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A simply hysterical week in the march of the control freaks

Last week’s hounding of Ruth Kelly, the education secretary, was politically obscene. Welcome to the new government of Britain. If the Salem witches or the McCarthy hearings were ever to come to London I have no doubt the media and parliament would be jostling to cast the first stone.

Kelly’s defence of her action in the Reeve affair was perfectly reasonable. There is in Whitehall a central list of 4,200 people convicted of a variety of crimes, List 99. Local authorities are warned that these people should never be employed near children. While mistakes can be made, as in the omission of William Gibson of South Tyneside, there is no evidence that the list gave rise to mass child molestation.

After a previous tabloid hue and cry in 1997 a separate sex offenders’ register was prepared. Ministers of both parties decided that this list would include not just all those convicted but also those accepting voluntary cautions. This embraced every kind of offence, including teenagers having underage sex, subscribers to pornographic websites and teachers “fingered”, perhaps unfairly, by pupils. It runs to 24,000 names.

Putting someone’s name on the register when no court has convicted them involves a wide measure of police discretion. Since a person’s career and family life may be ruined thereby there must be some redress, which can itself only be executive. Under such procedure Kim Howells, a junior minister, made a decision last May that Paul Reeve, a teacher, was employable under caution by Norfolk council. Reeve’s offence was that his credit card number had appeared on a pornography website in Texas. He had not been convicted of any offence involving children. To have put him on List 99 would have been grossly unjust and rightly open the procedure to judicial review.

Nothing has emerged to suggest that Howells’ decision was wrong — Reeves had disclosed his record to the school. This was clearly a borderline case meriting the special consideration it received. The essence of the register was to flag such cases for review. Besides, discretion remained with the local council which, as in the Gibson case, is the responsible employer and must form its own view of risk.

By Wednesday evening every news item I encountered was equating the sex offenders’ register with the Soham child murderer. The tabloids were screaming about “pervs roaming the land” and broadcasters were shouting, “What are British parents expected to think?” and “When will Kelly consider her position?” Kelly crumpled. She promised on Thursday to merge the two lists, apparently treating a caution as justifying a lifetime ban. This would be based on what amounts to lynch law, the so-called “tabloid test” of public acceptability, following Sir Michael Bichard’s report on the Soham tragedy. The obvious consequence may be to incline those charged with any sex offence to reject a caution but gamble on a charge and possible acquittal. Bichard could mean hundreds of genuine sex offenders roaming the jobs market unrecorded for want of justiciable evidence against them. If ever there were an example of hard cases making bad law this is it.

I repeat: welcome to the new government of Britain. Last week Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat aspirant, raised with the prime minister the case of an Oxfordshire man who had to get £10,000 for an operation. What was Tony Blair going to do about it? Blair himself was trying to win political kudos by cleaning graffiti off Swindon walls and criminalising the parents of misbehaving nine-year-olds. In November Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, responded to media coverage of a cancer patient denied a cancer drug by prescribing it herself, overturning the priorities of the North Stoke health authority.

Elsewhere ministers were worrying about where to find head teachers for 127 needy schools. Ministers were concerned at 53% of fire brigades regarded as inefficient by a government auditor. Ministers were discussing whether Bart’s hospital should be removed from the Royal London hospital private finance initiative.

I doubt if any of these functions would be a matter for central government in any other European country. Why should they be so in Britain? The reason is that British politicians like the resulting blood sport, despite overwhelming evidence of dissatisfaction and distorted priorities as a result. Name any public service, add in some human interest, and in 24 hours it is swarming with blame-throwers and Salem witch-hunters.

Blair’s government denies all respect to public institutions. Blair, Kelly, Hewitt, Charles Clarke or Alistair Darling do not really trust any school, hospital, police force or rail company to do its job. Any statistic suggesting a “postcode lottery” has ministers shouting for blanket national standards.

Later this month Kelly is to commit suttee on the funeral pyre of Blair’s education policy. It will be the apotheosis of control freakery. The new education bill will declare no confidence in local government. It will attempt to do what Margaret Thatcher and John Major failed to do, which is force every secondary school to opt for “independence” of local authorities and into the arms of Whitehall.

Kelly’s trust schools will be no more independent than Hewitt’s trust hospitals. They will not be “trusted”. They will suffer death by a hundred Whitehall shackles, like the Tories’ Funding Agency for Schools. The hope is that “popular schools will be allowed to expand”. But under the league table regime no high-ranking establishment will want to do so. Nor will the Treasury let it, if this means vacant places elsewhere in the vicinity. Schools will be subject to central determination of pay, staffing, curriculum, truancy, even canteen food. Whitehall will be directly responsible for that shortage of 127 head teachers.

More seriously Kelly wants to be responsible for admissions. As recently as last November her department was insisting that governors would be “free to decide their admissions policies in the schools’ best interests”. This essence of independence was at least clear. But it implied selection. If 11-plus transfer is to be equitable between local children there must be some objective test, an “11-plus”. This will either render the system ever more selective or, as Kelly now promises, she must intervene to enforce a “comprehensive” intake.

If there were any responsibility from which a minister should run a mile it is allocating pupils to schools. Kelly yearns for it. She already has a bureaucracy straining at the leash, a code of admissions practice, an independent schools adjudicator and, in certain cases, an academies dispute resolution service. Under her model every parent will demand a choice of school and every school will demand a choice of parent. Every path will lead to Whitehall and ministers.

For half a century school admissions have been left to local government. Decisions are tough but somehow the system worked calmly within a local framework. Kelly wants to smash that framework and nationalise it. She must be mad. Every hard-luck case will be publicised. Every rejected genius will be shouted across the Commons. If Gordon Brown could demand an Oxford place for a favoured pupil, every MP will demand special treatment for an aggrieved constituent.

This is executive discretion run riot. But the usurping of decisions in personal cases is especially dangerous when it concerns the restraint imposed on people posing risk to the community. Ex-convicts, sex offenders, the mentally ill or those with a “terrorist profile” challenge society’s capacity to assess risk. They test its readiness to accept occasional error as the price of justice and liberty. Such decisions are delicate, best made by those best qualified. Politics and politicians should have no part in them. Their accountability should be devolved from the hysteria of London’s bearpit.

Ministers have become pathological in their craving to make these decisions their own. They seem unable to tolerate any subordinate institution or profession. Schools, hospitals, prisons, police forces are not living, breathing entities, led by people showing inspiration, innovation and commitment. They are expected to be mere automatons, agents of ministerial discretion. The result is decisions that carry no public conviction and Kelly enduring yet another ghastly week.