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

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.”

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.

Hogan-Howe – he added his mother’s name by deed poll when he was 18 – was bright. But this was the first era of comprehensive education in South Yorkshire so he didn’t take the 11-plus. “I remember being bitterly disappointed that I didn’t have that chance – and my mum was – because I thought I could have done quite well. And in that era, grammar school was your passport to great things. That was our belief.”

Instead he went to Hinde House School.

“It wasn’t Eton, put it that way,” he says drily.

“We only had two riots. They weren’t too bad. And one football game when all the coach windows got put in.” What was your role in the riots? He laughs: “I was one of four kids who stayed inside the school.” Always so well behaved, I say. His mother’s values, he replies: “She had a very clear sense of right and wrong.”

He wanted to be a doctor and was offered a place to study medicine at Sheffield University. But he failed to get the grades – “a great disappointment” – and took a job in an NHS histopathology laboratory where he pored over tissue samples for four years. The routine bored him “and the only patients we saw, sadly, were dead”.

Policing had always been at the back of his mind: “Probably on the grounds that tall, thin men become policemen, as I’m told, and small, fat people become butchers.” Then he adds that he’d always “hated bullies getting away with things” and loved meeting new people.

And the police is perhaps the only socially mobile profession left. Hogan-Howe is effusively grateful for how the force spotted his potential, gave him a career. He excelled at the national sergeant’s exam and was allowed to apply for an accelerated promotion course where other candidates were graduates. Since he didn’t have a degree, he was sent to Merton College, Oxford to read law then criminology at Cambridge.

Are careers too degree-obsessed now? “The police don’t demand a degree. In fact, we don’t really demand a certain level of educational attainment,” he says. “But it’s nice to have a degree. Until I eventually graduated at 31, I was probably guilty of being a bit pushy, trying to prove I had a brain.” University taught him to order his thinking: the accelerated promotion course prepared him to lead, enabling him to overcome his dread of public speaking. Indeed his mind is so systematic he seems to talk in bullet points.

In their year following the Met, the BBC crew witnessed the full complexity of modern policing. After the fatal stabbing of Chris Foster outside a Borough Market pub in south London in 2013, detectives trawled through thousands of hours of CCTV, tracing back the attackers’ footsteps via cashpoints and cinemas.

CCTV is the main reason why 95 per cent of London murders are solved. And Hogan-Howe believes all businesses should point cameras down towards the street to pick up faces.

Does he not acknowledge fears Britain is turning into a surveillance culture, with police seeking even greater powers? He argues the force is forbidden from using technology enjoyed by, say, Uber cabs.

“They will know where your phone is and where the taxi is and then put you together. But when people ring the police, we haven’t got a clue where that phone is. You may have been stabbed and expect us to come and help.” You can’t use location data? “Not in real time. We have to make an emergency application, there’s a process to go through.”

Throughout the 90s, Hogan-Howe rose through the South Yorkshire force. He moved to Merseyside in 1997 and was appointed Chief Constable there in 2004, before becoming the Metropolitan Commissioner in September 2011.

His late mother, I say, must have been proud. Did his father follow his career? “I don’t know. The last time I saw him I was around 18. I remember seeing him walking through a subway in Sheffield.” You didn’t try to speak to him? “No. I had nothing to say.” What would you say to him now if he was still alive? “As you get older, you want to hear a little more about someone’s reasoning. I’d probably want to hear his side.”

Hogan-Howe gets into the office just after 7am, stays until 6pm, then there’s always a meeting. Tonight “with the Home Sec and the new justice minister”, then a Crimestoppers dinner. But he tries to keep weekends free or takes a day off in lieu, or “I get really ratty”. His wife Marion never complains about his 15-hour days. But then she has always known what his career entailed.

They met 13 years ago when he was sent to the Royal Mews to have his routine horsemanship test: Marion was assistant to the Crown equerry in charge of the Queen’s horses. (Hogan-Howe learnt to ride in Merseyside, spending Saturday mornings with the mounted division, riding and mucking out to overcome his fear of horses. He became so proficient that as Chief Constable he led the Grand National parade.) Now he and Marion like to ride together at weekends and have their own horses stabled outside London.

I mention a moment in the series, when, during the Notting Hill carnival amid deafening sound systems, he remarks, “Maybe it’s my age, but this is awful.”

The police PR sitting in tries to say the Commissioner was responding to something in his earpiece. But Hogan-Howe says, “Even if I did say it, I would stand by it because it’s not my music.” What is? “Opera.”

Does he watch cop shows? “I always enjoyed Prime Suspect: that’s quite gritty,” he says. “I liked the thoroughness of it. The people are passionate but they know it’s complex, and they don’t let go. People sometimes think detectives are big extroverts with loud ties. But the best detectives listen carefully, speak less, pay attention to detail and are patient.”

Yet he doesn’t think movies glamorise crime. He believes cops and writers share a mutual nosiness. “I’m interested in people’s backgrounds, their motivations: when something happens, who said what to whom.” And, he adds, policing is exciting: “From time to time it is blue lights, going quickly, that chase. That great event, the arrest… That’s why we joined.”

The Met: Policing London starts Monday June 8th at 9pm on BBC1 (10.35pm in Scotland)

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