As the top lawyer for two large Whitehall departments, Richard Heaton operates at the heart of the delivery environment. Here, he tells Matt Mercer about the role of government lawyers, and running his departmental law firm.
Located opposite the Royal Courts of Justice, deep in the heart of London’s legal community, New Court, a rather severe-looking office block, is actually the headquarters of a number of civil service agencies.
It’s home to Richard Heaton, a long-serving government lawyer, and his team, who work for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), as well as the Department of Health (DH) on a shared services basis. After a short spell as a barrister, he joined the Home Office in 1991 and has never looked back.
“What attracted me to the Home Office then is pretty much what I like about public sector law now,” he says. “It is the quality of the work, the fact that the responsibility comes very quickly and, for lawyers interested in how law can contribute to society, it’s great to be involved in the creation of laws, rather than simply applying them in front of a magistrate or a judge. It’s a huge intellectual treat to work with policymakers to help them develop policy and get things done.”
I start by asking him why he chose the law for a career. “I can’t remember why I chose the law, I really can’t!” he insists. “I think it was probably a shrewd school teacher who thought that I might be suited to it. Probably, someone steered me in that direction, because law certainly doesn’t run in the family. As a discipline, the law suits me, but practising law at the Bar didn’t, for all sorts of reasons. But working in the public service, helping to make good law, is definitely what I like.”
A member of DWP’s board, or ‘executive team’ as it’s known in the department, Heaton is a director whose principal role is to provide legal services to the Department of Health, and who has board-level visibility in that department. But he has regular meetings with DH permanent secretary Hugh Taylor. Asked about the similarities of the two departments, Heaton says that although they both operate in the field of social policy, they are structured very differently.
“DWP is an enormous department and we deliver an enormous programme, to a very large extent, in-house through our executive agencies, such as Jobcentre Plus, together with a range of other partners,” he says. “DH has a very different business model. Its agenda is just as big but much of it is delivered through the NHS. But the challenges for lawyers are quite similar, which is why we can bring benefit to both departments by being a single legal team.”
Heaton heads up a group of 450 staff, of whom 156 are lawyers. “Of those, about 100 work in policy legal teams, developing legislation, advising on legal risk, defending judicial reviews, and drafting statutory instruments,” he explains. “Then there is our busy prosecution division, in Leeds, Birmingham, Cardiff, Liverpool and London, with 130 people, including about 30 lawyers. It’s a successful prosecution service, and one of the biggest in government.
“We prosecute 8,000 cases a year – mostly benefit fraud, but also prosecutions on behalf of the Department of Health and some NHS bodies. We also provide commercial and employment services, either directly or by quality-assuring external legal services.” He goes on to agree with the suggestion that, in effect, he runs a mini-law firm in Whitehall. “Yes, we do the full range of services and I think we are unique in government in that we litigate, prosecute and deal with the classic Whitehall mix of legislation and policy as well.”
In terms of his average day, Heaton says that there is a steady flow of urgent or sensitive questions which he will talk through with his legal or policy colleagues. His group goes beyond law, providing DWP with security, business continuity, corporate governance and other services.
There are also two main corporate dimensions to his work. Firstly, there is the responsibility which comes from being a member of DWP’s executive team and secondly, there is the work arising from being a senior member of the Government Legal Service, which co-ordinates much of what legal teams do across government.
“We are working hard on business planning, and in response to the department’s efficiency challenge, we are also trying to re-orientate the practice so we can deliver a closer and better customer service – accessible, responsive, and creative. Just as importantly, we’re looking to improve our people strategy, so that we build people’s careers and skills, and work out what our capability gaps are. So there are all sorts of strategic management challenges.”
It’s clear that Heaton is very happy in his work. “It’s fantastic really,” he reflects. “DWP is a large and successful department. Leading a trusted and capable team right at the centre of the department is where I am keen to be. So part of our agenda is to get our legal teams really close to the department, and to DH.
“If we understand what is driving the departments, we can offer not just a professional legal service – which is the job of all lawyers – but also a service that anticipates their needs. “The benefit of being in-house is that lawyers can really feel part of a common effort. In some sense, we leave the lawyer-client client relationship and become partners. But we have to keep our professional objectivity as well.”
And is this mainly the case? “Yes, I think we do this well. It’s very visible on the really big projects, such as major pieces of legislation,” he replies. “And there are plenty of other good examples – prosecutors working with investigators, litigators working with analysts. We’re always prepared to get stuck in. I want DWP and DH lawyers to be thought of as useful people to bring in early, and as people who will be good at finding solutions.
“In a competitive environment, that becomes our cutting edge. Government departments inevitably use a mixed economy for legal services, with some services provided in-house and others supplied from outside. We can’t do everything and there are some things that are more effectively delivered externally. But there are some areas of practice that I think an in-house team can really handle better than anyone else.”
Turning to his priorities for 2008, Heaton pinpoints a number of upcoming challenges, including improving the operating model for his group. “We want to be in a position where we and our clients know what work we are taking on, how we will deliver it, and how we and our clients will respond when the demand changes,” he says.
“We are also reorganising and relaunching all of the services we provide, to make them clearer to colleagues in both DWP and DH. It’s sometimes not obvious which of our teams delivers which service to which client, and how we join up. So what we’ll launch in April will be simple, integrated and clear.”