The retreat from ministerial responsibility

If an al-Qa'ida suicide bomber had killed the whole Royal Family, it would have changed the world
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There is a peculiarly infuriating conversation which seems to arise more and more often these days: the conversation with an employee of an organisation who seems to regard it as having no especial connection with themselves. Recently, a company sent me a book, quite unrequested, and, a week later, a bill for £18 or so. I threw both in the bin.

There is a peculiarly infuriating conversation which seems to arise more and more often these days: the conversation with an employee of an organisation who seems to regard it as having no especial connection with themselves. Recently, a company sent me a book, quite unrequested, and, a week later, a bill for £18 or so. I threw both in the bin.

A month or two later, another bill arrived, and then a series of steadily more threatening letters, at which point I phoned them. "I don't know why you sent me the book in the first place," I said. "I didn't want it. I strongly object to you sending me demands for payment, and I strongly object to being threatened with court action, and I wish you'd stop it." The employee I was speaking to said, simply: "Well, I didn't send them to you." "But it was your firm that sent them," I said. "Yes, but it wasn't me," she said.

Something like that is happening in government, and it ought to cause us great concern. Two episodes this week, one apparently trivial, the other more obviously significant, showed what the effects of the "it wasn't me" defence are for transparency and accountability. You will have guessed how my conversation with the book club continued; I asked, ironically, if it would be possible to speak with whoever it was that was persecuting me in this way: I was told that she didn't know who it had been, and anyway, I couldn't speak to them. That, pretty well, is the way in which scrutiny of two significant issues is going to be frustrated: by the Government declining to make it clear who, exactly, is responsible in any given case, and letting the whole thing sputter out in an arid debate about first principles.

In the first case, the degree to which things have recently changed is made absolutely clear by a direct precedent. The incident of the "alternative comedian" who gatecrashed Prince William's birthday party has been treated with a certain amount of merriment, but I think unwisely so. Without a doubt, it was a very serious lapse of security, and shouldn't be trivialised.

Nor will it really do to say that even if this had been, say, an al-Qa'ida suicide bomber, we are only talking about the Royal Family, and nothing very profound would be changed, even if they had all been killed and a greatly surprised Earl of Wessex suddenly elevated to the throne. That's a tempting view, but very naive. A terrorist who actually succeeded in performing a "spectacular" like this would change the world. It would instantly have established the West, in the eyes of much of the world, as helpless before a bold Islamic warrior, and hugely consolidated worldwide support for the terrorist cause. It was extremely fortunate that it was only a man with a pubic wig.

The precedent for such a grave breach is, of course, the Michael Fagan episode, when the Queen's bedroom was rudely invaded. But the political consequences were very different. Twenty years ago, it was absolutely clear to everybody that responsibility lay with the Home Secretary, and William Whitelaw had no doubt that it was his duty to offer his resignation. It was refused, but the responsibility was undisputed. This week, when David Blunkett was mildly asked whether he had considered resigning, he brushed the suggestion aside incredulously. It had clearly never crossed his mind.

On the whole, I think this is probably not a resigning issue, but the interesting thing is how little Blunkett seemed to see it as his responsibility. The questions, "Whose fault was it?" and, "Whose responsibility is it?" have somehow become fused, and quickly we found ourselves groping around for anyone to shoulder the blame. Was it, perhaps, Peter Loughborough, the police officer in charge; or perhaps it was the individual policemen who failed to stop the intruder. Can we talk to any of these people? Well, no; but rest assured, steps will be taken. A similar case arose with the questioning of Alastair Campbell by a Commons select committee. In the confusing discussion which led, finally, to his agreeing to appear, questions of accountability and responsibility became hopelessly confused. Were ministers responsible for the apparent misinformation on the subject of Iraq? Or was it the responsibility of individual civil servants? And if they were responsible, were they not also accountable? That, the Government was much less keen to concede.

Where, then, does the responsibility lie? In the past, it was clearly with ministers. Now, very frequently, while generally continuing to fulfil the outward obligations of accountability, they are very ready to decline to accept that responsibility, and say that in particular cases it was the responsibility of a civil servant. Can we speak to that civil servant? Can we see his advice? Well, actually, probably not.

The blurring of the clear burden of responsibility and accountability has, perhaps, been inadvertently contributed to by the watchdogs themselves. Since the mid-1980s, Commons select committees have consistently argued for their right to examine and summon individual civil servants. This claim first became urgent with the Defence Committee's celebrated inquiry into the Westland affair, when the conduct of named civil servants, such as Colette Bowe and Bernard Ingham, seemed so significant as to require their own testimony.

Governments subsequently have never quite accepted this, but somehow they have taken the opportunity to retreat from the principle of ministerial responsibility. Ministers, since, have very often been able to distance themselves from a departmental failure.

In one extreme case, Michael Howard, when home secretary, went as far as to assert that a minister should not resign over anything but policy issues. You don't need to be cynical to realise that, in reality, that means that no minister would ever resign over anything but gross misconduct or open disagreement; and that, basically, is what the situation is now.

Previously, the position was quite clear. A gross failure on the part of a department was the responsibility of the minister. This certainly led to what now seem some strange resignations, such as the Crichel Down case in the 1950s, when a minister resigned over a matter he had hardly any knowledge of. But at least the lines of accountability and responsibility were entirely clear. When Lord Carrington resigned over the Falklands invasion, there was no suggestion that he personally had been at fault; but as the minister, he bore the responsibility for his department's failure, and was right to resign.

Would a minister, now, in the same situation, feel obliged to resign? I doubt it very much. We would be told, exactly as in the present case, that "heads will roll", and any scrutiny would be expertly frustrated by an inability to establish who, exactly, bore the final responsibility for this.

The old system certainly produced absurdities, and I don't believe that the Windsor Castle episode is a resigning issue. However, at present, the ability of press and Parliament to scrutinise the conduct of the Government is being severely hampered by obscurity and vagueness.

We can't have a situation where we are endlessly being told: "Well, it wasn't me, and no, you can't talk to the person it was, but, rest assured, heads will roll." It is bad enough to be told that by a wretched book club. Governments which develop such evasive tactics will soon start to look as if they have something to hide.