Sir Richard Heaton, a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath following recognition of his public service in the 2019 New Year’s Honours, has been Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) since August 2015. When we meet, before news breaks of his knighthood, I am treated to a glimpse of a splendid antique weapon that comes with his perhaps lesser-known secondary role, as Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, a 14th century office that retains a ceremonial and symbolic existence. Richard explains: ‘I wear my sword when I attend the Lord Chancellor on the Opening of the Legal Year. One year Michael Gove saw the sword and asked, “What’s that for?” “To protect you.” “Bet you couldn’t draw it.” So of course I had to give it a flourish.’
Richard is the first ever lawyer with a career that started in the Government Legal Service to become Permanent Secretary in a major department – with five ministers, 70,000 staff and an annual budget of around £7bn. In three years he has already served four justice secretaries, so I ask what makes a good minister/civil servant relationship. ‘The Civil Service responds best to clear political direction, and strong collaborative working relationships with ministers and their political advisers in an atmosphere of trust. We have to earn that trust,’ Richard says.
We discuss his job. ‘The MOJ has two parents and I have worked in both,’ Richard explains. ‘Prisons, when I was a lawyer in the Home Office, and the former Department for Constitutional Affairs, where I was the head of law.’
In terms of the ‘day to day’, Richard meets regularly with his policy colleagues, heads of the Prison and Probation Service and the Courts and Tribunals Service, the Secretary of State, ministers and officials. ‘There are set-piece meetings, urgent discussions on current issues, visits out of London to courts and prisons, and routine paperwork too. I see most advice to ministers, offer a view or a steer if asked, and intervene when something needs an opinion on propriety or value for money.’
What is his management style? ‘I don’t try and second-guess or micromanage things. My job is to help ministers set strategy, ensure that my direct reports are getting the support they need, and of course to hold them to account and to explain my department’s work and priorities to the Treasury and the centre.’
‘People working in the MOJ really care about justice and about improving it. It’s in the organisation’s blood. Maybe that quality doesn’t always show – because we are always managing severe financial pressures, and because, I’ll admit, we don’t always get it right. We went wrong on employment tribunal fees, as the UNISON challenge showed. I hope we’ve learnt from that. On legal aid, we work closely with the profession, including the self-employed Bar, to ensure that those that are eligible for help get it. The Bar’s part in the delivery and protection of justice is essential. We also need to make sure that public money is spent wisely and sustainably. I would much rather be in discussions with the profession about how to do that – as we are now – than in dispute with them.’
On prisons, and the particular issue of drugs, it’s a case of tackling supply and demand: ‘Our response is both on the supply side, working with the police to keep drugs out, and on the demand side, looking to tackle addiction. Prison numbers have come down quite markedly in the past year but are projected to climb steadily as the number of long sentences increases. But we need to build new prisons that are more modern, cheaper and more likely to rehabilitate people, releasing value from existing sites for housing.’
Meanwhile, the Ministry is investing £1bn in court reform. ‘Our aim, shared with the judiciary, is to make people’s experience of courts and of legal proceedings better: for witnesses, lawyers, defendants, parties; much better technology in courts; much better digital services for litigants and their advisers. It’s about making access to justice easier. Again, we want to work with the legal profession at every step.’
In terms of the relationship between the judiciary, Parliament and the executive, mutual respect is ‘constitutional bedrock’, says Richard. And, within the executive branch of government, ‘it’s the MOJ above all that must champion, explain and defend the constitutional and economic importance of a high class legal system and a strong and independent judiciary. So, for example, we are working with the senior judiciary to remove obstacles to attracting to the bench the very best lawyers from all parts of the profession.’
"Why the Bar? ‘Romance, individualism, iconoclasm; I liked doing my own thing, and I thought the Bar would be the place for it. I didn’t pause to think do I want to do advocacy. I soon decided I didn’t..."
Richard followed his father’s footsteps into public service. His father joined the Home Office from the Colonial Service. ‘I once visited him as a schoolboy in this very building when the Home Office was here... so there was a feeling of coming home.’ His mother is a painter and studied at the Chelsea School of Art, ‘which I suppose is how I came to collect art – European, British, Indian, modern and contemporary’. Art works are displayed all around his room overlooking St James’s Park. ‘I’m better at enjoying art and living with it, than making it,’ he admits.
He went to school at Rugby. ‘I know I’m privileged,’ he says with some diffidence. ‘I think my parents must have stretched themselves to send three of us to public schools. I didn’t always enjoy it.’ But it turned out that he was ‘a stubborn tackler at full-back’ on the rugby field, and he enjoyed dramatics both at school and at Oxford.
What advice would Richard give to those starting out? ‘Law is an interesting window onto society and our values; one of the foundations of a successful modern state. Legal practice can take all forms and types, including some of the best jobs in the public sector: sitting in the officials’ box in the House of Commons, as legislation you’ve worked on is debated, advising on the Royal Prerogative, supporting the rule of law in government.’
As someone who studied science at A level, what attracted him to a law degree? ‘I’m tempted to retrofit and say a passion for justice but it was more likely that law was a generalist degree, a good grounding, which could lead to a professional qualification. I loved constitutional law at university but had no idea that I’d ever be able to practise it.’
Why the Bar? ‘Romance, individualism, iconoclasm; I liked doing my own thing, and I thought the Bar would be the place for it. I didn’t pause to think do I want to do advocacy. I soon decided I didn’t. I’m glad it was soon, because that led on to a career that I’ve been happy with.’
After a common law pupillage – ‘lots of barely comprehensible missions to the Bear Garden’ – the turning point for Richard was ‘being excited by an advert in The Times for a lawyer at the Home Office. It would be a return to what I had liked as a student – questions about why and how we punish people; the balance between rehabilitation, deterrence and retribution – and there was a salary.’
That job led to others, including the Attorney General’s Office where he helped break the ground for the government’s new approach to public interest immunity following the Scott report; an earlier incarnation of the Ministry of Justice where he prepared government for the arrival of the Human Rights Act 1998, ‘a most radical shift in public law, requiring us to put on a legal footing for the first time a proportionate way to conduct surveillance, in the form of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000’; head of legal at the giant Department for Work and Pensions; a sideways move to a mainstream civil service job leading on pensions policy and working with multi-skilled teams of policy officials, economists, statisticians and lawyers; and in 2012 First Parliamentary Counsel, leader of the Government’s Bill drafting machine, where he launched the Good Law initiative to reduce complexity in legal drafting.
Shortly afterwards he was appointed Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office on top of his First Parliamentary Counsel role. At the Cabinet Office he took a stand as Accounting Officer on value for money grounds by requiring a direction from ministers who wanted to give yet another tranche of money to the failing charity Kids Company. Three years later he moved to his current job, making him the first ever lawyer with a career that started in the government legal service to become Permanent Secretary in a major department.
Richard is also race champion for the Civil Service. ‘It’s an area of diversity that we’ve found hard to crack in the past. I’ve tried to approach it with humility, for obvious reasons. I’ve listened to staff networks, and to lots of brilliant civil servants from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. We’ve worked on talent programmes, on our outreach, on identifying bias in how we promote or attract people. We’ve set each department targets for senior appointments. And I’m pleased that the numbers are starting to rise. But it remains hard work, and until we have got to a certain point, there’s the constant danger of slipping backwards.’
As a mentor himself, Richard is grateful for the support and advice he has received over the years from his mentors, including former Treasury Solicitor, the late Dame Juliet Wheldon. ‘If you find someone who knows you and seems to believe in you more than you believe in yourself, stick close to them. Juliet once told me to “get stuck in – there’s a good career ahead of you if you do”.’
For the present, the only Permanent Secretary with a sword is pleased with the blend of law and non-law in his job. ‘I’ve done three years here but there is lots more to do. If I could help to put behind us the current instability in some of our prisons, and help to protect and modernise justice at the same time, I’d be proud.’
Anthony Inglese CB was head of legal in five Government Legal Departments over a 38-year career, most recently as General Counsel & Solicitor to HMRC. A Bencher of Gray’s Inn, he now trains and mentors lawyers.