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.
The following is a transcript:
ROBERT 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.
NICK HERBERT: Thank you very much for having me.
WOLF: 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?
HERBERT: 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.
WOLF: I've seen lots of shouting when I've seen it.
HERBERT: 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.
WOLF: 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.
And 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.
WOLF: 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.
WOLF: 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?
HERBERT: Yeah, 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.
WOLF: 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 effectively.
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.
HERBERT: 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.