The relationship between the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office in recent years has been a toxic one where the MoJ has been routinely abused, according to former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland.
Recalling the state of play when he was appointed to the role by then prime minister Boris Johnson in 2019, he said: “We’d been curled up in the corner for years, in the foetal position, in the crouched position in the corner, especially vis-à-vis the Home Office. The relationship, I thought was frankly entirely dysfunctional.”
Buckland revealed the poor state of relations between the departments during an interview for the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series which was released this week.
“I thought the Home Office had got used to being the dominant partner – I’m not going to exaggerate here, it was almost like some sort of unequal relationship where one partner thought they could abuse the other and talk down to the MoJ.” He added: “I thought, “I’m not having this. I’m not having this at all. It’s outrageous. I expected a mutually respectful arrangement.”
Buckland described how he enlisted the support of Priti Patel, the then home secretary, in establishing “a much better equilibrium between the two departments".
"I think we institutionalised much more of a dialogue between the perm secs, which has carried on to this day between Antonia [Romeo, MoJ permanent secretary] and Matthew Rycroft [Home Office permanent secretary]. Because prior to that, I wasn’t sure that much of that was going on," Buckland said.
He did not mention Sir Philip Rutnam, who was permanent secretary at the Home Office between 2017 and 2020. However, he referenced Sir Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the MoJ from 2015 to 2020, when commenting on how things had changed by the time he was replaced as justice secretary in 2021.
“In terms of relationships between ministers, private office and the department, I’m extremely proud that when I left the MoJ, it was a much happier and more efficient place than when I joined it. That’s no criticism of the people involved. I thought Richard Heaton was an excellent perm sec and I loved working with him, and I would’ve been happy for him to carry on, putting my cards on the table.”
He added: “But Antonia was somebody who I’d worked with and knew before, and therefore I was more than happy to work with her as well.”
Some of the decision making at the MoJ when he arrived “was a bit slow.” He said: “We sped up a lot of the processes, mainly because I believe in quite a flat structure when it comes to the civil service. My view, is that DGs and directors are wonderful, but I’m not interested in titles.”
Buckland commented: “I want to know the people who know the subject, so if Bob in widgets is an HEO who has been there for 30 years, I want to talk to him. I don’t want to translate via a director – what a waste of time. The poor director or DG has got enough on their plate.”
He also raises the issue of how permanent secretaries are selected, when paying tribute to Mike Driver, who was his “excellent interim perm sec” between Heaton’s departure and Romero’s appointment.
"There’s a lot I could say about the appointments procedure. Mike didn’t fit the stereotype of a perm sec and I think the civil service needs to ask some questions about why somebody as good as him wasn’t seen to be over the line in terms of being a permanent secretary.”
In his view, Driver “excelled” in everything he did.
In the in-depth interview, which took place in June this year but was only released this week, Buckland also reflected on his frustrations dealing with HM Courts and Tribunals Service.
He described it as “this odd hybrid body” where he had “some disagreements” with the then chief executive Susan Acland-Hood, who is now permanent secretary at the DfE.
“I always had a sense there that I was one remove from being able to pull the levers, which I found very frustrating.”
Getting temporary courts set up during the pandemic was “a bit like dealing with golden syrup – is it ever going to come off the spoon?” Buckland said: “I had a lot of moments like that with the courts service. It led me to the conclusion that the lord chancellor needs to have more control.”
Buckland also reflected on his roles prior to becoming justice secretary.
Buckland said as solicitor general "what always was of concern to me was the lack of understanding by other ministers about the true role of the law officers – it was a constant job of educating other ministers about what the limitations of our role were," he said.
The Conservative MP also referenced his stint at Wales secretary last year, where he claimed that the civil servants in the department “seemed to be very pleased to have a secretary of state who had been in a big department".
"That was a novel and good experience for them, in that I’d come in with all that knowledge and they enjoyed that," Buckland said.
Buckland's tenure came to an abrupt end when Liz Truss stepped down as prime minister last October.
Commenting on the Truss government, he said the “execution was not right” and that “No.10 had been cleared out of virtually everybody, in fact everybody I think, apart from the permanent staff”. This meant there was “a complete lack of any institutional memory whatsoever” and “I’m not sure, therefore, that they were in the best position to make such big decisions on some of these fiscal matters”, Buckland said.