Shifting blame for Home Office mistakes in dealing with asylum seekers
It is not easy for human beings to acknowledge their own mistakes, failures or faults especially those affecting other people’s life. Expressions like: ‘I’m sorry. It was my fault. I am totally responsible! ‘ are rarely heard today. In fact, even when a fault is admitted, every effort is made to shift the blame on someone else or to rely on mitigating circumstances. This is particularly true when it comes to Ministerial Responsibility. Government Officials always find it easy to censure, to castigate, to reprove the common people; but when it comes to their own shortcomings or to their department’s failing the task turns out to be unbearable.
They often hire the service of clever men known as advisers or Spin Doctors to try to manipulate information in order to plaster or embellish their image. What is happening now in the department of the Home Office confirms this. Steve Moxon is a civil servant working as a Home Office official in Sheffield, now being suspended for exposing a secret immigration policy which waived key checks to deal with a backlog of cases of East European Asylum Seekers by allowing them to stay in UK without a proper immigration check.
He exposed all the facts and it was difficult to challenge them. But instead of admitting her department’s responsibility, the Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes, insisted that ‘neither ministers nor Home Office officials were aware that thousands of East European migrants have been admitted with inadequate checks. ‘1 How could such a hole be kicked through established policy without Home Office knowledge? It is difficult to believe. In a democratic society, the use of civil power is a profound responsibility.
Holders of public offices can only exercise their authority legitimately if they do so in accordance with principles, rules, and procedures agreed by or acceptable to the society at large, and it is incumbent upon the public officials to justify their decisions with good reasons if challenged. Failure to do so will likely render their exercise of civil power unacceptable. Recently, the death of Doctor David Kelly left many people in shock, and the public wants to know if the UK government of the day was to blame.
Before evaluating ministerial accountability in the tragedy surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly, it is worth defining the role of civil servants and that of non-governmental advisors in the British Constitution. Ministers hold a legitimate power must be subject to public scrutiny through Parliament. Power holders who fail the test of public scrutiny will be held responsible, and they will have to step down from their offices if those failures are regarded as sufficiently serious, this is known as Ministerial Accountability.
It is important to highlight that there are two types of Ministerial Accountability. Collective Accountability which concerns the Government as a whole; they should all speak the same language and be united in action. If one of them thinks that a collective agreement is not reached in a decision made, he has the right to resign and this is a clear indication of pointing out that something is wrong. In other words, Ministers should explain and justify government decisions and be responsible for their potential consequences. They should also facilitate a public scrutiny when confronted.
Ministers are also accountable for their personal misbehaviour and their department’s policy decisions; this is known as Personal Accountability. It is now worth considering the position of Civil Servants. Civil servants are servants of the Crown and are accountable to Ministers. The Crown in this context means and is represented by the Government of the day. 2 In other words, a civil servant is someone who works in one of the central Government departments as an administrative, a professional technician or an official working in any civil capacity other than politic, judiciary or army forces.
On the other hand, non-governmental advisors are known as Special Advisers or Spin Doctors. All Ministerial departments have one or more Special Advisers who are personal appointees of the Secretary of State, but employed as temporary civil servants. Their role is to give presentational and policy advice to Ministers, to help them write political speeches and articles, and if necessary add a political dimension to speeches drafted by officials. They work closely with Private Offices and Press Offices and give advice in parallel with line divisions.
But now it can be argued that Special Advisers have more power than before in that they can commission work on their own account, and not just on behalf of Ministers. In the modern context Civil Servants now serve Special Advisers as well as Ministers. 4 Constitutionally, civil servants are accountable to Ministers and Ministers to Parliament and should remain politically neutral. This is very important because they are meant to serve different governments and maintain continuation.
Ministers should be seen to be responsible and accountable for the working of their Departments, this is why traditionally Civil Servants have always been shielded from the public gaze and protected from public inquiry. Civil Servants are not accountable to Parliament; they are protected by the concept of anonymity. 5 Nevertheless, Civil servants are under an obligation to keep confidential all matters they encounter in the course of their work. There is and must be a general duty upon every civil servant, serving or retired, not without authority to make disclosures which breach that obligation.
Any such unauthorised disclosures may result in disciplinary action including the possibility of dismissal. Sometimes Civil servants find themselves in situations where they are required or expected to give information to a Parliamentary Select Committee, to the media, or to individuals. In doing so they should be guided by the policy of the Government on evidence to Select Committees and by the requirements of security and confidentiality. The civil servant’s first duty is to his or her Minister.
Thus, when a civil servant gives evidence to a Select Committee on the policies or actions of his or her Department, he or she does so as the representative of the Minister in charge of the Department and subject to the Minister’s instructions and is accountable to the Minister for the evidence which he or she gives. The ultimate responsibility lies with Ministers, and not with civil servants, to decide what information should be made available, and how and when it should be released. 6 Coming now to the problem surrounding the death of Dr.
Kelly, it is right to say that the Government was not united in connection with the legal reasons of going to war against Iraq and this moved Mr. Robin Cook, former Foreign Secretary and the leader of the House of Commons to resign. Mr. Cook made it clear in his speech before he resigned: “I can’t accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support. It is for that reason and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the government. “7 Robin was not the only one who decided to resign.
The International Development Secretary Clare Short resigned from the government as well. She explained the reasons why she quitted: “I have decided to resign from the government. I think it is right to explain my reasons to the House of Commons to whom I have been accountable as secretary of state for international development – a post I have been deeply honoured to hold and am very sad to leave. I had many criticisms of the way in which events leading up to the conflict in Iraq were handled. I offered my resignation to the prime minister on a number of occasions but was pressed by him and others to stay.
However, the problem now is that the mistakes that were made in the period leading up to the conflict are being repeated in the post-conflict situation. “8 Proofs are very difficult to challenge and all tend to point an accusing finger in the direction of the Prime Minister about the incentive of the war against Iraq. If the Government was innocent, how could ministers and special advisors resign? The Deputy Legal Adviser, Elizabeth Wilmhurst, was also unhappy with the government’s official line of having sufficient basis for war against Iraq.
Announcing her resignation, a foreign office spokesman said: ‘a legal advisor has decided to leave over the last few days, but refused to disclose the reason. ‘9 Wilmhurst, 54, had been a legal adviser for 30 years and deputy legal adviser since 1997. Her resignation was a true ’embarrassment’ to Blair as well as to the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and raised tremendous doubts about the legal basis for the war. Earlier, Junior Health Minister Lord Hunt and John Denham the Home Office Minister resigned over Government’s policy on war in Iraq.
If their position is true, the Government’s conduct in connection with the war in Iraq would amount in the breach of section three of ministerial code of conduct which states: “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation. “11 Doctor Kelly was a civil servant attached to the Ministry of Defence as an expert.
Through Hutton Inquiry it can be said that Dr. Kelly disclosed some information to Mr. Andrew Gilligan, the defence and diplomatic correspondent of the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4, about the Government dossier on Weapon of Mass Destruction made public on 24 September 2002 where the Prime Minister made a clear statement to all UK nationals saying: “Intelligence reports make clear that Saddam sees the building up of his WMD capability, and the belief overseas that he would use these weapons, as vital to his strategic interests, and in particular his goal of regional domination.
And the document discloses that his military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them. I am quite clear that Saddam will go to extreme lengths, indeed has already done so, to hide these weapons and avoid giving them up. “12 Through Prime Minister’s speech, it was clearly mentioned that Saddam would use some of his WMD within 45 minutes although this was intelligently changed during the Hutton Inquiry. Whatever Dr. Kelly could say, it would amount in breach of Civil Servants Code of Conduct.
It is not allowed to disclose any information if not commissioned to do so. Any criticisms, real or perceived, would be dynamite in the hands of any journalist and be used against the Government. Senior professional civil servants working in Government Departments are just like lawyers and doctors; they never talk about their clients. It was right to question Dr. Kelly for potential discipline. But it was not fair to publicly shame him by giving the press the opportunity of naming him, and it is this fatal mistake which forced him to commit suicide.
As previously mentioned, ministers are members or supporters of the party in power which holds political office, who often have departmental responsibilities for which they are politically responsible to Parliament as individuals. Ministers are thus responsible for their own actions, a concept known as individual responsibility, and are accountable for the actions of their departments. Civil servants and Special Advisers are accountable to ministers. Although the functions of Civil Servants and Special Advisers seem to overlap, this allows good scrutiny and a second check on all major decisions springing from each Government Department.
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