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Buck stops with ministers, no matter what they think.


[bar] ow much value do we put on democratic accountability? Greece has just appointed a technocrat to be Prime Minister to lead a "100-day government" to push through the austerity measures required to get the next tranche of bailout money from the European Central Bank.

Italy seems on the point of getting another technocrat, economist Mario Monti, to take over from the unlamented Silvio Berlusconi. He also needs to push through austerity and reform packages, in this case to prevent Italy getting into the Greek near-default on its national debt.

Again there is supposed to be a general election in 100 days. What happens if the Greeks and Italians get a taste for being governed by non-partisan "experts" who can take the responsibility for pushing through really tough reforms that no-one running for election would dare do? Britain is going through a milder version of this dilemma over who is best placed to make difficult dilemma decisions and who carries the can if things go pear-shaped. Home Secretary Theresa May has blamed Brodie Clark, the head of the UK Border Force, for relaxing immigration controls at Heathrow on non-EU nationals.

He claims he was within his delegated powers, running an agency with discretion to relax controls set out in various agreements with the Home Office. Is it better to set up "arm's-length" agencies to run the big complex jobs of Government rather than maintain the fiction that all Government is always the responsibility of ministers and the civil servants who serve them? Brodie Clark has now resigned claiming constructive dismissal and all the experts say that he will win the case (or the Government will settle out of court, that is).

Agencies run by non-civil servants and without interference from ministers, subject to clear ground rules on what their limits are, can function really efficiently until something goes wrong. Then the good old British public expects ministers to abide by the four words written on the plaque set in a prominent place on President Harry Truman's desk: The Buck Stops Here.

I used to think, before I became First Minister, that Nye Bevan's version of the Truman doctrine on political responsibility went a bit far but, as usual, Bevan got it right. When he set up the National Health Service he said: "I want the broken bedpan in a hospital in Tredegar to resound along the corridors of Whitehall!" When things go wrong, ministers cannot hide. You cannot say: "Surely you don't expect me to be responsible for everything that goes wrong in a huge organisation like the NHS?" "Sorry, chum, but we do," says the public.

The resignation of Brodie Clark has reminded everyone of the South Wales-North Wales spat in 1995 between the Home Secretary Michael Howard and the businessman Derek Lewis, brought in to run the Prison Service more efficiently.

Michael Howard was a passionate believer in privatising everything he could, and where he couldn't, farming it out into agencies, bringing business experts in to run them and letting them get on with it. That's fine until things go wrong. It was breakouts from high security jails that created all the bad headlines in 1995. Derek Lewis fought back when he was dismissed and claimed that the Home Secretary had interfered.

People have clearer memories now of Jeremy Paxman asking Michael Howard the same question about ministerial interference 14 times on Newsnight than of the issues themselves. What really finished Michael Howard was that he upset his second-in-command, Ann Widdecombe, in sacking Derek Lewis. She then produced one of the great killer phrases ever delivered by one minister about another political colleague: "He has something of the night about him."

It is very hard to recover from a knife between the political shoulder blades like that. Theresa May better keep an eye on her ministerial team.


[bar] Brodie Clark, former head of the UK Border Force, who has claimed constructive dismissal over his departure in the latest immigration controversy
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 12, 2011
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