Nick Herbert: One man, two guvnors and the perfect Tory civil partner

Interview in The Times by Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson

Nick Herbert has no time to chillax. “I’ve got two jobs, one salary and no car,” he says. With two offices, one in the Home Office and one at the Ministry of Justice, and two bosses, he says: “I am the jam in the sandwich between Ken Clarke and Theresa May, which is an interesting place to be. They are either side of me, one to the right and one to the left.”

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is the perfect person to stick them together. “My appointment was designed to merge the lock ’em up and let ’em out culture,” he says. “I think of myself as a modernising Tory. I am a real reformer but I am also a deep Conservative.”

Energetic, eloquent and engaging, he bridges the two wings of his party. The first openly gay Conservative to be selected as a parliamentary candidate, he is a strong supporter of gay marriage. But, a staunch Eurosceptic, he also appeals to the Tory Right, with his firm belief in “institutions, a strong defence and personal reliance”. He would prefer to “grip” rather than “hug” a hoodie.

As director of the think-tank Reform, when the Conservatives were in opposition Mr Herbert championed sweeping changes to health and education.

Now in government he is taking on one of the least reformed public services: the police. Already his proposals to update pay and conditions have caused outrage in the unions but he has no intention of backing down.

“The Police Federation has historically been very resistant to change,” he says. “They opposed women police officers, the introduction of traffic wardens and community support officers. They have a system of pay and conditions that hasn’t been updated for 30 years and I think the public will find the proposed reforms pretty sensible. These are hard times across the public sector, the police aren’t being picked on.”

The Government’s plan to appoint Tom Winsor, the former rail regulator, as the first Chief Inspector of Constabulary who has not been a policeman has further antagonised the critics. “The Police Federation ran a personal campaign against Tom Winsor,” Mr Herbert says. “It wasn’t right to reward that campaign.”

He has been impressed by Mr Winsor’s report into police pay and recruitment. “He was obviously the best candidate.”

Policemen should not, in the minister’s view, just be plods. “I am about to launch a body that will promote professionalism in the service. We have it for nursing and doctors and the law, yet not policing. You don’t need a university qualification but it can’t just be a blue-collar job.”

Although officers have complained that they are caricatured as “fat and lazy” by the Government, Mr Herbert insists: “It is perfectly sensible to have fitness testing.”

He wants to make the police accountable to local communities by allowing people to vote for police and crime commissioners in their area. “With schools and hospitals there is now a choice for people, but the police is a monopoly public service. It is better for them to be answerable to communities than faceless bureaucrats.”

Many voters felt aggrieved last summer when the police seemed to allow the riots to spiral out of control. “They were too slow to respond, not too weak,” Mr Herbert says. “The system as a whole was found wanting. We all need to learn the lessons.”

The Government is planning radical reforms to the criminal justice system to replicate the speed and efficiency with which the courts dealt with rioters. “We did see cases that normally take weeks and months being dealt with in hours and days,” he says. “The question we have been asking is why couldn’t we normalise this process, as there certainly weren’t any legal obstacles. Justice should be swift and sure. We shouldn’t tolerate delay, which is awful for victims but also sends a message to offenders that they won’t get swift action.”

A White Paper, to be published shortly, will include proposals for “neighbourhood justice panels”, involving members of the public, to determine community punishments for low-level offences. “They are not vigilantes but they will make criminals confront their victims, apologise and make amends. It could be repairing a property or mending a fence. In the past it’s been too much about fines that weren’t paid, community sentences that weren’t finished or drug rehabilitation that never got completed.”

There will be more late-night and weekend sittings by the courts. Magistrates should also, in the minister’s view, be able to sit individually as well as in a formal court setting.

“They could be at a police station or in a community centre, so they can deal with straightforward cases more quickly.”

He is determined to modernise courts’ working, with police officers being able to give evidence from the station via video link and documents being transferred electronically.

Mr Herbert is not afraid to court controversy. The man who set up the “no” campaign against Britain joining the European single currency in 1998 says: “I always felt that the euro would be an economic disaster.”

Now he is convinced that the Government must prepare for a referendum on the relationship between Britain and Europe. “I believe that ultimately it would be right to give the British people a decision over fundamental questions about our relationship with Europe,” he says. With events moving fast across the EU, it’s impossible to set a precise date, but he thinks the country is moving “pretty inexorably” to a moment when “it’s important to resettle our relationship”.

“There’s a growing public demand,” he says. “I think we are approaching the point where that say will have to be given.” He does not want what he calls a “polarised, in-out question — the British public wants to be part of a sensible economic arrangement but not subsumed within a political organisation”.

Mr Herbert believes that the Government cannot ignore the public mood. “This is not just an issue about our relationship with the European Union and how we are governed, it’s also an issue of trust and whether people have the sense that the political class are taking the decisions for them.”

The Conservatives, he insists, “need to be a party that’s in tune with and reflects society as it is today”. He is convinced that that means introducing gay marriage. “Everybody accepts that the overriding priority is to deal with the deficit, but governments can do more than one thing. Since when is equality not a priority?”

In 2009 he entered into a civil partnership with his long-term partner, Jason Eades. Although he wears what he calls a “wedding ring”, he thinks it is unfair that they could not marry. “The longer this debate has gone on, the more strongly I have felt about it. I am getting fed up with people metaphorically jabbing a finger in my chest and saying, ‘You should put up with a civil partnership’. I don’t think they would like it if I said, ‘Well, sorry, you should accept a civil partnership too’.”

Although he describes civil partnership as a “wonderful thing”, he says: “It’s not the same as marriage.

“I have a powerful belief in the institutions in this country, and the institution of marriage is one. I want to cherish and protect and build on it. I think that extending it to gay people would be a strengthening of that institution, and I think an institution that is so important in our society should be available to everyone.”

The Government has no intention of dictating to the churches. “No religious institution should be forced to conduct a gay marriage against their belief,” he says. But he thinks that there is a “very strong case for saying that on the ground of religious freedom, if churches want to conduct such ceremonies they should be allowed to”.

As an Anglican, would he like to marry in church? “I’ve never in my life felt more distant from the Church — and I consider myself to be a Christian — than I do at the moment,” he replies. “And I’m sad about that.”

Born in 1963, he says that homosexuality was far less accepted when he was young. “I didn’t come out until relatively late. You think it’s the hardest decision that you could ever make, then once you’ve done it you feel powerful and wonder why it was so hard. But there are still kids being bullied in school. There is still a situation where we have no Premier League football players who feel able to come out. The idea that this is a finished agenda is completely wrong. It’s not.”

The Conservative Party has, he thinks, “changed fundamentally and really quite fast” in its attitude. “We have more out gay MPs now than any other party . . . I don’t make any secret of my sexuality and I was selected and then elected. I think that helped to demonstrate that the grass roots are not as they are caricatured.”

His partner is the perfect Tory spouse, baking cakes for the office and attending local flower shows and fêtes. “He’s true blue and I’m very lucky, he loves it. He has thrown himself into the life of the constituency.”

Would the electorate be as accepting of a gay prime minister? “I think by the time that happens, and I’m sure it will, it won’t be an issue,” Mr Herbert replies. “I have never ever wanted to be defined as somebody who was gay. I’ve just wanted to get on in politics without anyone remarking on my sexuality. I don’t just want to be tolerated.”

Curriculum vitae

Born April 7, 1963
Family Lives with his civil partner, Jason Eades
Education Haileybury, Hertfordshire; Magdalene College, Cambridge
Career Director of public affairs at the British Field Sports Society before becoming chief executive of Business for Sterling in 1998, where he campaigned against adopting the euro. In 2000 he became director of the think-tank Reform. He was elected MP for Arundel and South Downs in 2005. In 2007 he became Shadow Justice Secretary, and in 2009 Shadow Environment Secretary. After the 2010 election, he was appointed Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice. He has been tipped for a Cabinet post in the next reshuffle.

 

Quickfire

Truncheon or taser gun? Handcuffs
Dixon of Dock Green or Inspector Morse? Morse
Prime Suspect or The Killing? Prime Suspect
Hug a hoodie or grip a hoodie? Grip a hoodie
Crime and Punishment or Rumpole of the Bailey? Crime and Punishment
Converse or brogues? Converse
Tennis or croquet? Tennis
Hush Puppies or kitten heels? Cats
Cornwall or the Caribbean? The Caribbean
Beach volleyball or weightlifting? I’m going to the diving event
The Queen or Prince William? The monarchy
Lentils or lamb shanks? Lamb shanks
Bike or Bentley? I like to walk


 


Document type

Articles

Published

16 June 2012

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