Simon Hughes: 'The good things come from Lib Dems, not the Tory songbook'

The new justice minister tells Nigel Morris why he decided to take a ministerial job with the Coalition, despite being one of its harshest Liberal Democrat critics

Simon Hughes reckons he must have set a political record six weeks ago when he was elevated to the Government more than 30 years after arriving at Westminster.

“It must be the longest Liberal apprenticeship in Parliament for ministerial office in the history of the Liberal party,” jokes the new justice minister.

Although he had enjoyed a distinguished and high-profile career within the party, it was widely assumed that Mr Hughes, who is on the Liberal Democrat left, would rather comment on the government from the outside than compromise within it.

As Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats for the past three and a half years, he has been seen as its conscience, responsible for ensuring the party’s fundamental principles are not lost in power-sharing with the Tories.

The driver of a Liberal Democrat-branded orange taxi and rarely seen without a yellow tie, he refused to vote for tuition fee rises, lambasted Tory plans to cut welfare, attacked plans to cut legal aid and supported the right of some prisoners to vote.

A year ago, the Southwark and Old Bermondsey MP disclosed he had turned down Nick Clegg’s offer of a government post to remain free to speak his mind to “any minister from Nick downwards”.

So what changed in 12 months and how could he possibly achieve a meeting of minds with Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, firmly on the Tory right?

Mr Hughes, sporting a red and blue tie, insists he had never taken an “absolute view” that he couldn’t accept a government post, but was clear it had to be the right one.

“This is a job I would have always wanted to do, it’s absolutely up my street. There are a few jobs which I would always have said yes to if offered, but I wasn’t just going to do a job for the sake of being in government.”

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was “natural territory” for him given that he served at the Bar, taking a keen interest in human rights issues, he explains. As for his relationship with his Tory boss, he remarks with understatement that “politically we don’t come from the same place”, but have a shared commitment to improving the performance of the justice system.

Mr Hughes has been given a key role in differentiating the Liberal Democrat brand as the party enters the final strait of Coalition. The party is standing up for the human rights legislation, which its Tory partners seem determined to overhaul, even if that means leaving the European Convention on Human Rights.

“For this parliament we remain signatories to the Convention, we subscribe to the [European] court and its rulings … that’s the official MoJ position,” he says. “It’s not a secret that the Tories are working up some proposals they want to put before the public at the next election. We will also be making our position clear.”

He adds: “The popular press would make people think human rights are a minority interest for a minority group of undesirable people. Actually human rights are about everything from making sure your grandmother is treated decently in an old people’s home, your child is looked after and not abused at home and your right to protest against the Government is defended.” In the shorter term he has undertaken the task of breaking the grip of white men from affluent backgrounds on the legal profession. In this ambition he has the full backing of his Conservative boss.

He challenges law firms to “proactively go out and look for people from all communities”, as the legal establishment “should look like modern Britain, not look like early 20th-century or late 19th-century Britain”. Mr Hughes says he will be meeting leaders of the profession to draw up plans to make it more representative and discloses the Government could back the ambitions of future lawyers with cash.

“It may be there’s an additional bit of financial help you need to give to encourage people from poor backgrounds to come into the legal profession at the bottom end,” he says.

Mr Hughes has also taken over the tricky brief of trying to cut the stubbornly high number of female offenders who are locked up. This stands at almost 3,900 in England and Wales – many are repeat criminals caught in a cycle of abuse, addiction and mental health problems.

He promises a renewed drive to improve the quality of education and training behind bars and to ensure the system “follows them out through the prison gates in a much more supportive way”.

Mr Hughes suggests he is open to the possibility of issuing new sentencing guidelines to courts to guarantee women are jailed only as a last resort.

Although he is stepping down as Deputy Leader, he makes clear he will be playing his full part in distancing the Liberal Democrats from their Tory partners by 2015.

“One of mischievous things we are going to have to increasingly do is make sure the public do remember where many of the good things of this Government have come from, which is from our songbook and not the Tory songbook.

“We need to make sure people remember that if we hadn’t been there, the recovery would have less likely, would have been nastier in terms of its unfairness.” He believes, despite continuing dire poll ratings, the electorate will give the party credit for their role come polling day.

And he appears to lay the ground for a power-sharing deal with Labour. He says there has been a “change in attitude”  – even including recent warmish words from Ed Balls – since they agreed a common position on press regulation after the Leveson report.

His party will be happy to attack Labour over policy failures, but should also take care not to be “unnecessarily abusive”. But he concludes: “They have got a right to put their case and we may have to work with them after 2015. And the great British public will decide that. Not me – or Ed Balls.”

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