Look at the State they’re in
Why is the Home Office demonstrating all the smooth-running efficiency of an Iraqi hangman?
The answer to the question ‘Where is the Home Office?’ would normally be ‘In Whitehall’. These days, however, it might seem more accurate to locate the UK’s interior ministry as being permanently situated ‘In crisis’, if not ‘In the shit’.
To judge by the news coverage, the Home Office now seems to be home to an endless series of crises, scandals, cover-ups and exposures. This week alone we have gone from the row over the failure to record details of British citizens convicted abroad, through the revelation that many Home Office figures on key areas of policy are inaccurate, to reports that a terrorism suspect on a Home Office ‘control order’ has left the country.
The Home Office is demonstrating all the smooth-running efficiency of an Iraqi hangman. For such an important state apparatus staffed by officialdom’s top people to be in such a state must go way beyond personal incompetence. The problems appear institutionalised, and beyond anybody’s control. Thus months after John Reid arrived as home secretary, declaring the Home Office ‘not fit for purpose’ and his own determination to put it right, matters continue to go from bad to worse.
So what is the problem? And what do these overblown scandals really represent? The perpetual state of turmoil in the Home Office gives an insight into the wider crisis of authority at the heart of the UK State. As issues such as law-and-order, public safety and anti-terrorism have come to dominate British political life, the Home Office has assumed a more central role, heading a security and surveillance system that reaches into every corner of our society’s life. Yet at the same time, the state machinery today lacks the political will and resilience to impose its authority and make such a system work. (Indeed, as the ‘control order v detention order’ controversy showed, the government cannot even get its way with the judges.)
As a result, the over-stretched and insecure authorities are always vulnerable to being buffeted this way and that by what are essentially media-led controversies over ‘scandals’ and ‘cover-ups’. While these have little lasting consequence in their own terms, they further erode the Home Office’s authority. In the process, political debate often becomes reduced to the search for the next little crisis of (home) office politics. And the ‘solution’ is supposed to be always for the authorities to ramp up their security and surveillance measures further still, in a bid to show that they are in charge – acts of desperation which only pave the way for the next scandal, when somebody exposes the Home Office’s inability to deliver on its paranoia-fuelled promises.
The controversy over the failure to log 27,000 British citizens with foreign convictions on the police national computer offers a case study of how these trends play out, starkly revealing the disarray and lack of any unifying sense of responsibility or authority in the Home Office.
The ‘scandal’ began to brew in 2005 with an order from the European Union to all member states (itself a sign of the times) to create a central authority to record information about offences committed by their citizens in other countries. The Home Office then invited bids from the Criminal Records Bureau, the Scottish Records Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to set up such a system. The notion of the central ministry asking its policing and vetting offshoots to compete for a security contract might strike some as bizarre. But it is typical of official attempts to offload responsibility for everything from building hospitals to fighting wars.
The ACPO bid won. But, as one chief constable revealed to the home affairs select committee of MPs this month, a backlog of 27,000 unrecorded convictions then landed on their desks, most dating from 1999 to 2005. The finger-pointing and backstabbing about who in the Home Office was responsible for this began in earnest, culminating in serious embarrassment for the home secretary and junior ministers (who had apparently failed to pass on warnings about this state of affairs), and the suspension of one leading civil servant.
The idea of 27,000 files piling up and gathering dust offers a compelling image of paralysis in the Home Office. It reveals a State institution that has lost any clear political sense of what it is supposed to be doing and why. Reid’s team are left looking like the Israeli general who has resigned after admitting that there had been ‘no clear objective’ to his army’s invasion of Lebanon last year. It is hard to discern any clear, rational objective behind much that the Home Office does today.
At an institutional level, the British State has lost all of the organising principles around which it operated in the recent past – loyalty to the Crown and Empire, or resolution in the Cold War – yet found little more than platitudes about ‘Britishness’ with which to replace them. At an individual level, this is reflected among State officials in the absence of any deep sense of common purpose in pursuit of a higher cause. Thus instead of the traditional ethic of service and sacrifice, we are left with an every-man/minister-for-themselves culture of leaks and back-covering. Inevitably, this only feeds endless allegations of cover-ups and conspiracies.
In this shaky state, the Home Office is vulnerable to being rocked by any set of sensational headlines. Yet what do these overblown scandals that now dominate so much of political debate really represent?
The case of the unrecorded overseas offences, for example, is at root just a speculative ‘What if?’ scandal; that is, what if a paedophile had been released from jail in Germany, come back to Britain and got a job at a school where he assaulted all the children? In fact, no such case came close to occurring. And how do the critics imagine that those who committed other offences abroad would somehow have been prevented from re-offending in Britain by being put on a computer? Unless they are suggesting that these UK citizens (who had paid their debt in foreign prisons) should be denied re-entry to their own country, or possibly shot dead at Dover and Heathrow, it is hard to see what difference it would make in reality. The obsession with such overblown scandals only further degrades the meaning of political debate.
This is not to suggest that anybody should feel sorry for the poor little Home Office. The authorities set themselves up for these ‘What if?’ scandals through their own high-profile obsession with the need to vet, register and watch everybody in order to keep ‘the public’ safe. And whenever the media reveals these authoritarian schemes to be paranoid fantasies full of holes, the response under our system of government-by-kneejerk is always to promise yet more surveillance and security. This week, for example, on the very day headlines such as ‘Big Brother gets bigger’ greeted Reid’s plans for a national database, the Home Office responded to the overseas offenders scandal by demanding an even more comprehensive Europe-wide tracking system, complete with biometric fingerprints, and highlighting plans to detain allegedly dangerous individuals before they commit an offence.
The Home Office’s ongoing tale of woe reveals a unique crisis of authority in the State machinery, where authoritarian impulses are mixed with moral cowardice and a disdain for public liberty combines with a fear of personal exposure. If we are indeed living in a ‘Big Brother state’, it is one where Big Brother seems happier pursuing petty interference in people’s lives than attempting anything bold or decisive – not unlike the producers of the TV show of the same name.
In short, the politically paralysed Home Office is assuming more and more powers, with less and less purpose. What a State to be in.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: British politics
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