Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Theresa May and the responsibility of ministers

Has Theresa May successfully rewritten the concept of ministerial responsibility? By constantly repeating in the Commons yesterday that she "did not give [her] consent or authorisation to any of these actions" when referring to the UK Border Agency relaxation of immigration controls during the summer, she has significantly redefined the concept of ministerial responsibility. And much as I would like to see a few more Tory scalps - especially in an area where the party shamelessly added to public hysteria, including through the theft of confidential papers from a previous Home Secretary's office - it would be a good thing for politics if it worked. However, that doesn't mean ministers are blameless in this case.

The truth is that ministers do not - and cannot - know everything that is being done in their name by officials and agencies. They rely on their private office and senior officials, as well as on special advisers, to keep an eye on things. But a good minister should ask questions, and track what's happening on key policy implementation: and it is here that May and Damian Green, her immigration minister, do seem guilty of serious shortcomings. Equally, it should be said, this is another example of the limitations of no 10: did they not ask for such updates either?

However, the idea that the minister should always carry the can for an official cock-up is not good for politics. Estelle Morris felt obliged to resign when the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the exam boards screwed up over A-level test papers and marking, which are much further removed from ministerial responsibility than the immigration policy at Heathrow Airport. Beverley Hughes quit when a previous agency screwed up badly over immigration, and she unwittingly misled the House of Commons in the ensuing furore. In neither case was the minister directly responsible for a failure of implementation, but convention dictated that they should resign. If it turns out May or Green or their private offices were told more than she is letting on, they would similarly be expected to go.

But there have been too many ministerial resignations, too many good people lost in the process and too few occasions where an official directly responsible for a policy has had to take the consequences where they got it wrong. In this case, I have some sympathy with those who argue that a more proportionate response to full passport checks is good for tourism, so long as everyone knows they may be checked. But that isn't what the Tories have been saying, so May has been wrong-footed by her officials. In this case, she may be right to blame them. But if I were her, I would take an urgent look at the mechanisms her office uses to check on policy operation on a regular basis. The best ministers seek and get regular updates. The failure of her immigration minister or her private office to do that basic part of his job suggests that they may not be fit for purpose either.


Bill Chapman said...

Theresa May really has to go. She has lost the confidence of the British people.

Richard T said...

I wonder if it is actually a case where the Minister has willed a polticial end of effective control of immigration but seems to have denied the means of its achievement because there is inadequate staffing. If I understand her expanation correctly, she has de facto accepted that there are staffing problems by agreeing to loosen scrutiny of EU entries and yet she has offered up significant reductions in Border Agency numbers. She needs to account for this.