Like the speech of Sadiq Khan MP at the Labour Party Conference, Chris Grayling's speech was also short. He opened by referring to a story in the Daily Mail about several young men having an easy time in prison. We were informed that, 'within twelve hours, they were in segregation. Locked up for longer in their cells, not hanging out with their mates. Without a TV. Privileges stripped. Weeks added to their sentences after a swift disciplinary process.' Good red meat there for the Party faithful.
Grayling went on to refer to the need for confidence in the justice system and that victims often felt let down. Next he referred to some changes in the law
which had already been enacted such as the legal position of householders who defend themselves against intruders - (ref: Crime and Courts Act 2013 s43). There was no Sky TV in prison or 18 certificate DVDs. As for prisoners who damage their cells, they would be made to pay for the repairs. (In practice, likely to be a very problematic policy given the financial position of many prisoners).
Prisoners should not get legal aid so that they 'complain about the prison we put them in, and use it to try and get an easier ride elsewhere.' Such a soundbite devalues the crucial role which legal aid has played in securing better treatment and fairness for prisoners. In similar vein, immigrants should not receive legal aid until they satisfy a 'residence test'. This controversial policy is part of the government's programme to cut legal aid and is under public consultation until 18th October.
Like Sadiq Khan, Grayling also referred to cautions. The use of the SIMPLE caution for serious offences is to be brought to an end. Logically, one would expect that cautions would be less likely for serious offences and Grayling seems on safe ground here with a policy that will command some general support. (On this see the Ministry of Justice Press release 30th September). In particular, simple cautions will not be permitted for possession of knives - (I think this is a reference to Criminal Justice Act 1988 s139 where the maximum penalties for possession of knives have been increased on a number of occasions).
The release of serving prisoners at the halfway point of their sentence is something Grayling plans to look at next. He then moved on to talk about the 'merry go round' of repeat offenders. For Grayling, prison works but does not work well enough. It cannot be doubted that there are some offenders who continue to reoffend and breaking that cycle has tended to defy the criminal justice. However, there has been recognition in recent years that drug and alcohol problems need to be addressed as part of rehabilitation and that, whilst in prison, there must be effective programmes to at least start to address those and other problems which often lead to reoffending - (see the 2010 document Breaking the Cycle). Even short term prisoners (less than 12 months) will come under supervision when they leave prison. This could be very resource-intensive unless the use of short term imprisonment is reduced significantly.
Grayling saved international challenges to the end his speech. First, Brussels. He claimed that the EU sought a single justice system for Europe and that was one reason to renegotiate the UK's terms of EU membership. (See Express 27th March 2013). Secondly, the European Court of Human Rights. Change was necessary and, in 2014, the Conservative Party would publish a document and a draft Bill. The document would say what they would do if they win the 2015 election and the draft Bill would 'scrap Labour's Human Rights Act 1998.'
We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act.
We will make sure that with legal rights go legal responsibilities.
Our Supreme Court should be in Britain and not in Strasbourg.
These issues are discussed in my previous post of 26th September. The sentence about the Supreme Court being in Britain suggests the possibility of withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. Other Ministers have, in their speeches, been more specific - for example Theresa May Conference Speech 2013 . May said: 'the next Conservative manifesto will promise to scrap the Human Rights Act. It’s why Chris Grayling is leading a review of our relationship with the European Court. And it’s why the Conservative position is clear – if leaving the European Convention is what it takes to fix our human rights laws, that is what we should do.'
Here was a speech which avoided almost entirely the fact that the coalition government has removed effective access to justice in areas of law of immense importance to many - particularly the less advantaged in the country. The Grayling view seems to be that he is right and the thousands of mostly adverse and usually well considered responses to his legal aid consultation are wrong. The arrogance is astounding and there was no recognition of the beneficial effects which the Human Rights Act 1998 has undoubtedly brought to English law. The government's policies are bringing about a fundamental change to the relationship between the citizen and the State and it is a recalibration in favour of the State. There are good reasons to be concerned for the future - see Euro Rights blog - Leaving Europe not Leading Europe.
Human Rights Act impact on everyday life
Amnesty warns that threat to scrap #HumanRightsAct is part of a troubling pattern: http://t.co/OspaXfWitF #BIHR
— Manchester Amnesty (@amnestymanc) October 1, 2013
Its clear from Grayling's speech to Conference that cuts to legal aid are policy, not essential. Law Society got it so wrong. #saveukjustice
— Chris Pye-Smith (@chrispyes) October 1, 2013