By Suzannah Brecknell

07 Nov 2016

As well as leading the Ministry of Justice through a time of immense challenge and change, Richard Heaton is also busy trying to break down the barriers holding back black and minority ethnic civil servants. He tells Suzannah Brecknell why he’s optimistic about the future. Photos: Paul Heartfield

It’s a rite of passage for a newly appointed permanent secretary or minister: plundering the Government Art Collection for the works which will adorn your new office. Some pick just one or two, but Richard Heaton, perm sec at the Ministry of Justice, has decked his departmental lodgings with pictures – from a row of small colourful paintings, to a striking portrait of a young black man, made from bits of metal bolted onto a blackboard.

“My home is full of art as well, it’s just always something I’ve collected,” Heaton tells CSW, as we discuss his choices. In fact, that eye-catching 3D portrait is from Heaton’s own collection, as are several others around the room.

Mixing personal and government collections is an unusual choice, but it seems appropriate for a modern civil service leader. After all, the civil service leadership statement talks about being approachable, and recognising what makes each individual diverse and valuable. It seems particularly fitting for Heaton, who has made a point of sharing his own experience as an openly gay civil servant, and who, as civil service race champion, is responsible for making sure that the voices of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic colleagues are heard across government. If anyone should be banging the drum for bringing personal experiences to work, it’s him.

Yet when we discuss his place as a role model and race champion later in the interview, Heaton is decidedly self-effacing, suggesting that sharing his own story has not come naturally to him.
Nor, in fact, has he brought his art collection to the office as a sort of practical exercise in open leadership. Rather, he says, it’s a way to handle the pressures of being a perm sec: “Leading a department is quite hard work. And I always respond in my own space – I’m privileged to have an office of my own – to art that enables me to reflect and unwind.”

“A challenging spending settlement"

A space to reflect will have been much-needed in the 14 months since Heaton became perm sec at the Ministry of Justice, a role he describes as “far and away the most challenging I’ve had”. He proceeds to rattle off a list of the job’s challenges in a way that rather downplays their complexity: “In charge of one of the largest departments, huge operational challenge, huge reform agenda, huge budget pressures.”

It’s an apt summary. Heaton not only leads the 4,000 staff in his core department but oversees another 70,000 staff across nearly 200 agencies, with a combined budget of just over £9bn. And that large, dispersed system is increasingly under strain. Delays are growing in the courts – an NAO report last year found waiting time for a Crown Court hearing increased from 99 days to 134 between 2013 and 2014. The prison system is grappling with a record population of 85,000 inmates, and sharp rises in assaults on staff, homicides and suicides.

The proliferation of psychoactive drugs (formerly so-called legal highs) in the prison estate is also, in the words of the chief inspector of prisons Peter Clarke, having a “dramatic and destabilising” effect. In his July report, Clarke ruefully concluded that “despite the sterling efforts of many who work in the Prison Service at all levels, there is a simple and unpalatable truth about far too many of our prisons. They have become unacceptably violent and dangerous places”.

Remedying these problems will require major reforms – something both politicians and officials recognise. “I don’t think there’s been a generation where penal reform has been quite so present politically,” Heaton says, before describing the pride he feels that his staff, while tackling operational challenges, have also begun work to enact those reforms. “The department has understood what a true prison reform story might look like,” he says, adding that officials have given ministers the material they need to create that story.

CSW speaks to Heaton just before justice secretary Liz Truss unveils a long-awaited prison reform White Paper, outlining £1.3bn-worth of investment in new prisons and funding for some 2,100 extra officers. Although remaining tight-lipped on its contents ahead of publication, Heaton says the department's strategy will offer "quite a lot of continuity between the [new] secretary of state’s vision on prison reform and her predecessor’s" – a nod to the reformist ambitions of Truss's predecessor Michael Gove. There will, Heaton says, be a focus on achieving better outcomes, reducing reoffending, improving prison education and rehabilitation.

Before all this, however, there will be a focus on improving safety. “You can’t theorise or start running programmes about reforming prisons unless you secure the prison estate, unless you tackle this emerging trend of prison violence and self-harm and suicide,” Heaton says. “It’s something which worries us, and it’s something which you need to grip, because otherwise you just don’t have the space to do reform, both practically and politically.”

Funding for extra staff in the most dangerous prisons will not be the end of work to improve prison safety, the MoJ perm sec insists. “I wouldn’t want you to think that’s all we will do,” Heaton says. “We need to understand the causes of violence, understand what we can do to take drugs out of prison, for example.”

“We need to know that we’re as efficient as we can be. There’s quite a lot of housekeeping we need to do before we can start to say, ‘hang on, we’re an underfunded department’”

Tackling the abundance of drugs on the inside would be “transformational”, he continues. Estates reform – and finding ways to support governors to lead confidently – will play a part too: “There is nothing better than a prison governor and prison staff who lead with confidence so everyone in the prison knows that the prison is run along proper lines. That gives everyone confidence.”

Like Heaton, the Prison Governors Association want to explore the causes of declining safety levels in prisons: on the day of our interview news breaks that the PGA has voted to call for a public inquiry into prison safety. The association suggests that prison safety has declined since the introduction of a benchmarking programme aimed at cutting costs and reducing staff, and says that one question an inquiry could address is “why resources continued to be depleted when evidence showed that it was not working”.

Does Heaton see a conflict between the department’s aim of cutting administrative spending by 50% in this parliament – albeit administrative budgets at the centre, rather than frontline delivery budgets – and the huge reform programme it wants to implement?

“We had a challenging spending settlement,” he acknowledges. “But at that same spending settlement we got capital investment into courts and prisons, so it’s a mixed picture.” He believes the administrative cuts are achievable, and says the department is working hard to build a realistic plan to achieve them. In fact, a few days after meeting CSW, he tells MPs on the Justice Select Committee that “the subject we talk about most at my executive committee is improving our finances, and bearing down on the gap between allocation and projected spend. It is not quite dominating, but it is the largest thing as officials we’re dealing with.”

Part of the reason Heaton is so focused on making sure his department’s medium term financial plan, is, in his words, “absolutely rigorous and robust” is that in 2015-16, the MoJ requested an additional £427m of funding from the Treasury – money it needed because previous spending plans had been based on optimistic assumptions about areas like fee income.

So, he says, to avoid overspending again, and to make a case for more funding if needed: “We need to know where our cost drivers are; we need to know that we’re as efficient as we can be; we need to know we’re not duplicating, [and] we need to know that every budget manager absolutely knows how to forecast and how to drive cost down. So there’s quite a lot of housekeeping we need to do before we can start to say, ‘hang on, we’re an underfunded department’.”

"Let departments deliver, but give them support"

If this role is the most challenging role of Heaton’s 25-year civil service career, which role has been the most fun? “This is going to sound like I have a short memory,” he replies, before nominating his time in the Cabinet Office, where he spent five years – three as perm sec – before joining the MoJ.

“There was this spirit in the Cabinet Office of sheer exuberant innovation,” he explains. “People felt licenced, and uncoralled, and as a result we got people pitching some really interesting ideas about the use of social finance, and technology in the workplace, and about data. There was a real spirit of enterprise and when that kicked in I found that a tremendously fun role. There were other parts that were less fun.”

Such as?

“Just occasionally it felt like there were too many cooks,” he answers, with diplomatic vagueness.

Having worked in the centre and in large departments (including the largest, the Department for Work and Pensions), Heaton reflects that the key to ensuring strong collaboration between departments and the coordinating heart of government is for each part to stick to their strengths.

“The centre can do a number of things that only the centre can do and it can do them brilliantly,” he says, citing its ability to resolve disputes between departments and offer professional support. “We had that support most spectacularly here [in the MoJ] on commercial, where the centre’s help enabled us to recruit some really high class commercial leaders,” Heaton says, adding that now the Government Digital Service is in its stride, Whitehall’s digital standards are clear, sensible, and to have them generated at the centre is “rather brilliant”.

“Where the centre trips over itself, I think, is where it tries to act on behalf of departments. So it is this magic blend: let departments deliver, but give them support,” he concludes.

Heaton began his career in the Home Office, but originally he had planned to apply for the Foreign Office. He changed his mind when he learnt that he would have failed FCO security vetting at the time because he was gay. He looks back on that time now with mixed feelings.

“On the one hand, I made a great career decision and I bypassed the problem. I joined the Home Office, and I didn’t find there was an obstacle to being gay, so it was a story that came out OK, and I’ve been able to build a career and to some extent be a role model. So that’s all been positive,” he says.

“But part of me thinks a slightly braver young man would have taken on the Foreign Office, would have joined it and on being confronted with this security vetting would have challenged it and fought it all the way. I reflect now looking back on it that I wasn’t a hero; not all of us are heroes.”

Heaton came out about a month after joining the Home Office in 1991, though he didn’t want to make a big deal of his sexuality. “I didn’t particularly want it to be the first thing people knew about me,” he said in an interview for the Civil Service Rainbow Alliance’s Role Models publication in 2014.

As he moved between departments, however, he realised that not all LGBT colleagues shared his positive experiences, and as a senior civil servant he had a chance to support those colleagues by talking more about being gay. “Being a role model became part of the leadership deal for me, so I began to talk more about diversity and included my own story,” he told the CSRA.

Now, having overcome his own inhibitions around discussing personal stories, Heaton is encouraging the rest of his colleagues to get better at discussing diversity – and in particular, race. In his capacity as race champion, Heaton is bringing the voice of BAME colleagues to the top table, and challenging barriers on their behalf.

But he is at pains to stress he doesn’t presume any kind of insight into their experiences simply because he, too, is protected under equality legislation. “I don’t think the strands of diversity should be equated,” he tells CSW. “This is something I tell lesbian and gay colleagues quite a lot: they shouldn’t think that they’ve cracked diversity just by the fact that they’re able to march on Pride. There are colleagues of theirs who don’t have that privilege, who don’t have that freedom, for whom the diversity agenda is as pressing as it was when we were all in the closet 30 years ago.”

Because he doesn’t have experience of life as a BAME civil servant, Heaton is reliant on initiatives like staff networks for gathering information about the ways in which Whitehall makes things harder for BAME civil servants than they need to be.

“Some are quite subtle and cultural, like the assumption that you listen to a particular radio programme in the morning: some families traditionally do, and some families traditionally don’t. Sometimes it’s about the style in which we write, or socialise, or talk about our lives. It’s all very well me saying that we should bring ourselves to work, but some cultural traditions are much more private than others.”

“I am reinforced in my view that the civil service has a very special culture that is not quite forbidding, but requires a bit of navigation and native knowledge”

And how do we tackle those subtle biases? Make sure that people who do understand the barriers first hand are in the room to challenge them when decisions are made, he suggests. He focuses in particular on promotion decisions: “Having someone who is not from the majority community on the promotion panel means they will spot those hidden references or those cultural cues which I would find difficult to spot because I’m a privileged white man.”

Has his time as race champion changed his perceptions about the civil service?

“I am reinforced in my view that the civil service has a very special culture that is not quite forbidding, but requires a bit of navigation and native knowledge,” he says. “That certainly comes easier to people like me – I’m a second generation civil servant – than to someone whose family and whose tradition have never sent people into Whitehall.”

Aside from that, he says, his time as race champion has made him more optimistic about the future of the civil service. “I have seen the quality of the people on, for example, our Fast Stream or our summer diversity internship programme and there’s this real hope that if we crack diversity in all its forms – including on the race element but also on social mobility – there is a huge wealth of talent out there that traditionally we haven’t attracted.”

“I went to a Black History Month event at Number 10 last year,” he continues, “and there were young black guys who had start-up businesses, entrepreneurs and who were full of energy and enthusiasm. Traditionally we are not very good at attracting people from that sort of group into the civil service and – although it’s only small so far – our recent success leads me to think that the civil service of the future might be a lot more diverse, and therefore a lot more versatile, than the current one.”

Heaton on…
The Civil Service Awards [Heaton became Civil Service Awards champion earlier this year]
"I always encourage people to put in nominations. It is always a stirring and ennobling event. It just gives us a chance to shout out and shower praise on people who would otherwise be unsung.

"You also come away struck by the amount of brilliant stuff that happens outside London. Quite a lot of the buzz of the event is that people have travelled down to London, so you realise that there are fantastic project managers in Wales, for example, or digital exemplars taking place in Newcastle. There’s also the power of individuals – you look at the people who win the individual awards and you feel really pleased that we’ve got people of such capability combined with moral fibre – that’s really inspiring."

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