Meet the boss of the Met: Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe

Ahead of a new BBC1 documentary series about Britain's biggest police service, the man in charge talks frankly about his extraordinary mother, absent dad - and what made him Britain's top cop

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Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has never forgotten his first arrest: 30-odd-years ago, a 3am window-smashing drunk. Nor his most satisfying: a serial rapist in Doncaster “who every victim picked out in the ID parade”. But new BBC1 series The Met captures his most public.

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The Metropolitan Police Commissioner is midway through an interview in the street when a minicab driver asks for help: his passenger has run off without paying and stolen £20. Hogan-Howe jumps into the man’s car, tracks down the suspect and as he nicks him, his flinty face looks boyishly chuffed.

Does he miss the hands-on side of the job?

“Yes,” he says, emphatically. “I joined as a policeman, I didn’t intend to be commissioner. It’s not exciting to chair meetings. There are some exciting outcomes… but it’s never quite as joyful as finding somebody who has raped or done a burglary.”

Britain’s top cop is eager to prove he is not a desk-softened bureaucrat. He talks of “total policing” to crack down on gun and knife crime; he has a reputation as uncompromising, even authoritarian.

He persuaded London mayor Boris Johnson to buy water cannons, supports exemplary sentences for rioters and strict classification for marijuana, and he pressed for the extension to the security services’ surveillance powers recently outlined in the Queen’s Speech. Theresa May described him as a “tough, single-minded crime fighter”.

And he cultivates an image of physical toughness. Tall and wiry, at 57 he carries not a spare ounce. He jokes that he is “gutted” the BBC cut a sequence where he plays football with mates at the UK Border Agency. “I couldn’t get a bloody kick! They were showing off for the TV. But I scored. And they aren’t even going to use it.” He boasts he just passed the annual police fitness test “very well with no preparation”.

I remark that a young friend, who recently joined the Met, found the physical – a “bleep test” shuttle run that increases in pace – ridiculously easy. And, as the BBC cameras reveal, there are a fair few porky PCs. “It’s taken too long to get the annual test, but it will start to have an increasing impact,” says Hogan-Howe. “For me, the standard is too low: I think it should be higher. It’s relatively easy to pass.”

Police who fail will be given time to lose weight and get fitter, he says. “If they don’t, then we haven’t got a job for them. I think you’ve got a duty to your colleagues. If they shout for help, they want fit people to come. They don’t want somebody waddling down the road who’s never going to arrive, and when they get there they’re out of breath.”

He talks admiringly of 60-something officers who are still on the front line, “fighting 18-year-olds, strong, athletic people – that takes guts”.

It is hard not to ascribe Hogan-Howe’s hardness, his ambition and drive to his upbringing. He was born the child of his mother’s affair with a married steel worker, and raised in the rough end of Sheffield in the 1960s. How can that not mould a man’s character? Yet since he has never spoken of this before I raise it with trepidation.

Is a tough childhood good police training? “I’d probably challenge ‘tough’,” he says. “I think I had a good childhood. We weren’t financially well off… we didn’t get holidays and things like that, but I don’t regard that as tough. But I think you understand the problems people have who are in those circumstances.”

There was a stigma, he admits, in being born out of wedlock. Did he feel it? “For a while. There were terms like ‘illegitimate’.”

Or “bastard”? “Yes.” Did you get called that? “I didn’t at school actually, no.” It wasn’t the kids but their parents who noted he had no father, he says. “It wasn’t something you shouted about. I’m proud of it now, and I’m proud of what my mother achieved. But it would be right to say at the time that it was regarded as a bit at immoral, a bit off, a bit unusual. It wasn’t routine.”

His mother, Cecilia Hogan, didn’t know he lover Bernard Howe was married until she fell pregnant. “I think part of the plan had been that at my birth he would be divorced, and clearly that didn’t happen.” Cecilia gave the baby his father’s name but he never left his wife and, although he had no other children and remained in the same city, played little part in his son’s life: “I think I saw him about five times.”

Did he support his child financially? “I remember a fiver coming through the letterbox irregularly.” What about Christmas? “Once,” he says. One present, your whole childhood? That’s harsh. “No, because if you’ve never had it, you don’t miss it,” he says, suddenly looking very sad. “It was nice though, the once it happened.”

What did he get? “A crane, a lorry. I’d have been about eight,” he says. “I got scalded once, and I think it came the Christmas after. So I think that was the connection. He turned up because I think I’d asked for it. But beyond that there was no relationship.” Did lacking a father make him determined to prove himself? “Honestly, if anything it was my mum’s push and encouragement.”

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Bernard Howe Sr moved up from the factory floor to manage a steel works. Perhaps his son inherited his father’s brains? He baulks at this. “No, my mum’s.” After scant formal education Cecilia was trained in the army and after the war supervised some of the first factory computers.