Interview: Edward Garnier

By Ian Dunt

“There was no one button that was pressed which made me think I want to be a member of parliament, but I do remember – and I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on this – that I was about six or seven when Ruth Ellis was hanged.

“It must have been on the front page of all the newspapers. I discussed it with my mother and I remember thinking this is not right. Whatever she may have done – which in this case was a serious murder – it wasn’t right to hang her.

“I’m not suggesting it was from that moment on I became an abolitionist. I’m afraid my life has not been one in which Damascene moments have occurred to me every other Wednesday.”

So begins my interview with the shadow justice minister, Ed Garnier. There’s nothing particularly off-message about it but it isn’t quite the way you expect Conservatives to talk. And yet the comments sum up nicely some of the enduring qualities of the man who, as shadow justice minister, could be running Britain’s justice system in a couple of years time: a consistent sense of moral purpose, a one-nation approach to Conservatism, and a smattering of intellectual self-deprecation.

Things have not always been thus for men of Mr Garnier’s persuasion in the Conservative party. Being opposed to capital punishment is no big thing in modern politics – it’s as far off the agenda as issues get. But the Tory root and branch had a habit of treating one nation Conservatives with suspicion during the long journey through the darkness of being a nasty party, especially when they were trying to be selected as a candidate.

“When you get to the final two or three people, you could be in front of the entire membership of the [local] association, or a good many of them,” Mr Garnier says, explaining how he was selected.

“And then they start to ask you questions. Not all of them are about your politics. They could ask you about your own life, your personal life, your family – they ask anything they like.

“I was asked in my finals whether I supported capital punishment. I would have preferred not to have been asked that question but seeing as they asked it they were entitled to an answer.

“I said, ‘Well, you’re selecting me for what I can do rather than what I can’t do, but I happen not to support capital punishment.’ It didn’t seem to be a complete black mark although in many Tory associations people would like to see capital punishment brought back.”

Mr Garnier’s rise up the party ranks was no easier than that evening in front of the Tory rank and file. The first seat he had to contest was Hemsworth, a solid mining constituency. It was 1987 – just after the miners strike – and the prospect of knocking on doors as a Conservative candidate was probably a little daunting.

“There wasn’t much hope of wining, but it was an enjoyable experience,” he claims.
“You certainly learnt how to pay attention to people’s views.

“Those who were Conservatives in that constituency were Conservatives on purpose. They’d thought about it.”

As a barrister – one of the many who have found themselves sitting on the green leather seats in the House of Commons throughout the years – Mr Garnier seems a suitable choice for shadow justice minister. But with talk of knife crimes covering the front pages of the newspapers on a daily basis, the task ahead of him can look daunting.

“We’re not doing very well,” he says. “We’re spending an awful lot of money on the criminal justice system – particularly on prisons – and producing very high rates of re-offending. It’s uncivilised, it’s immoral, but it’s also a waste of money. So that’s really what’s moving me most at the moment.”

As things stand, the government is pushing ahead with its plans for titan prisons – a handful of massive buildings housing thousands of prisoners. It’s a move passionately opposed by prison reform groups like the Howard League who say titan prisons run against all the evidence of how to stop re-offending. People are much less likely to go back to crime if they have constant contact with their friends and family, they say, and the effect of titan prisons is to move people far away from their local area, making familial contact that much more difficult. Where does Mr Garnier stand on it?

“I stand very much on the reformist end of the argument,” he says. “It’s a waste simply to lock people up and do nothing with them.

“I think it’s silly to send illiterate, innumerate drug addicts to prison, then to let them stay there and come out unable to read and to write. And then we expect them to find jobs, look after their families, pay their mortgages, pay their rents, pay taxes and stop committing further crimes.

“Prisons should not be a dumping ground. They should not be warehouses for storing people for the duration of their sentence. Clearly we need prisons, and society requires justice to be done, but justice is not effectively done if all you do is throw people into prison, leave them there, and then bring them out expecting them to go straight. They don’t.”

It’s not the first time I’ve been surprised by a Tory sounding far more liberal than his Labour counterpart. But in a society where the two main political parties endlessly compete on seeming tougher than one another when it comes to crime, it’s still a brave and considered attitude to take.

If the Tories come to power, and if Mr Garnier is still in his post when it happens, we may be seeing some very interesting – even progressive – things happening to Britain’s justice system.