This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics

The policing minister is a hyperactive politician who spends his time running between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. He is also mooted as possible future cabinet material. I spoke to Nick Herbert to find out more about his ambitious and controversial reforms, in both policing and criminal justice, to discover whether the idea of dealing with police commissioner John Prescott appeals, and what life is like stuck between Ken Clarke and Theresa May.

BD: You’ve been described as a restless politician. Do you think government should operate at a hundred miles an hour?
NH: This government is uniquely focused, both on the vitally important restoration of economic growth and dealing with the deficit, and equally in driving a radical programme of reform… a difference to the agendas of the previous governments. If you look at Margaret Thatcher’s government, for instance, she was more focused on the economy and less on public sector reform. Blair’s government was ramping up public spending, attempting to focus on some areas of public sector reform, but largely failing. So, what this government is doing is unique. There’s real radicalism in a lot of the reforms we’re introducing, in schools and welfare and in the area I’m responsible for, policing and criminal justice. We’ve been able to move up on this and to start to deliver because a lot of groundwork was done in these areas before the election. It’s important for us now to start the thinking about the next stage of reform.

You’ve got a very busy year – with police commissioners, in particular. Are you thinking of reforms further ahead than that?
The policing reforms are not the last word. In future, there’ll be an important opportunity to tie up these changes by looking at the roles of elected police and crime commissioners, and how they take responsibility for other aspects of the local criminal justice system. We’re deliberately leaving the door open to that, as you can see in the consultation proposal for the reform of the probation service, for instance. These reforms are the foundation blocks for a radical transformation of how we deliver criminal justice, and it matters that much of the thinking about our direction was done before the election. I was responsible for the policy work on elected police and crime commissioners, and on creating a national organisation to deal with more serious organised crime. There will be reform on police pay and conditions, and then on justice.

We’ll be looking at the role of prisons. Our green paper Prisons with a Purpose is all about the need to continue to send people to prison, [but] there must be reduced reoffending. All this wouldn’t be about spending more money, but about creating a radical market mechanism of paying providers, including independent providers, and about results, delivering the services we want. There’s been a real energy about how we’ve done this.   

Police commissioner elections happen later this year. What’s your attitude about seeing former Labour MPs finding a new role for themselves? Imagine John Prescott as police commissioner for Hull – what image pops into your mind?
John Prescott, you could say, is a heavyweight in all senses. And he won’t need an official car. I greet this with wry amusement – the Labour Party opposed these reforms in spite of having proposed something similar themselves when in government. They twice proposed the democratic reform of police authorities: two successive Labour home secretaries proposed it, and backed down. They didn’t have the courage to see it through.

We didn’t back down. We recognised this was an important reform, and the public was long overdue to have a say. Direct election gives you a crucial connection between the people and the service. You can’t choose the police force where you live, you get the force that’s there, and it’s therefore incredibly important that that service is accountable. Returning power to people and communities is one of the flagship policies in our localism programme, one that will give voters power that they don’t currently have… it’s controversial.

My prediction is that this is kind of reform is irreversible. Once given a voice, communities won’t be silenced. I’ve lost count of the number of Labour MPs who are trying to stand as elected police and crime commissioners, but it’s flattering for the office that people who are, or have been, very senior members of Parliament think it’s a sufficiently important role. They know it’s going to be important in their constituencies.

On voter numbers, when it comes to choosing police commissioners, what counts as a personal mandate if turnout is low?
Any turnout would confirm more legitimacy on police and crime commissioners than on a currently invisible, appointed police authority that has little legitimacy. Most people can’t name the chairperson of their police authority. I want the best possible turnout, but the debate hasn’t got going yet. But it’s a new idea; Parliament only voted for it finally at the end of last year. As the local media start talking about it, interest will build.

We at Westminster have a London-centric view on these things: “It only matters if the kind of media we read talk about these issues.” It’ll be when the local papers and local TV and radio stations start talking about it that it’s going to filter into people’s homes.

People want something done about crime and anti-social behaviour, and they’re impatient for change. When we have local police and crime commissioner candidates standing up and promising, “I will deliver change, and I’ll be held to account for that”, people will notice.

What about diversity, the type of person who wants to become a police commissioner? All candidates so far seem white and middle-aged.
I don’t want them all to be former deputy prime ministers, that’s true – I’d like a diversity of candidates to come forward. These are big jobs for big things, and these individuals will be holding multi-million-pound organisations to account. They’ll be holding the police to account, commissioning local services, responsible for community safety, and may, in future, potentially have a broader role in relation to local criminal justice.

We’re consulting at the moment on giving them responsibility for commissioning victim services. So, I welcome all sorts standing, people who have or had experience of running large organisations, whether in the commercial or the not-for-profit sectors, who have passion and enthusiasm for their local communities, people from all walks of life. And I’ve always said that I hope independents will stand – I don’t want this just to be about new jobs for the political class.

Go to early 2013: a lot of your time is going to be spent dealing with large characters, strong representatives of their local areas, who could also be, to be honest, a bit of a pain in the backside.
The Home Office’s role will change. Central government micro-manages far too much on the local scene, but we need a stronger national grip in the areas of serious organised crime, counter-terrorism, in ensuring co-operation between the forces when things cross force boundaries. Whether in operation, co-operation, collaboration or procurement – the things the 43 forces could do better together – we’re turning these on their heads now with these reforms. We remove central government from interfering in local policing, and refocus it onto ensuring a tough stance against serious organised crime and collaboration between police forces. That’s the proper role of the Home Office.

Ultimately, the home secretary has responsibility for law and order. It’s the government’s duty if something dramatically goes wrong, and of course the centre has a reserved role, but it’s important that we have local accountability for police forces because they are local bodies. People don’t want a national force. That’s why I resisted strongly, in opposition, the idea of regional police forces taking policing further away from communities. Police ministers and home secretaries, in future, are going to have to get used to meeting 43 elected police and crime commissioners who have a mandate of their own and want to do things in certain ways. So, yeah, in common with much of the rest of the localism agenda, it changes the role of central government. And quite right, too.

What are the red lines for a police commissioner’s behaviour? When will you step in and get involved?
There are checks and balances built into the legislation. There’s a local police and crime panel, and there’s still the role of the inspectorate if a police and crime commissioner oversteps the mark legally. There are also complaints procedures. It’s all built in.

You must have concerns about what happens if things go wrong?
The home secretary will have, as we do now, a reserved power of intervention if things badly fall over. Ultimately, the public has the opportunity once every four years to kick out the police and crime commissioner, so that individual is going to be accountable. We’ve had one or two poorly-performing forces in the recent past which have been hard to correct, but it’s going to be a lot easier if local communities can say, “We’re fed up with these high crime rates, so we want something to be done about it.”

Also, as part of re-adjusting the Home Office’s focus, there will be a strategic, statutory policing requirement in place to ensure that forces and police and crime commissioners attend to national threats where crimes cross force boundaries. These will ensure balanced policing.

I’m confident there are sufficient checks and balances in the system, but I believe in trusting people. The public has good judgement, and giving communities responsibility of election also gives them the responsibility of taking charge and stopping Westminster and Whitehall’s agendas of patronisation. Across the country, there are great town halls, great city halls, expressions of civic pride and power. Why has it been believed, over the course of the last few years, that they weren’t capable of running their own affairs?

Centralisation happened under the Conservatives too...
Yeah, it did.

Coming back to your think tank past, where did they go wrong? When did these great civil centres have their powers taken away?
You’re right, the process of centralisation started under Thatcher’s government. It was the beginning of the emasculation of local government and police authorities. That was accelerated by Tony Blair, who massively centralised and micro-managed government, and people began seeing the real damage of that kind of target culture. Growth in bureaucracy created enormous costs, was very demoralising, sapped local energy and innovation, and undermined professionals and communities.

I felt very strongly in 2005, as a newly-elected MP, that decisions were being taken for my rural constituency over which we, even as a big county council, had little or no say. There was the imposition of housing numbers and regional planning strategy, and hospital decisions without any regard for local people’s views.  

In an era when people are deeply dissatisfied with politics – and the corroded faith in today’s politics is far greater than many politicians accept – a return of power and responsibility is an incredibly important part of a modern political agenda. We’re only two years into this government, so when we do get the elections for police and crime commissioners and the referendums, we will start to see these changes.

Once, when in China, I was quizzed by a businessman, who didn’t understand what an MP was. “Can you just explain to me,” he said. “I don’t understand your job. Do you work for the government or for the people?” It’s a question I once put to our local primary care trust, and they were unable to answer. I put it to a former commissioner of the London Met, and, tellingly, he refused to answer. It should be absolutely straightforward: we all work for the people, not for the government.

There has been quite a bit of chatter about weakness in the No 10 operation, where ideas are coming from. Would you like to see more ideas coming from outside government?
I’m certainly not commenting on that issue. It wouldn’t be career-enhancing…

What’s your take on that?
[Stammers] I’m interested in policy.

What’s your experience with No 10 on policy?
I came to politics from a policy background, having run a think tank beforehand and a couple of fairly major campaigns. I’m proud to be part of a government that’s radically changing things, and I’m not critical of it; that agenda is often underplayed by commentators and the press – sometimes some of our own supporters give it too little credit. That’s why I made the point that this government is trying out that agenda, while having the overriding objective of reducing the deficit. The two are linked – a more sustainable future economy that meets the demand for public services requires reformation that may be more productive, which may deliver better value for money, and which they’re capable of innovating.

A radical agenda, by definition, meets opposition. You’re coming up against opposition from the Police Federation on pay. How do you see your relationship with the police on those reforms? Are you battling against them?
Any union wants to defend its rights and its members’ interests. Actually, there’s a lot in the government’s policing agenda that will free up officers from bureaucracy, and enhance their professionalism. That positive agenda will surface. A lot of difficult decisions that have been taken over – spending, pay freezes, changes to pensions – are in common with the rest of the public sector. No one is pretending this is easy, but overall, the direction of the changes, in terms of enhancing professionalism in policing and ensuring the service continues to meet demands, is structured to enable this to come about. We’re determined to see it through.

Your role is split between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). How do you keep relations civil?
Working in the two departments gives you an insight into how things are done differently. Even though one department partly sprang out of the other, they’re culturally very different.

How would you describe the differences?
I think it was David Davis who first joked about the “lock ‘em up and let ‘em out” culture that he feared would be created if he split the two departments. I often say I’m one minister with two jobs, but a single salary and no car. Ken Clarke and Theresa May are very different kinds of politicians. I’m the jam in the sandwich between them.

That’s a nice image. When it comes to community sentencing proposals, do you receive support in the MoJ and come up against opposition in the Home Office?
The previous government decided to split the Home Office and the MoJ, and there was always the danger of the dislocation of criminal justice policy. Therefore, it was a good idea of the PM to put a minister in both departments. In my case, [I was there because] I had a role in shaping both the policing agenda and the justice agenda. And that’s been useful, because there’s a lot of co-ordination between the two departments. If you look at the criminal justice efficiency agenda, which I’m driving and am going to be publishing a paper on, a lot of that falls between the two departments.

We embarked on this before the riots, and the riots very definitely demonstrated why it was important to pursue this. The speed at which offenders were brought to the courts – they appeared before courts in a matter of hours or days rather than the usual weeks or months – was clear to us all, and the question we’ve since asked is "Why can’t this performance be normalised?" The delivery of swift, sure justice has become our goal, and we’ll be setting out in the white paper factors about speeding up and streamlining processes, removing the idea that the criminal justice system is a system in silos, and creating a service where victims’ rights are at the forefront. If you had the victims’ interests at heart, you wouldn’t be allowing cases to take months unnecessarily, because it’s victims who suffer most from that. And it’s costly.

So, there’s a lot that is long overdue in terms of better management and greater accountability. We’ll be delivering it partly through the use of new technology, partly through sensible changes, partly through some radical ideas, namely the neighbourhood justice panels, magistrates potentially sitting individually to streamline cases, and non-contested cases being passed up. I hope to bring the same kind of radicalism to these ideas that I tried to apply to policing, and in relation to the penal system.

Money has to be saved. That’s a great incentive for people to work more closely together, to think of ways to drive more efficient processes and to use resources more wisely. Looking at the ideas we’re currently promoting – officers giving evidence by video link to courts from police stations, for example – we’re at the beginning of that process, but it won’t be too long, in my view, before that becomes the norm.

As a restless reformer, is patience one of your virtues? Do you find your role frustrates you? Things inevitably become clogged and slow down.
During my two years as a minister, it’s been incredibly important to stay focused on the big objectives – delivery, change – and not to allow the crap to get in the way. The Yes, Minister parody – there’s a hell of a lot of truth in that.

There’s an enormous amount of process that can sap your energy and determination: meetings for meetings’ sake, three options offered, two of which you’d have to be a certified lunatic to take because the civil service is determined you should take the first… I could go on, but the way through is to remain absolutely focused on the big picture. I’m doing this job because I’m absolutely determined to change things. Sometimes, the politics gets in the way of that.

You’ve been a prominent proponent for the government’s support for gay marriage. Are you disappointed that more Tory MPs aren’t supporting it, or do you think they’re a vocal minority?
My sense is that the majority of the Conservative Parliamentary Party is behind it. The Tory Party has changed dramatically in a very short space of time. We have more out gay MPs than any of the other parties combined. We’ve taken strong stances, from support of civil partnerships and outlawing incitement to gay hatred, through to apologising for Section 28, and now on this issue.

We have a whole works programme as part of our commitment to ensuring that gay people are treated equally, and I’m very proud of that. We are talking now not about whether to address this issue, but how to. I think the Commons will vote for it, so that’s a reflection on how attitudes are changing, and in society more broadly. There is, from what I can see, public support for the proposal. In any case, it’s the right thing to do.  

Is there work to do to convince, say, people like Peter Bone, who remain opposed?
People are entitled to their opinions, and I can understand that the church has concerns, partly because the debate has become confused with ‘civil marriage’ and ‘religious marriage’.

I’m aware from correspondence and leaflets in my constituency that people are worried this is going to affect marriage in churches, that it’s an order from the government to do things differently, but there’s a very important distinction between the two and the way they’re shaping the proposal, which only affects civil marriage. But it’s a mistake to believe that the agenda of equality in this area is complete.

How would you describe your conservatism?
[Long pause] I’m a deep conservative. In some respects I’m a radical, and a lot of the public service reform agenda I’ve been pursuing has been radical liberal market reform. Fundamentally, what makes me a Conservative is a belief in institutions, in individual responsibility, in strong defence, in the nation state, and so on. These are all characteristics of a modern conservatism, and for those reasons I don’t think I’m a Liberal with a capital L.

Tags: Issue 48, John Prescott, Ken Clarke, Nick herbert, Police commissioners, Theresa May