Blame Tory chaos and ministerial churn for struggling public services

Published by The i paper (1st May, 2023)

Alex Chalk has given his first interview as Justice Secretary since joining the Cabinet after Dominic Raab’s ignominious departure. The former barrister, seen as a rising star in his party, talked to The Daily Telegraph against the backdrop of a prison visit. He spoke about protecting rape victims, reducing court delays and strengthening community punishments, declaring he wanted to ensure “the guilty are convicted, the innocent walk free and the public are protected”. Who could quibble with such noble aims? Yet he inherits a criminal justice system that seems – like so much of the public sector – in something close to meltdown.

The prisons are overflowing, recidivism is rife, the public is losing faith in the police, patrolling officers spend too much time dealing with mentally ill people, there are disastrous court backlogs, the legal aid system is crumbling, inquest delays are intensifying. Chalk must grapple with these difficult issues while Labour focuses relentlessly on fear of crime. He must decide whether to drop Raab’s silly British Bill of Rights, a typically self-harming Brexiteer stunt, and proposed parole reform. Meanwhile he has, at best, 21 months to make his mark before the next general election, when he defends one of the country’s smallest majorities in Cheltenham.

The Telegraph headline focused on Chalk’s determination to demand “very high standards of civil servants” with “no let-up in the tempo of work” despite the Raab bullying saga. This fits with the current Conservative drive to blame “the blob” for their failures with snide briefings about “snivel” servants who are supposed activists, anti-Brexit, sloppy, snowflakes or workshy.. Ministers complain their brilliant policies are being frustrated by obstructive bureaucrats. Boris Johnson even blamed them for his own stupidity over the Partygate furore.

Now consider this statistic: Chalk is the 11th justice secretary in 13 years. Even a lawyer, however smart, has a steep learning curve in such a job when they must bond with a new team, get on top of issues, assess the politics of planned reforms and work out their own priorities. Some of those before him showed signs of being sensible pragmatists such as Michael Gove, David Gauke and Sir Robert Buckland – but then they were shifted before tackling issues such as overuse of remand and short sentences. I talked at length with Gove over focusing on rehabilitation to curb recidivism rather than prison, even taking him to Texas for BBC Panorama to see court-led schemes tackling addiction, then he was dismissed after barely a year.

During that time Gove had to clear up the mess left by his predecessor, the serially incompetent Chris Grayling – who lasted longer than any of those other Tories in this post. This gave Grayling time to ban books for prisoners and impose court charges, both undone by his successor, while part-privatisation of probation was widely seen as a disaster.

This lethal combination of ministerial churn and a shallow talent pool in Westminster leads to bad and rushed policy, while enabling lobby groups to push through pet causes. Typical was a long-standing Magistrates Association demand for greater sentencing power, opposed by civil servants on grounds it would simply inflate prison numbers. Raab conceded – then dumped the policy 10 months later.

Chalk was promoted from his previous job overseeing procurement at defence, which he held for only six months. There have been 11 holders of this post over the last 13 years. So is it a coincidence it is still one of the most dysfunctional areas of government despite its importance, with billions blown on bungled ideas and vanity projects from “unfit for purpose” ear plugs through to a fleet of fighting vehicles that fail to work? “The department’s system for delivering major equipment capabilities is broken and repeatedly wasting taxpayers’ money,” concluded a damning review by the Public Accounts Committee.

During an earlier six-month stint as minister of state at justice, Chalk succeeded Lucy Frazer. She is now Culture Secretary after a similar meteoric rise, soaring through six previous ministerial posts in five years. Last week, less than three months into her current job, Frazer unveiled the Government’s much-delayed, 268-page White Paper on gambling. She is the 10th minister overseeing policy in this area since a shake-up was first promised in December 2020. The issues are both complex and crucial. The industry exploded online after Labour’s atrocious reform in 2005 with often horrifying consequences for punters, yet it is a global success story and increasingly significant contributor to the exchequer.

Serious reform is long overdue. The White Paper is a step forward, especially the idea of a statutory levy to fund education and treatment, although other proposed measures are too weak. Scott Benton, the Tory MP suspended earlier three weeks ago for allegedly offering to lobby ministers and leak confidential materials to the gambling industry, revealed to an undercover reporter how the industry had been successful in getting “the vast majority of what we wanted” in the document before Frazer’s appointment. Now most of the planned measures have been kicked into the long grass for further consultation.

Frazer’s previous job lasting three months was housing minister, another area of abject state failure. Her successor was the sixth holder of the post in a year and 16th since 2010. This reflects the post-Brexit chaos of the Conservative Party, with rapid turnover even of prime ministers. Liz Truss was another of those justice ministers during her sprint towards Downing Street, flitting through six departments in a decade despite leaving little discernible trace. Yet we saw similar corrosive ministerial change under New Labour – and ironically, David Cameron tried to stem such churn with some initial success before his premiership was crushed by the Brexit disaster.

But when you hear accusations against the blob, Remainer conspiracies and “snivel” servants, ask yourself who is really to blame for all the state failures that dog our nation? The answer lies mainly in Westminster, not Whitehall.

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