The buck wanders round and round

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

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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.

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