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Simon Carr

The Sketch: A deadly weapon called civil service syntax

Dame Helen has a manner like the incoming tide. She is unstoppable

The PR battle over the UK Border Agency isn't going so well for the authorities. They talk too much and say unkind things. People don't like that. The bosses may well have told Brodie Clark not to do what he did – but even when they're right, they sound wrong.

Dame Helen Ghosh – the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office – refuses to release documents to the committee; she deploys civil service syntax like an offensive weapon; and she has a manner like the incoming tide. She is unstoppable. Keith Vaz tried to block, then divert, then slow her down.

As her opening remarks rolled on – "complex delivery department... understanding the risks the department carries... the high-level briefing across all focusing on areas of interest..." – Vaz was interjecting: "Yes. Indeed. Of course. We'll come on to that. All that. We'll come on to that." But the best he could do after her first 300-year answer was to say: "So your answer to my question is 'no'."

She is a severe product of St Hugh's college, Oxford. Her mouth turns down disapprovingly. She has such an intelligent manner you assume she is saying something useful. But when you look at that, you find her answering anything but the question. Steve McCabe asked her about the Home Secretary's pilot. "If it was a success, will you need less staff?"

Away she went for most of the 21st century on technology, flexible rostering and existing plans to cut 900 out of 8,000 staff. But the answer, surely, is 'yes'.

David Winnick invited her to distance herself from the black briefing of Clark as a "rogue officer" and to describe his 38-year career as "distinguished". She was clearly pleased with her mandarin answer: his career had been a series of "high-profile, high-risk jobs and he always led from the front". If you follow that, it means "serves him right, he asked for it".

What it looks like is this: Clark used a private reading of a 2007 protocol to relax checks whenever he needed to speed up queues and look good in his job. Lack of clarity allowed him to get away with it. He obfuscated. He misdirected attention. He wilfully misunderstood.

In short, he did to his bosses what his bosses do to us.