One tea, no sugar

Jack Straw is a man with teeth. But he’s more likely to bare them than reveal them in a grin, Fiona Callister discovers.

Somewhere along the way, Jack Straw must have missed out on a New Labour training session.

For this is a Government that likes to show off its collective dental work: Blair can not get to the end of a sentence without flashing a grin, Prescott has his salt-of-the-earth smile, even the dour Chancellor has recently attempted the cheerful look.

But not the Home Secretary. Straw remains resolutely stern-looking and obviously relishes interviews as much as root canal work.

He comes to meet me in the office of his political adviser, as his own is full of departing TV lights and cameras – he has just come from filming a slot for a BBC documentary on the original man behind the smiles, Peter Mandelson.

Once we have squeezed in the adviser, a very smiley woman from the Home Office press team, our photographer and his lights, there is little space left for Straw and me in the nondescript room. But at least he is nearest the door for a quick escape. As is soon to become painfully apparent, this is a man with little time on his hands.

We speak a few hours after Straw has helped launch a business plan for the criminal justice system, which he hopes will cut the length of time from arrest and sentencing by two days. Obviously, this is what he wants to talk about and so I ask him whether he is willing to stand up and take the responsibility if the plan fails.

“I am responsible. Whether or not I am willing to take the responsibility is another question. Of course, if these targets are not met then ministers will be held responsible. It’s just part of my job.

“The penalties for not meeting the targets are acute embarrassment on all sides and publicity – which is a great motivator both for success and avoiding failure. If you set people targets they will work to them. There’s the old adage that you can’t manage what you aren’t measuring – if you are measuring things then people do get going.”

While he rarely smiles – and when he does it never spreads as far as his eyes – Straw also does not spin much. He initially answers most questions with a curt, almost dismissive brush-off, then seems to think better of it, returns to the question and squeezes out a few more thoughts on the subject. There are no poetic meanderings a la Blair, or non sequitur soundbites as favoured by Prescott.

At questions which he deems to be “personal”, he gets quite upset. And Straw’s idea of what constitutes an intrusive question is more expansive than most, as I find out when I ask how he has coped over the last few weeks with the deluge of high-profile cases that have demanded some input from his office.

Dismissing my description of a “hard few weeks” with a frown, he replies: “I have had an interesting time. It is part of the job. You have to make the best decision you can and then move on to the next thing.

“I also go to the gym and run a lot. If you had asked me whether I would do an interview where I talked about personal details, I don’t do them.”

Fortunately the English cure-all for awkward situations arrives in the shape of a cup of tea. It comes in his team’s mug – Blackburn Rovers – and Straw stares intently at it, before glancing up and telling me that I can have a cup afterwards if “the interview is alright”.

It is looking likely at this point that I will just have to buy one on the walk back to the tube. But having something to fiddle with seems to pacify him a little – from now on he expresses his irritation mostly by playing with the lemon slice in his tea.

Straw started out his professional life with a two-year stint at the Bar, from which he was lured away by the offer of a job as Barbara Castle’s political adviser. When the grande dame of politics retired from the Blackburn seat, he was the heir apparent and has represented the constituency ever since.

Having been president of the National Union of Students for two years, politics was always an interest, but was it difficult to leave the Bar behind?

“Yes. It was my old head of chambers, who interestingly enough was a silk and a conservative MP, who finally made up my mind by saying, as good silks do, ‘I have only one question to ask you.’ The question was: ‘In 20 years’ time, do you want to be on the High Court bench or in the British cabinet?’ So, without thinking, I said that I wanted to be in the British cabinet.”

With his seat in chambers kept for him in case the job did not work out, Straw left, never to return.

My next question as to how he believes he has changed politically over the years is met with silence. Prompting him, I suggest that he used to be regarded as a “radical”. The response is finally forthcoming and the possibility of that cuppa disappears into the ether.

“I’m sorry, I think there may be some mistake about the nature of this interview. I haven’t got much time,” he snaps back, looking for support from his adviser. “If I had been asked to do an autobiographical interview I probably wouldn’t have given it, because my time is short. I am not being… unhelpful.”

He then backtracks a little and tells me that it is not his ideas that have changed, it is the political atmosphere and that, in tracking his ideological development, I should look at the details rather than the headlines.

As a former member of the legal fraternity, Straw has been regarded with surprise and dismay by some members of the profession for his proposed changes to the legal system, which touch on various sacred cows such as the right to trial by election, and for daring to question the amount that barristers earn from the state.

“I have great affection for the Bar and many friends in it, but that should not make you uncritical, far from it,” he says, warming at last to his subject.

“There is a difference from what people say in public and what they sign up to in private and that is true for many professions. What I have sought to do, along with the Lord Chancellor, is to look at the reality of the profession, which people are able to accept privately, rather than how people wish it to appear.”

He places the blame for rising costs at the feet of the Bar, which he says has doubled in size in the last couple of decades, while the number of defendants has remained static, with the state picking up the bill for the overcapacity.

“There is no necessary connection at all between the cost of justice and the quality of it. And everyone at the Bar knows that when it comes to public and private services,” he argues.

“They won’t go to a shop and buy the most expensive item. They buy the item that will give them the best value. So why should this rule, that is applied by the Bar to every other field of human activity, not apply to them?

“I have not heard the Bar complain about the fact that many local authority services are now run with far fewer staff and more effectively – and the reason is because the administration of these services has been streamlined. A lot of the cost of criminal justice is about process, and bringing cases through as quickly as is just is better for the defendant as well as the victim and the community.”

The aim is to get back to the “very best of what happened in the 1960s and 1970s”, although Straw admits that some aspects of the pre-PACE set-up were too informal and prone to corruption.

As to why trial by election will probably disappear, Straw argues that no other jurisdiction allows defendants to choose the form of their trials.

“It is about cost, but it is also about justice. In Scotland the choice of the court is not in the hands of the judge, it is in the hands of the prosecutor. Now I am not going down that route, but the system works well and Scottish law is revered.”

I sense a certain frustration from Straw that the legal profession is not grasping the opportunity of change as enthusiastically as he believes it should. For the future he is keen that the legal profession should be ready to engage with those who deal with the management of the system.

“I was talking to a very good defence lawyer the other day who happens to be a solicitor, and he thought that many of the changes would actually benefit good chambers and bad ones would fall by the wayside.”

To signal the end of my allotted time, Straw pulls a typed list of appointments out of his pocket to see who is next on his ward rounds. And he leaves the room as quickly as he came in, with a cursory handshake and a mumbled goodbye. After a brief postmortem with his assistant, I wander out to find myself a cup of tea.
Jack Straw
Home secretary
HM government