Dominic Lawson: The Clarke affair shows how Tony Blair and his mates have wrecked the Civil Service

Under Prime Minister 'Tony', it was to be first names only in all the great offices of state
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The Independent Online

"I'm fucked. You're fucked. The whole department's fucked. It's the biggest cock-up ever and we're all completely fucked." That, reduced to its very essence, is the predicament of the Civil Service, in the language now deemed appropriate by its most august officials. Alert students of modern British governance will recall that those were the words uttered by Sir Richard Mottram, then Permanent Secretary at the Department for Transport, Local Government and The Regions to Mr Martin Sixsmith. Sir Richard's observations concerned the chaos in his ministry following the revelation that a Labour special adviser within the department, Ms Jo Moore, had described 11 September 2001 as "a good day to bury bad news".

Mr Sixsmith was at the time the department's "director of communications", but, in the now accepted fashion, subsequently revealed his colleague's despairing words to the media.

Now, four and a half years on, the media's gaze has fallen upon the internal workings of the Home Office in the wake of "the foreign prisoners scandal". A week ago, I described this episode as worth only 4.5 on the Richter scale of political earthquakes. This was not meant to mock the efforts of those who protest that Charles Clarke should resign. It merely reflects my opinion that the issue is only a tiny part of a much bigger scandal: the inability of the Home Office and the Probation Service to monitor the vastly greater number of dangerous British criminals released early on licence.

Nevertheless the issue does shed light on the astonishing administrative chaos at the heart of the Home Office. There is no need here to rehearse the entire catalogue of bureaucratic blunders involved. Let's instead just give the latest: yesterday, the Home Office said that it was "unable to give a reason" why it had ignored a judge's recommendation that Caliph Ali Asmar be deported on his release after serving part (not all, naturally) of a two-year sentence for unlawful wounding and possessing an offensive weapon. Caliph Ali Asmar is now the prime suspect in a case of attempted murder and sexual assault on a 15-year-old girl. And no, neither the Home Office nor the police have the foggiest where Mr Asmar is.

In Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, David Cameron produced a letter from "a long- serving official" who claimed that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate had been told not to deport foreign criminals, as they would then have claimed asylum, which in turn would jeopardise Tony Blair's much-vaunted clampdown on asylum-seekers. It's interesting to see, in this leak, yet another example of civil servants' frustration at the Prime Minister's obsession with short-term targets. But I fear that there is a wider problem than that: it's simply that the Home Office seems unable to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Many have written about the extraordinarily wide range of tasks expected of the Home Office, and that the Department of State should now be split into two. Well, perhaps it will - it would certainly appeal to this Government's fetish for rebranding public institutions. But the Home Office has already shed many of its functions over the past 200 years - most recently its responsibility for broadcasting - and for all those years the Home Office managed to get by with just one permanent secretary. Then, during David Blunkett's tenure, the new permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir John Gieve, suddenly felt that he needed two other permanent secretaries to help him run the department, one to rule over "correction" and another to govern "security and crime".

Inside the Home Office it was said, not entirely jokingly, that the reason was that Sir John had more than enough on his hands looking after Mr Blunkett. If that was John Gieve's task, he failed lamentably: under his watch the Secretary of State complained about delays in a visa application for the Filipina nanny of his son by Ms Kimberly Quinn, only without telling the civil servants of his personal interest in the matter. His consequent resignation seems now to have amounted to a hospital pass to Charles Clarke - the great majority of the foreign criminals now being sought by the police were, of course, released under Blunkett's watch.

In the case of the nanny's visa, Mr Blunkett appeared to be treating his senior civil servants in much the same way that his friend the Duchess of Devonshire would regard her domestic staff: as personal, rather than public, servants. He was by no means alone in this.

When she was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the late Mo Mowlam used to delight in telling friends how she would ask members of her security attachment to buy her tampons from the local chemist. Doubtless it amused her to embarrass those stern unbending Protestant males, but, apart from being a shabby way to treat the people attempting to protect her life, it was bound to lead to a breakdown in the mutual respect vital at the top of any organisation. Subsequently Mo Mowlam complained bitterly that she was the only ex-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland not to retain a bodyguard, and blamed Blair for the snub. I suspect the security services simply ran out of officers prepared to put up with her shocking brand of informality.

An excessive informality is, in fact, at the heart of this government's most serious problems with the Civil Service. Remember, during the business of the Iraq weapons of mass destruction dossier, how it was revealed that Alastair Campbell had described the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, who compiled the dossier, as "a mate".

Under the previous administration, indeed under all previous administrations, it would have been inconceivable for a permanent secretary to address his Secretary of State as anything other than that: "Secretary of State". But under Prime Minister "Tony", it was decided that the whole relationship should be reassessed: it was to be first names only throughout all the great offices of state. In return, however, the permanent secretaries had to be "mates". And what that means is that the official can never say "No, Minister." Because that just wouldn't be friendly, right, mate?

So the heads of our Civil Service departments do nothing to restrain Mr Blair and his colleagues from one hare-brained "eye-catching initiative" after another. They have become merely a conveyor belt for political whims, having ceased to be public servants in the truest sense, and as a result Mr Blair has never been made to understand that what he wants at any particular moment is not necessarily in the public interest.

In the relationship between John Prescott and his diary secretary, Tracey Temple, we see in the most literal form what this government has done to a Civil Service that was once a model of probity and detachment. To use Sir Richard Mottram's words, it has been "completely fucked."