Did Blunkett's officials help him to avoid scrutiny?

Sir Alan Budd's report must consider the actions of civil servants at the Home Office
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The Independent Online

When David Blunkett resigned last week as Home Secretary before Sir Alan Budd's report was published, I thought that was the end of the business. Sir Alan's findings on the question whether a visa application had been fast-tracked would appear in due course and merely confirm what Mr Blunkett had said when he left office. It would be an extraordinary state of affairs if the departure of a Home Secretary didn't set to rest all the outstanding issues.

When David Blunkett resigned last week as Home Secretary before Sir Alan Budd's report was published, I thought that was the end of the business. Sir Alan's findings on the question whether a visa application had been fast-tracked would appear in due course and merely confirm what Mr Blunkett had said when he left office. It would be an extraordinary state of affairs if the departure of a Home Secretary didn't set to rest all the outstanding issues.

But it hasn't done so. Not least because Mr Blunkett has cast doubt on Sir Alan's judgement even before the report appears. "Somebody said to me [Blunkett], who is in the know on this, that Alan Budd appears to have been as mesmerised by Kimberly Quinn [the mistress] as you." That quotation appeared in The Independent on Sunday yesterday. Why has this strong man not observed a dignified silence? Is it just the reflex of Labour Party professionals to rubbish their critics? Or is it also because Mr Blunkett's explanation is coming apart at the seams?

The limited versions of what Sir Alan has discovered show that the document the Home Secretary took into his office was not, as he stated publicly and Home Office officials repeated, the visa application of his mistress's nanny but, at a later date, an official letter warning her of a year's delay. Mr Blunkett says he has witnesses backing his account. Yet Sir Alan has either not found them or not believed them.

Pause for a moment. There have been so many startling developments in this story of the poor boy brought down by the pampered rich - as Mr Blunkett now sees it - that we may be in danger of underestimating the significance of what Sir Alan may uncover. For I am beginning to think that the story isn't yet half over. The big question now concerns the behaviour of senior Home Office officials, starting with John Gieve, the Permanent Secretary. There has been something very odd about their actions.

It has been confirmed, for instance, that two senior officials were sent to a meeting with the mistress after the News of the World had said it was going to reveal details of the relationship with Mr Blunkett. There has been no satisfactory explanation of why public servants became involved in their minister's private business other than to say that they conducted their mission "in their lunch hours".

Note the sheer effrontery of that reply. Unfortunately Sir Alan's report won't deal with this serious issue, but it does put us on notice that we may be looking at a case of corruption within the civil service.

Go a step further. When a Home Office official was asked by journalists about the nanny's visa application, he said: "The only contact David had with the application was when he checked over the form initially. He has repeatedly made that clear." We now know that this response was completely untrue.

Mr Blunkett put the letter telling of a year's delay into his official box. At that point it became official business. This same letter was forwarded to immigration officials. A follow-up letter was later dispatched. The visa application was swiftly granted and Home Office officials were told that the matter had been handled with "no favours but slightly quicker".

Mr Blunkett says: "Nobody gave an instruction, nobody gave a directive, nobody asked anybody to fast track this case and Budd will not be able to show that anybody did because they damn well didn't." Sir Alan's report will tell us whether the former Home Secretary is deluding himself. But I am now more interested in the action of the officials.

Why did they keep all this to themselves? We are not asking them personally to remember every detail of everything they do in their work because we don't need to. They have at their disposal their office filing systems and their department's records.

Indeed the Home Office probably has an official whose sole task is to manage the department's records and archives. Material that concerns the activities of the Home Secretary himself will be kept in a more complete form than anything else.

This is the extraordinary thing. It beggars belief that the Permanent Secretary didn't order an immediate search of the records when the charges against Mr Blunkett were first made. It is incredible that the truth wasn't fairly quickly discovered. The Civil Service always keeps paper trails, all good bureaucracies do so. All that was to be known about Mr Blunkett's case was undoubtedly available to officials from the first day.

This leaves two possibilities. Either high officials didn't examine their records despite the gravity of the charges that were being made. Not to do so was to run the risk of compromising their minister and embarrassing the Prime Minister. Or high officials did indeed examine the relevant files and they decided to say nothing. Which is worse. It has all the consequences of the first course of action plus the additional charge that they engaged in a cover up. It brings them into disrepute as well as their minister. Sir Alan's report considers the actions of the former Home Secretary. I shall read it to see whether senior civil servants have behaved dishonestly.

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