Sunday, November 30, 2008

Losing the plot

The jewel in the crown of our public administration – so we are told – is a strictly politically neutral civil service, a central tenet of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854. That embodied four core principles of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality – including political impartiality.

Much has been made of the growing politicisation of the civil service, which was a key topic in 2001 and the debate has continued to this day. Even one of the more notable Tory bloggers has complained recently about the politicisation of the civil service.

We now learn from The Sunday Times, however, that the source of the leaks over which Damian Green has recently been arrested came from a junior civil servant in the Home Office immigration directorate by the name Chris Galley.

Two years ago, it seems, he approached the Tory party looking for a change of career. His CV was promising enough to secure an interview with Damian Green, the shadow immigration minister, but he failed to land a job. Galley thus resumed his civil service career, which included work in the private office of Jacqui Smith, the home secretary.

And, despite the rebuff from the Tories, Galley started systemically to leak documents to Damian Green, which he then used to embarrass the government.

What also emerges is that by no means could all the leaks be judged as being in the national interest, one such being a private letter from Smith to Gordon Brown raising her fears about crime rising in the recession. There was also a list — leaked to The Sunday Times — of more than 50 Labour MPs who opposed the government’s proposals to detain terror suspects for 42 days without charge.

Thus, what we have is a situation where a civil servant has been acting entirely in breach of the core principles of government administration, passing confidential information to a shadow cabinet minister, for entirely partisan party political reasons.

Irrespective of the administration served, this is an entirely intolerable situation and one might have thought that the Conservative Party in particular – supposedly upholding traditional values – would be quick to condemn such a situation.

It is one thing for a civil servant, imbued with a sense of public duty, to be so concerned about an issue which he considers to be of vital public interest that he feels impelled to leak it, regardless of the consequences. It is quite another for a party sympathiser to use his position in the civil service systematically to leak information to his preferred party, for it to be used for party political advantage.

Taking a wider perspective, one notes that Damian Green, before he entered politics, had been a journalist for 14 years, working for BBC Radio 4, ITN, The Times and Channel 4's Business Daily.

In passing the information he had gained from Galley to the media, instead of first airing it in the House, one sees not a parliamentarian at work in the national interest, but a party politician using his journalistic skills to bolster his own standing and the interests of his party.

Yet, amid the howls of outrage from Tory newspapers and bloggers, there is not one whit – that I can detect – of concern about this wholly unacceptable situation. Nor is there a hint of criticism of Damian Green. Yet this man has – or so it appears – not only condoned but encouraged an arrangement which runs roughshod over rules that, in effect, are part of our constitution. He has then used the media rather than parliament to pursue party political advantage by exploiting the information he has gained wholly illegally.

Rather than take a long, hard look at what increasingly looks to have been extremely shabby dealing, however, the Tory tribe has gone into hyperventilation mode, most recently with David Davis, the former Shadow Home Secretary declaring that Green's arrest was "reminiscent of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe".

Whatever else, that it is not. There is a case to answer, legal procedures were followed, the police acted entirely within their powers and the arrest was not arbitrary. One commentator remarks that the comparison is "silly", but it is more profound than that. It demonstrates a marked lack of judgement on the part of a senior Tory politician and a complete loss of perspective.

As worrying is Tory groupie Matthew d'Ancona who prattles on about the arrest appearing to be "a monstrous infringement of parliamentary privilege", heedless of the fact that Damian Green, acting in journalistic rather than parliamentary mode, has not invoked and neither can he rely on parliamentary privilege.

It would be a dangerous situation indeed if parliamentary privilege applied to the activities of MPs when they are acting outside the rules of the House, as indeed Green appears to have been, and it is a measure of d'Ancona's limited grasp of the fundamentals that he can – like the rest of his tribe – prattle on so.

Most worrying of all though is the more general public reaction which seems largely supportive of Green, whipped up by the media frenzy which – if viewed dispassionately – looks more like the media supporting one of its own than it does a free media defending democracy, as it claims to be doing.

After all, a constant supply of free stories, produced at public expense, is very much in the media's interest, saving journalists the time and trouble of researching their own. They, however, like the Tory tribe, seem to have lost the plot and are ignoring the more important and disturbing issues, from which Green does not appear to emerge with any credit.