There's a good reason ministerial conference speeches are often so achingly dull. Because such occasions are inevitably party political – featuring punchy attacks on Labour and so on – civil service policy experts and departmental speechwriters aren’t allowed anywhere near them, for fear of breaking various Whitehall codes. So the speeches are stitched together by the minister, his or her special advisers, and nervous party apparatchiks who are mainly focused not on policy announcements or the department’s agenda, but on making sure the Prime Minister’s team is kept happy.
But though there was a faint whiff of that about David Lidington's speech earlier today, the justice secretary made a few points that are worth picking up on. First, he is absolutely determined to hammer home just how much he gets his role as Lord Chancellor. Those in the hall may have been mystified as to why he banged on so much about the rule of law and our ‘living constitutional principles’ – but he was really talking over their heads to any listeners in the legal world, who remain deeply sceptical of the combined justice secretary/Lord Chancellor role, established in 2005, and whether it can be political, and yet not, at the same time (they've got a point).
Secondly, there was a notable change of tone on prisons – a reversion, I would argue, to the language used by Michael Gove in his all-too-brief stint as justice secretary. In his successor Liz Truss's speech to conference last year, there was not one mention of the word rehabilitation – the focus, instead, was on 'safety and reform' (even when I worked briefly as her speechwriter, I was never 100% certain what this phrase meant). It may not seem like much of a difference for Lidington to discuss 'putting security and rehabilitation at the heart of prison reform', but it matters. Previous justice secretaries have often focused on reform as an end in itself; he knows it will only matter if it reduces the appalling reoffending rate that sees almost half of prisoners convicted of another crime within a year of their release.
‘The real prize of a calm and ordered prison environment is to make it possible to transform them into places of genuine reform and rehabilitation,’ he said. Lidington wants inmates in classrooms and workshops, not ‘banged up in cells’ all day. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, will be pleased to hear that: he has long complained that you don’t turn inmates’ lives around with endless hours of daytime TV.
Thirdly, there was a frank admission on the scale of the drugs problem in the prison estate. ‘This is no cottage industry. This is not a matter of opportunism. It is serious organized crime,’ he said. Anyone who has visited a prison in the past 18 months, or spoken to serving prison officers, will recognise this as alarmingly accurate. But let’s be honest: how much of this stuff (spice especially) is coming in via drones, and how much via a small number of corrupt prison officers who know exactly how to play the system? I’m unconvinced his ‘additional intelligence-led counter-drone operations’ are going to make the slightest bit of difference.
And I would just query one last point Lidington made. He boasted that crime is down by a third since 2010. That is superb news, but can it have anything to do with the quick succession, and rapidly altering priorities, of the five Tory justice secretaries we have seen in that time? I doubt it.