A Question of Incompetence

Has there ever been a Cabinet minister more inept than Chris Grayling, the leader of the House of Commons? He is a man who can be utterly relied upon to get things wrong, a man whose lack of judgement and staggering incompetence defy belief.

Has there ever been a Cabinet minister more inept than Chris Grayling, the leader of the House of Commons? He is a man who can be utterly relied upon to get things wrong, a man whose lack of judgement and staggering incompetence defy belief.

John Crace put it perfectly in Thursday's Guardian: "If there is an argument that cannot be lost, Chris Grayling has yet to find it. Ask him to prove the Earth revolves around the sun, and everyone will inevitably end up believing the exact opposite; as an intellect, he barely registers even at the lower end of the IQ scale. So it can only be an act of pure sadism on David Cameron's part that the leader of the house is invariably left to deal with the problems the rest of the cabinet don't have a clue how to solve."

Those words were written after Mr Grayling's botched response to the House of Lords rebellion against the government's proposed cuts to tax credits. First he announced that there would be a "rapid review" into the Lords vote, but then, without pausing to draw breath, he assured MPs that, oh no, hand on heart, it most certainly would not be rushed. So, "rapid" as in "not rushed".

There was worse to come. Barely 24 hours later, he was back on his feet in the Commons to complain that journalists have been misusing the Freedom of Information Act. They have, he said, been using it as "a research tool to generate stories for the media, and that is not acceptable."

It is necessary at this point to take a deep breath, count to ten, sit Mr Grayling down in a comfy chair, and try to explain. Freedom of information means - how can I put this? - that information should be freely available. That's "freely available" as in "freely available to everyone." As he himself said, presumably not comprehending the words he spoke: "It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how governments make decisions."

Now, why do we think that journalists might use the act to get hold of information? Might it, just possibly, be because they think that their readers, listeners and viewers "want to understand why and how governments make decisions"?

Might it be because journalists think their readers have a right to know, for example, how much MPs have been claiming in expenses, and for what? Because as even Mr Grayling must surely know, that information became available only because journalists claimed their right to see it under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.

(Brief reminder: in 2008, the High Court ruled in favour of a Freedom of Information Act application for the release of the details of MPs' expenses claims. The House of Commons authorities then announced that certain information deemed "sensitive" would be removed. In the event, an uncensored copy of the records was leaked to the Daily Telegraph, which published them.)

Or, to take another example, perhaps journalists thought that voters had a right to know that hundreds of thousands of calls to the 101 police non-emergency number are never answered. Or that according to a statistical evaluation by the Metropolitan Police, knife amnesties seem to have no long-term impact on the number of knife crimes committed. (These examples, and many more, are cited in a BBC analysis of the impact of the Freedom of Information Act published earlier this year.)

Mr Grayling has form for this kind of thing. In 2009, he landed himself in hot water by comparing Moss Side in Manchester to the city of Baltimore as depicted in the TV drama series The Wire. The Manchester Evening News reported: "His comments have sparked fury in Manchester - not least because all the evidence would suggest that cops and the community are winning the battle against the gangsters ... In fact, over the last two years, Greater Manchester Police have recorded the biggest reduction in gun crime of any force in the country."

In 2010, when he was shadow home secretary, the Conservative party claimed that violent crime was increasing throughout Britain. The chairman of the UK statistics authority, Sir Michael Scholar, was so angry about the misuse of the statistics that he complained to Mr Grayling by letter: "I must take issue with what you said about violent crime statistics, which seems to me likely to damage public trust in official statistics."

In office, as a grossly inept justice secretary, he introduced a widely condemned ban on books being sent to prisoners (the ban was overturned with indecent haste as soon as Michael Gove took over from him after the election last May). He also introduced a mandatory system of flat-fee court charges for defendants that the president of the Law Society described as a threat to fair trials.

His cuts to legal aid payments went down like a lead balloon - one high-profile fraud case was halted because of what the judge called the government's "failure to provide the necessary resources to permit a fair trial to take place". Five of the defendants were represented by Alex Cameron QC, who offered his services free of charge. (His younger brother, by the way, is called David - yes, that David.)

The decision to halt the trial was later overturned by the Court of Appeal, but even so, this is not a record of which any Cabinet minister should be proud. It is a shameful record of botched decision-making and woeful ignorance that should disqualify anyone from holding public office. In any other line of business, Mr Grayling would surely be dismissed for gross incompetence.

So if you have any thoughts about a job to which he might be better suited, I'd be happy to forward them to Number 10.


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