Britannia waives the rules
Today’s immigration headlines have a familiar feel. Twenty four hours after embarrassing revelations about a hundred thousand asylum case files being quietly written off, we now learn that at certain times over the summer, UK Border Agency staff were told not to bother checking people’s passports, or checking them against watch lists for crime and terrorism.
The media are understandably dusting off old headlines about our borders being "out of control", and the Home Office being "not fit for purpose".
The strategy of Conservative ministers in the Home Office is already clear: on the first story, blame the previous government, and on the second, blame the officials, with a number of senior executives being named and suspended. The first strategy is reliable, though perhaps getting close to the end of its shelf life. The second is more dangerous. As a politician, saying you have been let down by civil servants is tempting not only as a media strategy, but also as a private mindset, especially at the Home Office. When Jack Straw was Home Secretary he used to joke that at any given time you knew that there were six officials working on something that could cause your resignation – the difficult thing was finding them. But it is easy to forget that civil servants are also often the ones who protect you. They will be less likely to do so if they feel they are being systematically hung out to dry.
Assessing ministerial responsibility for operational matters, as distinct from strategy and policy, is tricky: there is no neat formula. Clearly ministers shouldn’t be held responsible for every mistake that is made by any one of the tens of thousands of staff for whom they are ultimately responsible. But nor is it as simple as saying – as some of Theresa May’s defenders have been saying today – that ministers are responsible for policy, officials for carrying it out. That is either naïve or disingenuous. Ministers have to take responsibility for ensuring that their policy decisions are realistic: that they can be implemented, within the existing resources and constraints – which of course are also ministers’ responsibility. And in broad terms, they are responsible for overall outcomes, and that should lead them to take a healthy interest in the operational workings of the department.
So, while it is certainly relevant whether ministers were made aware of the orders to waive the checks, this is far from the end of the story: they can legitimately be held responsible not just for things they were told about, but also for questions they fail to ask; and of course, like any leader of an organisation, they are responsible for setting the tone, for the shared sense of what is regarded as acceptable practice and what is not. The pressures of summer travel volumes on passport control are a well-known and major issue within the Home Office, and ministers should have been asking searching questions on a weekly basis, particularly since they had authorised the waiving of some of the checks (those on EU passengers), even if not the worst lapses.
Then there is the issue of resources, and in particular the fact that the Border Agency is in the process of shedding 5,000 staff. It’s not only the unions who complain about under-staffing at airports: Fraser tweeted this morning about under-staffing at Heathrow "showing contempt for travellers", as well as apparently risking the integrity of our border controls. Of course, what matters is not just the total number of staff, but how they are deployed. Having worked for a spell as a consultant for a high street retailer, I know how much difference efficient processes can make to queue times and general performance, even with a fixed number of staff. But this is precisely one of the problems with the current government cuts: in too many areas, departments are going for the easy option of uniform levels of cuts, resulting in the overstretched parts of government facing additional pressure, rather than targeting less stretched (or less necessary) areas of activity. This is certainly something which ministers cannot escape responsibility for.
In the case of the UKBA, both ministers and senior officials have cited the introduction of new technology, to reassure the public that staff cuts will not lead to weaker controls. In theory this is broadly correct, and it is good to see Damian Green championing the new screening technology which began its slow roll-out in 2005. But the phasing is risky: the staff cuts are biting before the technology has had a chance to prove itself. Again, this is an aspect of operational strategy for which ministers have to take responsibility.
The wider concern for the Conservatives must be that this rash of stories marks the beginning of a new phase in which, as their honeymoon fades, it becomes harder to blame their predecessors, and they face growing scepticism about whether they have really succeeded in ‘getting a grip’ on our border controls. We all know how dangerous it is for politicians to promise what they can’t deliver, particularly on an issue as emotive as immigration. I have made this point before in relation to the Conservatives’ policy choices, but it also applies to the way they have handled the issue of operational failings. Many of the immigration scandals which damaged Labour were operational in nature. It would have been too much to ask for the Conservatives to pass up the opportunity of exploiting them, but a more strategic approach would have invested just a little political capital in setting out an additional narrative, one which is more realistic about the inevitability of mistakes, and which tries to expose some of the trade-offs involved in immigration policy: between the strength of controls and the convenience of passengers – a trade-off which can certainly be managed better, but will never completely disappear in the context of a hundred million journeys in and out of the country each year – and between the expectations which the media and the public have of the Home Office, and their willingness to support the means for delivering them, both in terms of spending, and in terms of intrusions into our liberty or privacy.