A vacuum exists where ministerial and government responsibility should be

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The Independent Online

Each passing day of the Iraq prisoner abuse revelations has brought the scandal distressingly closer to home. And each passing day has demonstrated the extent of the vacuum that exists in the place where ministerial and government responsibility should be. What is it about Tony Blair's government that predisposes it to act as though its responsibility extended only as far as the good news and stopped well short of the bad?

Each passing day of the Iraq prisoner abuse revelations has brought the scandal distressingly closer to home. And each passing day has demonstrated the extent of the vacuum that exists in the place where ministerial and government responsibility should be. What is it about Tony Blair's government that predisposes it to act as though its responsibility extended only as far as the good news and stopped well short of the bad?

Photographs of untold depravity are shown on American television and beamed around the world. It emerges that charges of abusive conduct were levelled not only against Americans, but against British servicemen as well. It transpires that representations were made repeatedly by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which circulated an interim report, and by Amnesty International - neither organisation exactly short on credibility.

All too late in the day, the scandal fetches up at Westminster. Ministers emerge haltingly into the spotlight to explain how and why no one in authority knew anything about the abuse of prisoners until the media told them. Or rather, first to deny (the Armed Forces minister, Adam Ingram), then to obfuscate (the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon), then to deny again (our then special envoy in Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock), and yesterday to admit that with hindsight things should have been handled differently, but regrettably were not (the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw).

And, of course, the person who was furthest from the line of responsibility, the person who knew least, the person to whom the accusations came as a devastating and incomprehensible shock, is none other than the Prime Minister. It is a looking-glass world in which the Downing Street spokesman can tell journalists that ministers could not have been shown the Red Cross report because it was "confidential" under Red Cross rules, although they have now read it. Who is trying to deceive whom here?

The whole sequence is so depressingly, so disgracefully familiar. Before the death of Dr David Kelly and the Hutton inquiry we might (just) have given Downing Street the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps no one in authority knew about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. Perhaps it really was dealt with at local level and no information was passed upwards by military officers. Perhaps Our Man in Iraq kept military matters at arm's length. Perhaps no one saw accusations of abuse as a matter that should concern politicians, even though Iraq was such a highly political war.

What emerged from the Hutton inquiry was a sequence of government denials and half-truths and buck-passing so redolent of the Iraq prisoner scandal as to to defy belief. Then, no one was responsible for giving the - false - impression that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. No one was responsible for putting Dr Kelly's name in the public domain, certainly not for the stratagem that led to that reprehensible breach of confidence. No one. It was all just a terrible coincidence - and Lord Hutton agreed. Yet, foolishly perhaps, we dared hope that the Hutton inquiry would spur Downing Street to change its dishonorable ways. After the resignation of the spin-meister in chief, we hoped that the era of spin and dissembling was past. We were "spun" new tales of honesty and candour. All too predictably now the great tactical retreat has begun, under cover of a new bombardment of the media by none other than Alastair Campbell. Mr Hoon yesterday held out the possibility that Mr Ingram would return to the Commons to explain himself. Mr Campbell told a Commons select committee that the media, and not politicians, was "90 per cent" responsible for "spin".

Always someone else has seen and dealt with unpleasant accusations, always someone else is responsible. The truth somehow always slides away. Thus we still have no answer to the most obvious and fundamental questions. Were ministers really not aware that British troops in Iraq had been accused of abusing prisoners? And if they were not aware, what do they think government is for?

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