Opinion: Justice for Simon Hughes

As someone who has never exactly been a supporter, there have been very few bright spots in the otherwise suffocatingly dark firmament which is the Coalition Government.  One was and is the appointment of Norman Lamb as Care Minister who has been doing a remarkable job, also the undoubted achievements of Lynne Featherstone.  So the news yesterday that Simon Hughes has been appointed a justice minister was one of those rare occasions when some of my perennial despair was tinged with just a little hope.

I have a lot of time for Tom McNally and I think he will do a great job as chair of the Youth Justice Board – a body I know he has been instrumental in preserving – but like many Lib Dems I have been disappointed that he hasn’t  been able to do more to prevent the disastrous cuts to Legal Aid.  Access to justice regardless of ability to pay, has to be the foundation of any civilised society and is a fundamental tenet of our shared liberal values.  Simon has made clear his views on the right of criminal defendants to choose their solicitor:

 In my view access to a lawyer/supplier of choice or preference is a fundamental right and it should not be removed by administrative means.

Now he has the opportunity to influence that and other important decisions pending in his new department.  He will go armed with the latest Lib Dem policy from Federal Conference which is clear in its opposition to any further legal aid cuts that risk further denying access to justice.

He will also, I trust, challenge the ill-conceived plans to privatise the Probation Service.  As recently as Sunday the Observer reported that a Ministry of Justice internal report warned that handing the service over to the likes of G4S and Serco runs “a very high chance” of putting the public at greater risk and delivering  a poorer service for victims of crime and the community.

As a consistently outstanding advocate for young people, he now has the opportunity, which I trust he will take, to seek to progress many of those Lib Dem policies on youth justice included in Taking Responsibility, not least raising the age of criminal responsibility.  There has never been a more important time for a strong voice for young people caught up in the justice system. With the Ministry of Justice proposing that young offenders should mix with the general prison population with not even a cursory consideration of the evidence, Simon would  to do well to make one of his first priorities meeting with the excellent T2A (Transition to Adulthood) and reflecting on their response to the Ministry of Justice consultation.  As Liberal Democrats our policy supports their call for a longer transition period for young adults from 18-25 as well as a recognition that many young people who end up in prison often have mental health issues, learning difficulties or a history of abuse.

And of course there are many other issues on which we can expect him to champion Liberal Democrat values within the department, not least the Human Rights Act.

Over the last 24 hours there has been a lot of criticism of Simon having said he wouldn’t take a position in government in order to be able to speak his mind.  From that I conclude that he will have seen this as a role in which he would be able to speak his mind, a further indication of the Clegg differentiation strategy? I do hope so.

So I have only a slight hesitation in warmly welcoming this appointment – Nick Clegg’s assertion yesterday that this was about “helping to anchor the government firmly in the centre-ground” .  A little nudge towards the centre left wouldn’t go amiss.

* Linda Jack is a former youth worker and member of the party's Federal Policy Committee.

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8 Comments

  • Melanie Harvey 19th Dec '13 - 6:38pm

    I will go with the tinge of hope sentiment. Seems good move to me.

  • Daniel Henry 19th Dec '13 - 9:53pm

    Simon, like all our ministers, will now be bound under “collective responsibility”, which means he’ll have to publically support and defend EVERYTHING the coalition does, whether he actually agrees with it or not.

    I hope people don’t mistake such pragmatism as “selling out”.

  • Linda Jack 20th Dec ’13 – 12:08am
    Daniel, I know everyone goes on about collective responsibility, but in actual fact this does not necessarily apply in the case of a coalition…

    Quite right Linda. “Collective responsibility” would not make any sense whatsoever in some mature democracies where coalition has been the usual method of putting together an administration. TV fans of Borgen may have spotted a flavour of this.

    Like so much of what said and done in the Westminster Bubble, it is really just a bit of traditionalist untng to hide what is really happening. In an age of the Freedom of Information Act, why on earth should we not be told if cabinet ministers disagree on policies. We are told that Cabinet Government declined under Thatcher and Blair to such an extent that nowadays we have a De Facto presidential sofa-style government. Translated into the present Coalition Government to The Quad (which sounds suitably public school). Four white men in secret deciding what is and what is not government policy. We had a glimpse of this when Nick Harvey spilled the beans on the decision on free school meals. In fact it is not even clear if every one of The Quad was in on the decision or if it was just Cameron and Clegg swapping one ill-thought out pet project for another. How many members of the Cabinet, let alone Liberal Democrat MPs knew abut the decision to bomb Syria before it was made?

    Cabinet responsibility has never really been quite what it is made out to be. I have recently been reading through my copy of The Crossman Diaries (for younger readers this was a cabinet minister’s diaries in the Wilson Government of the 1960s); despite the limitations of the book it is still a good insight into what really happens behind the cloak of Cabinet Responsibility.

    Simon Hughes is a reliable, intelligent and principled bloke with enough common sense and experience of the Westminster Bubble to avoid being hoodwinked by such nonsense. Which makes you wonder why he is not leader of the party instead of the current twerp.

  • Eurgh. Bloody centre ground again.

  • James Sandbach 20th Dec '13 - 9:40am

    An excellent appointment. However, MoJ does have big problems as a Department and Simon will need a lot of good technical advice and expertise in tackling them. These include:-
    – Working in silos: A familiar Whitehall disease but especially acute at MoJ…there is no strategy for the justice system joining up different activities in MoJ, liaison with other Departments is poor to non-existent, poor co-operation between agencies etc
    – An unimaginative ‘legalistic’ approach to policy-making: This is a culture inherited from the old Lord Chancellor’s department that thinks in legal boxes, assumes that citizen behaviours are determined by law, expert at problems rather than solutions.
    – Micro-management failure: What can one say about the MoJ on contract design, management, procurement, monitoring etc? Problems in every sector – centralised but ineffective, tries to micro-manage rather than quality assuring suppliers in the first place.
    – Ancient systems in the courts: The IT systems underpinning the courts are woeful and upgrade projects have been cancelled, so the court system cannot work efficiently
    – Poor financial control: The problem with the ‘cuts agenda’ at MoJ is they don’t actually know how much money they are spending in the first place or how much they are cutting through their legislative reforms of legal aid etc. There is a gulf between estimates and reality.
    – Terrible stakeholder relations: Whether its the judiciary, law society, or other bodies involved in justice, the record of MoJ on engaging their key interest groups in discussion is very poor and pisses people off needlessly..

    These structural and operational problems make that much harder to find a way forward on the most contentious policy areas within coalition – ie legal aid, prison policy, human rights etc. Against this background it will be difficult for a junior Minister (however good) to deliver clear liberal policy wins.. but we must be able to show we making some headway on a liberal agenda for justice by 2015.

  • William Nigel Jones 23rd Dec '13 - 1:25pm

    I hope that not only Simon Hughes, but all our ministers will now be proactive in stating what Lib-Dem policies and views are. This idea that collective responsibility keeps your mouth shut is so immature in a coalition. Ministers can always give their likely view in advance of decisions and then afterwards, if a different view prevails, say something like ‘we have had to agree this, but our preference would be…..’
    It is surely the biggest mistake that Nick Clegg has made and our MPs that they have not publicly stated when decisions have been compromises; in our local press there is a steady stream of letters and some articles which assume that coalition decisions are all Lib-Dem party policies. This is now so ingrained in the public mind that it will take a major public campaign to change their impression. Another mistake is that we have not been clear enough on disagreements on those matters which were not in the coalition agreement. I was part of our council cabinet in coalition with the Tories and we were always free to speak freely on issues that were not part of our initial agreement.
    In any case now is the time for Simon and others to be open about where we stand; if ministers don’t do that now then we are lost.

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