Our Great Coalition Failure: The Ministry of Justice is More Liberal Under a Tory Majority Government

We have always prided ourselves on being the protectors of liberty. The very first sentence of the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution refers to the ‘fundamental’ value of liberty. The MoJ should have been the department where we made the biggest impact. However, we failed to do so and because of that failure we lost an important part of our identity. We now need to be loud on justice issues and to set out a radical liberal vision to reclaim our title as the protectors of liberty.

Some will say that we put up a fight against Grayling. Some will say that we secured liberal values. After all, we cut the maximum period of detention without trial to 14 days and we extended the use of juries in complex cases. However, if you ask (nearly) any lawyer they will tell you that the coalition’s justice policy was a disaster. Secret courts are an anathema to our commitment to a ‘fair, free, and open society’. Pernicious legal aid cuts are crippling the public interest bar and put the most vulnerable at risk.  Court charges mean that people discriminated against in the workplace cannot afford to stand up for their rights. We did not implement meaningful penal reform and left office with overcrowded prisons, high levels of prison suicide, and transgender people being imprisoned as the wrong gender. This is not a record that we should be proud of.

Justice policy, and civil liberties more widely, are where we need to be loudest if we are going to convert liberals into Lib Dems. We need to apologize for and vigorously oppose secret courts, we need to commit to properly funding the legal aid system, and we need to campaign against the coalition’s court charges.

However, we need to go much further than committing to reversing the harmful changes that we helped to implement.  We need meaningful penal reform as evidence shows that prison does not work. As Norman Lamb argues, we should be aiming to halve the prison population.  We need to be talking more about drugs. Our review of the criminalization of cannabis is a good start but we should be thinking about more extensive drug legalization, perhaps even total legalization if the evidence supports it. We need to keep up the pressure for reform of the law on joint enterprise, in case the Supreme Court fails to change it. We need to advocate for better protections for people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system. We need to oppose the increased militarisation of the police, given the normalization and discriminatory use of Tasers. We need to vigorously oppose the growing criminalization of rough sleepers (and find a way to end extreme poverty in the UK so that we do not have rough sleepers to be criminalized).

We need to make liberal, evidence based, and sometimes unpopular arguments for justice reform. Labour has authoritarian tendencies (Andy ‘I love ID cards’ Burnham as shadow home secretary, really!?) and, although Gove is a huge improvement on Grayling, the Tories’ justice policy is based on what will sound good in the Daily Mail. This leaves space for us to rebuild our identity and to win back former members who gave up on us when we lost our way in the MoJ. Tim is doing some sterling work opposing the Freedom of Information Act review and the Snoopers’ Charter. However, Alistair, our home affairs spokesperson, needs to be more proactive.  Or he needs to be replaced by someone who is as it is essential for our party’s survival that people see us as the champions of civil liberties and justice.

Editor’s note (Joanne): Oliver’s mention of Alistair reminded me that justice, social liberties and policing are currently a major priority in Scotland. With the SNP’s centralisation of the police force, armed police starting to appear in Inverness, police morale at a worrying low, there is much cause for us to prove just how authoritarian these actions are, and outline the sort of economically neutral liberal policies we specialise in. And it works, too. We’ve already got them to end consensual stop and searches, which were only weakening the relationship between the public and the police, and often ignoring the rights of under-18s to request parents’ presences for these searches. There was also the Higher Governance Education Bill which was going to affect the ability of rectors to participate in student matters, which appears to have been amended in some way. Essentially, civil liberties are an area it makes absolute sense for this party to dominate, and which it would be extremely beneficial, from a campaigns perspective, for us to dominate.

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