My first boss: Nazir Afzal, former chief crown prosecutor, on Keir Starmer
Birmingham-born Nazir Afzal was the chief crown prosecutor for north-west England and led the Rochdale grooming gang cases in 2012, overturning a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) not to bring charges.
During his near 25-year career, he nationally led issues of violence against women and girls, child sexual abuse and honour-based violence.
Described as an "outstanding public servant", his book The Prosecutor was published in 2020 and is currently being turned into a British TV drama with Keeley Hawes. In April, he became the University of Manchester's new chancellor.
In 2008, when I was acting chief prosecutor for London, the government appointed Keir Starmer as director for public prosecutions and head of the CPS which meant I directly reported to him.
Keir recognised that one of my key strengths was engagement with the public and he pretty much told me to get out there and explain to the public what we do, why we do it and to bring back intelligence as to what they were concerned about.
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To demonstrate his willingness to do this in his first few weeks, we both went to a school in north London where we explained the role of prosecutors. I hadn’t appreciated that it was a primary school and the conversations turned to police cars and uniforms! But the intent was there and for Keir, with teachers in attendance, it was a first chance to talk about the role.
My first impressions were that he left me to my own devices, which I was delighted about, trusted me and I could share anything or speak with him directly.
He made it his mission, as part of his responsibility for all the prosecutions in England and Wales, to get around everywhere. We were on the road a lot and would occasionally meet at train stations and he wanted me to find him the people — local groups, agencies, charities, NGOs — that he needed to speak to.
We then had to reduce our budgets with a new government and the CPS decided to regionalise as a result. I told Keir that I wanted to move to the north-west where the prosecution service was the equivalent size to London. It was an opportunity to work in a new environment and area where I knew nobody, but with similar case loads when I was chief in London, at a time when my children were relatively young and I never saw them. My quality of life was poor and I explained it to Keir, who quickly understood.
Almost immediately, I found the north-west even more challenging than London and I became aware of the Rochdale grooming gangs. The only way we could bring that case was to admit that we had failed these victims when they had first made a complaint in 2008. Keir was 100% behind the decision to publicly admit that we had got it wrong in the past. He then said we should change the policy, no longer would we say that a decision was unreasonable and we would also use the word "wrong". This was an acknowledgement that we had failed and that we wanted to put them right.
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I had arrived to a baptism of fire, which also included a household which killed a burglar. Under pressure from the national press, I needed to move swiftly and I decided not to prosecute the householder, making it clear that we would stand by those who defend their homes. Again, Keir didn't blink at my decision and he told me to stand in front of the cameras and explain what I had done.
It was about reassurance and Keir was not seeking publicity for himself. Having been a lawyer, he didn’t have the experience of dealing with the public as much as I had. I knew I could lean on him for law and general support, and he looked to me for opening doors to community groups and was prepared to put himself in situations he had never been in before.
When we had the riots and disorders, I came across a situation where the police force couldn’t cope and were using vans to hold people. We managed to open the courts for literally nights in order to free up the capacity. Keir didn’t need explanations and said "yes, let’s do it".
By now I had prosecuted criminals for 20 years, yet nobody had ever come to my home. I had far-right supporters outside my house and needed police protection, while my children went to school in taxis for months. I received thousands of emails and was drowning in the abuse — even though I had got every decision right — and I couldn’t hide away from the abuse cases. I knew my family had to be kept safe and Keir was the first to make that all happen.
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I explained to him that we needed to look at the other sexual abuse cases and to bring forward any which had been dealt with wrongly. In a short space of time we were jointly running these panels and reversing decision after decision, while supporting the police which had brought Max Clifford, Rolf Harris and others before the court. Keir was clear in his mind that history tells us that abuse happened decades ago and he simply asked what resources I needed.
I had known previous bosses who had said if there was any media, that they would deal with it and they were quick to take credit for successes. With Keir it was never the case and in his mind I had become the expert. I hope in some small way we have changed the landscape of child protection.
Keir left in 2013, the CPS having gone from being dire at doing sex abuse cases to having the highest conviction rate in our history. That wouldn’t have been possible without the support, resources and the protection I was given by Keir, at a time when it would have been easier to give up.
The Race to the Top: Structural Racism and How to Fight It by Nazir Afzal (Harper Collins) will be published in September.