Civil servants were given a brutal going over by MPs out for blood.
I hope you had the popcorn ready – the public accounts committee evidence session yesterday was pure box office.
Four trembling civil servants from the Ministry of Justice versus MPs spoiling for a fight. It was lambs to the slaughter stuff and there was only ever going to be one winner.
Chair Margaret Hodge pinned down the MoJ’s permanent secretary, Ursula Brennan, from the start. ‘Do you agree that when the government gets things wrong then British justice is irretrievably damaged?’
Clearly, this was going to be a bruising, brutal hour and a half.
Brennan’s chosen line evoked Sir Humphrey at his finest.
The botched implementation of legal aid cuts was not the fault of hard-pressed civil servants – instead she cited rapacious ministers desperate to cut public spending without any research into the consequences. The only evidence they presented was their iron will to slash budgets.
Even as a non-lawyer, I’m aware that evidence is a pretty crucial element in the legal process.
You’d feel pretty peeved to be convicted without evidence, for example, and a solicitor turning up to court without any preparation will get short shrift from the judge.
Yet, according to the permanent secretary of the MoJ, the only evidence needed to precipitate legal aid cuts was that the government wanted it so.
Hodge was in no mood to go easy on the civil servants. Several times she asked for witnesses to give yes or no answers and accused them of waffling.
When she received an explanation of the threshold for legal aid in domestic violence, she responded ‘you’re joking’. She dismissed Brennan’s complaint that a question was unfair. She accused the department of ‘endemic failure’ and asked whether the intention of the residence test for legal aid was to deny justice to Gurkhas and Afghan interpreters.
‘You are the Ministry of Justice,’ she told the civil servants, ‘Are you there to facilitate justice or inhibit it?’
Ultimately, there is little we can do now about the cuts. They are here to stay – for the next parliament at least. This hearing, and the inevitable damning report of the committee make great headlines but will change little I would expect.
But what this session did was expose what many have said all along: even if these cuts were necessary, the verve and pace of change was ideological and thoughtless.
One would hope the next time 12,000 people tell the MoJ what they’re doing is wrong, the department will listen. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
John Hyde is Gazette deputy news editor