Two Fingers Up to the Country they Serve: The Age of MINISTERIAL IRRESPONSIBILITY
The shameful tale of the Tory Cabinet ministers who made a fast getaway from their fateful mistakes.
Cruising into Chequers for the Brexiteers’ showdown last weekend, Iain Duncan Smith’s vintage Morgan sports car made for a stylish entrance.
With the top down, his baseball cap and sunglasses, the Conservative MP barely resembled in demeanour the man who cried on camera about the plight of a single mother in 2016. Then again, perhaps he never did.
Back then, IDS was Work and Pensions Secretary, presiding over the austerity-driven, ‘benefit scroungers’ clampdown on the country’s welfare system. The architect of the heavily criticised Universal Credit reforms, he did eventually resign from David Cameron’s Government over cuts to disabled people’s benefits, saying they were a “compromise too far”. But the repercussions of his policies are still being lived and loathed.
Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee reported earlier this month that his benefit cap policy, for instance, has not achieved any of its aims, but has instead heaped suffering on already vulnerable people.
Chris Grayling often said the justice professionals opposing his changes were merely protagonists in a “pay dispute”, rather than those concerned for the undermining of fundamental principles such as access to justice.
“We are hearing harrowing stories from all over the country of people going hungry, parents struggling to feed their children, families shivering in their homes because they can’t afford heating, and tenants building up crippling rent arrears,” it said.
IDS may have driven off into the sunset, but where is the accountability for the havoc his decisions have wreaked? Who is responsible for such failures?
Last year, during her brief spell as one of his successors in work and pensions, Esther McVey made clear it was not going to be her.
Denying findings from the esteemed National Audit Office on the failings of Universal Credit, the then Work and Pensions Secretary prompted the head of the spending watchdog to pen an unprecedented public letter accusing her of misrepresenting its findings to Parliament, in clear breach of the ministerial code. She backtracked a bit, but not much, and continued on in her role until she decided to chuck it in over Brexit.
And then there’s Chris Grayling.
His litany of ministerial failings have been well-documented – from wasting public money on ferry companies with no ferries to creating chaos across the national rail network – so I will focus on just one area where his dangerous legacy lives on: criminal justice.
Grayling’s part-privatisation of the probation system – responsible for supervising offenders released from prison and those serving community sentences – has been a disaster. Serious further offences, such as rape and murder, by those under probation supervision have risen since the reforms were introduced and, in her annual report published yesterday, the Chief Inspector of Probation said the system was “irredeemably flawed”, having seriously compromised public safety.
“Lots of people died needlessly as a result of policy where ministers were warned that would be the effect of the policy… There are big issues around that and lessons need to be learnt.”Former Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick
Grayling was warned of the risks at the time, so where is the accountability?
I spoke with Grayling regularly when he was Justice Secretary and I was a local reporter covering his Epsom constituency. He wasn’t a natural fit for the justice brief, but his ambition was clear. He was fiercely committed to his reforms, despite the widespread opposition. He often said that the justice professionals opposing his changes were merely protagonists in a “pay dispute”, rather than those concerned for the undermining of fundamental principles such as access to justice. He said the public would not be put in danger as a result of the probation reforms. He repeatedly told me our prisons were not in crisis.
In 2016, 120 inmates killed themselves in England and Wales, the highest figure to date since records began.
Speaking to me last year, Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons during Grayling’s tenure, said the spike in suicides was “an unrecognised scandal”.
“It is absolutely clear that the deliberate rise in the prison population and the deliberate reduction in staff led to a spike in avoidable deaths,” he said.
“When we talk about accountability, lots of people died needlessly as a result of policy where ministers were warned that would be the effect of the policy…There are big issues around that and lessons need to be learnt.”
Benoit Guerin, a senior researcher for the Institute for Government who has researched accountability, believes the idea of a “golden age” of integrity in which ministers would resign over policy mistakes is a myth. This is because “there has always been a political dimension to accountability”.
“Political accountability is not only something that comes from the performance of the party or the minister, it is also something that comes from public opinion, the media’s impression etc.,” he told me.
“At the end of the day, Chris Grayling is an ally of the Prime Minister, a very high profile Brexit-backing minister in a very divided Cabinet, who ran the leadership campaign for Theresa May. She can’t really afford to demote or dismiss him… So it’s less a question of performance and whether you have caused harm to the public and should go.”
The Institute for Government has recommended that there should be a way to recall ministers for scrutiny so they can be held accountable for decisions they make on major projects.
“At the moment, there are restrictions around recalling politicians and we have argued that it should become the norm for Parliament to do that so that there is some form of accountability for these decisions, rather than people just moving on,” Mr Guerin said.
“The rules stipulate that when a minister moves on, their decisions now rest with their successor, therefore the successor will be held to account for something they didn’t decide.”
“Chris Grayling is an ally of the Prime Minister, a very high profile Brexit minister in a very divided Cabinet, who ran the leadership campaign for Theresa May. She can’t really afford to demote or dismiss him.”Benoit Guerin, Institute for Government
While ministers can and do move on, the people stuck with their flawed policies cannot. For them, there is no waving goodbye and good luck as they whisk themselves away to another reality.
Actions have consequences. Why politicians making decisions that can affect the course of our lives are immune to this is beyond comprehension. It is a state of affairs we should not accept.