The buck wanders round and round

Yesterday, at last, Michael Howard took some responsibility for the bad prisons news - but not enough

Share
Related Topics
Where do bucks stop? Constitutionally, theoretically, the answer is clear: for mistakes made by government, ministers are ultimately answerable to Parliament. They are meant to protect their departments and their civil servants - and if things go badly wrong, to resign. In practice, though, they don't. They have progressively distanced themselves from day to day mistakes. The buck wanders on.

At one level this is sensible. The old doctrine was that, in Aneurin Bevan's phrase, ``if a bedpan is dropped, the minister will hear of it''. Taken seriously, that would produce deafened, overwhelmed ministers, drowning helplessly in the minutiae of administrative life as they tried to honour the rituals of parliamentary accountability. Men like Michael Howard are there to direct the broad thrust of policy, not to take the blame for every lost jailer's key.

But no one other than the most intellectually indolent defender of the Home Secretary would leave the matter there. By trying to distance the direction of policy from the operation of policy, ministers let themselves off the hook absurdly easily. Whatever goes wrong can always be blamed on the messy failures of executives, rather than on the pure thought of the politicians. They go if they are caught on a stained mattress in Chelsea. But if it's merely a catastrophic failure of public policy - forget it.

This slipperiness is made easier by the rise of a new class of blame- takers, the men and women who run, or ran, the government's executive agencies, whether they be Ros Hepplewhite, ex of the Child Support Agency, or Derek Lewis, as-from-yesterday-ex of the Prison Service. The more freedom they have to manage, independent of ministerial interference, the more blame they have to take when things go wrong. Yet they are always working within the budgets and policies laid down by ministers. They are not the masters or mistresses of their own destinies.

So when bad things happen, such as those in the prison service revealed in yesterday's damning reports by Sir John Learmont and Judge Stephen Tumim, how are the rest of us to decide who is responsible? How can blame be apportioned fairly between political policy-makers and unelected policy carrier-outers?

The previous report on the Whitemoor prison breakout, nearly a year ago, went to the heart of the problem when it complained about ``some confusion as to the respective roles of ministers, the agency headquarters and individual prison governors ... the inquiry has identified the difficulty of determining what is an operational matter and what is policy, leading to confusion as to where responsibility lies.''

There is no Solomon of British public life to draw neat lines through chaos. Blame, in these circumstances, is inescapably a matter of politics, of expediency. The failures of lax prison regimes and low morale are too widespread and long-standing for there to be fingerprints, clues, and a neat, Agatha Christie-style villain. There is no one person, or group of people, who can be shown to be personally responsible for a bad Prison Service culture going back many years.

What was required was not a trial, but for someone to take responsibility as a matter of honour and in order to expunge public anger. One is reminded of the Blackadder scene in the First World War when the officer decides that it is time for a pointless sacrifice. Only this time, it isn't pointless. If it had turned out yesterday, yet again, that no one would take the blame for failure, public cynicism would have been reinforced. This cynicism is already eating away at the reputations of many state institutions.

The question then becomes - who is the person best suited for sacrifice? Whose departure would do most to please the public? And if you put it like that the answer is obvious. Michael Howard has stuffed another 10,000 people into prison as a result of changes to sentencing policy, and his 20-second sound bite at the Tory conference last week changing the rules still further may add another 20,000. He has changed the policy which Derek Lewis was trying to implement. He has striven to get the applause while some other poor devil struggles to make it work. Then when things get tough, he turns on the poor devil and fires him.

Had Howard sauntered to the ministerial box and resigned he would, at one bound, have done a lot to restore the reputation of himself and of John Major's government. It would have been a moment for jollity and self- congratulation, a far shrewder and more politically astute move than anything he had done at the party conference. Had he resigned, it would have confounded the pundits and left Jack Straw, who suggested that he should resign, utterly aghast. Dream on, Marr, dream on.

He took the other option and no one in the land is surprised. Howard had already tried to defend Lewis and distance him from the events at Whitemoor and Parkhurst, two of the most embarrassing episodes in the modern history of British prisons. For his pains he was howled down in Parliament, derided on Newsnight and pilloried by the newspapers. It is hardly surprising that this time he has taken the opposite course.

But by giving up on the cause of Lewis, Michael Howard has not escaped blame himself, or, probably, punishment either; it is merely that the retribution is likely to come a little later and be delivered upon him and his colleagues collectively, through a small but lethal hardening of the attitude of some millions of voters. If the Major administration is defeated at the next election, it will be impossible to look back in retrospect and determine to what extent the Home Secretary's current reputation is responsible. But then some of the most important things in politics are immeasurable.

None of this means that we should be inclined to view Mr Lewis himself as an ill-used man. From the point of view of the higher public good, he is a scrawnier scapegoat than the Home Secretary, but he is better than nothing. The agency managers are responsible for their services, and ``responsible'' is not a vague word. He may be shaken by what happened yesterday, but he can hardly claim to have been a wholly innocent bystander. And though he is a poor devil, he has, after all, been a highly paid poor devil.

The predictable result of all this is that even fewer people of high calibre from the private sector will wish to run public agencies, holding their jobs at the whim of ministers who are crisis-driven and unlikely to take responsibility, ever, for bad policy or incompetent legislation.

If there is an answer, it lies not in Whitehall rulebooks or independent inquiries, but in the hands of MPs themselves, who need to reassert themselves against a mistrusted executive. If Derek Lewis had owed his job to Parliament and not to Michael Howard, then the Home Secretary would not have been judge, jury and counsel for his own defence as well. We could have had a parliamentary inquiry, apportioning blame as between the service and the minister, the operatives and the policy-maker, on behalf of their constituents and paymasters, and deciding the penalty.

This may seem Utopian, but some earlier generations of parliamentarians wouldn't have thought it so. Until then, all we have left are our wry smiles and the distant rumble of wandering bucks.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Sales Account Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company leads the market i...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager - Cyber Security

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Manager for Cyber Secur...

Ashdown Group: Service Desk Analyst - Application Support - Central London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Service Desk Analyst (App...

Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engineer (Windows Server, Exchange Server)

£35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engine...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner
 

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum