This morning, Michael Gove delivered his first speech as Justice Secretary. Here are some initial reflections:
- The revolutionary Conservative rides on. Gove’s approach to education was radical and deliberately revolutionary. His embrace of the language of the left, and his decision to mount a portrait of Lenin in his office, led us to dub him Vladimir Ilyich Gove. The radical aims, radical language and Gramscian logic (of the need to fundamentally change institutions in order to secure permanent success) that he brought to education are restated today in his approach to the Ministry of Justice. He rallies those arguments behind the Prime Minister’s chosen phrase – One Nation. His intent is more than clear: “A refusal to accept that the status quo is acceptable – in our courts, in our prisons, indeed when it comes to our liberties – is the essential characteristic of a one nation justice policy.”
- Court reform is clearly on the agenda. It’s fair to say that our court system is not as efficient as it could be. The characters from Great Expectations would not find today’s courts much different from those of the own day, Gove argues. Cases that collapse, pleas that change at the last minute, paperwork that arrives late, delayed hearings and a host of other ailments are picked out as examples not only of costly waste but also of the harm done to fairness and justice by a “creaking and dysfunctional system”. Characteristically, he reminds his audience that it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most from such problems.
- He hopes to bring the professions with him… While his goals are the provision of equal justice to the least well-off and the efficient use of taxpayers’ money, it’s notable that throughout the speech he appeals to the frustrations of the legal profession and the court service, too. Their purpose is to serve, Gove argues, but they, too, would benefit from a system that worked better. This is a fresh start in a new department, in a sector not dominated by extremists like the NUT leadership – so while he evidently doesn’t intend to curb his radicalism there are signs he hopes to enlist the barristers, solicitors and court service in support of his plans.
- …but any would-be blobs are given a polite warning. The tone is certainly less confrontational than some of his early comments about “the blob” which conspired to prevent education reform: he is careful to recognise the good work of court staff and the many lawyers who provide pro bono representation; on court reform he cites the work of the Lord Chief Justice on the case for reforming the court system; and he promises to address the concerns raised by the Jeffrey report on criminal advocacy last year. But he also lays down a polite warning that he will expect more from those at the top of the legal profession: “a one nation approach to justice cannot be blind to the fact that while resources are rationed at one end of our justice system rewards are growing at the other end…those who have benefited financially from our legal culture need to invest in its roots.”
- Grayling’s work on prisons and rehabilitation will be continued. Of his seven goals, no less than three are focused on rehabilitation, reoffending and correction: “…to make our prisons places of rehabilitation which give those who have made the wrong choices opportunities for redemption; to help offenders when they leave custody to make the right choices and contribute to society; to rescue young offenders, and those who may be on the path to offending, from a life of crime…” This is very encouraging – as I have argued before on this site, there is a moral Conservative mission to reform prisons and reduce reoffending. It means less crime, fewer ruined lives, more productive members of society living positive lives and lower taxes. Today’s speech featured a promise of new developments on this front – Gove is well-suited to carrying on the good work that Grayling began.
- Human rights only just got a look-in. Perhaps the stickiest of all the ground the Government intends to cover this term, the future of the Human Rights Act and the ECHR only got a brief mention as the last of his seven goals (“to reform our human rights legislation better to protect the fundamental freedoms we all cherish”) – a sure sign that the difficulties of working out how to negotiate the technical issues and the political challenges of a slim majority are yet to be resolved.