LEADING ARTICLE : The hypocrites of the officer class

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It is alarming how long it takes for this Government to learn a lesson. Its reputation may never fully recover from its cynical handling of the Scott report. Not a single minister has resigned or even admitted responsibility for the long list of failings detailed in the report, from systematically misleading Parliament to serious professional misjudgements. But, as we reveal today, it gets worse.

Add to the charges of dereliction of duty, stupidity and arrogance, rank hypocrisy. Ministers have escaped blame for changing British policy on arms sales to Iraq without telling Parliament. But of course that does not stop them looking for a few civil servants to carry the can. In yet another demonstration of the culture of arrogance among those who rule us, the officers have decided that the troops in the ranks should be punished. The top brass, who directed the arms-to-Iraq policy, will not be in the firing line. Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, is in the clear. The man who told the Scott inquiry that ministers had a right to withhold information from Parliament, who masterminded the Government's distorted and deceitful presentation of the Scott report, will not be facing disciplinary action. His career will not be affected by revelations of how he, the chief mandarin, presided over a civil service that failed the public interest and hid what was going on in a confusion of half-truths. Sir Robin can look forward to his peerage for services rendered.

The officials whose careers may be blighted are more junior civil servants, those who perhaps drafted the misleading parliamentary answers, those who failed to tell ministers about changes in the guidelines on arms sales, those who appeared to turn a blind eye to the type of equipment being supplied to Iraq.

Such behaviour should be reviewed. The Scott report paints a picture of an administrative machine that is a law unto itself, unchecked by Parliament and often beyond the grasp of ministers. The civil servants who make this machine work should be held to account. But, though hardly innocents, most of the junior officials who may have their behaviour inquired into were just doing their jobs. They are part of a network of unaccountable power and by no means the most important part of it. To blame and punish them in isolation would be grossly unfair.

Rather than punishment, what is needed by the civil service, not to mention the people it is meant to serve, is a Freedom of Information Act, a statutory code of conduct enshrining civil servants' duty to blow the whistle on ministers whom they believe to be misleading Parliament and an independent ombudsman in whom they can confide. None of this is on the Government's agenda. Instead, the minions have been targeted to take some of the blame that ministers were not prepared to shoulder. It all amounts to extraordinary hypocrisy. But worse than that, it shows how damaging it has been for ministers to refuse to take responsibility for their actions. As a result of the appalling example they have set, it will now be more difficult legitimately to hold to account any part of the government machine. "Blame-free government," that is the modern Tory doctrine, unless you are unfortunate enough to be a mere footsoldier of the state.