Member of Parliament Nick Herbert talks about his work as Britain’s shadow justice minister, the Conservative
Party’s prospects in the next election, and the importance of problem solving.
V. WOLF: This is Rob Wolf and I’m welcoming listeners to another podcast produced by the Center
for Court Innovation. With me today is Nick Herbert, who is a member of Parliament, conservative member of Parliament,
and currently the shadow justice secretary. Let me first welcome you to New York and to Brooklyn.
HERBERT: Thank you very much for having me.
I wanted to just wonder if you could indulge me just for a little bit and give me a little civics lesson and explain,
what is a shadow minister?
HERBERT: Sure. Well, we have the British
Parliament, which comprises the elected House of Commons and the unelected House of Lords and the general election
to the House of Commons determines who will form the government. Whichever party has the biggest majority forms the
government. And for the last 10 years, the labor party has held the majority and has formed the government, first
with Tony Blair as prime minister, and now with Gordon Brown.
There will have to be an election
within a couple of years and my party, the Conservative Party, which was led by Margaret Thatcher and is now currently
in opposition is hoping to win the election next time. And our government also has ministers. One of those ministers
is the justice secretary, what’s called the secretary of state for justice, who is responsible for prisons,
courts, probation, oversight of the judiciary, and we have shadow ministers from the opposition party who shadow
the government and hold them to account.
And actually, we are formally called the opposition,
Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. And our job is to oppose the government and hold the government to account
with regard to the public.
WOLF: And how does that work? Do you
have a critique on every action and decision that the government makes?
Well, I expect visitors will have seen the House of Commons and, you know, you have the governing party sit on one
side and we sit on the other, and we discuss things, debate things across the floor.
I’ve seen lots of shouting when I’ve seen it.
It’s quite lively. But, you know, it’s deliberately a confrontational chamber where we get to the bottom
of issues by discussing them in a fairly robust manner. So we debate issues in the House of Commons, we vote on legislation,
and naturally also we debate issues through the media. And we have to test the government’s legislative program,
make sure they can justify it, and hold the government to account for the way in which it’s running the prison
service, running the probation services.
And at the same time as holding them to account, we
have to come up with ideas of our own, positive ideas for how we would like to change things that we would put to
the British public at the next general election.
WOLF: And are there
opportunities for your ideas to be incorporated into the government or are they sort of, you’re sort of in a
gestational period while you wait and you sort of develop your ideas? You critique what they’re doing but you
wait until you are returned to power?
HERBERT: There is a partisan
debate as there is in the United States, which isn’t always constructive. But actually what tends to happen
is that the government will then pick up the ideas that it wants to and take them on. I think there is probably more
that we agree about as political parties in the United Kingdom than disagree.
And so I understand you’re interested in the concept of community justice, such as it’s practiced in Liverpool,
as I understand it, and some of that taken from ideas that have been generated here in the United States. And I wonder
what interests you about it and how does it fit in with what your priorities are as far as reforming and improving
the delivery of justice?
HERBERT: Well I’m hugely interested
in the community court, as have other people been in the United Kingdom, and many of my colleagues from all parties
have come over and seen the community court here. And as you say, it led to the formation of the experimental community
court in Liverpool back in the U.K., and I’ve been up there and met the judge, and seen all of that too.
I think what drives our interest is that we have a rising prison population back at home, not absolutely at the same
levels as the United States but nevertheless, it has risen very sharply. We also have rising rates of re-offending.
And I think that there is, I think that there is now a general acceptance that you cannot allow the prison population
simply to rise indefinitely and that what you should worry about, in particular, is rates of re-offending, where
we have offenders who are cycling back into the system very quickly.
The recidivism rates for
adult offenders are 60 percent within two years and going back into prison amongst youth offenders it’s much
higher. And what we are interested in is the extent to which we can try to intervene at an earlier stage to secure
more effective justice, you could say smarter justice, that is actually going to prevent re-offending, stop people
entering the custodial system in the first place or, once they have been in the custodial sentence, try and rehabilitate
those offenders and prevent them from re-offending.
And what is intriguing about the community
court here and in Liverpool is a different approach to courts, where courts become problem-solving, pulling together
a lot of the resources that are necessary to try and help offenders go straight.
Are there ideas that you’ve seen or that you’ve tossed around that you’d like to see, that you feel
confident should be implemented, or you’d like to see implemented, given the opportunity to implement them?
HERBERT: I don’t think that we can divorce any ideas from the
question of cost and that seems to me to be one of the real obstacles to the further development of community courts
in the United Kingdom and that’s, you know, an issue that we’re going to have to look at very closely.
But certainly, I am very attracted to the notion of accountability, of making sure that when a disposal is handed
down by a court, that it actually is meaningful in terms of securing an outcome. The courts aren’t just handing
down short-term custodial sentence or a fine or a community order which in some way is not effective. A fine, because
it is not paid, as happens in our country. A community order which is ineffective because it is not properly completed
as happens. A drugs rehabilitation requirement which is ineffective because it isn’t completed and the offender
remains on drugs.
What I like about the approach we have here is that there is a different perspective,
which is cases coming back to the court, where the judge is actually, effectively accountable for whether an offender
has gone off drugs, whether a community service was completed satisfactorily. Not just drawing together resources,
but also introducing that accountability to make sure that an offender is dealt with properly.
And I noticed that you had started, before you became a member of Parliament, a think tank called Reform. Can you
tell me a little bit about that and the work it does?
well it hasn’t escaped my attention that Reform is currently sort of one of the buzz points in the United States.
We started Reform a few years ago because there seemed to be only one kind of analysis around in the U.K. and that
was an analysis that said that our public services were starved of investment and what they really needed was more
resources and that would make them more effective.
And there certainly was a case that some of
our public services, including our health system, did need more funding. But we were very concerned that the analysis
was a very shallow one and that actually what mattered also was how our public services were organized, to what extent
they were accountable, and whether the big funding increases would deliver higher productivity and value for the
money, for the taxpayer.
And in the main, I think there’s a wide acceptance now in the U.K.
that the very big increases in public spending that we’ve seen over the last decade have not yielded the improved
performance from our schools, from our hospitals that is proportionate to those spending rises. And the taxpayer
has paid a very hefty bill for the increase.
And so we wanted to come up with ideas to drive
value from money in our public services. And that may mean introducing principles of choice and competition into
public services. It may mean that in terms of monopolistic public services holding them, finding mechanisms to hold
them properly to account.
Reform is a non-partisan organization which promotes its ideas to political
parties of all persuasions. And what we’ve found is that these ideas have increasing traction in the U.K. as
politicians are confronted with very difficult decisions. They cannot just go on spending more money on services.
They have to focus on the outcomes whether the services are performing well.
Just one last question. So what are the prospects for the Conservative Party? HERBERT: Well, at the moment, having
been out of office for a considerable period of time, over 10 years, the Conservative Party are favorites to win
the next general election, which has to be held at the latest by June 2010. So in a couple of years time, or it could
be before that.
Having said that, we are not complacent. We have a highly effective young leader
of the opposition now, David Cameron, who was just featured on the cover of Time magazine, which is a kind of tribute
to the fact that he is very much seen as the coming political figure. He’s a hugely impressive leader of the
opposition, and clearly has the makings and the look of a prime minister.
But we have an electoral
mountain to climb. We have a lot of ground to make up, and in spite of the unpopularity of the current government,
which is perhaps not surprising after it’s been in power for 10 years and we’re now moving into an economic
recession, which never makes governments popular, it’s very important that we, as the Conservative Party, earn
the trust of the British public, that we demonstrate that we have the ideas and the vision to govern the country
It’s in the search for these ideas that I find myself here in the community
court, Red Hook, and looking at how things can be done better, be willing to learn from countries where things have
been done differently, in an entirely non-dogmatic basis, on the principal that if it works better, we should be
willing to consider it.
WOLF: Very good. Well it’s been very
nice talking to you and I hope you enjoy the rest of your visit to New York and the United States.
Thank you very much indeed for having me here.
WOLF: Thanks. This
is Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. I’ve been speaking with conservative
Member of Parliament Nick Herbert. To find out more about the Center for Court Innovation you can visit us at our
website, www.courtinnovation.org. Thanks for listening.