Nick Herbert: The gay Tory minister who wishes he'd had the chance to get married in church

Nick Herbert has two ministerial jobs – but still finds time to stand up for equal rights

Nigel Morris
Monday 16 July 2012 01:03
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Nick Herbert, outside the Home Office, says same-sex marriage is a ‘straightforward matter of equality’
Nick Herbert, outside the Home Office, says same-sex marriage is a ‘straightforward matter of equality’

Holding one ministerial post is difficult enough, given the relentless demands of modern government, so filling two requires stamina, resilience and flexibility. It is lucky that Nick Herbert – Minister of State at both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice – is a hyperactive sort who is routinely seen pounding the pavements between two offices half a mile apart. Because of the austerity drive in Whitehall, he can't whistle up a government car. He says: "It's a double job, it's a very big workload, physically it's difficult being in two different places." So how does he cope? He deadpans: "I walk very fast."

It isn't even as if Mr Herbert is marooned in a backwater. As the Policing and Criminal Justice minister reporting jointly to Theresa May and Kenneth Clarke, he faces one of the trickiest dilemmas for the Coalition: how to keep crime levels on their downward trajectory while cutting spending on police and the courts.

Although an instinctive loyalist, Mr Herbert strays well beyond government policy in one area – marriage equality. He shares Nick Clegg's view that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry in church, rather than limited to the secular settings proposed by the Government.

His attitude is not surprising. The first openly gay candidate to be selected by a Tory constituency party, he joined his partner, Jason Eades, in civil partnership three years ago. He says it was the most important event in his life, but wished they could have been offered the choice of a church wedding. "It's always been a matter of regret to me that the same options available to heterosexual couples were not available to me," he says.

"My view is churches should be permitted to offer same-sex marriages if that is what their denomination allows. I believe in religious freedom. We should not be dictating what they do on their own premises or in their own ceremonies."

The Home Office recently completed a consultation exercise on the issue and is now working on its final proposals with the aim of gay marriage becoming legal by 2015. The move will be put to a free vote of MPs but looks certain to be approved. Mr Herbert says: "The longer this debate has gone on, the more strongly I have felt about this issue. Equal marriage is a straightforward matter of equality."

There is little prospect of respite for Mr Herbert after MPs head off for their summer break tomorrow as the Home Office is at the heart of efforts to ensure the Olympics runs smoothly – and will be on standby to cope with any emergency that could arise. The department has been deeply embarrassed by G4S's failure to provide adequate Olympic security but Mr Herbert insists the Government's rapid response – deploying 3,500 soldiers – was proof that it's able to cope in a crisis. "We are absolutely determined to deliver a safe Games and an enormous amount of work and planning has gone into that. The action we took to ensure the Olympic site was properly guarded is a reflection that where we need to act, we will."

He adds: "We have seen the torch relay being successfully run across the country – that in itself has produced a big policing and security challenge, much of it behind the scenes."

After the Games end, Mr Herbert could soon find his two jobs replaced by one – in the Cabinet. He is near the front of the queue for promotion and could have expected to become a Secretary of State had the Conservatives won the last election outright.

Appointed to the Tory front bench by David Cameron just seven months after becoming an MP, he appeals to both wings of the party – as symbolised by his two departmental bosses – describing himself as a reformer who is also a "deep Conservative".

The challenge the Prime Minister handed him two years ago was to take direct responsibility for driving through parallel reforms to the police and the criminal justice system designed to deliver more to the public for less money.

For years governments have baulked at scrapping the historic array of special payments and allowances enjoyed by the police. But this time, the Coalition insists, it will be different and is preparing to overhaul pay scales and recruitment. Today, Mr Herbert will set out plans for the Police Professional Body, half drawn from outside the force, to oversee standards.The stance has sent relations plunging between the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, and Home Office ministers, with Ms May barracked and booed at the Fed's recent conference.

Mr Herbert retorts: "I'm a fierce defender of the British model of policing, but there are things that have to change… I am not in office to be loved, I'm in office to take those necessary decisions. It's important we have a sensible dialogue about them and hurling insults is not going to deflect the Government."

He adds: "I see my job as doing everything I can to free up police, to promote professionalism, to make it easier for police to do their job, to equip them as well as we can, to reduce bureaucr acy."

Wearing his other departmental hat, Mr Herbert is trying to produce sweeping changes in a court system he condemns as often arcane, cumbersome and insensitive to victims.

He advocates greater use of technology in trials, more magistrates sitting singularly rather than in groups of three and – drawing from last year's experience of dealing with rioters – holding more hearings at night and at weekends. "As in other walks of life, flexible working is increasingly popular and necessary to meet patterns of demand – criminals don't stop committing offences over the weekend.

"A younger generation of magistrates might find it easier to sit in the evenings after work."

Nick Herbert: rise to power

From being the first openly gay Conservative parliamentary candidate to the seat of Arundel and South Downs in 2005, Nick Herbert's political career has been on an upward trajectory. He quickly rose to the Shadow Cabinet under David Cameron and was appointed by the Coalition as minister for Policing and Criminal Justice. Last week he announced plans for "swift and sure" justice, involving flexible court hours and "neighbourhood panels" to deal with low-level criminality. As a founder of the centre-right liberal think tank Reform, he has campaigned for extending choice and private sector involvement in the provision of public services. He has criticised colleagues opposed to gay marriage and, while describing himself as Christian, challenged the Church of England's position.

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