Passing the buck can be fatal

If a minister has accepted arrangements that turn out to have put citizens' lives at risk, then he must resign
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The Independent Online
In two instances recently, public servants have buried, out of sight in the bottom drawers of their desks, information which, had it been shown to ministers and then made public, might have prolonged the life or prevented the death of their fellow citizens. The first surfaced a fortnight ago when Nicholas Soames, the Armed Forces Minister, had to explain the hushing up of the spraying of toxic pesticides over the tents of British troops during the Gulf war. Then last Thursday, Douglas Hogg, Secretary of State for Agriculture, was forced to make an emergency statement about the failure of his department to disclose that abattoirs were becoming breeding grounds for the deadly E coli and salmonella organisms.

In the former case, it is possible that medical treatment of soldiers who served in the Gulf and who have since been subject to the mysterious, debilitating Gulf war syndrome, would have been more effective if the use of the poisonous organophosphates had been acknowledged earlier. And in the latter case, it is equally likely that some of the recent deaths from E coli infection might have been avoided if the alarm had been sounded 15 months ago that cattle were literally carrying the fatal organism into abattoirs in the excreta on their bodies.

We need to understand why such dereliction of duty is taking place in the government service. We have a measure of the gravity of the Ministry of Defence cover-up in the evaluation of Richard Mottram, the Permanent Secretary. He told the Commons Defence Committee that during his 28-year Civil Service career, he could not remember a more serious failure in the system. It runs counter to the notion that generally civil servants are only too pleased to dump troublesome files on the desks of their political masters. Surely the first rule in Whitehall is "pass the buck".

This is why I wonder whether the crude explanation that the public servants concerned were simply covering up their errors to avoid reprimand or dismissal can be the full account. I suspect the denial goes deeper. With regard to the Gulf war, if the Surgeon General and his division with its 150 or so staff were to admit that they had presided over a system in which the Army had, in effect, poisoned its own troops, they would destroy for ever their professional credibility with themselves, with their colleagues and with their families and friends; for many this would be a far greater punishment than any official penalties they might incur.

In the case of the Meat Hygiene Service, an offshoot of the Ministry of Agriculture, what happened is illustrated by comparing the unexpurgated report on abattoirs with the sanitised version. The uncensored text noted that, "Dirty animals arriving at the abattoir are a cause of further contamination: organisms, such as E coli 0157 and salmonella, can be introduced into the plant on the skins of dirty livestock." The cleaned-up sentence reads: "The inspection teams were particularly concerned with carcass contamination from the skin and gastro-intestinal contents." No reference to the organisms E coli or salmonella here.

Even so, why did civil servants not show the rewritten report to ministers and cover their backs? The reason may be that, in effect, the inspection which preceded the writing of the report, when some 500 abattoirs were visited, had shown that Whitehall's recent reforms had largely failed. Sporadic carelessness was not the problem, but rather the very system the Government had approved. The new approach caused so much stress to animals on the way to slaughter that diarrhoea was induced, and this made cross-contamination more likely. It was the professional competence of public servants rather than poor procedures by abattoir staff which may have been the underlying issue.

These suppositions may explain but they do not excuse. After all, government is far from alone in confronting such difficulties. All businesses and organisations are vulnerable in the same way. Recent criminal trials show that mistreatment of children in care had been covered up for between 10 and 20 years. In the commercial sector, the NatWest bank has just discovered undisclosed losses of pounds 50m, and Penguin Books twice that amount in its American operations.

Moreover, there are well- understood methods of minimising lax or false reporting. Many companies employ executives whose only job is to police the activities of their colleagues. In the City, these people work in what are called compliance departments. Outside the City, commercial organisations have long used a species of executive called an internal auditor for the same purpose. Ministers could make sure that similar solutions were applied to the problems within their departments.

Except that government ministers are as deeply involved in the techniques of avoiding blame as their civil servants. They have progressively reduced the list of shortcomings for which they can be held personally responsible. For Mr Soames it comes down to just one: "If I had wilfully or deliberately misled Parliament, of course I would resign, but there is no suggestion of that, and it is quite clear the House accepts that."

Mr Hogg used the other main escape route - that the errors were committed by an agency of his department, rather than by those who report directly to him. As he said: "Policy is a matter for ministers. In this case, the implementation of policy is a matter for the agency (the Meat Hygiene Service). I have total confidence in the chief executive."

The public service, then, is poorly supervised. Ministers can get away with anything. Not the least of the next government's tasks will be to regain control. Rules of ministerial responsibility must be more tightly drawn so that if, like Mr Soames and Mr Hogg, a minister has accepted arrangements that turn out to have put citizens' lives at risk, then he or she must resign. There shouldn't really be any argument about that. One day, when the cares of political office are well behind them, I imagine that Mr Soames and Mr Hogg will come to realise, looking back on the last weeks of the present government, that their refusal to take personal responsibility for their departments' failings was a dishonourable act.