Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Robert Buckland Justice Minister

Sunday 12 May 2019


SOPHY RIDGE: Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May has lost 55 members of her government either through resignations or sackings and the latest beneficiary is the new Justice Minister, Robert Buckland, who is here for his first interview since getting the job, so thank you for being with us. It is always risky to read too much into polls, however some of the polls out this morning are pretty extraordinary. The COMRES one in the Sunday Telegraph for example not only shows the Brexit Party beating the Conservatives in the European elections but also in a general election and you would be on course for your worst ever result. I mean what’s your reaction to that?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well look, I think we’re living through some pretty extraordinary times. This European election which frankly nobody wanted or nobody expected is going to be in my view a giant opinion poll as to the merits of Brexit. Whilst I don't think mainstream politicians can ignore or disregard the frustration of the electorate, and it is very clear that there is a great degree of frustration, the question is what are we going to do about it?

SR: What are you going to do about it then?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well it’s for Parliament I think to get its act together and actually govern in a way that would honour the manifesto commitment, not just to the Conservative party but to the Labour party as well. There were 600 MPs elected on a Brexit manifesto …

SR: But this is where I struggle though. Listening to you there, you were saying how you were going to respond to those absolutely appalling polls for the Conservative party and you are effectively all saying the same thing, we are trying to get the deal through. Don’t you need to change something?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well that’s what’s happening at the moment with the talks between the government and the opposition. I very much hope that something will emerge from that, I think it’s incumbent upon MPs of all shades to realise that what we’re dealing with here is a tension between the direct democracy of the referendum that most MPs voted for and Parliamentary democracy itself. We need to resolve that tension quickly and we need to remember that it’s Parliament that is in the dock here and we need to respond in a responsible way and deliver, not only Brexit but also a sense of trust and faith in democracy, in Parliamentary democracy itself.

SR: It is not just Parliament that’s in the dock, it’s government that’s in the dock as well and its failure to get it through. Looking at the polls today you could be on course to lose your seat, your majority is only a couple of thousand.

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Look, I’ve always had a marginal seat, Sophy, and I work very hard in my constituency knowing that I’ll be there at the wish of the electorate who I am empowered to represent. That’s been the reality of my life, I’ve never been complacent about my politics and I’m certainly not complacent now which is why I’ve been working extremely hard as Solicitor General to help get the deal through and I am going to continue doing my part as Justice Minister.

SR: Is it time for the Prime Minister to set out a timetable for her resignation?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well the Prime Minister has said that she is going to go once the first phase of Brexit has been delivered. That must mean the ratification process, the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and all the parliamentary procedures that need to happen in order for phase one to be completed. Now if that can be done quickly then we have that timetable set out already. I don't think she needs to say any more about that. What we need to do is get on with the job, come together and get a solution for the British people.

SR: The problem is though, we don’t know when that is going to happen do we? We don’t know when the first phase is going to be delivered or even if it will be delivered and at the same time we have a government that appears to be in paralysis. There hasn’t been a vote in the House of Commons chamber for a month now, how long can it go on for?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well don’t confuse votes in the Commons with government action. There is plenty of work going on in my department, in Health and other departments of State which make a difference to people’s lives, the economy is in a good position, the deficit is being balanced, there is a lot of important work going on. I accept that Brexit of course drowns all that out and like everybody else in the country I want to move on, I want to see an end to this and I think it can be done in this spring and summer if Parliament actually comes together and steps up to the plate and delivers.

SR: Talking about moving on, it feels to me that the Conservatives have got an existential problem going forward, you have to decide what kind of party you want to be, what kind of people you want to appeal to. What kind of politician do you think the next leader of the Conservative party should be?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well look, I am looking for a leader who will embody the values of One Nation Conservatism, that is to reach not just to some mythical centre ground but to the common ground of politics in our country, the values of our country which are open minded, generous, believing in the rule of law. All these issues I think we need to emphasise. Britain’s role in the world is still an important one and I am looking for a Conservative leader who can embody that and reflect 21st century Britain as it is now with all its diversity…

SR: Any names?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well I can assure you, Sophy, I am not going to be one of them, it’s become a big of a Grand National field and I don’t think it needs any more crowding.

SR: Okay, there you go. Now you’ve only been in the job a couple of days but I do want to ask some broad questions about your brief as well. David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, has talked a lot about short sentences not being effective so do you think that we lock too many people up?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: I think the problem is, having sat as a part-time judge myself and made those decisions about sending people to prison or not, I can tell you that what we need is a very clear set of choices so that judges can have confidence that a community sentence will actually work in stopping that person from reoffending.

SR: Do you think that now they don’t? Do you think that they can be seen as a soft option?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well it is effectiveness and how they work. I the reoffending rates are too high, short term sentences show I think a 70% reoffending rate. Now that’s not just inefficient, it’s bad for society, it means there are more victims of crime out there. I think we’ve got to redouble our efforts not just to look at sentencing itself but to improve the options in the community, to make them more rigorous, to work harder to make sure that those reoffending rates can be reduced. That’s the challenge which we’re up for.

SR: I was going to ask you as well about a story that has been in the news quite a lot recently about rape victims potentially being asked to give over their mobile phones to police or else their case may not go forward. Do you think that’s acceptable?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well I’ve been working as Solicitor General on the very issue of disclosure and I am very clear that there needs to be a balance between the need for a proper examination of the material in the case, avoiding this tick box exercise where people’s private lives and irrelevant issues are being looked at. The law is very clear, reasonable lines of enquiry should be followed and …

SR: Is asking for a phone a reasonable line of enquiry?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: It can be, it can be. There might be material in some cases that is relevant but I think victims and complainants should be reassured that the law is clear, it is not about a trawl through everybody’s private lives, it’s…

SR: But how do they know that, that’s the problem isn’t it? In rape cases in particular, people are very worried about completely irrelevant things, your sexual history, your previous partners, being brought to court.

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well quite, the rules of law are very clear about that. Unless there is a specific issue in the case then barristers are not allowed to just go willy-nilly into people’s private lives. I think striking the balance is an important message we have got to send out there. As a Minister I can say to victims and complainants out there, the law is there to protect you, to protect them and getting that balance between the need to look at relevant evidence but not this massive one size fits all trawl through private lives is vitally important for police officers in [discharging their duty??].

SR: Okay and then just finally, your predecessor Rory Stewart made a pledge, a promise that got quite a lot of media attention, he said last summer that he would resign if he couldn’t bring down violence and drug use in ten prisons within a year. So are you going to resign, does it pass on to you?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well look, I am going to do it my way. I pay tribute to Rory Stewart, he was an energetic and passionate prisons minister. I bring nearly 30 years of experience in the penal and criminal justice system to bear into my new role, I am going to do it in my way. I can be held accountable for prisons and probation and I know I will in Parliament and in the media but I am going to carry on the hard work that he started, I’m going to redouble the effort not just in those prisons but also in the over 100 prisons that we have in our system and to help our hard working prison staff and prison service in reducing violence and also in reducing drug use in our prisons as well.

SR: So doing it your way, just very quickly, what are you going to do differently?

ROBERT BUCKLAND: Well I’m going to focus on the whole system because as I was saying to you earlier, Sophy, I am particularly interested in the interplay between prison and probation and those first 24 hours after a prisoner is released are vital hours that should not be lost. Often things are dropped, things are not done which can lead to reoffending at a very early stage. We have got to get that through the prison gates process absolutely right.

SR: Okay, Robert Buckland, thank you very much for being on the programme today.