Ministers are at war with their civil servants - and the officials are winning

Mr Blair is dancing to the tunes of officials who feared the traditions of the civil service were being undermined
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The Independent Online

The Government is facing a battle on two fronts over its asylum and immigration policies. The minor one is with the Conservatives, as Michael Howard and his shadow Home Secretary David Davis make hay with their leaked memos and confidential letters. The much bigger and more significant confrontation is between ministers and their civil servants.

Mr Davis has been quite frank about the reasons for his recent bulging sacks of sensitive mail. After the Home Office minister, Beverley Hughes, blamed her officials in Sheffield for misinterpreting the Government's immigration policies, Mr Davis started to receive a series of leaks. Evidently, officials were seeking revenge for the refusal of Ms Hughes to take responsibility for errors in the implementation of policy. They chose an artful politician to make their case. Mr Davis, who is an old friend of Alastair Campbell's, has a theory that a news story must run for three days to make an impact. Parading new documents on an almost hourly basis, Mr Davis has kept the story running for three weeks. The vindictive officials have managed to strike back.

This battle is symptomatic of broader tensions between the Government and the Civil Service that have been seething in the background since 1997. It is unlikely to subside following the announcement in the Budget that ministers plan to sack 40,000 officials in order to achieve efficiency savings.

In the summer of 2000, I wrote an essay on the relations between the Labour government and the Civil Service. The observations of one senior Downing Street adviser shed some light on the current row raging between the Home Office ministers and some officials. "Most civil servants are not interested in delivery. They like to be involved in policy making, but delivery and measuring the success of the policies are seen to be lower grade activities. It is therefore a sign of failure to be sent, say, to the Croydon immigration centre... those who are sent to such offices are regarded as the not very bright younger sons of families in Victorian England who were sent out to a sheep farm in Australia."

Ministers have been suggesting privately in recent days that the same culture extends to Sheffield and further afield.

From the perspective of Whitehall a very senior servant, recently retired, insists that many of the tensions arise from Labour's long exile from power between 1979 and 1997. He says that many ministers are still inexperienced, nervy, awaiting their instructions from either Downing Street or the Treasury. This makes life extremely difficult for civil servants. Quite often reviews of policies are announced as an alternative to implementation. When there is not a great deal of swift change on the ground, partly as a result of this ministerial caution, the ministers blame the civil servants.

The Home Office has been at the heart of this battle since Labour was elected in 1997. A minister who has served in several departments claims that the Home Office was by far the most inefficient and incompetent. He cites the chaotic delay over the distribution of new British passports, a mini-crisis that erupted in the Home Office during Labour's first term. To his bemusement, an internal inquiry concluded no official was to blame and that, on the whole, the fiasco was something of a triumph for the department.

On the other side of the battle line, some officials at the Home Office have been known to despair at the tendency of ministers, under pressure from Downing Street, to announce eye-catching policies in order to grab a headline. When the policies are not successfully delivered, ministers are capable of blaming the civil servants rather than the superficial political thinking that produced the policy.

Before he became Home Secretary in 2001, David Blunkett was acutely aware of the Home Office's poor reputation in ministerial circles. Even before he was formally offered the job, he discreetly planned an overhaul. Shortly after his arrival, he created two new permanent secretaries with the objective of focusing the department on the delivery of services. He also restructured parts of the Home Office. These reforms have not prevented cock-ups on a fairly regular basis as the current row has illustrated.

Who is to blame for the apparent chaos in Sheffield, Bucharest and parts of Bulgaria? It is absurd to hold ministers responsible for the actions of thousands of officials under all circumstances. As Home Secretary, Michael Howard did not resign when the occasional prisoner escaped. He was right to stay in his post. Although responsible for prisons, he could not be held to account for every single incident that happened inside them.

Ms Hughes is only culpable if she knew about the reckless fast tracking and the apparent boom in forged documents and chose not to do anything about it. There is no evidence so far that she did. Should she have known? Should she have sniffed the air, sensed that something was wrong and acted? Should her officials have alerted her if they knew what was happening? Did her officials know? These are blurred areas as some senior Conservatives privately acknowledge. After all, they might be Home Office ministers at some points in their careers.

There are similar blurred lines in the broad battle between the Government and the Civil Service. Officials are slow in responding to the changed political and media environment. As some of them admit openly, the Civil Service suffers from a risk averse culture and still makes big mistakes, the worst of both worlds. Ministers too readily blame officials for their own tardy and timid approach to reform.

This is a multi-layered and complex battle, but I doubt if most voters will view it in quite that way. There are echoes here with the Government's separate battle with the BBC over Andrew Gilligan's reports last July. Although three separate investigations concluded that the journalism was poor, the voters chose to trust the corporation. The trust was so overwhelming, the editors involved now apparently regard themselves as the victims, taken aback that the BBC is daring to contemplate action against them. Such is the current suspicion of elected politicians, I suspect that most voters will side with the officials rather than the ministers in the current row about asylum and immigration.

In its attempts to reform the Civil Service, the Government is already conceding ground. Look at the recent changes in Downing Street where there is now a silly and artificial divide between officials who brief on government policy and special advisers who are qualified to talk about party political matters. Mr Blair is dancing to the tunes of those senior officials who feared that under previous arrangements in Downing Street, the traditions of the Civil Service were being undermined. On the narrower battle over the future of Ms Hughes, most voters will conclude that she was at fault rather than her officials.

The Civil Service is winning its various battles with the Government. Whether it deserves to do so in such a decisive way is another matter.