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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

Selective questions

Here is a Cabinet Minister in command of his brief.

His name is Robert Buckland, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor.

For almost three hours, in front of the Commons Justice Select Committee, he responded to questions on prisons and probation; the coronavirus and court backlogs; legal aid, magistrates’ retirement ages and politicians interfering in judicial decisions.

Answers were delivered fluently and cogently, facts and figures provided to support the arguments, and real life experience instructively referred to (Buckland is a QC and part-time judge, as he’s not shy of reminding people).

The impression was of a minister with a firm grip on his department, an understanding of the issues that could trip him up - and a vision of where he’d like to get to.

Yes, Buckland was good - but he had such an easy ride.

With a few exceptions - when Labour Committee members voiced concerns about legal aid funding - his comments went unchallenged.

After reminding MPs that the Ministry of Justice had been allocated a record £4 billion for 18,000 new prison places in the Spending Review, there wasn’t a single question about how this unprecedented building programme could be delivered, let alone if it was desirable.

There was mild curiosity, but barely any probing, about the revelation that only around half of unpaid work and offender behaviour programmes are being provided by probation staff due to the coronavirus and the impact that is likely to have on rates of recidivism.

When Buckland claimed prisons had largely avoided 23-hour lockdowns, the Committee should have waved a copy of an inspection report into Lindholme jail in South Yorkshire, published hours earlier, which said most of the 900 inmates were allowed out of their cells for less than an hour a day, leading to a rise in violence and mental health problems. But they didn’t.

There were numerous other times when the former Solicitor General was allowed to develop and embellish arguments at inordinate length without any critical or searching questions.

Of course, select committee hearings are not the Today Programme. They should provide an opportunity for ministers to state their case in a measured and less pressured way than they’re able to during a ten-minute slot on ‘live’ radio. But there is a balance. When the justice system - the courts, prison, probation - is facing so many difficulties you expect those issues to be rigorously examined, and the answers tested, analysed, scrutinised.

It was an opportunity missed.

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