Tue, 21 Sep 2010
"We have to win the argument that simply banging up more and more people and pushing them through the revolving door of the prison system is self-defeating – and expensive."
Speaking at the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference today, Liberal Democrat Minister of State for Justice, Lord (Tom) McNally said:
Check against delivery
Conference: as the son of two scousers, I am deeply honoured to speak to you today in the great city of Liverpool.
In 1982 I attended my first Liberal Party Conference as an observer from the SDP. Fortunately the late Peter Jenkins of the Guardian was on hand to record my precise emotions. He wrote thus: “Tom McNally described the culture shock of his first Liberal Assembly in terms of people chewing celery and wearing open toe sandals.” Many of those sandal wearing celery chewers are today Peers of the Realm, Members of Parliament, Members of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, Leaders of major local authorities and members of Her Majesty’s Government. It is a lesson to us all not to judge by appearances.
Twenty eight years later and from this vantage point I have to say that you scrub up very well. But I am also very aware that the stubborn individualism, which was what sustained liberalism through its long trek through the wilderness, is still alive and kicking in this Party today – and long may it be so.
My friend Martin Thomas, Lord Thomas of Gresford QC as is, summed it up to me in these words: “Liberals believe that there are limits to what the state should know about the individual in a free society.” I have found those words a very useful guide in my new responsibilities as a Minister for Justice. Although I realise that if Martin ever did wear open toe sandals they would have been hand stitched and made at Locks.
What was so sad about the last Labour Government was that it slipped far too easily in to authoritarian behaviour and authoritarian measures.
Labour created thousands of new offences and used a steady stream of criminal justice and anti-terrorism laws to ratchet up the powers of the state and to diminish the rights of the citizen.
This coalition comes into office to reverse that tidal flow of laws and restrictions on individual liberty. Which is why my department, the Ministry of Justice, will now check each new criminal offence. And if we don’t need it, it will be blocked.
We will protect freedoms – and we will restore them. ID cards and the National Identity Register are being scrapped. Freedom of information will be extended and a pro-active transparency programme introduced; the Data Protection Act will be updated to keep pace with the developments in technology since its introduction a decade ago.
Labour extended the state’s grip over our personal information: this government wants to reduce that grip, and make sure the private sector knows its limits too.
We will extend transparency – the right to know – and in so doing we’ll change fundamentally the relationship between government and people.
And as Nick told us yesterday, we will bring in a Freedom Bill. It will identify the liberties which have been taken away – and return them.
We will also reform our libel laws to protect freedom of speech and get the balance right between personal privacy and public interest. I pay tribute to my colleague, Lord Lester, for the groundwork he has done on a Bill I hope will be ready for pre-legislative scrutiny early in the New Year.
We are also looking at the Human Rights Act – not to see how we can diminish it, but so that we have it better understood and appreciated.
And let us be clear: The European Convention on Human Rights, coming up to its 60th anniversary, is not “someone else’s law”. It was never imposed on Britain.
In fact, Britain was the first country to ratify the Convention – and with good reason.
It was a Conservative, David Maxwell Fyfe, who led the committee which drew up the Convention. It was that great Liberal – he’s ours as well as theirs, you know! – Winston Churchill who called after the War for “a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law”.
But our commitment to human rights is far older than the post-war European settlement:
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”
Those words come echoing down to us through the ages.
Words from Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary we will be celebrating in five years time. The Lord Chancellor and I will be at Runnymede in a couple of weeks time to help launch a series of events leading up to 2015.
We will celebrate Magna Carta because it is our first great assertion of the rights of the individual against the power of the state – the first great affirmation of the rule of law as the basis of government.
Ten days ago we lost one of our greatest judges, Lord Bingham. In his book The Rule of Law he quotes, with favour, from an article written in 1943 by Christopher Dawson. It states:
“As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil they set out to destroy.”
The reason Tom Bingham quoted the passage is because what was true in 1943 is equally true today: you cannot beat terrorism or organised crime or any other threat by removing the very rights and liberties we are fighting to preserve.
So there will be no retreat over human rights on our watch. And we will not make a false choice between being free and being safe.
Our commitment to civil liberties, human rights and transparency are not something we apologise about. They are built into the DNA of this party.
So too are our concerns about crime and the consequences of crime.
The truth is that fear of being thought of as being “a woolly liberal” has inhibited a more rational debate on crime for a decade and more. But Liberal Democrats make no apologies in this area. We have a record to be proud of at the sharp end: in local government.
We’ve got experience from councils around the country, including here in Liverpool, which took the lead on alley gating. Simple – closing off alleys which had become conduits for crime – but effective, cutting burglaries to an all-time low.
In Newcastle, Liberal Democrats have made huge strides. From taxi marshals, so people can queue safely, to the Best Bar None scheme so that people know which pubs and bars they can rely on.
In Sheffield, Neighbourhood Justice Panels have been a real success, too – cutting reoffending and helping victims.
In South Somerset’s Community Justice Panel, small-scale offenders are brought face-to-face with their victims. They have to apologise and make amends. But they’ve often got help with their own problems, too – dealing with the reasons they offend.
So we have a record of action on cutting crime at local level. Now we have a chance to prove it nationally – to employ our liberal values for practical outcomes.
We know that crime destroys lives. We understand the impact it has on victims. But macho responses and knee-jerk reactions are not enough.
We have to win the argument that simply banging up more and more people and pushing them through the revolving door of the prison system is self-defeating – and expensive.
We are told that ‘prison works’. And sometimes it does. I do not deny that. The trouble is, it very often doesn’t – and the result of that is more crime, not less; more public spending, not less.
Which is why this government is going to look again at how we sentence people. We want to see honest sentences, so people understand what they really mean. And a new focus on rehabilitation too – so people who commit a crime don’t go on to commit more.
We need tough community sentences, making offenders pay society back – but also identifying their problems and encouraging reform so that they play their full part in society.
We will focus on making justice work – and we want to bring the private and voluntary sector in, too – harnessing their enthusiasm and spreading their best ideas elsewhere. This is not soft-hearted, woolly liberalism: it is cost-effective common sense.
So, wearing my Ministry of Justice hat, I hope I have assured Conference that in the areas of justice and human rights we are determined to be a radical and reforming government in the best liberal tradition.
But I am not only Minister of State for Justice. I am also Deputy Leader of the House of Lords and Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. This makes not only for a very long business card – it also gives me responsibility for navigating Nick’s constitutional reform agenda through the Upper House.
As someone with a sense of history, I am delighted to serve on a committee chaired by Nick Clegg which is drawing up a draft House of Lords Bill ready for 2011 which will redeem the pledge contained in the Liberal Government’s 1911 Parliament Act.
I know the House of Lords likes time to think about things; but 100 years is long enough.
I started my speech by reminiscing about my first Liberal Conference.
I also remember my first Liberal Democrat Conference.
We decided to continue the Liberal tradition of the Party President handing on a book to his or her successor.
The book chosen was On Liberty by John Stuart Mill.
In that book, Mill wrote this: “A State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes will find that with small men no great things can really be accomplished.”
Conference: we have come to power not for pelf or place, but for a purpose: to help restore our ravaged economy and to restore our basic freedoms.
That is our faith. That is our pledge. On that we are ready to be judged – by you, the Party, and when the time comes, by the Country.