Michael Gove has been keeping a relatively low profile since being made Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor last weekend. I understand that he is keen to master the brief, and particularly the complexities around the creation of a British Bill of Rights, before he starts hitting the TV studios. But an address he gave to staff at the Ministry of Justice on Wednesday gives some clues as to the direction he is heading in.
Interestingly Gove didn’t simply declare that the Tories would be scrapping the Human Rights Act. Instead, he said, ‘We’ll be seeking to ensure that human rights are enhanced and preserved by modernising and reforming the framework of rights in this country’. My understanding is that Gove feels the Human Rights Act and the judgements of the Strasbourg Court on things like prisoner voting have actually been harmful to the cause of human rights in this country.
Gove is also clearly going to continue with Chris Grayling’s work on rehabilitation. He told his civil servants that ‘We’ll seek to make sure that prisons are places of rehabilitation as much as incarceration and the capacity for all human beings to be redeemed and to lead better lives is there at the heart of what we do.’
One of the big challenges for Gove in this new job will be dealing with the legal profession, they never like it when the Lord Chancellor is not one of them. So, it was, perhaps, no coincidence that he started his address by explaining why it was such a privilege to do the job that he is doing
‘It’s a heavy responsibility to be in public service, in particular a heavy responsibility to be a Government Minister, but perhaps one of the heaviest responsibilities of all, is to be responsible for our justice system and upholding the rule of law; because it’s upon the rule of law that civilisation depends. It’s the rule of law that protects the weak and the vulnerable from oppression. It’s the rule of law that safeguards the rights and the liberties of every individual. It’s the rule of law that allows business to proceed, individuals to become prosperous and homes to be secure.’
Working out how to replace the Human Rights Act and fix Britain’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights is a fiendishly difficult problem. But if anyone in the government is the intellectual equal of it, it is Michael Gove. But, I suspect, we might have to wait some time before he sets out how he’ll do it.