Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Rory Stewart Justice Minister


SOPHY RIDGE: Now we lead in the news today with the tragic story that two 17 year olds have died in two separate knife attacks less than 24 hours apart. Well last year there were more than 40,000 incidents involving blades, that’s more than 100 a day. The Justice Minister is Rory Stewart and he joins us now from just outside Penrith in Cumbria. Thank you very much for being with us this morning. I just want to start on knife crime, what’s happening on this?

RORY STEWART: Well the first thing is a really relentless focus on bringing together a team across the police and intelligence agencies to get to grips on what’s driving this knife crime and how to make it more difficult, so that’s everything from making it more difficult to actually acquire knives in the first place, getting in to schools, looking at education programmes, making sure that we understand the connection between knife crimes and drugs and putting investment in. One of the reasons why we’ve put hundreds of millions of pounds more into the police and into the intelligence services is precisely because of these kind of issues.

SR: Now moving on to other issues because we’ve got a lot to talk about today of course. You have got a bit of a reputation as one of the most eloquent defenders of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, it’s coming back to Parliament soon and goodness knows, it does need a few defenders because it was absolutely historically defeated last time. Are you confident it is going to get through this time round?

RORY STEWART: Well I don't think that one can ever say that one is confident in this particular world but I think there’s been a huge amount of movement. I think people are becoming more pragmatic, they are recognising much more than they did in the past that there are a limited number of alternatives to this and that the alternatives are worse but I think people are also beginning to acknowledge that this, if we can deliver it, will allow us to move on. It will give business certainty, it will bring investment into the country so it could actually be a very positive opportunity for the country and I am hoping on 12th March that colleagues not just from the Conservative side but also from the Labour side, will join us in seeing this is the chance to get this done.

SR: You sound very optimistic there but at the same time MPs are still absolutely bitterly split on whether or not this is an acceptable deal or not. I mean as Prisons Minister, do you just want to lock them all up in the House of Commons until they get some kind of agreement?

RORY STEWART: Well I’ve long felt that, I’ve long felt if we could put 650 MPs in a room and lock the door we would get some kind of agreement but we’ve moved on from that now. I think we’re now in a world where we can see, painfully because we’ve all been through it together – you in the media, the public, voters, Members of Parliament – just how difficult this negotiation has been and I think people are starting to recognise that this is the deal that gives us control over immigration but it also keeps very close economic, political and diplomatic ties to Europe which are vital for our economy and provides a really good foundation for going forward. If we can land this, and we are now only nine days away from it, if we can land this it really could be the beginnings of a great opportunity for Britain, it could be a great next five, ten years but we are going to have to get through this.

SR: Okay, well it’s good to know that we’ve moved on from the idea of locking MPs up in a room together, that is good news. If Theresa May’s deal does fall, MPs will be faced with a choice of a delay to Article 50 or leaving with no deal. You are someone who I’m sure has given this great amount of thought, what do you think should happen in that circumstance?

RORY STEWART: Well I think that the first thing to understand is that all those other options are worse than the Prime Minister’s deal and I hope that people are focusing on this because if you think that through, extension to Article 50 which is going to be a vote that would effectively give let’s say a couple of months extension, would resolve nothing. It would put us in a world in which we were still a zombie world, not knowing where we’re going and it would increase the chance of other options. It would increase the chance of people either pushing for a general election which wouldn’t solve everything, for another referendum which I think would solve nothing at all, it would just tell us what we already know which is that the country is divided, or it would push people towards a customs union which would stop us being able to trade with the rest of the world, so all these other options are worse options which is why, apart from the fact that I genuinely believe this is a positive deal, it is a deal that can really work for the economy, we need to vote for the Prime Minister’s deal.

SR: But which one would you pick? I mean the last time this was put before Parliament, the government suffered the worst defeat of any government ever and it’s not an unreasonable question to ask, that if that is defeated again, which would you choose out of no deal or an extension to Article 50?

RORY STEWART: Personally I think we would have to be forced into an extension for Article 50 but I think people need to understand that that is a worse option than the Prime Minister’s deal, it’s not where we want to be, it’s not where I want to be. I think these are horrible options, the reason why I have been trying to passionately argue for the Prime Minister’s deal from the beginning is because I think in the nearly two year’s negotiations, a lot of very talented people have come up with a good deal and it would be ridiculous to reject this opportunity for these uncertain and worse futures.

SR: Is the government planning to whip the vote on no deal?

RORY STEWART: I don't know what the answer to that is, that’s a decision for the Chief Whips, so that would remain to be decided. I think that we do know that judging by the votes that have happened in the past, there doesn’t seem to be a parliamentary majority for no deal but we will see what happens on the day after. Just again to appeal to colleagues, we keep going round this again and again in a circle but getting this deal through is the answer to all these problems. We don’t want to be driven into all these other things, nobody wants a new general election, I think a referendum will be deeply divisive. There are no good alternative proposals on the table so let’s get behind this deal.

SR: So could you vote for no deal then, if the government were to whip that way or would you resign?

RORY STEWART: I have made it very, very clear from the beginning that I am not resigning. I am the Prisons Minister, I promised to resign about prisons, I am trying to improve prisons and I’ve put my job on the line saying that if I don’t manage to improve prisons I will resign over that and I am supporting the Prime Minister very strongly. I think she’s done an unbelievably good job, I think we owe here a lot of respect and if we can get this vote through on the 12th I think people should have huge admiration for her and I am definitely not threatening to resign.

SR: Okay, fair enough, you can only resign once and given the state of the prisons I think the chances of you resigning over prisons are not insignificant. The National Audit Office found for example that with the probation reforms carried out by your predecessor, Chris Grayling, when he was the Justice Secretary, not only failed to reduce reoffending but led to sky rocketing numbers of released offenders being returned to prison for breaching their licence. I mean when you took on the job of Prisons Minister and looked around at the situation, did you despair?

RORY STEWART: I think we are facing very huge challenges. If you look at prisons, violence has risen steadily for five years and a lot of this has been driven by new types of drugs, particularly spice and I really believe that this can be turned around but the way to turn this around is to get back to basics. It is about making sure that we really improve the perimeter security and that we invest in supporting and training staff. We have got nearly 4,500 more prison officers but it is now making sure that they are training properly and supported properly. I can already see in places like Leeds or in Isis Prison in London, the beginnings of green shoots, the beginning of a sense that we can turn this round but it’s a very, very tough job. It’s a job I’m very proud to have, I am very proud of the prison officers and the work they do but nobody should underestimate how difficult it is, partly because violence in society is increasing. We began with knife crime, you hear about attacks even on ambulance workers, it is a very troubling moment and prisons are right at the centre of that.

SR: Now you perhaps understand the Middle East more than most politicians after walking for thousands of miles through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran so I wanted to talk to you a bit about the situation in Syria just as we end. You previously said this about British Jihadis fighting in Syria, “We have to be serious about the fact that these people are a serious danger to us and unfortunately the only way of dealing with them will be in almost every case to kill them.” So I’m interested to know what your thoughts are on how we should deal with the wives of Islamic State fighters, people like Shamima Begum, how should we deal with those people?

RORY STEWART: Well I think the first thing to say is nobody should underestimate how much of a threat these people potentially can be. I have spent a lot of my life working in the theatre out in Iraq and Afghanistan and people who join ISIS have a very, very distorted, very cruel, very savage view of the world so that’s the first thing. The second thing is that there should be very clear consequences for people who travel abroad. One of the issues is that has been quite difficult gathering the right kind of evidence in the middle of a war zone but we want to create a system where, God forbid, anything like this should happen in the future, we do not end up in a world in which hundreds of British citizens think they can somehow with impunity travel to countries and get involved in extreme radical terrorist groups. So I am afraid it is a very difficult decision and obviously as the Justice Minister we have to think very seriously about our legal obligations and the way that we treat our citizens but I think that the Home Secretary was right in the case of Shamima Begum, I think it is important that we find ways of taking clear action and not suggesting that somehow this is an innocent or acceptable practice to go and fight for ISIS.

SR: The people who are innocent though are the children of these fighters, what should happen to them?

RORY STEWART: Well we have a huge obligation to children obviously everywhere in the world and one of the things we have been doing of course is investing heavily in international development aid, making sure children are properly looked after, properly fed, even in the region. We’ve got a lot of money going into Kurdistan where Shamima Begum’s family has been, a lot of money into Lebanon, a lot of money – British taxpayers money – looking after children and supporting them and of course we do have obligations to them but we also have obligations to the British population, we have to think about our own national security interests. These are not easy things but I don't think there is some simple answer to this, some simple way of getting round the fact that what Shamima Begum did was wrong and that the group she’s associated with is not just a joke group, I mean this is a group that genuinely is committed to atrocities, genuinely committed to killing British people, genuinely committed to destroying functioning governments around the world. So I think we have to find a way of balancing our natural instincts of looking after people with having to protect our population against very, very dangerous groups and I’m afraid she’s found herself right in the centre of this.

SR: Okay, Rory Stewart, from a very beautiful looking Cumbria, thank you very much.

RORY STEWART: Thank you, very good to see you.