Philip Hensher: Our freedoms have been steadily eroded

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The Independent Online

A growing consensus has it that the Home Office, that most nightmarish and Orwellian of government departments, is not working because it's just too big. It would be nice to be able to ascribe the department's awful few months to so elementary a problem. The department does have a tendency to end careers, but there was no real argument that Clarke had to go. The responsible civil servant revealed gleefully, or so it seemed to many observers, that the Government had no idea about the number of illegal asylum-seekers in the country; claiming, too, what can hardly be true, that it didn't know how many had been told to leave.

Now persistent rumours about immigration officials demanding sexual favours from women applicants have been shown to be true. The department had been issuing constant denials about these rumours: one had assumed that their confidence sprang from their having investigated the claims. Obviously not. We are, after all, not living in Nigeria. The idea that a British civil servant should invite sexual bribes sounded quite implausible. But then a Sunday newspaper published tapes of a British civil servant doing exactly that.

The problem, we are asked to believe, is the unwieldy size of the Home Office, and its range of responsibilities. With about 75,000 staff, it is responsible for policing, immigration, passports and the proposed ID card, prison and probation services, and some aspects of criminal justice. The reason it doesn't work, it has been suggested, is that ministers can't possibly keep an eye on all these issues at once. It would be better for the Home Office to be split up, or - the Conservative suggestion - for an additional Home Office minister responsible for national security to sit in Cabinet.

I strongly dislike all these suggestions, and particularly worry about the suggestion that security be given a voice. Almost anything these days can be justified with an allusion to "security". The other day, flying to Dublin, we were all instructed by Aer Lingus to hold our passports open as we approached the boarding gate "for security reasons".

If the stewardesses had told us to put one hand on our hearts and sing "Danny Boy" "for security reasons" one would have had no choice. Our freedoms have been appallingly eroded in the last nine years, and almost all at the behest of "security" concerns. None of these, you may be sure, will ever be rolled back. If the voices of "security" gained a seat in Cabinet, to do nothing but advocate ever-tighter security, there is no reason to think they will become more accountable.

At present, the various responsibilities of the Home Office bear a rational relationship to each other. The authoritarian tendency can be held to account by the concerns of other directorates. Hiving "security" off will just create another MI5, restricting the supply of information within and outside Whitehall in order to inflate its own importance. Our lives are dictated to far too much by jumped-up car-park attendants as it is. Let's keep the Home Office as it is, and concentrate on finding what we haven't seen since Jack Straw, a competent Home Secretary.

A cruel and demeaning spectacle

I know the whole thing is a freak show, inviting us to laugh at the sordid extremities of human behaviour. Nevertheless, Big Brother has crossed a boundary this year by including a contestant with Tourette's Syndrome. Enlightened attitudes towards this mental condition are not obviously encouraged by asking people to be entertained by Pete Stephenson, left, uncontrollably shouting "Wankers". A sentiment, of course, to which every bosom returns an echo, but still...

It was distressing to see the poor man leave the house to let a fit of ticcing run its course in the garden; the cameras followed him. And perhaps Ms Davina McCall could be asked not to imitate his facial tics for our amusement. Whatever next? A schizophrenic? Someone with Down's Syndrome? If Endemol have no concern for the participants' human dignity, perhaps they could think of the dignity of the viewers.

* I felt for poor Andy Parsons, whose flight from Angers to Manchester, courtesy of Aer Arann, turned into a 30-hour marathon via Nantes, Cork, Waterford and Dublin. Two months ago, flying to Khartoum via Cairo, I found myself on a magical mystery tour which mysteriously took in Madrid and Athens as well.

What was amazingly apparent was the total lack of sympathy, and indeed open amusement, expressed by the airline staff every step of the way, culminating in the non-appearance of my bags. I'm still waiting, incidentally, two months on, for Olympic Airways to track down my suitcase, or, indeed, to get in touch to explain anything other than "It's not our fault". The truth is that, herded from place to place, we are at their mercy and there is nothing whatever we can do about it. Nothing, either, can you expect in the way of sympathy or practical help if, like me, you find yourself, thanks to their incompetence, having to buy two weeks' worth of clothes in the unpromising boutiques of Khartoum.

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