James Forsyth

‘Let prisoners work’: an interview with Dominic Raab

‘Let prisoners work’: an interview with Dominic Raab
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Whitehall is still adjusting to the government reshuffle. When I enter Dominic Raab’s new office and start to look around, he immediately points out that the art on the walls is not his choice but that of his predecessor. He was shifted from Foreign Secretary to Justice Secretary, a move widely seen as a demotion, only a couple of weeks ago. Decoration, he says, has not been his priority. The only personal objects in his office are family photographs.

Raab seems full of nervous energy, but when he speaks about his family story he is more considered. He talks matter-of-factly about how his Czech father survived in a refugee camp in Tangiers in 1938 by eating off the floor. He then moved to Britain, worked for Marks & Spencer and built a new life. ‘He became very patriotic,’ he says. ‘Almost more pro-British than a native-born Brit. And I was always instilled with those values.’

Raab says his definition of ‘global Britain’ includes a country that can do more for refugees because borders are once again under national control. ‘When I went through Heathrow with my [Brazilian] wife in the early days before she was naturalised, you see the queue of white Europeans going through one lane and I would look at the other lane,’ he says. ‘You think of all the Commonwealth partners, the Asian partners, Latin American partners. There was something I used to find quite jarring about that.’

Last year, when China’s new security law crushed liberty in Hong Kong, Raab — as foreign secretary — offered UK citizenship to the five million holders of ‘British National Overseas’ status and their dependents. ‘It was quite telling when you thought about the decision makers around the cabinet table. You just realised there were quite a lot of the children of immigrants who take a pretty standard conservative approach to immigration in general, but also felt we need to live up to the big-hearted tradition of this country.’ He was working closely on the Hong Kong project with Priti Patel who, he says, has a ‘similar migrant story’ — her parents fled Idi Amin’s Uganda.

Raab is dismissive of Labour’s calls for 100,000 migrant visas to relieve the pressure on truck drivers. ‘It leaves us reliant in the long-term on the predicament of cheap labour coming in from abroad,’ he said. ‘What that will do is depress wages for aspirational working-class people in this country.’ It is a sign of how the Tories have shifted in recent years that Raab says businesses need to pay their workers more, even if that means rising prices.

He says the solution to the labour shortage involves looking ‘at the quality of life of those people who do the jobs that we all rely on. Then saying: yes, we do think we need to be looking at their wage levels if you’re going to do it sustainably. If not, you’re just doubling down on cheap labour from abroad’. Rushing to fill the gap with migrant workers, he says, would mean not ‘solving the challenge that the public have set us not just during the referendum’.

In the current labour shortage, employers are becoming more imaginative about who they might hire. Raab thinks they should consider hiring prisoners. ‘We’ve been getting prisoners and offenders to do volunteering and unpaid work. Why not — if there are shortages — encourage them to do paid work where there’s a benefit for the economy, benefit for society?’ Raab thinks that this kind of involvement could help reduce recidivism too. ‘If you give people skin in the game, give them something to lose, if you give them some hope, they’re much less likely to re-offend.’

What about allowing the 57,000 asylum seekers to work while their claims are being processed? ‘I would be open-minded about it,’ he says. ‘What you want to try to do is turn this debate around, because the big challenge with migration over the last 20, 30 years — which probably wasn’t true when my father came here — is this sense that we just don’t integrate people well enough. If they learn the language and they can work, they integrate much better and they make a positive contribution.’

Raab is also an enthusiast for tagging offenders, particularly with alcohol monitors that can tell if people have had a drink. ‘You can now check whether someone’s been drinking every 30 minutes. As a result of which, you have something like 94 per cent to 97 per cent compliance,’ he says. ‘If you could replicate that for drugs, it could have a massive impact.’ He thinks that these new technologies could give ‘confidence in being able to deal with a certain type of non--dangerous offender’ in the community. Raab, however, is clearly nervous about what voters will make of this. He stresses that, ‘I want to be very careful. You’ve got to carry the public with you on this.’

Does he agree with his predecessor, Robert Buckland, that the courts system has been ‘underfunded’ in recent years? He doesn’t directly answer this, instead saying he wants to use ‘innovation’ to make them more efficient. ‘The courts have long since been transitioning out of the sort of Dickens-ian caricature, but they’re not quite at the Google campus stage of operations.’ He places a lot of importance on the technological changes that have been introduced during the pandemic (hearings on Zoom, for example), which could help get through the post-lockdown backlog. At the last count, almost 400,000 cases were outstanding in magistrates’ courts alone.

The Ministry of Justice is familiar territory for Raab who, as a former government lawyer, has been sent there twice before as a minister. In his last stint, he was tasked with drawing up a consultation document on a new British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act (a 2015 Tory manifesto pledge). The work, he remarks with a certain vehemence, ‘never saw the light of day’ — David Cameron got cold feet. Raab clearly views it as unfinished business.

He says he wants to increase protection for freedom of speech. He also wants to stop ‘the more spurious “right to family life” claims that we’ve seen in order to frustrate deportation of very serious criminals’. Finally, he’s interested in ‘shoring up the separation of powers, in codifying those things in statute that we think should be left to elected lawmakers, whether it’s the balance of rights or it’s the ability to strike down legislation or secondary legislation. It’s a question of the extent to which public bodies — whether it’s the Border Force or the police or other bits of the criminal justice system that are doing their job — should be protected by statute when they’re carrying out those functions.’

On another row, the Northern Ireland protocol, Raab is just as forward-leaning. He claims that ‘we need a change of attitude’ from the EU. ‘I remember when I was Brexit secretary being warned by officials that there were some in the EU that regarded Northern Ireland as the price of Brexit. That is clearly not the price that the people of this country, let alone this government, would be willing to pay.’

And what will his other new role, as Deputy Prime Minister, involve? ‘If I can lighten the load for the PM in other areas — based on the experience that I’ve had covering for him and working very closely with him — I’m really happy to do it.’ But it is clear that the precise nature of the role has yet to be defined, which adds to the sense that Raab was given the title so he would accept the move from the Foreign Office.

The most public manifestation of Raab’s deputy role is standing in for Boris Johnson at PMQs. Last week, he had a rather bruising encounter with Angela Rayner. But he dismisses that, saying most of her class-war remarks were ‘aimed at Keir rather than me’. He is, though, very critical of her ‘Tory scum’ remarks. ‘There’s a line. And the line is — and I say it as a parent, let alone as a politician — not allowing things to descend into vitriolic abuse.’

Raab sees his identity as having several parts to it. ‘It’s interesting having a foreign-born wife. Our heart beats for Brazil as well.’ He thinks that dynamic has led to ‘an even more reinforced British patriotism’ in their house, and that this shows how ‘the more different dimensions, the stronger your British identity can be’.

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