There is a debate about what responsibility Mrs May and Mr Green should take for the borders troubles that have recently come to light. Mrs May herself says that she did not want some of the controls lifted at our borders which it turns out have been lifted. She says one of her senior officials went against Ministerial orders. He was suspended from work by another official who also thought he had acted out of turn.
The doctrine of Ministerial accountability is not straight forward. In 1954 the Crichel Down case led to the resignation of Sir Thomas Dugdale, Agricluture Minister. He did not himself handle the land at Crichel Down in the way which offended, but he took the blame for his officials approach. Since then many think that a Minister has to resign as he did if something goes wrong, even if he knew nothing about it.
This doctrine has been modified by subsequent governments and cases. When there was a bad break out from the Maze Prison in 1983 the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did not resign. He argued that it was not his policy to allow or encourage prison break-outs, so he had no need to go.
Mr Howard, and subsequent Labour Ministers in the 1997-2010 government, sought to argue for a distinction between policy failure and administrative failure. They said that if the Minister’s policy or instructions had led to the problem,the Minister was to blame and should go. If the failure was at executive level, where civil servants had failed to implement the policy efficiently and effectively, the senior official should go.
This approach has been buttressed by the establishment of Executive Agencies. The officials who lead these agencies have more right to speak in public and to lead their section of government than officials within departments. They are usually paid better and may have a bonus based on executing the policy well. Ministers often feel if the mistakes occur as a result of poor Agency implementation, it should be the Head of the Agency rather than the Minister who resigns.
Mr Dancona, arguing in yeaterday’s Sunday Telegraph, suggests the hard and pure doctine of Crichel Down should be modified at least to ensure one thing. Surely he says, if an official deliberately flouts a Ministerial instruction or policy in the anticipation that this will force the Minister to resign, there should be a relaxation to prevent that happening. It would seem tough indeed if a Minister has to go when a critic within the department seeks to undermine them whilst observing secrecy whilst undertaking the violation.
In practice each case is different and is judged on its merits against the mood of the time. Mrs May has on her side the fact that she was trying to tighten controls on illegal entrants whilst easing the queues for the law abiding at the borders, and the clear support of the Prime Minister.
The case has served to highlight the dilemma of the Coaltion government. How can it implement its stated aims, when there are habits of working and assumptions amongst some officials based on the previous 13 years which point in the opposite direction to the Minister’s policy? Will Ministers now devote more time and enegry to supervising and following up once they have set out their general policy aims? As a rule of thumb, there needs to be three times as much follow up, analysis and chasing after the policy launch and press realease, than before when constructing it. If there is insufficient interest in the execution of policy more Ministers are going to be wasting time defending their actions and claiming that the policy was fine, it was just a pity about the implementation.
The public wants the right press release or policy, but it then wants it to be enacted, administered and enforced.