the issue of 90-day detention within six months of becoming an MP, but in favour of ID cards and the renewal of control orders. Explaining the seeming inconsistency, Khan says politics is about compromise. But he does accept Labour made mistakes and sometimes got the balance between civil liberties and national security wrong. The challenge in opposition, he says, is to evaluate that record and learn from it.
It is perhaps because of those mistakes that Khan is circumspect in his approach to the Justice and Security bill, which seeks to extend closed material procedures into the civil justice system, including inquests. The proposals would permit secret court sessions, where evidence is seen only by the judge and special advocate, who cannot share the evidence with their client. If the evidence is deemed by the government to be against the public interest, it will not be disclosed and will remain secret.
The government argues that without the changes, foreign countries will be unwilling to share information because of the risk that it will end up in the public domain or that intelligence officers may be forced to give evidence in open court. However, counters Khan, open justice is a central pillar of the country’s legal system and underpins public confidence in the courts. He questions where the evidence is for change, asserting that measures are already at the disposal of judges to ensure national security is not compromised.
The burden, he says, should be on the government to justify why the current system is not adequate. He has an open mind on the issue, he adds, but so far the government has not persuaded him. The young Sadiq Khan studied science subjects at A-level and, in a toss-up between law and dentistry, law won. In part, says Khan, this was because he liked the US legal drama LA Law, especially the character of attorney Victor Sifuentes, but also, he says, because he had seen friends stopped and searched by the police or losing their jobs unfairly, and he wanted to be able to help them.
He completed his training contract with Louise Christian at her firm Christian Fisher after studying law at the University of North London and completing the Law Society finals at Guildford’s College of Law. He went on to become a partner in the firm, which became Christian Khan. Khan served as vice-chair of the Legal Action Group and chair of the civil liberties group that has become Liberty. He loved being a lawyer, he says, and only quit because of the opportunity to stand as an MP in his own backyard of Tooting, where he was born and raised.
Asked to reflect on his achievements as a lawyer, he cites a precedent-setting case in the European Court of Human Rights which benefited many people, but stresses: ‘If you’re in government, you’re a legislator and you have the opportunity to make laws that can improve things for millions of people.’
It is clear that Khan still cares about his former profession. He says he would become a lawyer again, notwithstanding the tough operating environment, but is worried about the future for many solicitors, particularly small legal aid and criminal firms. A disproportionate number of women and minority ethnic solicitors work in such firms and, he cautions, if such firms close en masse, this will reverse progress made in increasing diversity in the profession. There will then be a concomitant reduction in the diversity of the judiciary which will work to reduce public confidence in the legal system. ‘These solicitors are tomorrow’s judges and we could see a generation lost,’ he warns.
Khan is troubled also by the poor retention rate of women, and lack of female and solicitor judges. Like many, he would like to see a ‘culture change’ in firms that would see them encourage solicitors to sit on the bench. The fact that there is only one woman among eight Supreme Court justices is a disgrace, Khan believes. He advocates the mentoring of women lawyers by senior judges to encourage more to apply for higher judicial posts.
The father of two daughters, Khan is the son of Pakistani immigrants. His father was a bus driver and he grew up in a council flat with seven siblings. Nevertheless, he cheerfully admits that he has now become part of the establishment and counts among his friends some of the country’s most influential people. Now 42 years of age, he jokes: ‘You know you’re getting old when your mate is the DPP.’ As a practising Muslim, he has come under attack from some quarters over his support for two constituents, Babar Ahmad and Syed Talha Ahsan, in their fight against extradition to the US to face terrorism charges. Khan campaigned for the pair to be tried in this country.
As an Asian too, he has suffered indignities during his career, such as being mistaken for the defendant rather than lawyer in court, but says he never talks about being a victim in case it discourages others from seeking to pursue similar goals. He is, he says, British, a Muslim and an Asian. He is also a Londoner, a husband, a father, a Liverpool fan and an MP. And in his well-cut and fashionable suit, Khan gives the impression that he wears all these identities with ease.
It is worth noting perhaps that actor Jimmy Smits, who played Khan’s hero attorney in LA Law, went on to play the successful US presidential candidate Matt Santos in The West Wing. It may not be stretching things too much to suggest Khan is a credible candidate to become the first Asian and the first Muslim prime minister. He is certainly in the ascendant; grassroots Labour blog LabourList declared he played a ‘blinder’ on Lords reform, for example.
The combative Grayling is certain to test his mettle, however. Will the new justice secretary stall his rapid advance?
Catherine Baksi is a reporter at the Gazette
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