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A minister is hopeless who blames her officials

Simon Jenkins

I NEVER wanted to be a diplomat. I could not bear the idea of being stuck somewhere such as Bucharest defending every devious turn in British government policy. Hence my sympathy for James Cameron, consul in Bucharest and author of the latest Tomahawk e-mail against the Immigration Minister, Beverley Hughes. His dreadful syntax suggests he is incandescent not just with disloyalty but with rage.

When I was last in Bucharest the local dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, was bulldozing medieval churches and children were singing: “Our great leader has many tractors.” British diplomats were miserable. The one thing that kept them going was the hope of promotion and the assurance that, should they make a mistake, ministers would take the rap.

Not any more. Last month Ms Hughes broke the code that governs ministerial accountability for departmental decisions. This states emphatically that ministers carry the can for policy. This does not mean they have to resign if mistakes are made. That would lead to a daily reshuffle. It means only that when policy goes awry ministers do not blame officials.

Immigration policy under recent governments has required a gross public deception. The British people, and sections of the press, are as hysterical about incoming foreigners as about imprisonment and drugs. David Blunkett is not a politician to turn his back on such emotions, rather he exploits them. This requires him to imply that he can control the flow of newcomers to Britain. He talks tough on immigration.

Mr Blunkett regularly flaunts an array of armed guards, sniffer dogs, gunboats and satellite surveillance. He poses as a man who can turn the human tap on and off at will. But immigrants are like drugs. They are supply responding to demand. As long as Gordon Brown overheats the economy of southeast England the economy will scream for workers and foreigners will come running. The result is an invasion, currently believed to include some 100,000 new workers from Eastern Europe alone.

Immigration civil servants are like Saddam’s generals. Even as the enemy rolls over their positions, they must claim that all is under control. They must show that they are stemming the flow. Under the terror regime of Mr Blunkett at the Home Office officials must orchestrate pretence. They must accept the invasion and yet somehow ensure that their ruler’s statue is never toppled.

The reality is that Mr Blunkett can do virtually nothing about immigration except spend money. He can issue tabloid-thrilling threats to ban welfare payments, tear children away from their mothers, imprison without trial and end judicial appeals. But the people will still come. Nor does he really want to stop them. London is losing a third of a million workers a year and is desperate for plumbers, electricians and bus drivers, if not for the drug barons and prostitutes who come in their train. The Government is even believed to have a target of 200,000 incoming workers needed by the economy, though the relation between that target and immigration control is obscure.

So the Home Office must pretend both that it is resisting immigration and bogus asylum-seekers and that it can still welcome “managed migration”. Hence the bureaucracy of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in Sheffield. Hence the turmoil over the new accession states of Europe, all packed with eager emigrants. Hence the Accelerated Clearance Exercise for waving through applicants who are already here. Hence its successor, the Backlog Reduction Accelerated Clearance Exercise (Brace) of last year.

Everything is part of a complicated fiction designed to reassure the public of what is not true, that ministers are in control of this human tide. Thus does a lively Romanian lawyer reckon to process 500 British visa applications at £1,000 a time, with a “99 per cent guarantee” that the Home Office will not question them, however dodgy. Someone should make him Immigration Minister.

It is hard not to sympathise with those at the front line of this pretence. They are the barrier thrown up for the benefit of the public even as ministers beckon those clambering over it. Visitor applicants from Romania were supposed to have their papers checked by the consulate in Bucharest, where Romanian- speaking experts were trained to spot forgeries and reject counterfeit documents. These documents have allegedly been accepted in Sheffield even when the consulate had firmly marked them forgeries.

That is why Mr Cameron’s dignity snapped. His accusation is that liberties taken by politicians made a mockery of immigration control. Not just immigrants already here but those applying to come were being “fast-tracked” to meet bureaucratic targets. In the Romanian case the practice was in effect condoning organised crime. An earlier case, cited by Steve Moxon in Sheffield, accused the Home Office of fast-tracking now to reduce an apparent flood later when the expanded European Union relaxed its borders.

Ms Hughes’s response was not a sensible one. She did not accept that all immigration policy is managed impotence. She did not explain the need for fast-tracks and backlog reductions. She merely refused to defend her officials’ decisions or take responsibility for them.

Speaking in Parliament three weeks ago, she accused “middle-ranking managers” in Sheffield of an “excess of zeal” and of pursuing “quite unacceptable” policies not cleared with ministers. She announced the old Blairite stand-by, an internal inquiry, implausibly led by one of her own officials, Ken Sutton. Yesterday, Mr Blunkett trumpeted that Mr Sutton had “completely exonerated” his own boss.

The exoneration turned the spotlight of blame on to Ms Hughes’s officials. All hell broke loose. Whistle-blowing rose to a crescendo. Since the Sutton inquiry had shown the absurdity of internal channels of redress, the leaks flowed to newspapers and the deputy leader of the Opposition, David Davis. A note of last July even had Ms Hughes approving fast-tracking and offering “total support” to officials implementing it.

Officials in Sheffield and Croydon leaked their protests. In distant Bucharest, Mr Cameron lost his cool. He saw his job of detecting crooks being subverted by ministers. As if in confirmation of this complaint, Mr Blunkett set up another inquiry into fast-track yesterday. He suspended all work permits from Romania and Bulgaria. For good measure, Mr Cameron was suspended as well. When the pack is on its heels, this Government takes no prisoners.

I cannot see how officials can continue to work with Ms Hughes. This has nothing to do with the policy of fast-track, which seems eminently sensible, indeed an economic necessity. Nor should a minister’s head be on the block because of a mistake, even a mistake that leaves the gate wide open for Romanian lawyers to make killings. Nor need Ms Hughes be disbarred from office because she is a political embarrassment to the Government. Nothing embarrasses Tony Blair these days.

Ms Hughes’s failing is more serious. Immigration policy is one of the toughest areas of public policy. It requires a clear ministerial line, covered by absolute discipline and a ritual of agreed presentation. All involved must hang together or they hang separately. Above all, ministerial responsibility must be total.

The Hughes doctrine of blaming middle-ranking managers for allowing her avowed policy to “get caught” leaves parliamentary accountability nowhere. The only recourse for the Commons is to find which civil servants are personally responsible for which decisions and haul them before the House. Presumably they must then decide who should be dismissed. A minister is hopeless who claims that she knew nothing of a delicate matter under her clear aegis and can blithely disown it.

No organisation can be run this way. British immigration policy is riddled with fast-tracking. It is bound to be unpopular and require defending. That is the point of politics. But politics dies when policy answers to no one.