The Conservative chair of a parliamentary committee has been accused of “thinly veiled misogyny” by friends of Liz Truss after he questioned her suitability for the roles of lord chancellor and justice secretary.
Bob Neill, a barrister who chairs the justice select committee, has expressed concerns to the Guardian about Truss’s lack of legal qualifications, experience and seniority.
Neill’s comments follow criticism of Truss’s appointment from Lord Falconer, the former Labour lord chancellor, and Lord Faulks, who quit as Tory justice minister as he accused Truss of failing to display the necessary independence to defend the legal profession and courts from interference from politicians.
Truss, whose appointment has been lauded by others for breaking an 800-year run of male lord chancellors, has also been accused of failing to show the necessary independence in her previous job as environment secretary.
But those close to Truss have claimed that the legal establishment has closed ranks in the face of an appointment of a woman. A source said other justice secretaries without legal qualifications had not been subjected to the same level of criticism by “old, pale, male judges and politicians”.
Neill, who became chair of the committee last year and is a former vice-chair of the Tory party, said he was concerned over Truss’s ability to maintain the independence of the judiciary in her role as lord chancellor.
“As chairman of the justice committee, I’ll be writing to Liz to meet us urgently. My concern is this: while it’s not necessary for the lord chancellor to have a legal background, they have a specific role under the Constitutional Reform Act to represent the interests of the judiciary and to represent the judiciary, including its independence within government.
“It helps if the person in charge has been a lawyer or has been a senior member of the cabinet. I have a concern, with no disrespect to Liz, that it would be hard for someone without that history to step straight in and fulfil that role,” he said.
Neill said Truss’s predecessor, Michael Gove, had had “the necessary clout” to push through prison reforms in the face of opposition from politicians and pressure groups.
“I’m also very concerned that there could be a loss of the impetus for prison reform. Prison reform is completely in line with Theresa May’s social reform agenda. There is no reason that this should be allowed to slip. But it’s important to ensure that the person in the job has enough commitment, enthusiasm and drive to take on the vested interests,” he said. Neill was a supporter of Gove in his failed bid to become Tory leader.
Responding to Neill’s comments, a source close to Truss told the Guardian that his words should be seen as part of a reaction to a woman being given a powerful job in a profession still dominated by elderly white men.
“I don’t see the basis of saying this. This is coming from old, white, male judges and politicians. She [Liz] will of course be having a series of meetings with the relevant stakeholders. She will be doing those in to summer recess. But as a far as I can see, this is thinly veiled misogyny,” the source said.
Responding to the accusation of misogyny, Neill said it was “wholly wrong as far as I am concerned and bloody outrageous to suggest it”. He said his comments would apply to a male minister with the same CV.
Lawyers have expressed concerns over Truss’s record in voting in favour of legal aid cuts, and the fact that she is the third consecutive non-lawyer to hold the post of lord chancellor. They also claim she is relatively junior, having been in the cabinet for only two years.
On Tuesday it was confirmed that the justice minister Shailesh Vara, the last surviving solicitor in the department, had also left his post.
The justice budget, which stood at £9bn when David Cameron became prime minister in 2010, is to be cut to £6bn by 2020.
Chris Grayling was the first justice secretary without legal qualifications. He oversaw a series of unpopular measures, such as legal aid cuts and increased court fees. His successor, Gove, proved to be more popular with lawyers.
In a comment piece in the Times, Falconer said Truss lacked the independence to stop politicians such as Theresa May from interfering in the judiciary.
“The most amenable lord chancellor that a prime minister could find would be one who looks to her for promotion: an ambitious, middle-ranking cabinet minister whose main ambition is to go further up the greasy pole, with no known signs of independence. Liz Truss appears to fit the bill perfectly,” he wrote.
Faulks toldthe Times that the appointment of Truss put the justice system at risk at a time of cost-cutting. “I have nothing against Ms Truss personally. But is she going to have the clout able to stand up to the prime minister when necessary on behalf of the judges? Is she going to be able to stand up, come the moment, to the prime minister, for the rule of law and for the judiciary … without fear of damaging her career?” he said.
This article was written by Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 19th July 2016 13.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010