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How do you solve a problem like Chris Grayling?

Sean Humber, head of the human rights team at Leigh Day, looks at the lack of political accountability for the current problems in our prisons

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2016
Sean is a partner and head of the human rights department at Leigh Day.  He acts for individuals and campaign groups on a wide range of human rights issues including prisoner rights, environmental, discrimination and information law matters.
Chris Grayling has a skill that many may consider unfortunate in a senior politician.  He has an uncanny knack of being able to intervene in virtually any situation, however bad, and yet still make it considerably worse.

His latest personal difficulty, particularly inconvenient for a Transport Minister, involves opening his car door and knocking over a cyclist, Jaiqi Liu, outside Parliament in Central London.  The footage of the incident is available for all to see having been filmed by another cyclist travelling behind.   Mr Liu seems to have emerged bruised and dazed from the encounter with his cycle suffering considerable damage following an unscheduled detour into a nearby lamp-post.

In press reports, Mr Liu, who works at the World Bank and is a regular cyclist, then recounts what he says was his conversation with Mr Grayling.  “One thing he did say was that I was cycling too fast, which was not true,”  Mr Liu said. “That made me really upset. He made out it was my fault.” Mr Liu then states that Mr Grayling departed the scene without leaving his name or details less than two minutes after the collision.

It is for others to consider whether Mr Grayling’s actions have any legal consequences.  In a letter to the Prime Minister, the Labour Party’s Ian Austin, a former chairman of the All-Party Cycling Group, claims the minister could have committed a number of traffic offences.

In his letter, Mr Austin rightly also points out that "Incidents of this nature can be fatal. For instance, cyclist Sam Harding was killed in August 2012 when driver Kenan Aydogdu opened his door in front of Harding as he cycled up London's Holloway Road."

This is clearly a very regrettable incident and there is no reason to believe that our Transport Secretary is anything other than very sorry for what has happened.  However, if reports of the incident are accurate, it does appear to demonstrate a rather well-established modus operandi.

First he does or says something unwise.   Second, he then seeks to blame others involved.  Thirdly, he then walks away from the situation and the consequence of his actions.

But, with due respect to the luckless Mr Liu, there are even bigger news  stories of recent days in which Mr Grayling has played a not  insignificant role.  

For I remember Chris Grayling boasting to the Conservative Party Conference in 2014 that, under his watch as the then Secretary of State for Justice, all of those criminals out there needed to watch out because he was toughening up the prison regime so that they would no longer “look like holiday camps”.    From now on, he promised, more of them would be going to prison and be serving longer sentences while simultaneously emphasising  “it will cost the hard-working tax payer less to keep you there.”  Quite how this would be achieved remained unclear, but that didn’t seem to matter, because it all seemed less about rehabilitation and more about institutionalised vengeance, with the party faithful just lapping it up.

Pretty much everybody involved in the prison system warned him of the damage his plans would cause.  Well, he pressed on regardless and our prisons are now truly in crisis with the recent incidents at HMP Bedford, HMP Lewes, HMP Birmingham, HMP Hull and now at HMP Swaleside representing the worst rioting for a generation.  My postbag is bulging with complaints from prisoners in relation to the problems they face accessing decent treatment and care, frustrations at being locked in their cell for up to 23 hours a day and increasing number reporting assaults and of feeling unsafe.

However, it is important not to lapse into the convenient  ruse, effectively employed by politicians such as Mr Grayling, of giving a few anecdotal but unrepresentative examples in order  to bolster one’s own dogmatic position.

Fortunately for all of us, the indefatigable and almost universally respected Prison Reform Trust summarise the Ministry of Justice’s own published facts and figures on the state of our prisons.  By pretty much every conceivable measure, they reveal a significant deterioration in our prison system.

Since 2010, they report that the prison population has gone up with more people going to prison and sentences getting longer.  Meanwhile the prison budget has been cut by almost a billion pounds during the last six years.  Similarly staff numbers have been cut by 30% with nearly 7,000 fewer staff.

In light of this, it can come as no surprise that the conditions in our prisons have almost inevitably worsened.  The majority of our prisons are overcrowded and performance in a quarter is a cause for concern.  The number of murders and serious assaults, including sexual assaults, have significantly increased.  The rates of self-harm, including deaths, have also greatly increased.  Both prisoners and prison staff feel much less safe than six years ago.

But again, you don’t need to take the word of a self-confessed “left wing activist human rights lawyer” apparently responsible for so many ills of this country about the state of our prisons.  No, let’s instead listen to what others have to say.

In its report into prison safety published in May 2016, the cross-party Parliamentary Justice Committee stated that “overall levels of safety in prisons … continue to deteriorate significantly”.  Unsurprisingly, its Conservative Chair Bob Neill  commented that “This is a matter of great concern and improvement is urgently needed” and further stated “It is imperative that further attention is paid to bringing prisons back under firmer control, reversing recent trends of escalating violence, self-harm and disorder”.

In his annual report of June 2016, the new Chief Inspector of Prisons stated “there is a simple and unpalatable truth about far too many of our prisons.   They have become unacceptably violent and dangerous places.”

Similarly, in his annual report of September 2016, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman refers to an increase in deaths in custody including “a shocking 34% rise in self-inflicted deaths” and “the highest number of homicides since my office was established” and that the number of complaints from prisoners remained “very high”.  He concluded that “together with the rising levels of violence and disorder, these figures are evidence of the urgent need to improve safety and fairness in prison”.

Just yesterday, in a letter to the Times,  Kenneth Clarke, the Conservative former Home Secretary and Justice Secretary, Jacqui Smith, the Labour former Home Secretary, and Nick Clegg the Lib Dem former Deputy Prime Minister, warn that “our prisons have become unacceptably dangerous places” and that “the system is not serving victims of crime or properly protecting our communities either”.

The bottom line is therefore that since 2010, prisoner numbers are up, staff numbers are down and the prison budget has been slashed.  Prisons, never in truth the holiday camps of Tory conference folklore, have become desperately grim places for prisoners and prison staff alike. Bored and frustrated prisoners, some of whom have authority and anger issues,  are facing worsening conditions, more time locked in their cells, less recreation and work opportunities  and a generally less safe environment.  What could possibly go wrong?

A sad truth is that the state of our prisons rarely makes the headlines.  When it does, usually after some very serious incident, there is much hand-wringing from politicians and the wider media that something must be done (although nobody is very specific about quite what) and then the whole circus, with the honourable exception of a small number of seasoned journalists such as Eric Allison at the Guardian, then swiftly move on to sexier issues.

Where is the wider discussion and leadership that we are entitled to expect from our politicians?   As a society we really need to tackle important issues about why we feel we need to lock up so many people for so long in the first place, why we consider it acceptable to send people with serious mental health problems to prison rather than to secure hospitals, why drug and alcohol problems seem to be at the heart of so much offending, why learning and work training opportunities remain so ill-developed and why offending behaviour courses and rehabilitation have taken a back seat to just locking people up with the result that so that many people return to prison within such a short time of being released.

This is why we really must listen to the likes of Kenneth Clarke, Jacqui Smith and Nick Clegg when they say that the “’prison works’ dogma” so heartily pursued by the likes of Mr Grayling needs to be rejected and  that the prison population should be cut from its current level, around 85,000, to what it was when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister in the 1980s of around 45,000.

Furthermore, one very small but symbolic step would also to give prisoners themselves more of a voice in our democratic system by granting them the right to vote (something staunchly resisted by Mr Grayling during his time at the Ministry of Justice).  It is possible that when MPs receive that next letter from a constituent in prison (if they were given the vote, it is likely that prisoners would be able to vote at their usual home address not the constituency in which their prison was located) then knowing that this is somebody whose vote they would be seeking at the next General Election may encourage them to take more of an interest in the particular prisoner’s problems.

So, as the longest serving Secretary of State for Justice during the last six years and the person who championed many of the changes that have led to the present problems, you may have thought that a contrite Chris Grayling would accept some responsibility for the consequences of his ideological rampage and, if not apologise, at least spend some time quietly reflecting on the damage he has caused.  
However, in reality there is no such accountability for those such as Mr Grayling, notwithstanding the fact that, even with genuine political will (and there have been recent promises of a modest increase in staff numbers and funding although nothing to suggest that steps will be taken to reduce overall prison numbers), these mistakes will take years to remedy.  No, politicians such as Mr Grayling seem to be able to wreak havoc in a post and then move on unscathed by the experience to another senior position in Government.

Which is why my heart sinks when I hear that our Transport Secretary’s latest political intervention, armed only with incendiary views and a box of matches, is to suggest that Southern Rail train drivers should not be allowed to strike.   Going on strike is usually a last resort for workers, not least because they are not paid for the time that they are not working, and is remains an important way in which they can raise concerns about unsatisfactory working conditions.  Unions can only call a strike where there has been a lawful ballot of members in which the majority have voted in favour of such action.  Without being able to take industrial action, workers are simply left at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.

Wherever your sympathies lie in relation to this particular industrial action, which was called following a ballot in which 87% of drivers backed a strike on a turnout of 77%, it is hard to see how Chris Grayling’s somewhat hysterical intervention is in any way a constructive one.

One can only hope that Mr Grayling now receives seasonal visitations from the Ghost of Christmas Past reminding him of his contribution to the lasting chaos of our prison system, the Ghost of Christmas Present reminding him of the need for greater protection of our cyclists and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come highlighting the dangers of removing workers’ right to take industrial action, and overwhelmed with joy by the chance to redeem himself, he returns to political life in the New Year with newfound generosity of spirit.

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