What this year of inquiries has told us about the workings of government

British ministers must be the most observed in the Western world. As their power declines, media interest in them grows
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The year ends as it began, with an inquiry into alleged ministerial misdeeds. What a year it has been for such investigations. At the beginning there was Hutton, in the midst of the summer Butler reported, and at the close Budd has declared. Still the questions rage. Why didn't Budd rule more clearly that Blunkett was guilty? Why didn't Butler place Blair in the dock? Why didn't Hutton kick around Mr Blair and his entire team?

The year ends as it began, with an inquiry into alleged ministerial misdeeds. What a year it has been for such investigations. At the beginning there was Hutton, in the midst of the summer Butler reported, and at the close Budd has declared. Still the questions rage. Why didn't Budd rule more clearly that Blunkett was guilty? Why didn't Butler place Blair in the dock? Why didn't Hutton kick around Mr Blair and his entire team?

The questions are valid, and I will address them at the end of this article, but we know enough about the politicians. We read about them and hear or watch them every day of the week. British political culture demands that a politician or two be in the dock on a regular basis. The inquiries were illuminating for other reasons, too. Indeed there were shocking revelations that have more direct impact on our lives than, to take the most recent example, the blunderings of an infatuated cabinet minister.

In the Blunkett affair, there were two alarming and overlooked episodes. Originally, the lover's nanny received an official letter stating it could take up to a year for a visa to be processed. Why might it have taken such a scandalously long time? There was a backlog, but the Government had employed more staff to deal with it and the application forms were not the administrative equivalent of reading through War and Peace. They were fairly straightforward.

In practice, the average time for a visa to be processed was less than a year, but we now know that they could have been dealt with much faster. Budd reports that when Mr Blunkett fumed about the tardiness of the process officials leapt into action. Suddenly, visas were appearing here, there and everywhere, not just the one belonging to the lover's nanny. Visas were being processed in 52 days rather than the average of 172 days.

Matters have improved since then, but still seem erratic. Budd reports: "After mid-June 2003, the nanny's application would have been granted as a matter of routine. If she or anyone acting on her behalf had rung the (relevant) Public Enquiry Office, her case would, with all probability, have been extracted." Speed seems dependent on persistent phone calls and an acute knowledge of the system. Otherwise, you sit back and wait.

A minister who knows the Home Office well tells me that if "a light is shone on a problem in the department, it can be solved quickly", but the minister adds there are lots of problems. The efficiency of the Home Office seemingly depends on the Home Secretary clicking his fingers in an infatuated fury. Otherwise, the system bumbles along with a complacent inefficiency. The whole affair, from the high-level collective amnesia over what happened with the nanny's visa to the erratic delivery at the local level, exposes the outdated limitations of the Civil Service.

The next scandal highlighted in the Blunkett affair was the cost of his lover's rail ticket to Doncaster. I have raised this briefly before, but it demands more attention. The cost of the return ticket was £179. I am told it is cheaper to fly to Miami and back. Kimberly Quinn has rather a lot on her mind at the moment so I have not checked with her, but I bet the train was late as well. Admittedly, this was a first-class ticket, but even so the price is almost comically high, and second-class fares for some journeys are also often absurdly expensive. The price I was quoted for an "open return" second class travelling yesterday morning to Doncaster from London King's Cross was £113 (this was research, I do not have a mysterious assignation in Doncaster).

This Christmas, if you are stuck on gridlocked roads, reflect on the obvious solution: we need an improved, more reliable and cheaper rail network. Other less prosperous countries manage to run one. In Britain, it is incomparably cheaper and more reliable to travel by car in spite of the insane traffic jams. This government has achieved much in improving some public services, but the Blunkett affair highlights vividly the soaring costs of public transport.

Predictably, the inquiry that was billed in advance as a whitewash proved to be the most damning. The Butler inquiry highlighted the failure of Mr Blair and others to present the qualifications and caveats that accompanied the intelligence on Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. The reaction to the inquiry focused almost exclusively on the implications for Mr Blair. The bigger question was sidelined: why was the intelligence so spectacularly wrong, not just the section on the non-existent weapons that could be fired within 45 minutes, but every word on every weapon?

Butler provides some of the answers. Having underestimated Iraq's WMD programmes before the first Gulf War, the intelligence services went out of their way to include every warning about Saddam's armoury, however unreliable the source. Someone on the Joint Intelligence Committee might have alerted Mr Blair to the extreme unreliability of this material. It seems that no one dared to do so. This does not excuse the immense prime ministerial misjudgement in parading the intelligence with such passion, but partially explains it.

On a minor scale, the same dynamic applied at the BBC as its chairman and director general rushed to defend "every word" of its overblown reporting on the dossier relating to the intelligence. The BBC is never knowingly understaffed at a managerial level, and yet no manager seemed to point out that a conversation with Dr Kelly might be the beginning of an interesting investigation but no more than that. Will the cuts announced this month bring about a more streamlined and effective managerial hierarchy or will programmes and programme makers suffer? Politicians and licence- fee payers will view the answer to that question with some interest.

I have left the politicians to last, as so much has been written and broadcast about them in relation to these inquiries. British ministers must be the most observed in the Western world. As their relative power declines, media interest in them grows.

In these cases, it is obvious what happened. Fearing that the media would dismiss the famous dossier on Saddam's weapons as a damp squib, Mr Blair made too much of the existing intelligence. Seeking to get UN support for his approach, he became trapped again into highlighting the intelligence alone, a colossal error but not an act of outright deception. As he said at Labour's conference: "There was not a third way this time. Believe me, I tried to find one". This was his big mistake, his attempt to reconcile impossibly conflicting positions.

As for Mr Blunkett, he was an infatuated politician seeking to please and help his lover. He has resigned and I would be surprised if he returns as fast as some Labour MPs suggest.

Political leaders are fallible and don't we know it. But these inquiries have shone light on less scrutinised institutions, from the Home Office to the railways. At least they would have done if anyone had noticed.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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