At a press conference following David Cameron’s only major government reshuffle, justice minister Lord McNally reflected that he might owe his position as sole surviving minister in the Ministry of Justice more to his status as a Liberal Democrat than other factors.
For observers trying to judge if this is self-deprecation or a flash of self-knowledge, it is worth reflecting that Tom McNally is something of a serial survivor. A Labour MP who served as former prime minister James Callaghan’s parliamentary private secretary and head of his political office, he was one of 29 MPs who left the party to form the SDP as Labour swung to the left under Michael Foot. And since the merger with the Liberal Party in 1988, he has been a leading party figure, succeeding Shirley Williams as its leader in the Lords. He was associated with a Liberal Democrat grouping who worked to prepare the ground for a Lib-Lab coalition, and is now junior to right-leaning Conservative justice secretary Chris Grayling – whom McNally has found genuine reasons to respect as a colleague.
Glancing at the recording devices placed in front of him for the Gazette’s interview, his reaction is to recall: ‘Tony Benn was the first politician I knew to start using one of those.’ And also to think of Callaghan: ‘The kindest thing I ever saw Jim do was when a guy came with a tape recorder to a press conference and picked it up at the end looking absolutely devastated. "It’s not working," he said. And Jim said: "Can you get it working?" And the man said "yes", and Jim said, "OK, well let’s do it again". No such dispensation can be extended to the Gazette alas. ‘Unfortunately, I’ve got a meeting at 10, so if they’re not working, you’re doomed,’ he adds.
If McNally sometimes came across as irritated or short in heated House of Lords debates on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, his manner is very different in a face-to-face interview. He has a flat yet engaging delivery, punctuated by the occasional smile. He is bluff, down-to-earth, and outwardly kind and respectful to the officials around him. McNally clearly sees the budget cuts that the MoJ has pushed through, including those to the legal aid budget, as non-negotiable. ‘We had to adjust to a draconian adjustment in government spending,’ he says. ‘This department, which is relatively small, had a £10bn budget cut by 23%. And it really only spends money on four things – prisons, probation, court services and legal aid.’
It was, perhaps the non-negotiable element of the cuts that frustrated McNally’s opponents in the Lords debates over LASPO. He maintains the line that the outcome has balanced the need to make cuts with preserving some ‘red lines’ on access to justice: ‘We were trying to preserve the best of our legal and justice system in a period of austerity. And I think we have done. We have taken some very tough decisions, but in a way that has still focused attention and resources on those who need it most.’ He is either calculating, or hoping, that ‘part of the problem is that [during] the debate – people put forward worst-case scenarios’.
What is clear is that McNally believes that other areas of policy will provide a lasting legacy for what is, at 69, the pinnacle of his career in public service. On criminal justice, family law and defamation, he is both more comfortable and more animated. On prison policy, McNally is keen to stress that the more liberal approach to rehabilitation and restorative justice outlined at the start of the coalition government continues – it is not an agenda that left the building with ex-justice secretary Ken Clarke.
‘It’s work in progress,’ he ventures, ‘but in fact we are involving more prisoners in work – one of the things that contributed to reoffending was that we did not use the time when we had people in our custody as fruitfully as we could. Now, for both younger and older prisoners, we are putting forward various programmes to involve prisoners in work and training.’ The key, he says, is ‘through-the-gate services’ – involving prisoners in projects before their release with which they continue to be involved afterwards.
On family law too, cross-party and professional support for reforms set out in David Norgrove’s review give him hope that there is something tangible and worthwhile to be achieved. ‘How we look after our children and how we underpin family life must be one of the biggest challenges of any society,’ he says. ‘And because Norgrove is so widely accepted, there is a real opportunity to grab the ball and run for the line. In government, policy can be like solving a Rubik’s cube – you need the research-based policy, the political will and the parliamentary time. I think with Norgrove we have the basis to carry through a substantial reform.’
Just seven weeks after adding family law to his portfolio of responsibilities, McNally recognises that concerns have been raised over the ability of judicial case management to deliver some of Norgrove’s aims. The minister has yet to meet with the senior judiciary. But the ‘tom-toms beating’ in advance of that meeting indicate that the latter ‘are as enthusiastic as I am to carry on progress in this area’.
He is keen to point to Norgrove’s own, continuing role on policy, and is relying on him to ensure the complex work of local government, social services and the legal system is ‘knitted together’. ‘I think we can deliver on Norgrove,’ he adds. ‘And if we do, I personally think it will be one of the lasting legacies of this government, and certainly for me if I manage to achieve it, it would be one of the most significant things I’ve done in my political life.’ McNally’s public role in reforming media law goes back far further. In opposition, he proposed making the Press Complaints Commission accountable to Ofcom, and was a prominent critic of an over-centralisation of media ownership. He hopes the defamation bill, currently in the House of Lords, strikes a balance between protecting privacy and the ‘muckraking that is part of what a free press should do without fear or favour’.
He adds: ‘There is an opinion that our libel laws were over-restrictive and curtailed freedom of the press. And we had become a destination for libel tourism.’ And although the bill is a balancing act, he certainly conveys greater sympathy for arguments over press freedom, linking libel law to the emotive issue of suppression of stories that would have exposed paedophiles in public life. ‘We’re seeing some of these things at the moment with what is hitting our front pages; where people say "we didn’t do X or we didn’t do Y because we thought we might be sued for libel".’ The legal process, he adds, ‘can be a barrier to accountability as well as a guarantee of it’.
That, however, is a paradigm that his critics believe is uneasily transposed from defamation to other areas of civil justice – the ‘litigious society’ that the Jackson reforms are designed to address. ‘There was an argument that we had created a system where there was too much litigation that was too easily accessed without due concern. One of our aims is to "comb out" of the system any excesses that were there and get it more focused, and I think the Jackson reforms will do that.’
He is also dismissive of critics – including supporters of the Jackson reforms as envisaged by Sir Rupert in his original review – who allege that the government has both mismanaged their introduction and cherry-picked from what was a coherent package. ‘I don’t think we cherry-picked,’ McNally counters. ‘And given the fact we needed parliamentary time and approval, we got it through in pretty good shape, in time and in a condition the profession should be able to adapt to.’ The reforms will be ‘on time and be quickly bedded down by the legal profession’.
BORN 20 February 1943
UNIVERSITY University College London
JOBS minister of state, Ministry of Justice; deputy leader, House of Lords
KNOWN FOR James Callaghan’s parliamentary private secretary; founder member SDP; Liberal Democrat leader, House of Lords; MP for Stockport South
A point he is keen to clarify concerns his reported questioning of the need for children to use legal redress to challenge decisions relating to their statements of special educational needs (SEN). ‘What provoked me was a lady who said she had had a client for 11 years,’ he recalls. ‘And what I queried was, it isn’t part of the legal system or law for someone to come into that kind of interdependence. I queried [that] if she’d had a client in need of advice for 11 years, just what kind of advice she was giving?
‘I know that provoked a reaction,’ he adds, while pointing out that SEN was kept within the scope of legal aid. ‘I would have thought that a child’s special educational needs should have been settled long before an 11-year relationship [developed].’ Does the government’s justice policy have the coherence McNally claims in its entirety? Many professionals working in social welfare law, for example, will struggle to see past the real and draconian cuts to legal aid that have been the cause of bruising debates across the last year.
However, McNally makes the case that the more progressive parts of coalition policy have not changed with the arrival of Grayling. A natural and collegiate team player, McNally says of Grayling: ‘One of the things that most encourages me is Chris’s buy-in to prison reform. Interestingly, he brings experience from the Department for Work and Pensions. The DWP was one of the first departments to take the responsibility for going into prisons – in their case with welfare-to-work advice – and I think the rehabilitation revolution, with Chris’s gloss on it, will be one with teeth.’
Hard-wired as he seems to be for coalition politics, McNally does conclude by reflecting on one advantage of gaining, in Grayling, a colleague some would say is preceded by a reactionary reputation: ‘It was very difficult for me for the first two years. Whenever we did anything progressive, Ken Clarke always got the credit!’ McNally has become visibly more relaxed talking across the breadth of his brief – a demeanour that is in inverse proportion to the mild agitation of his time-conscious assistants as 10am comes and goes.
Then, jacket back on, the MoJ’s great survivor is hurrying off at an actual jog down the corridor for his next appointment.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor