'There Are None So Blind As Those Who Will Not See'But what of the political architects of the omnishambles? Don't they ever reflect on the effects of their policies? We all know about Chris Grayling, but what about Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes? How can politicians get things so wrong? They must go through life completely oblivious to what's going on around them.
Thanks go to Sally Lewis on twitter for recently highlighting a simply nauseating interview he gave to the Institute for Government in September 2015:-
SH: Let’s think of the best example of unexpected events or crises. There were predictable difficulties always, as there always are in any department, such as if you have a bill which you know is going to go to the Lords and be in trouble in the Lords and so on. So the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill was one such bill. And particularly all the issues to do with judicial review where the Lords were going to defeat the Government and so on. So there was predictable uncertainty and a lot of negotiation to be done. And that required extra meetings and meetings with Oliver Letwin as the policy manager of the Government and the leader of our party in the Lords and the Leader of the House of Lords and so on. So the most intense and complicated cross-government issues were obviously to do with legislation, as is normally the case.
The most difficult issues which weren’t crises but where you suddenly discovered they were taking a lot of time and it was fairly intense was where we were negotiating over policy where there was significant disagreement between the two coalition parties, such as knife crime and the proposal for ‘two strikes and you’re out’ stuff which the Tories were very keen on. Another example was charging people who’d come through the criminal justice system for the cost of the Courts Service which was a new Conservative initiative, and making sure the formula for that was worked out as fairly as possible. So those were fairly intense conversations including on our side David Laws and then Oliver on the other side [both then Cabinet Office ministers].
Unexpected developments: because we met regularly and had a good relationship and communication was very good, I think most things we saw coming, we were always prepared for. So there weren’t great dramas and crises in that sense. Sometimes an illness of a colleague would require a bit of reorganisation of responsibilities; Shailesh [Vara, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State] was ill for a little while and ill suddenly. And so there was the normal consequence of people having to pick up this work.
The most difficult battles to fight, again they weren’t crises, but the most difficult battles to fight were obviously delivering Transforming Rehabilitation through the department, which obviously had much opposition from the Probation Service or many of them. And that really required a lot of work by the Civil Service and it was the biggest project we had in the department when I was there. And that had lots of obstacles on the way.
Legal Aid negotiations with the risk of barristers being on strike and solicitors being on strike: not my direct responsibility, but that was obviously difficult. And then there were individual difficult things like the new youth offenders’ centre in the East Midlands, which in the end didn’t get completely signed off by the election, because the Treasury sort of blocked it and which has been dropped since the election.
Interestingly I don’t think that internally in the department there were too many dramas and crises or changes of timetable. I think we managed ourselves well. We covered each other well. We could be fairly adept at doing that, including obviously covering for colleagues at Question Time and so on.
The bigger issues were often cross-government, cross-department things where as our person in the MoJ there needed to be a shared line between me and my colleague in the Home Office, whoever it was at the time, and things like immigration law changes and asylum, which related to MoJ business because it related to detention centres and so on.
So I’m afraid I can’t give you graphic and exciting examples of 1am crisis phone calls -which is good really. It actually meant I think in terms of organisation, it was a well-organised department and if people, as in any good workplace, needed to work late they would. Very, very rarely was there need for many people to come in at the weekends to sort things.
NH: On a slightly more positive note, what do you think was your greatest achievement? What is the thing you’re most proud of?
SH: Collectively, the biggest policy that I inherited and we delivered together was Transforming Rehabilitation. [It] was the biggest policy we collectively delivered in the department – which was to make sure every single offender when they come out of prison would have support, no matter how short their sentence, and which had never been done before.
NH: What was it you think that contributed to that success? What were the factors involved?
SH: Phenomenally good work by the Civil Service. I mean very high-quality work by the Civil Service – real commitment, real skill, real ability. There were technical issues, there were IT issues, there were personnel issues, [and] there were strategic policy issues of dealing with the external opposition. But it was very, very high-quality Civil Service support and commitment to the project. And when we had our thank you party, I was very impressed when I talked to lots of people who had been involved and I was amazed to discover how many said this is the most worthwhile bit of work they had ever done in their professional life. I mean it really engaged people because they saw the benefit of the policy if it could be delivered. They knew it had a deadline for delivery and so on. And it was delivered in time. So that was the biggest thing.
JG: And just on your role on that.
JG: Specifically, what demands were placed on you?
SH: I mean it wasn’t my lead because probation reform had started before and it was led by the Secretary of State who took a personal interest and another Tory colleague. However, everything all the way, because it was so controversial and so on, required lots of agreed planning of the strategy, the strategy of how we dealt with the unions, [and the] strategy of exactly how it would be implemented and when. There was an issue to do with an apparent conflict of interest of the wife of the Head of the Probation Service who worked for one of the people who got the contracts. And there was all the secrecy around the contracts.
I was involved in the discussion of the process, the delivery in the sense of giving advice, making sure that I was comfortable all the time and able at all times to make suggestions. So I was very much part of the political team delivering it. I had to sell it to my party colleagues because some of my colleagues were quite uncomfortable about it. More of my colleagues were uncomfortable about it than Tory colleagues. So we had quite a big delivery exercise. So that was probably my biggest specific role – colleagues in the Commons, colleagues in the Lords, making sure they were briefed, up to date, informed, given the information to deal with constituents and lobbying and so on. So that was the biggest project.
I had three things that were more specifically mine, which I was very pleased about. I was able to complete the work to make sure we implemented one united family court, which had never been the case before. Family business used to be spread over three different types of court: magistrates’ court, county court, high court and all are [now] brought together in one new court. For the first time the family services were coordinated across the country and all sort of things flowed from that. And it was obviously happening at the same time as Legal Aid had been reduced so there were other issues. It meant putting in more support for litigants in person and mediation to take people away from disputes. So that was a big bit of work. And I think we did well. I think the family courts are working really well. And I think we’ve managed to alleviate some of the pressures that were caused by budgetary reduction.
The second was a little ring-fenced thing but really important – delivering legislation to change the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. It was the first time it had been done since the ’70s, meaning that you don’t now have to declare your relatively minor misdeeds committed when you were young for nearly as often or for as long time as used to be the case. And that hugely helps lots of people’s lives. So that was a very positive piece of legislation.
And the last was really delivering across the women’s prison estate what we called the objective of making every women’s prison a resettlement prison, so that there were the proper facilities there to prepare their release into the community. So it meant lots of new building outside the prison walls where women could meet with their families and have children and partners visit and prepare for work and do apprenticeships and training and so on. And that is in place now, physically in place, in lots of prisons, which it wasn’t when I started. And is in place in delivery terms and the rest.
So those were the three biggest things, not the most important things but the biggest things. And it was very good that when you were able to deliver things like that. People were clearly encouraged by them and positive: the prison governors were positive and the prison staff were positive and offenders were positive and even people from the Howard League who are not always government’s best fans were positive and parliamentary colleagues were positive across the House. Most people ended up saying yes that’s really worth doing. And you felt yes, good, tick the box.