Goodbye to ministerial responsibility
With the latest scandal of Home Office incompetence and failure comes another rusty nail in the rotting coffin of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility.
The widely publicised scandal is the Home Office's failure for the past eight or nine years to ensure that foreigners imprisoned for serious crimes — and in many cases recommended by the judges at their trials for deportation at the end of their sentences — are actually deported. The home secretary's written statement of 25 April 2006 admits, following searching questions from House of Commons committees and MPs,
that, to the best of my knowledge, between February 1999 and March 2006, 1023 foreign national criminals, who should have been considered for deportation or removal, completed their prison sentences and were released without any consideration of deportation or removal action. This is deeply regrettable and I wish to outline in this statement how we intend to improve our performance.
It turns out that those who should have been 'considered for deportation', but weren't, include 3 murderers, 2 other killers, 54 guilty of grievous bodily harm, 9 rapists, 4 kidnappers, 41 burglars, 4 arsonists, 52 thieves, 93 robbers, 204 drug offenders, 57 convicted of other violent offences and 39 of other sex offences. The Home Office doesn't know what offences had been committed by another 103. Of the 160 explicitly recommended by their trial judges for deportation, precisely five had actually been deported. Of the 1,023 now identified as having been released into the community without any consideration having been given to deporting them, the Home Office has so far tracked down 107.
These figures defy belief. Dereliction of elementary duty by what purports to be a great department of state on such a heroic scale must be almost unprecedented. Yet the home secretary, Charles Clarke, has so far (as of mid-afternoon on 26 April) rejected all calls on him to resign. In numerous media interviews since the release of his statement, in today's combative oral statement to the House of Commons and again repeatedly in answers to questions following that statement, he has asserted that he accepts full personal responsibility for these calamitous failures but insisted that this implies a 'responsibility' for ensuring that urgent corrective measures are now taken, a responsibility for whose discharge he intends to remain in office. But this is a cynical play on words. Acceptance of responsibility for a colossal failure in the department of which he is in charge is meaningless unless he resigns. What else can it mean? That he acknowledges that he, among others, is to blame? Yes, he acknowledges that. But is it not the duty of a minister who acknowledges that he is to blame for failure to resign? It was once so: apparently no more. The only sense in which Clarke genuinely accepts any 'responsibility' is by nimbly skipping to a quite different sense of the word, namely 'duty': he is obliged, he says, to keep his job because he has a 'responsibility' to repair the damage done by his and his department's failures, and to see to it that they don't happen any more.
In questions after this afternoon's statement Crispin Blunt, MP (Con.), a former cavalry officer in the 13th/18th Royal Hussars (Queen Mary's Own), invited the home secretary to reflect on the novel variant of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility that he had just enunciated, namely that the greater the shambles in the department over which a minister presided, the greater his responsibility to remain in office in order to sort it out. Mr Clarke had no answer to that. There isn't one.
This contemptuous rejection of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility is in many ways more damaging to our democracy than the damage to our security done by the release into the community of a thousand or so foreigners who have been sent to prison as criminals and who ought to have at least been considered for deportation. After all, there are in the community many more than 1,023 people who have served their sentences for violent and other crimes but who can't be deported on release because they are British citizens. Many of these are out on licence or probation or other forms of continuing supervision and surveillance, but several recent cases have demonstrated the obvious truth that no amount of supervision can guarantee that such people will not offend again. Of course the failure to assess more than a thousand criminals for deportation represents a shocking indictment of the Home Office and its senior ministers. But they are no greater a threat than the thousands more who can't be deported anyway. By contrast, the hammer-blow inflicted on the doctrine of ministerial responsibility by Clarke's refusal to resign gravely weakens a central tenet of our parliamentary democracy. That he is but the latest in a long line of resignation-averse failed ministers makes matters worse, not better.
Mr Clarke has now admitted that he told the prime minister yesterday that if Mr Blair thought he should resign, he would (a statement of the luminously obvious, incidentally). Mr Blair saw no reason for him to take such a step. According to the Guardian's report this morning,
Downing Street supported him, adding that it did not expect ministers "to know what is going on in every nook and cranny in their department."
This is pernicious nonsense. Quite apart from the fact that an admitted systemic failure on a massive scale can hardly be described as having been buried in some nook or cranny of the department, it is the duty of ministers to know how their departments are discharging their responsibilities, and if they don't know (because no-one has had the guts to tell them), it's their duty to find out. It's also their duty to ensure that the senior officials in their departments can be relied on to keep their fingers on the pulses of all the department's activities — even those in nooks and crannies — and to sound the alarm (including informing the minister promptly and frankly) when things go wrong. Ministers have a duty, too, to ensure that they receive regular and detailed reports on all aspects of the department's activities and to ask searching questions about them. An essential bit of equipment for an even averagely competent and responsible minister is sensitive antennae that will pick up the first rumblings of things not going quite right somewhere in the department. Another is the ability to sense which of his officials can be trusted to spot problems and to discuss them with the political boss before they gallop off into the sunset. The fact that Charles Clarke, although the son of a senior civil servant and Permanent Secretary, has no understanding of these fundamental requirements on the part of a Secretary of State is confirmed by this astonishingly naive and revealing extract from his written statement of 25 April:
The Immigration and Nationality Directorate is working with other relevant Government Departments to continue to strengthen the handling of these prisoners. This includes consideration of the sentencing options and improvements in identifying and processing of these prisoners to ensure that as many are removed from the United Kingdom as soon as possible. I will also bring together the key players from the departments involved at least twice a year at Ministerial level and quarterly at senior official level to create and take ownership of an effective strategy for dealing with these issues. [My emphasis — BLB]
"At least twice a year"! "At ministerial level" — i.e. not necessarily even at the level of the home secretary himself! "Quarterly at senior official level"! Did none of the home secretary's officials think fit to point out to him the devastating inadequacy of these pathetic undertakings before they were published?
Asked in a television interview in what circumstances he thought a minister should resign, if not in these, Clarke replied that resignation would be required only by personal failure or misconduct; implying that a minister could not be held responsible for his department's failures provided that he had been ignorant of them, however culpable the ignorance. No surprise, then, that this self-serving definition was warmly and rapidly endorsed by two of his predecessors, David Blunkett and Michael Howard, neither of them a stranger to debates on culpable responsibility for departmental failures. But even on his own defective definition, by (rightly) accepting personal responsibility for the Home Office's 'systemic' failure in this instance, Clarke should have resigned by now, as Howard, creature of the night, was also quick to point out.
There's a pleasing paradox in the fact that Clarke should have been precipitated into this career-threatening crisis only hours after launching a series of coordinated and ferocious personal attacks on a select few of his media critics, and on a distinguished former Law Lord, who have accused him of creeping authoritarianism because of the steady erosion of our civil liberties over which he has presided under cover of the misnamed 'war on terror'. Mr Clarke's attacks blatantly misrepresent the criticisms that have been made and are unprecedentedly personal in character:
Clarke rounds on 'poisoners' among liberal media critics
· Anger at attacks in Guardian and Observer
· 'Too many' accuse the government of tyranny
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
The Guardian Tuesday April 25, 2006
The home secretary, Charles Clarke, last night claimed that unfounded attacks by his liberal critics on the government's civil liberties record amounted to a new "pernicious and even dangerous poison" in parts of the British media.
He said that too many media critics of the new anti-terror laws and Asbo powers were too ready to accuse the government of destroying democracy and constructing tyranny. "And too many resort to misrepresentation and deceit to try and strengthen their case." He fingered as "poisoners" liberal commentators in the Guardian, Observer and Independent, in a speech last night at the London School of Economics to mark a new phase in the government's offensive over its civil liberties record. In the face of complex debates on the balance between liberty and security, he complained, much media commentary reduced the argument to incorrect, tendentious and simplistic rhetoric. …
Mr Clarke, who yesterday issued a nine-page reply to charges against him by Simon Carr, an Independent columnist, said such pieces were "symptomatic of a more general intellectual laziness which seeks to slip on to the shoulders of modern democratic states the mantle of dictatorial power." He singled out two Guardian columns by Jenni Russell, who had argued that Tony Blair's administration was engaged in a "furious power grab" and removing the safeguards that protect everyone from the whims of government.
"These are ridiculous assertions, unsupported in a long article by any hint of understanding the balance of powers which currently exist in our society, whether legal or political," claimed Mr Clarke. His attack followed an unprecedented exchange of emails over the weekend between Tony Blair and the Observer columnist Henry Porter. He also focused his anger on a recent lecture by Lord Steyn, the former law lord, reported in the Guardian as an attack on the government's creeping authoritarianism. Mr Clarke said that Lord Steyn had accused him of seeking to "nobble the judiciary" – an accusation he found offensive and absurd.
As the Guardian report rightly commented,
In fact Lord Steyn did not accuse the home secretary of "nobbling" in his Guardian article on Saturday. He was referring to comments by Mr Clarke that he had found it frustrating that he had not met any of the law lords and voiced his concern that a "cosy relationship between ministers and the law lords would be a worrying development".
Either Mr Clarke doesn't understand the concerns and criticisms voiced by judges, civil rights champions, the liberal media, and many others — in which case he has no business being home secretary, regardless of his responsibility for that department's failures over the non-deportation of criminal foreigners: or he does understand them but deliberately chooses to misrepresent them and to seek to blacken his critics — in which case he has no business being in democratic politics at all.
It is sad to have to write in these terms about Charles Clarke, in many ways a serious and reflective politician of far greater sensitivity than any of his recent predecessors, not to mention that he and I still somehow contrive to preserve a commitment to the same political party. But I write not only as a long-time supporter of Old Labour but also as a former civil servant who has seen good and bad ministers come and go — good ones mostly going, bad ones mostly coming. Many of us had cautious hopes, when he succeeded the appalling Blunkett, that he would discreetly assert his authority over a famously incompetent, illiberal, power-hungry and unprincipled home office, bring it under proper political control, reform its management and systems, and begin to repair some at least of the ravages of his predecessors. Alas, no such thing has happened. Once again the home office has brought its latest boss under its own control, and destroyed him in the process. Come back, Roy Jenkins: almost all is forgiven!
The Opposition, Conservative and LibDem, is right to call for Charles Clarke's resignation. It will be another scandal if he succeeds in clinging to office on the basis of a bad pun.
 Interestingly, I have failed to find Charles Clarke's 9-page reply (14 pages according to The Independent) to Simon Carr's column in the Independent anywhere on the Home Office website, despite prolonged and ingenious searches and the fact that the media have widely reported and quoted it, including a long edited version in The Independent itself. It may be over-charitable to attribute this apparent shyness to yet another example of home office incompetence. Or did it suddenly dawn on its author that as the deportation scandal broke over his generously proportioned head, this was not the ideal time to leave on the record a swingeing attack on the media? Perish the thought.
Update: Many thanks to Phil, whose comment below shows that he has a better mastery over search engines than I do, and that the mysterious multi-page attack by Charles Clarke on Simon Carr's Independent column is still to be found on the Home Office website after all.