If Beverley Hughes could not manage the job of immigration minister, no one could

I regard much recent comment on ministerial responsibility as not only misplaced but counterproductive
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The Independent Online

On Monday, again on Tuesday, and for a third time on Wednesday both the Daily Mail and The Sun ran excoriating editorials on Beverley Hughes, demanding her head. The Sun, eccentrically, complained that it may have displayed too much restraint. "We have said only that she is incompetent and daft. We have not called her devious. Perhaps we should have done."

On Monday, again on Tuesday, and for a third time on Wednesday both the Daily Mail and The Sun ran excoriating editorials on Beverley Hughes, demanding her head. The Sun, eccentrically, complained that it may have displayed too much restraint. "We have said only that she is incompetent and daft. We have not called her devious. Perhaps we should have done."

In a pluralist media, the preoccupations of these papers would be put in perspective by their rivals setting a different agenda or at least offering a different take on the same issue. Unfortunately, competition between British newspapers does not express itself by the pursuit of diversity but by a desperate anxiety not to be left out of the story someone else is running. By Wednesday even The Guardian ran a front-page headline "Ministers on Rack over Migrant Row".

There are several reasons why the latest media campaign over immigration distorts the reality. The most obvious is that if the objective is to reduce the numbers being allowed into Britain, then the Mail and The Sun should be running editorials in praise of Beverley Hughes. On her watch there has been a dramatic turn-round in performance on asylum. The number of asylum applications has halved and the number of removals of migrants who have no legal basis for residence has doubled. Three quarters of all asylum applications are now processed within a rapid two months. You have to admire the sheer effrontery of Michael Howard this week in describing ministers' performance as a "shambles" when on his watch the average period for processing asylum applications was 18 months.

It is entirely possible to advance an alternative line of criticism that this reduction in the numbers has been achieved by reducing asylum-seekers to destitution and refusing refugee status to victims of intimidation who might previously have been accepted, but this is not what worries the right-wing press. They demanded action on migration into Britain, and logically ought to praise, not denounce, the minister who delivered it.

When I made these points in a TV interview this week, I met with the response that no one believes the statistics. There is some truth in that charge. But the reason is not that the figures are fraudulent, but that the remorseless negative publicity on migration in much of the popular media means the public is constantly encouraged to believe the problem is always getting worse, never better.

The standard presentation of immigration as a negative is another factor that distorts reality. It would help to balance the debate if we celebrated more often the powerful contribution to our economy and our culture from the enterprising migrant communities who have made Britain their home. The Treasury released figures a year ago which confirmed that first-generation migrants alone contribute no less than 10 per cent to the nation's GDP, which makes them a more valuable asset than North Sea oil. Ever since, of all people, Enoch Powell as Health Minister chose to recruit in the West Indies for the NHS, many of our hospitals have depended on immigrant workers and professionals to maintain their essential service to the public.

Another reason for keeping a sense of proportion is that neither of the two countries at the centre of the current controversy, Romania and Bulgaria, are the source of large numbers of immigrants. Both are well down the league table of countries of origin of people taking up residence in Britain, and both are candidates for the European Union, membership of which will eventually produce the right to freedom of movement. Until recently, the Conservative Party posed as champions of enlargement of the European Union, although that posture is hard to reconcile with their adamant opposition to any citizen of the new countries actually coming here.

There does, though, appear to have been a notable absence of scepticism about visa applications from these countries, including the celebrated case of the one-legged roof tiler. Beverley Hughes was dignified and brave yesterday in a statement in which she accepted that this problem had been raised with her last year, and to her credit she had asked for action on it at the time.

I have heard surprise expressed that initially she should have failed to recall that warning letter, but it would be no surprise to anyone familiar with the dump-trucks of paperwork that flow through ministerial private offices. And no one is harnessed to a bigger paper treadmill than the minister for immigration. Beverley Hughes was a highly competent and diligent minister who, it is said, frequently took home four red boxes a night. Bluntly, if she could not make the present job work, then probably no one can.

Des Browne merits his promotion to the vacant slot, but he would be wise to make his first priority slimming it down to a manageable task. A good starting point would be to get out from under the requirement to respond every week to hundreds of letters from MPs on individual immigration cases, which probably filled three of those four red boxes.

As Beverley Hughes demonstrated in the Commons when she brandished a sheaf of her correspondence, the very Conservative politicians who complain most that too many people get into the country are as fast as any other MP to make a special case for migrants in their own constituency. Frankly, ministers have no more place in making the individual decision over who is given entry clearance than councillors should have in choosing who gets allocated a house. I and my colleagues should get used to accepting replies on immigration cases from senior officials.

Then the new minister needs to insist that the civil service shoulders maximum delegation for the administration of the machine while he focuses on setting clear policy directions. I regard much of the recent comment on ministerial responsibility as not only misplaced but dangerously counterproductive. Ministers should be held rigidly to account for policy, but it is dishonest for politicians and demotivating for senior civil servants to pretend that ministers can also micro-manage their departments.

If we are to have a grown-up debate on the real role of ministers, we need to drop the fiction that a minister can have meaningful responsibility for every action of every employee. A minister who dedicates himself or herself to knowing absolutely everything going on in their departments will have no time to fulfil their prime job of giving a lead on policy. A system which insists that every decision must be submitted to the minister for approval neither encourages civil servants to accept the challenge of delegation, nor enables the minister to get to grips with the really strategic issues.

Meanwhile both Daily Mail and The Sun should accept that resignation closes this chapter. This week the Mail warned that the saga had been a "propaganda gift" to the BNP. That is certainly the risk of accepting the BNP agenda that immigration is the biggest issue, but challenging that agenda is the responsibility not just of ministers but of the press too.

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