Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Sir Humphreys to Blame for Yet Another Home Office Debacle

It's a strange thing, maybe, to say I feel a bit sorry for John Reid as Home Secretary. But then I felt sorry for Charles Clarke too and for similar reasons. The scandal about the 1000 foreign prisoners being released last year which precipitated the less than gracious exit of the burly Clarke is dauntingly similar to the present bit of turbulence about 500 offenders of serious crimes in various parts of Europe. It seems the information relating to them was sent to the Home office but has been collecting dust in files rather than being entered into the police national computer and appropriate action taken.

Instantly the opposition, not to mention, I suspect, sections of the police, have been calling for Reid's balding pate. But, speaking as a former(briefly and ingloriously) civil servant, I would suggest that it's not Clarke or Reid who should be in the firing line but Sir John Gieve, former Permanent Secretary to the Home Office (now safely departed to a billet in the Bank of England) and Sir David Normington, the present incumbent. Typically, we understand, it is ministers who construct policy while it is civil servants who administer it.

At the same time it is ministers, according to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, upon whose desks the buck stops. Well, up to a point Lord Copper. There has to be limits to what one expects a minister to do; in a department like the Home Office there are so many responsibilities for the politician in charge one cannot reasonably expect him or her( actually don't think there has been a woman Home Secretary) to monitor every aspect of this sprawling empire.

I would think it more reasonable to expect such a routine job to be performed by departmental desk officers-that's what they get their pay and fat pensions for after all. If the task was performed badly, or not at all, then it seems bizarre to blame the guy at the very top of the pyramid. You wouldn't, for example, blame the chief executive of Mercedes if your luxury car was not serviced with expected Teutonic thoroughness but take your complaint to the garage exercising the franchise. It's Sir Humphrey and co. who should carry the can on this one.

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