What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

He’s presided over prison chaos, and now he’s offering his ‘expertise’ to the Saudis

Matthew Norman
Tuesday 27 January 2015 18:12 GMT
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty) (Getty)

Those of you who have been depressed in recent days, as I have, by the lack of warmth shown to Saudi Arabia by the British state, cheer up. The flags lowered to mark King Abdullah’s passing were quickly raised, and the eulogising ceased with the same unseemly haste.

Frankly it’s been a pretty poor show. The least his late majesty’s memory deserved was the immediate inauguration of Abdullahfest - a month-long period of worship during which people caught half-inching a tin of spaghetti hoops from Sainsbury’s were liberated from a hand by way of scimitar, and rape victims were gifted a priceless chance to reflect on their wickedness over a public flogging.

In the light of this distasteful dearth of reverence, give thanks for the bounteous gift that is the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, who does his best to strengthen Britain’s distressingly flimsy ties with the desert kingdom. The commercial arm of his Ministry of Justice, the wittily named Just Solutions International, continues to bid for a contract to advise the Saudi prison service on staff-training and other management techniques.

Several questions are raised by this. Will Grayling pay due respect to the tradition that attends the sale of armaments and other third-rate British exports, and bribe the Saudis to sign the deal? Since the contract is worth a measly £5.9m, possibly not. For Grayling, ever the romantic, this seems to be less a commercial transaction than a labour of love.

If he does dispatch a team to tutor Saudi screws in the handling of prisoners, will it do any good? This is a hard one to call. Certainly, Grayling’s reforms have worked a charm in British prisons. Since he introduced his beguilingly draconian regime to British nicks, and drastically reduced staffing levels, the number of inmates self-harming has risen and suicides have increased sharply. You can’t fault him there.

On the other hand, banning books and access to the footie on Sky Sports might not have the same effect on the liberal blogger sentenced to 1,000 strokes of the lash, or on a female prisoner whose potential for misbehaviour has already been marginally limited by a public beheading.

You have to suspect that Grayling, if granted his heart’s desire, would reverse the putative deal, and pay the Saudis to train the warders of HMPs Belmarsh and Wormwood Scrubs. Yet politics is the art of the possible, and even this muscular right winger - this unthinking person’s Iain Duncan Smith if you’ll indulge the tautology - is bright enough to keep any such ambition to himself.

But only just, which brings us to the central question. What in sanity’s name is this laureate of foolishness doing in his job? Was he promoted as a mischievous gag to wind up liberals, or as a sop to placate the Tory far-right and editors of our more reactionary titles, by churning out policies that marry the stupid with the malevolent? Or is he another beneficiary of the secret affirmative action scheme which placed Duncan Smith in charge of reforming the benefits system?

People take part in a protest by Amnesty International, for the immediate release of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi in London, UK
People take part in a protest by Amnesty International, for the immediate release of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi in London, UK

Since succeeding Kenneth Clarke as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor a little more than two years ago, Grayling’s record is outstanding. Apart from driving the prison system to, and at times over, the brink of chaos with refinements that would have seemed insanely retrograde when judges still donned the black cap, he has committed attempted murder against the legal aid system. His slashing of the budget, which has resulted in denying claimants, was recently declared unfair to the point of being illegal (“an instrument of discrimination”) by the High Court.

In doughtily ploughing on with that policy, he underscores a commitment to thrift that hasn’t always been so evident. He claimed expenses for a flat barely half an hour’s drive from his family home, for instance, and last year spent £72,000 of public money in court defending a book ban he now attempts to deny. Bless him for reneging on the profligacy of old, and bless him - as the fabled endorser of the bed-and-breakfast owner’s right to turn away gay couples - for latterly being moved, like a jellyfish on the tide of public opinion, to support gay marriage.

If heaven loveth the sinner that repenteth, Christian charity also dictates he be forgiven for not having a clue what he’s doing. He is, after all, the first non-lawyer in 400 years to be Lord Chancellor, and recently told an interviewer that this is a tremendous advantage since “it enables you to take a dispassionate view”. Well said. Knowing something about a subject, even one as facile as the justice system, will cloud the judgment.

As Grayling seeks to export his blissful ignorance to the penal system of Saudi Arabia, his department trots out the mandatory defence for the indefensible in the case of such liaisons; you know, the one about the best way to promote civilised values being to influence things from the inside. That worked out splendidly after Mr Tony Blair hugged Gadaffi and took al-Assad to tea with the Queen, so perhaps it will work wonders for Saudi inmates. Fingers crossed it won’t be long before the number of beheadings plummets, if only because more prisoners, under the tender cares of Chief Warder Grayling, take the chance to top themselves before the axeman waggles his blade.

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