Yesterday Chris Grayling, who is both Minister of State for Justice (dismantling the legal aid system) and Lord Chancellor (sworn to uphold the rule of law), gave evidence before the House of Commons Justice Committee.
Chris Grayling is an experienced PR man. After Cambridge University and a stint at the BBC, Grayling joined Burson-Marsteller, the international masters of reputation management. Their business: protecting the strong from the weak. 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 carried the art of spin into Westminster where, as MP for the safe Tory seat of Epsom and Ewell, he tended his 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. One year he claimed close to the maximum allowance. The next year he submitted some late-arriving invoices. One scribbled note of explanation read: "decorator has been very ill & didn't invoice me until now".
As shadow home secretary in 2010 he was publicly rebuked for "damaging trust in official statistics"; he had drawn comparisons between different sets of violent crime figures. His critic? Sir Michael Scholar, whose job it was to keep politicians' interpretation of statistics straight.
Chris Grayling can't help it. He's a PR man.
He is also Minister of State for Justice. And Lord Chancellor, the first non-lawyer in the role.
As Lord Chancellor he has taken an oath to uphold the rule of law. Here it is:
“I, Christopher Stephen Grayling, do swear that in the office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain I will respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and discharge my duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts for which I am responsible. So help me God.”
As Minister of Justice he leads a radical attack on the heart of British justice.
In Grayling's Britain, victims of rape may be deprived of legal representation. The sister of Jean Charles de Menezes (an innocent man shot dead by the Metropolitan Police), would be denied legal aid. Or, as Grayling put it to last year's Conservative Party conference: "I don’t think it’s right that someone can just pitch up here, without any connection to the UK and use the legal aid system at our expense."
A pregnant woman sent to prison on remand for shoplifting food for her children will no longer get legal aid to fight the decision to separate her from her baby as soon as it is born. Or, as Grayling told his conference: "Right now prisoners can get legal aid to complain about the prison we put them in, and use it to try and get an easier ride elsewhere."
Lately the Guardian reported a whistleblower's allegation that the minister had told his political staff to put a positive spin on written answers drafted by Ministry of Justice officials.
Yesterday morning Grayling spent just over an hour being lightly interrogated by members of the House of Commons Justice Committee.
He spun their questions about prisons overcrowding and shortage of prison staff into answers about a special new "reserve force" of retired prison officers. It sounded strangely positive. (Grayling has a way of smiling as he speaks, whatever he happens to be saying.)
He said one reason for staff shortages was — good news! —"the more buoyant labour market".
He was asked about the rise in prisoner suicides. He couldn't put a positive spin on that. Could he?
He spun his answer into a comment about assaults on prison staff. (They hadn't asked him about that).
Pressed on overcrowding, he said (incorrectly): "Prison overcrowding means prisoners sharing a cell."
Then, the wealthy man who dipped into the public purse for mortgage payments on two separate properties, said: "If prisoners have to share a cell in order to make sure they can go to prison this is not a great problem."
Again he swerved into the matter of assaults on prison staff.
Does any decent person think that thumping prison officers is a good idea? Why bring it up? To divert and distract? To use up parliamentary time? To please the Daily Mail?
He called the European Convention of Human Rights, "a laudably worded document" which "contains many balances of rights and responsibilities". (You can see why legal minds have so little respect for him).
"But," he went on: "it is time for Parliament to assert its view about where and how human rights law should be applied. I have said that I want to curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights in the UK. I have said that I want to replace the Human Rights Act."
Then: "Let me be clear this doesn't mean that I don't regard human rights as important," said Burson-Marsteller's former European Marketing Director. "Human rights are of fundamental importance around the globe and we shall always be a beacon championing them."
All the while, sitting behind him, campaigners from the Howard League for Penal Reform, in silent protest, held up copies of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. For this is the Lord Chancellor who has banned prisoners' families and friends from sending them books to read, and other essentials such as underpants.
As Grayling told his party conference: "You wanted a tougher justice system. We are delivering a tougher justice system . . .Many, many of our offenders have had terrible childhoods, fragmented education, issues with drugs and alcohol, suffered abuse, or long periods of worklessness. But all of them are also there because of the choices they have made. I’m not making excuses for any of them."
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