Michael Gove has ditched his predecessor’s more indefensible policies – but there is more he could do.
As the Conservatives gathered for their party conference a year ago, I commented in the Gazette on the widely held view that Chris Grayling was ‘simply the wrong person for the job’ of lord chancellor and justice secretary. That view seems to have been heeded by David Cameron.
Unlike the chancellor of the exchequer, the home secretary, the foreign secretary, the defence secretary and several other cabinet ministers, Grayling lost his high-profile department after the general election in May. Since succeeding him, Michael Gove has set about dismantling many of Grayling’s more indefensible policies.
As you might expect, the former education secretary began in July by lifting the remaining petty restrictions on prisoners reading books. Inmates can now have them sent in by family and friends and can keep more than 12 books in their cells at a time.
Also in July, the justice secretary scrapped plans to spend an estimated £85m building a huge prison in Leicestershire for 320 young offenders. Although £5.6m had already been spent on Grayling’s ‘secure college’, the Ministry of Justice said it would be a ‘mistake to press ahead with such a development when resources are so tight’.
This month, Gove announced a much-needed review of education in adult prisons. Little wonder then that the justice secretary is confident enough to speak at a meeting in November arranged by the Howard League for Penal Reform. Grayling, by contrast, tried to undermine the UK’s oldest penal reform charity last year by accusing its chief executive of supporting the Labour party.
When dismantling Grayling’s legacy, Gove ensures that discredited policies are attributed to the ‘coalition government’ or the ‘previous parliament’. That was the phrase he used to distance himself from another project that Grayling had enthusiastically promoted during his two-and-a-half years as lord chancellor. Just Solutions international (JSi) described itself as the commercial arm of the National Offender Management Service (itself an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice).
Its brochure said it specialised in providing ‘offender management products and services to overseas governments’ — such as designing new prisons. The legal blogger David Allen Green, who worked as a central government procurement lawyer from 2005 to 2007 and who has made much of the running on this story, derided JSi as ‘an exercise in amateurism and obfuscation’, which allowed MoJ officials to go round the world ‘selling their supposed expertise to foreign despotic governments’ rather than running the prison and probation services of England and Wales.
Earlier this month, Gove said he had decided that JSi should ‘cease to operate’. However, one last deal would be honoured: a project to conduct a ‘training needs analysis’ for prison service staff in Saudi Arabia. Ministers had decided that ‘withdrawing at this late stage would be detrimental to the government’s wider interests’ – quite apart from the financial penalties involved. As far as Gove was concerned, though, there would be no more commercial work for foreign governments.
On legal aid, the justice secretary still has a long way to go. But at least he got the parties talking. Answering MPs’ questions this month, he thanked ‘the leadership of the criminal solicitors’ profession and the criminal bar’. Playing down the ‘action’ they had ‘felt it necessary to take’ during the summer, he praised their ‘constructive dialogue’ with his officials.
The one policy on which Gove has not yet relented is Grayling’s criminal courts charge, under which adults convicted of offences committed after 12 April 2015 must be ordered to pay either £150 or £180 if they plead guilty at the magistrates’ court but £520 or £1,000 if they are convicted after a trial, the higher charge applying to offences that are triable ‘either-way’. In the Crown court, you pay £900 for a guilty plea or £1,200 after a trial. The charge, which disincentivises putting the prosecution to proof, is in addition to fines, compensation orders and costs.
Gove promised MPs that the charge would be reviewed. But I am told that this was no concession: he was referring to the review he is required by statute to carry out after three years. He also claimed that the ‘payment of the charge in due course should be linked to the offender’s means’.
That was an apparent reference to the court’s power to cancel a charge if a convicted person has taken all reasonable steps to pay or if collection is impracticable. But you cannot even apply for a charge to be cancelled until two years after your most recent conviction. And who pays for the paperwork?
Gove may not be too worried by reports that more than 50 magistrates have resigned over the charge. But what should concern him is that this is another ineffective Grayling legacy that is wrong in principle and costly in practice.