Issue 155: 2018 05 24: How Good Is Whitehall?

Oranges and Lemons Whitehall Mandarins

24 May 2018

How Good Is Whitehall?

Are the mandarins competent?

By John Watson

Just how good are they, really?  No, not the politicians who make the policy decisions but the civil servants who implement them.  It is of course usual to be fulsome about their intelligence.  “Oxbridge’s finest”, “They even fart firsts”, that sort of thing.  Indeed CBI President Paul Drechsler said on Tuesday, that if we reached a pragmatic decision on the Customs Union:

“We can then use the exceptional talent within our civil service, the drive of business and the energy of our political leadership to tackle the root causes of low productivity and unacceptable regional inequality in our country.”

Well, there will be a nod or two at the reference to business and a snort here or there at the suggestion that the energy of our political leaders will achieve much, but the reference to the talent of the civil service will just slip by because we are used to thinking that way.  Once upon a time it was certainly justified.  The India office swept up the top talent from the best universities to govern a huge empire with a remarkably small staff.  The foreign office ranked slightly behind them.  You may not agree with what they did or indeed approve of the cynical way in which it – Bartle Frere’s deliberate and unauthorised triggering of the Zulu war sticks in the modern throat – but they were certainly bright and usually competent, mandarins with all the Chinese thoughtfulness and long sightedness which that word implies.

But now?  Are they as good as they were or do they rely on the rule that a minister never blames the civil servants to cover less than competent tracks?  Let’s try a few examples and see.

Windrush will do as the first, the deportation or attempted deportation of a large number of people who had the right to remain here.  Of course there was a political background: public concern about immigration; a deliberate tightening up by the then Home Secretary Mrs May and the setting by her and by the Government of a numbers-driven anti-immigrant culture; Amber Rudd with an inadequate grip of her department’s policies.  Yes, there was all that, but there was something else too.  The deportation of people who had the right to remain here was carried out by Home Office staff.  They must have known, unless they are very stupid indeed, what was happening.  What did they do?  Were they dogs that didn’t bark or were they simply not listened to when they did, and, if the latter, how loudly did they bark?  Was it a note or two slipped into the red box between long documents or did someone beard the minister and point out that, quite apart from the injustice, there was a disaster in the making?  When the time came for a decision on whether records should be shredded, did someone point out their importance or was it presented as a tidying-up operation?  I do not know but I think I can guess.

Now flick forward to the row about immigration bail conditions, the restrictions on the activities of asylum seekers while their case are being reviewed.  During the passage of the 2016 Immigration Act which introduced these, the government gave assurances that it did not intend to impose a blanket ban on asylum seekers accessing education.  Oh, no, no, no!  Restrictions on study would only be imposed when proportionate to the need to keep an eye on where a particular asylum seeker was enrolled.  Fair enough, you might think, but then what happened?  Yes, you have guessed it.  Restrictions on study were applied in a blanket fashion in breach of that undertaking.

So whose fault is that?  Ministers?  Yes, it is their job to keep their departments in order but the unsung heroes of this mess are the civil servants responsible for operating the immigration bail system who should surely have known that something had gone awry.  Dogs that didn’t bark or at least not loudly enough?

Then there is that other vehicle of chaos, the universal credit.  Not a bad idea in principle, to be fair, but no one who receives it ever seems to know when they will get their cash.  Possibly this one is more the politicians’ fault because of the haste with which they insisted on the program being rolled out, but yet again it is the admin which lets everyone down.

In a few years time we may well have a Labour Government, but whether we do or we don’t, there is a sea change going on in public affairs, and the role of the state is likely to increase.  That means that the civil service will need to police all sorts of complex new systems, perhaps even Mrs May’s Customs Partnership to take an extreme example.  That is going to require innovative and practical work by the civil service.  One can only hope that they are going to be up to it.


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