“I knew early in my teenage years that a job that just paid me money was never going to be enough,” Amy Rees tells PoliticsHome early on in our sit-down conversation. “I instinctively knew I wanted to do something that was right at the heart of society.”
That aspiration, to make a positive and lasting impact on people and places, has been the hallmark of Amy Rees’s career. Now, as chief executive of HM Prison and Probation Service, Rees must feel that she is making the sort of difference that her teenage self aspired to.
It is a role that she relishes. While some senior civil servants are generalists, who regularly move between government functions and departments, Rees’s entire career has been spent working in prisons and probation. She comes across as a woman who sees the service she has dedicated her whole career to as far more than just a job.
Recounting the moment when she first spotted the Prison Service recruitment stand at a university careers fair, Rees recalls with absolute clarity the sudden realisation that this was a sector that she wanted to make a contribution to.
“I am not a particularly religious person, but it's the closest thing I can describe as a calling,” she explains. “I was just like, ‘That is the thing I want to do’. I so strongly thought it was for me. It never even occurred to me that they wouldn't think that I was for them.”
There is not a trace of arrogance in the way that Rees recounts her absolute confidence that she would be accepted onto the competitive Accelerated Graduate Scheme. Instead, what comes across is a steely determination and certainty of purpose that she retains as chief executive.
She partly attributes this to being part of a generation of women who grew up surrounded by strong female role models making an impact in public life. They provided Rees with living proof that there was absolutely no limit on the level of ambition that you could have as a woman when it came to building a career.
“The Conservative Party actually came into power with Margaret Thatcher on the day I was born,” Rees tells us. “Bear in mind there was a female monarch and a female prime minister. When I was four or five years old, I famously asked my mum, ‘Could men lead the country?’”
What is most apparent when Rees speaks, is her pride and passion for the service she heads. These are qualities that are now delivering in Whitehall, but which were forged on the operational frontline.
“I don't think I really had a clue what prison was like,” she explains remembering the very first time she stepped onto a prison wing. “But what I did know was that real life happened there. And people who need help. People who've done bad things, but people who still need help.”
Whilst the need and the fundamentals of the job may have remained the same, during her career Rees has witnessed a culture shift that is shaping a more diverse and inclusive service. It is a far cry from her first day in a prison.
“I rocked up into an office where a man was smoking a pipe,” she tells PoliticsHome. “And he said to me, ‘I don't think women should be in male prisons, we should have kept the height restriction, and I don't agree with the accelerated promotion scheme. Please stay away from me and I'll stay away from you.’”
However, Rees rejects the idea that the qualities of compassion, kindness, and professionalism that lie at the heart of the service are intrinsically modern. For every man with a pipe and a set of outmoded views, in her first prison posting, she found many more dedicated professionals making a real difference to the lives of the men in their care.
“What I found immediately is that there were brilliant people in that prison,” she says. “Absolutely brilliant people who were committed to helping people and being decent to people and had been for years long before it was an organisational ambition.”
That sense, of the ultimate shared humanity that defines those living and working in custodial settings, is a theme that Rees returns to throughout our conversation. It is clear that, for Rees, prison and probation are not defined by the physical infrastructure of prisons and hostels, but by the people who make the system work. She explicitly sees her role as a leader as being to implement changes that support staff on prison wings and in probation offices up and down the country.
This clear sense of personal and organisational mission has partly been formed by the path that Rees has taken from the frontline to the heart of policy. She tells PoliticsHome that the drivers she had on her first day working in a prison remain equally as relevant in her current role.
“Clearly, I do a different set of work now and I spend a lot of time in and around Westminster with senior politicians,” she says. “My day-to-day operating environment has changed, but my career anchor hasn't. My first responsibility is to the staff and the offenders that we look after.”
Rees’s experience in frontline delivery has furnished her with the ability to understand policy at the granular level of implementation. It is a career path that Rees encourages others to take, driven by a conviction that placing operational expertise at the heart of policymaking ultimately leads to better and more effective policy. She explains that one of the barriers to this can be the specific culture and language of different professions.
When asked for an example, Rees tells a story of her first day in the newly formed Ministry of Justice.
“Up to that point, I'd never been near a politician,” she remembers. “And after about three hours I finally plucked up the courage to ask what the ‘box’ was that everyone kept talking about for ministerial submissions. I didn't have a clue what they were talking about.”
It is a small but powerful example. The story illustrates how language can operate as a barrier that may prevent some people from seeking new experiences and learning as they move through a career. It is noticeable that, throughout our conversation, Rees herself never uses the sort of jargon or incomprehensible acronyms that people in all professions can sometimes fall into.
“People often say, ‘I can't make that transition because I don't understand that world,’ but what they usually mean is: I don't understand that particular set of words that people are using.”
Rees plainly cares for the staff in her service and wants to help them progress. However, more than that, her own experience has taught her the way that taking on different roles generates learning that makes people more effective. Ultimately, that delivers what matters most to Rees – making an impact that improves lives and benefits society.
It is a worldview that continues to shape both her own career and the advice that she gives to others.
“The work that you choose might be tough, and you'll spend a long time doing it,” she tells us. “So, you've got to make it count.”
This article was originally published as part of Women in Westminster: In Conversation With, kindly supported by Lloyds Banking Group. To find out more and read our other articles, please click here.