The most striking thing about Chris Grayling's appearance before the Justice Select committee this morning was the man himself — the depth of his self-assurance, the permanent self-congratulatory smile, his glib, condescending replies. The way, like a machine, he rattled out words, apparently without breathing. And what words they were: "a new contractural framework, tough financial decisions, deliver change in a way that is sustainable, one-size-fits-all". Grayling, who bears the title Lord Chancellor and has taken an oath to respect the rule of law, was all spin and no content, the consummate PR man.
Yet the matter under scrutiny could scarcely be more grave.
The coalition government plans to destroy Legal Aid as we know it in England and Wales, something that has allowed us access to justice, regardless of our wealth, since 1949. Grayling proposes to:
- • Destroy the current model whereby the Ministry of Justice purchases legal services from 1,400 local providers.
- • Issue vast contracts to a small number of businesses offering bulk legal services at the lowest price — Tesco, G4S and Stobart are poised to move in.
- • Pay a flat fee regardless of plea. (A guilty plea promises fatter margins).
- • Impose a 12 month residence test for civil Legal Aid. (Babies in care proceedings would lose legal representation).
- • Pay for legal work on applications for judicial review only in cases where the application succeeds.
On Monday Grayling abandoned his plan to deprive defendants of their choice of solicitor. Last week in a Commons debate that Grayling did not bother to attend, his proposals were ridiculed and condemned by MPs of all parties.
Today he did at least turn up. About the initial decision to deprive citizens of their choice of representative, he said:
"You can't guarantee a slice of the work and provide choice."
And: "in order to invest in scaling the business there would be a need to provide a guarantee of volumes". (By volumes he meant the quantity of legal work).
So what's made him change his mind? "The market has said to me actually the principle of choice is one that we regard as more important."
The 'market' is Graylingspeak for the legal profession.
"This is not rocket science," he said. "The only issue of dispute, the one thing that resonated early on was perhaps we haven't got the choice piece right."
"The choice piece."
So that's it then. Our choice of advocate, a piece of business. As he spoke you could sense justice being delivered (or rather not) by the pallet.
"There's never been a process of change where those people affected by change haven't been jumpy about it," he said of the assault on our rights that has brought barristers protesting onto the streets.
Plaid Cymru's Elfyn Llwyd, who, unlike Grayling, has practiced law, challenged the huge reduction in legal providers planned for Wales. The proposals don't say what will happen if a provider is unable to provide sufficient or sufficiently qualified lawyers, said Llwyd. "Unlike the Olympics, the army can't be drafted in. . . What does the Ministry propose?"
Grayling smirked: "One of the problems we don't have is a shortage of lawyers."
Llwyd said the proposals failed to consider victims of crime. Grayling replied that victims wanted to see criminals tried and locked up.
Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton, challenged him on the likely disproportionate impact of his changes on black and minority ethnic firms — often one or two person firms.
Grayling said: "I simply do not accept that . . . I pay tribute to the BME business community in this country. There are some really great success stories."
He carried on in that fatuous way as if Qureshi's concern related to the competence of black and minority ethnic practitioners.
Qureshi, a former Crown Prosecution Service barrister, told him: "If they go out of business then the number of ethnic minority people in the judiciary is going to be reduced too."
Elfyn Llwyd's fears for Welsh legal firms got the same patronising brush-off: "I'm absolutely certain the Welsh legal profession will rise to the challenge," Grayling said.
He dismissed the deep anxiety widely felt about the flat fee paid regardless of plea. Gareth Johnson, Conservative MP for Dartford, said that some lawyers might push defendants to plead guilty because of the financial incentive — a guilty plea entailing less work.
"I regard the standards of the legal profession to be much higher than that," Grayling said.
And "I want people who are guilty to plead guilty as quickly as possible."
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, challenged the withdrawal of legal representation from prisoners trying to make complaints about medical treatment or access to mother and baby units.
Grayling replied, "That's why we have prison visitors, Independent Monitoring Boards, the Prisons Ombudsman."
Under pressure from Corbyn, Grayling said: "I suspect this is an ideological difference between us."
Does Grayling seriously expect us to believe that justice is safe, because Chris Grayling has faith in the Ombudsman, the Welsh, and the entrepreneurial spirit of migrants? Or is ideology all that matters to him?
Who is this smug, self-satisfied operator? What makes him tick?
Chris Grayling was born into privilege, (he was smacked as a child and it did him no harm). Educated at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, he took History at Cambridge, then joined the BBC as a news trainee. He moved into management, ran TV production companies, then he jumped into another world.
He joined Burson-Marsteller, the international masters of reputation management, whose clients have included the Nigerian government during the Biafran war, the Argentinian junta after the disappearance of 35,000 civilians, the dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and the Saudi Royal Family.
Grayling spent a few years at Burson-Marsteller. (On his website it's not named, it's just a "leading communications agency"). Then he parachuted into the safe Tory seat of Epsom and Ewell. He rose fast through the Shadow Cabinet, developing a property portfolio with help from his Parliamentary expenses.
The Daily Telegraph revealed in 2009 that Grayling had claimed thousands of pounds to renovate a flat in central London – bought with a mortgage funded at taxpayers’ expense, even though his constituency home is less than 17 miles from the House of Commons.
The Telegraph reported an unusual arrangement that Grayling set up with the Parliamentary Fees Office whereby he claimed £625 a month for mortgages on his main home and the Pimlico flat.
Over the summer of 2005 he undertook a complete refurbishment of the flat. Between May and July he claimed £4,250 for redecorating, £1,561 for a new bathroom, £1,341 for new kitchen units, £1,527 for plumbing and £1,950 for rewiring and other work.
During the 2005-06 financial year, Grayling claimed close to the maximum allowance for MPs, the Telegraph reported. In 2006-2007 he submitted receipts for the work that had been carried out the previous year. In June 2006, for instance, he submitted an invoice for £3,534, with a handwritten note claiming "this has only just been issued, date notwithstanding".
A scribbled note that accompanied another late-arriving claim, for £2,250, submitted in July 2006, stated:
"Decorator has been very ill & didn’t invoice me until now."
Anyway, back to this morning's Select Committee meeting.
Sir Alan Beith, the chair and Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick, mentioned a few mismanaged Ministry of Justice contracts — the court interpreting shambles, the offender-tagging contract currently under investigation, prisons and probation contracts.
"You haven't got the capacity within the department to manage contracts on this scale have you?" said Beith.
Grayling replied that the problem with the court interpreting contract was that it had been placed with too small a supplier, and bigger suppliers could sort it out.
That such a man holds the title 'Lord Chancellor', has taken an oath to uphold the rule of law, yet holds Parliament in such contempt that he failed even to attend last week's debate on his proposals is. . . Surprising is the first polite word that springs to mind.
"You have to deal with the world as it is rather than how you would like it to be," Grayling told the Justice Committee.
The Save UK Justice e-petition remains open. Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather has tabled early day motion 324 calling on the Government immediately to abandon the proposed reforms of civil legal aid. Readers may wish to ask their MPs to sign.
"That this House believes access to justice is a hallmark of a civilised society; further believes that the Government's proposed reforms to civil legal aid will severely limit the ability for many to access the justice system; is deeply concerned by plans to introduce a residence test for civil legal aid, which will remove legal support for many vulnerable groups including victims of human trafficking and domestic violence; notes that the residence test will also prevent many cases being brought against the Government when it is accused of wrongdoing abroad; further notes that the majority of individuals held in immigration detention will be left without support to challenge their continued detention; regrets the effect the proposed reforms to judicial review will have on the ability of individuals to hold public bodies to account; further believes that the proposals relating to prison law will effectively mean that justice stops at the prison gate; and calls on the Government to abandon its proposed reforms of civil legal aid immediately."