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22 January 2007

Don’t let civil servants blame it on us

The logical response to the Home Office crisis is to make Whitehall officials more accountable for t

By Kitty Ussher

While browsing at the second-hand bookshop during the lunch break of the Fabians’ New Year conference, I came across a copy of Barbara Castle’s excellent autobiography, Fighting All the Way. I read how, as a young local councillor, she found herself repeatedly and patronisingly referred to as “the charming young lady” by the male Tory leader of the council, unaccustomed to the thought that people important enough to be councillors could also be women in their twenties.

The inestimable Castle responded: “Leave the human-interest stuff alone during administrative hours,” a retort that secured her her first national newspaper coverage, in 1938.

It occurred to me during the course of the Fabian gathering, where delegates talked of the challenges of reinventing a Labour government after ten years, that if Castle were considering recent news stories she may have come to the opposite view.

The political airwaves in the past week have been dominated by issues devoid of policy content – or human interest – instead boiling down to the administrative relationship that elected politicians have with their civil servants.

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Take the situation at the Home Office. The Home Secretary, John Reid, in post for less than a year and with plenty of issues to sort out, had no idea that some bit of his department had, over time, been stashing away in a side office assorted pieces of paper, in unstandardised formats, that it was being sent from other EU countries. The more serious of these files, on the criminal activities of Brits abroad, were, in any case, replicated by Interpol.

There therefore shouldn’t be the slightest question of him having to consider his position. Ironically, the only action ministers took in this area, little knowing what it would uncover, was to lobby hard for an EU directive that brought in a standardised system for sharing information and required countries to nominate specific national organisations to receive this data.

In the UK, ministers nominated the Association of Chief Police Officers, which meant the moles in the depths of the Home Office happily handed over their guilty secret of 27,000 paper files to Acpo, at which point their existence, not surprisingly, leaked.

Obviously this situation should not have come about, as the permanent secretary admitted to a committee of MPs. But neither is it a ministerial issue, as has already been implied by the suspension of the relevant senior official pending the result of an inquiry.

So, the logical response is either to bemoan the low quality of some civil servants, or to make Whitehall much more accountable for its actions, or inactions – rather than calling for ministerial sackings, as the Conservatives seem intent on doing.

Perhaps we should copy the French or other European countries, where government departments are run by a “cabinet” in which all the top civil service posts are personal appointments of ministers (and civil servants could lose their jobs when the minister stands down or moves on). This way, political accountability is far more clearly defined.

There’s a similar issue in health. The Tories are trying to say that it is somehow a problem for the government if local MPs campaign on behalf of their constituents for or against one or other option proposed by the local health trust. I am quite clear – from personal experience in my own constituency, if nothing else – that there is no such problem.

At the time that these campaigns take place no decision has been made, so, by definition, there is no contradiction with government policy. And even when the consultation is over, those making the decisions are not ministers but the devolved health trusts. They in turn are held to democratic account by a scrutiny committee of elected local councillors of all parties. It is this group that is charged with considering the impact of trust decisions on local patient care.

It becomes a ministerial issue only if it relates to funding, or performance against central targets, or if the trust’s decision is referred to the secretary of state for review by this local committee. If, after a review, a local MP who happens to be a member of the government still disagrees with the verdict of the minister, then, and only then, would it be a problem.

All of this is complicated administrative stuff. But that doesn’t make it wrong. The Conservatives can’t have it both ways. They should either stop trying to make political capital out of administrative matters, or they should accept that the logic of their position is also to argue for far greater political control over, and centralisation of, the machinery of government.

Unfortunately, Barbara Castle’s autobiography gives few clues as to whether this is something she would have supported.

Kitty Ussher is Labour MP for Burnley

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