Anyone listening to Lord Justice Hooper debating the Government’s legal aid proposals with Bob Neill MP on the Today programme this morning will have wondered two things: who is Bob Neill, and where is Chris Grayling?
As far as the first question is concerned, Bob Neill is an ex-criminal barrister who briefly held a minor ministerial post until he was sacked last September. Known to his admirers as “Little Bob” he is apparently naturally charming and shrewd but on the radio this morning he displayed a rather off-putting combination of rudeness and insincere chumminess.
The whereabouts of Mr Grayling remains a mystery.
And where, indeed, were the 4 other ministers at the Ministry of Justice?
1. Lord “Tom” McNally (LibDem), Minister of State)
2. Damian Green MP (Conservative), Minister of State
3. Jeremy Wright MP (Conservative), Parliamentary Under Secretary,
4. Helen Grant MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State).
Between them they could have brought a great deal of expertise to the debate.
Of course no-one wants to accuse a Minister of cowardice. It is far more likely that Mr Grayling himself is too busy to engage in public debate, or to allow himself to be grilled by John Humphreys about his revolutionary plans for legal aid. But it is surprising, and rather unfair on Mr Neill, that absolutely nobody from his department could be found to defend or explain them.
Lord McNally, for example, is a grizzled old political pro who would have been well able to explain why the Liberal Democrats have so far been so strangely silent about the issue.
Jeremy Wright the Parliamentary Under Secretary is a criminal barrister by profession. Until recently he was a tenant at the prestigious No. 5 Chambers in Birmingham so he could have brought a great deal of clarity to the discussion, especially as he has a special responsibility for criminal justice.
Helen Grant too has a legal background. Specialising in family law for over 20 years she had a particular in interest in domestic violence. Now the first black female Conservative minister she recently told Stylist magazine that “we have to be prepared to respond to any news story or press announcement at a moment’s notice.” Sadly she does not appear to have been prepared to comment on this one.
Damian Green of course is not a lawyer but unusually for a justice minister he has experience of having been arrested by the police. Mr Grayling has said that suspects should not be entitled to “Rolls Royce” lawyers. So Mr Green would have been the ideal person to scotch once and for all the widespread criticism that the Ministry’s proposals will lead to a two tier system: Rolls Royce for the rich and Reliant Robin for the poor. In 2008 he was arrested for “aiding and abetting misconduct in public office.” Though his boss characterises him, along with others arrested by the police, as “unlikely to be a great connoisseur of legal skills,” he still could have explained why on that occasion he rejected the duty solicitor and instructed a certain Michael Caplan. It was obviously not because of any knowledge of Mr Caplan’s legal skill, so we must presume he picked him at random, perhaps with a pin, or because he liked the name.
Mr Green got lucky: amazingly Mr Caplan turned out to be a partner in Kingsley Napley whose website proudly, and entirely justifiably, proclaims the fact that it provides a Rolls Royce service. And quite astonishingly not only was he a Rolls Royce, as one of the only solicitor QCs in the country, he was the legal equivalent of a top of the range 624 horse power Rolls Royce Wraith that will travel from 0-60mph (0-100km/h) in 4.4 seconds and costs more than £200,000. Such a superlative solicitor was able to ensure that Mr Green was quickly released without charge and entirely vindicated.
If ministers are to avoid future allegations that they are, to use Mrs Thatcher’s memorable Lincolnshire dialect word, “frit”, to engage in debate, please could they now come and explain their legal aid proposals to the country themselves instead of putting up unknown backbenchers like the hapless Mr Neill?