The doctrine of ministerial responsibility has been mentioned several times before on these pages, along with the caveat that it is more a theory than a practice in modern times. One of the suggested reasons why ministers have shown little inclination to resign has been the charitable one that the modern government department is simply too huge for them to realistically take the fall for everything that goes on within them. The modern minister, indeed, is becoming quite adept at expressing surprise and bemusement when confronted with a departmental error that clearly took place while the minister was engaged on much more important, and wholly different, business.
Nowhere is this problem clearer than in the problem-hit Home Office. John Reid may have entered his brief bullishly, conveying implicit criticism of his predecessors and suggesting that he was the man to sort things out. Even he, however, buffeted by recent storms of what the Home Office doesn’t know, has bowed to the inevitable and proposed that the Home Office be split in two, its functions spread between a Department of Justice and a Department of Security (or, in effect, the slimmed down Home Office itself).
It is a rational suggestion, and none too soon. And although it looks like a panic measure, the government has clearly been considering the merits of a Justice Department – headed by the avuncular Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer – for some time. This was indeed the motive behind Falconer’s initially saying that he wasn’t going to be Lord Chancellor any more when he was appointed to replace Lord Irvine. Alas, poor Charlie, since when he and Tony Blair looked beyond the matchbox they’d written their ideas on they ran into a number of legal and executive problems. Nonetheless, they obviously haven’t abandoned their reform ideas and in this instance should be encouraged to move ahead with them.
And what’s more, a slimmed down Home Office might be better able to ensure the smooth running of the Cash for Peerages scandal, which saw government aide Ruth turner arrested on Friday. Like the unfortunate headmaster Des Smith, she was hauled into the nick at 6.30 am. Tony Blair had the great good fortune to engage in a pleasant chat in Downing Street at his own convenience when Yates of the Yard came looking for him. Consistency is all.