Monday 28 November 2011

Managing the minister

There's a right way of doing these things. And a wrong way. Whitehall got it right in November 2008. And all wrong in November 2011.

2008 – the right way
November 2008. You remember. Gordon Brown is sub-Prime Minister and is busy saving the world. The economy is in meltdown and Sir Gus O'Donnell is Cabinet Secretary, Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office and Head of the home civil service, responsible for all senior appointments. Sir David Normington is Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. Bob Quick is Assistant Commissioner at the Met, Damian Green is Shadow Immigration Minister, Christopher Galley is chief Tory Mole at the Home Office, and Jacqui Smith is Home Secretary.

Information had been leaking from the Home Office for some time, allowing Damian Green to ask embarrassing questions in the House. How, for example, had 11,000 illegal immigrants been licensed by the Security Industry Authority to work as security guards?

Sir David discussed the matter with Sir Gus and between them they decided to call in the police. Why? According to the Independent, Sir Gus said it was because:
... when we started the inquiry the reason for it was we were worried certain information was getting out that was potentially very damaging to national security.

To have access to some other things that had come out in the newspapers, the kind of person (who) would have access to that material might also have access to some quite sensitive stuff ...
On 19 November 2008, Christopher Galley was arrested on suspicion of misappropriating some quite sensitive stuff and released on bail. He was subsequently charged with ... absolutely nothing.

Then, on 27 November 2008, Damian Green was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office.

He was detained for nine hours without a lawyer being present. His home was searched, his constituency office was searched and his House of Commons office was searched. His computers, and hard copy documents, were taken away.

How did Assistant Commissioner Quick's men get into the Palace of Westminster? By asking the Serjeant-at-Arms to let them in. Did they have a search warrant? No. What about Mr Speaker? He is Gatekeeper. Where was he? Good question. Was it the first time the Palace had been invaded in this way since 1642? Yes. Damian Green was subsequently charged with ... absolutely nothing.

As the BBC remind us:
Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said there was a "high threshold before criminal proceedings can properly be brought", and that he had considered the "freedom of the press to publish information and ideas on matters of public interest". He said the information leaked was not secret information or information affecting national security and there was "insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction against Mr Galley or Mr Green".
The Home Secretary knew nothing about these events in advance. Did she lose her rag when she found out? No.

She should have done – John Reid raps Jacqui Smith, as they put it in the Sun ...
HOME Secretary Jacqui Smith was left reeling yesterday by a vicious Commons attack over the Damian Green case by her predecessor John Reid.

Mr Reid said he was "surprised" she was not told cops were about to arrest a shadow minister.

He added: "I cannot think that if I had been told this had been done, after the event, I would have remained as placid as you have."
... but she didn't.

Arguably, Sir David went a bit far rubbing it in, when Jacqui Smith later resigned as Home Secretary. As reported on the civil service live network
The head of the Home Office has praised the secretary of state following her decision to stand down.

Permanent secretary Sir David Normington said Jacqui Smith had shown "exceptional leadership" during the her two year stint as home secretary ...

Sir David said Smith had allowed the department "to come out of our previous difficulties". The department was famously described as "not fit for purpose" by Smith's immediate predecessor, John Reid.

Smith had allowed staff to regain their confidence, Sir David said: "In private she was always challenging us to improve; in public she was always supportive. We could not really have asked for more."
Textbook. Sir David remained in control of his minister at all times. We could not really have asked for more.

2011 – the wrong way
Now roll forward three years.

Sir Gus O'Donnell is the only member of the 2008 cast still in the same job(s). He has appointed most of the members of the new cast.

On the other hand, there is no 2011 equivalent of Sir David Normington causing Sir Gus to come out into the limelight. The Head of the home civil service has remained publicly silent during an embarrassing spat in the home civil service.

John Vine is the Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency. Previously Chief Constable of Tayside Police, he is a safe pair of hands (SPOH).

Mr Vine goes to Heathrow for an inspection and interviews Brodie Clark, Head of the UK Border Force, and a SPOH.

Mr Vine is worried about the suspension of fingerprint checks and voices his concerns to Rob Whiteman, the Chief Executive of UKBA, recently appointed, presumably on the basis that he is a SPOH. Mr Whiteman offers Brodie Clark early retirement.

Dame Helen Ghosh, the successor to Sir David Normington at the Home Office, is the ultimate SPOH. She vetoes the early-retirement-with-a-bonus package and Brodie Clark is suspended.

Then the Home Secretary, Theresa May, herself no mean SPOH, goes off the deep end denouncing Brodie Clark. According to Rachel Sylvester in the Times, writing on 15 November 2011, clearly briefed by the Home Office:
She took the decision to do this, I am told, against the advice of Home Office civil servants, who thought it would be wiser to hold a swift internal inquiry and establish the full facts before suspending a senior member of staff.
So no doubt about it. Out of control. Butterfingers. How not to do it.

Updated 21 January 2014:
Richard Heaton is Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office.

Is he a Normington or a Ghosh?

His minister has just picked a fight with the Americans. Quite unnecessarily. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude Decries 'Old Style' Obamacare Insurance Website.

More of a Ghosh, perhaps, than a Normington.

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