Mills:I'm no quitter

Barbara Mills

John Malpas finds it takes more than a government rebuff, trade union antagonism and personal attacks to force the head of the CPS, Barbara Mills QC, into submission BARBARA Mills QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is no Eddy George. Considering resigning in the face of government intervention, as the Governor of the Bank of England did, is not her style.

The decision of the new Attorney General, John Morris QC, to order an immediate reorganisation of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), followed by an independent review of the service, has been widely interpreted as a major rebuff to Mills. But when asked if she considered resigning, her reaction is one of complete bewilderment. It had never even entered her head.

As head of a service which plays a pivotal role in the UK's much maligned criminal justice system, it is inevitable that Mills will be the subject of controversy from time to time. Recently, she has been the butt of a great deal of criticism and some of it, most notably in the Daily Mail, has been extremely personal. But although Mills is reluctant to talk about herself, she is keen to defend her record at the CPS.

She argues that because she is a civil servant taking orders from politicians, it is wrong to view Labour's determination to overhaul the CPS as a vote of no confidence in the way she has run the service. And anyway, she adds, Morris' plan to replace the existing 13 areas of the CPS with 42 is perfectly compatible with what the service has been doing recently.

On both counts, Mills suggests, The Lawyer and several other newspapers have got it wrong. She speaks of a "huge misunderstanding" among those who have claimed that the Government's decision to increase the number of areas of the CPS "means that this was a highly centralised service".

Mills points out that there were already 20 branches in place with the same boundaries as the police authorities when Morris ordered the change. And she says that even before the reorganisation, which will see a marked decentralisation of the service, the CPS ethos was that it was a national service with national standards which were delivered locally.

"I think the Attorney General's policies are an extension of what we are doing anyway," she comments. But even if they were not, Mills insists that it would not reflect badly on her.

She says she has two distinct roles. Her prosecuting function, laid down by statute, is to conduct prosecutions free from political interference. But she is also the permanent secretary of a government department, making her completely beholden to her political masters.

"I am a civil servant. I put into practice what the Government of the day wishes me to. We put suggestions forward and if the Government says it doesn't like them then we don't do them," Mills states. For her, at least it is simple as that.

But Mills' standpoint can prove extremely frustrating for those seeking her views on important issues relating to the CPS. For example, she will only comment generally when asked what she thinks of the highly controversial Home Office report on speeding up justice, which was unveiled in a blaze of publicity by Michael Howard just before the election. "It was a well-argued paper and we supported almost all of its proposals," says Mills.

Of course, the report contained a whole series of entirely uncontroversial recommendations. But some of the proposals – such as ending the CPS's right to discontinue cases on public interest grounds – could have had a huge impact on the service. Does she support this proposal or is it among the minority of recommendations she has rejected?

"I don't express personal opinions," she answers. "I put my ideas in writing to ministers and it is for ministers to decide what to do."

Taking this non-committal stance may be entirely defensible, but it does Mills no favours. There is a danger her staff will interpret her silence as evidence that she supports the idea.

The same goes for the CPS's funding problems. Many in the service, who believe it is being starved of resources, would have dearly loved to have seen Mills stand up, admit there was a problem and call for more money. Instead, she has got on with the task in hand and implemented a series of reforms that are designed to make the service more efficient but which have fallen foul of many of its lawyers.

Just over a year ago, the CPS section of the Association of First Division Civil Servants (FDA) lost patience with her and decided to go public with its concerns, despite pleas from management that it would only harm the service. It passed a resolution recording its loss of confidence in management and even threatened strike action.

This was the beginning of what has become an increasingly bitter battle between management and union. The FDA has mounted a masterful campaign against Mills and her colleagues in senior management. It has argued its case on public interest grounds. It claims its lawyers are struggling to fulfil their statutory role because of funding problems, a burgeoning bureaucracy and a leech-like headquarters sucking funding from the front-line – a point Mills vigorously disputes. The union also commissioned an independent survey that proved just how low morale among lawyers had slumped.

Up until now, Mills has refused to engage in a public slanging match with the FDA. But it appears she has finally lost her patience. She stresses that she herself is a member of the FDA, and says she is an "enthusiastic" supporter of trade unions. But she does not believe everything the FDA has said is a true reflection of its membership's views.

Mills tones are measured, but her anger at the union's tactics shines through. "I think it is unfortunate," she says, "that the FDA has, from time to time, adopted an antagonistic attitude towards management and has been so outspoken in what it has said.

"It does not encourage good relations and it does not help staff morale. This kind of outspoken criticism does the service down in the eyes of the public. I would like to see a period with the union and ourselves working together – that's the most useful thing that could happen."

But it is difficult to imagine any kind of truce occurring between Mills and the FDA – particularly given the fact that management has already admitted the restructuring may well lead to job losses among senior prosecutors.

However, this fact is unlikely to divert Mills from her task. She will put her head down, adapt to the new hands-on approach of a Labour-run Attorney General's Chambers and simply get on with it.

And, in typical Mills fashion, she is putting the best possible light on the future. She welcomes the independent review of the service, to be led by the retired Lord Justice of Appeal, Sir Iain Glidewell, because she is confident it will "clear the air" by scotching many of the negative stories that have been circulating about the CPS.

Indeed, such is Mills optimism for the future, and her determination to steer the CPS forward, that it seems almost impossible to contemplate a CPS without her at the helm.

"I was initially appointed for five years and my contract was renewed for another two. I think seven years is about the right amount of time for anybody doing this sort of job," she says.

Mills' contract runs out in April 2000. So if all goes to plan, she will shepherd the CPS into the 21st century. And after seven years holding down what many lawyers regard as the job from hell, she will surely have earned herself a rest.