Monday, 30 June 2008

Will Hazel Blears resign?

(And did a large pink porcine object just fly past the window?)

In another era, this might have been the case. Once upon a time, the UK had a doctrine known as “Ministerial Responsibility”. According to this, Ministers were responsible for the actions of civil servants within their departments – whether they
were aware of those actions or not.

In 1954, Sir Thomas Dugdale famously resigned over the actions of his Civil Servants in the Crichel Down case. There was no suggestion of personal complicity. In similar vein, in 1982, Lord Carrington resigned from his post as Foreign Secretary over the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. A subsequent inquiry attached no direct blame attached to him.

But “Ministerial Responsibility” was always more pious aspiration than constitutional fact. Over the years it has been watered down even further.

First has been the hair-splitting attempt to divide it into “operational” and “policy” areas. This declares that failures due to policy are the responsibility of the Minister: those due to purely operational factars are not. Thus it was that the loss of Child Benefit Data in November 2007 may have resulted in the departure of a few civil servants – but left the Minister untouched.

Then there was the astonishing case of Stephen Byers, who appears quite clearly to have misled the House of Commons about the resignation of his Communications Director, Martin Sixsmith.

According to the Ministerial Code of Conduct, issued in 1997, "It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent errors at the earliest opportunity."

In this case, Stephen Byers appears to have misled the House of Commons and then, in an extraordinary reversal of accountability - excused himself on the grounds that he was misled by his civil servants.

Of course, it is not just Labour who don’t resign. A few weeks back, the Scottish Public Health Minister , Shona Robison presided over yet another security lapse. Sensitive details of former patients were discovered at Dundee’s Strathmartine Hospital three years after it closed, despite the fact that she appears to have had knowledge that it was there. She has not resigned.

In fact, the only significant acknowledgment of personal responsibility in recent months appears to come from Canada. There, the Foreign Minister, Maxim Bernier, resigned last month following revelations that he had left classified documents at the home of his former girlfriend.

So what of Hazel Blears? She appears to have held confidential information on a laptop, which was kept at her constituency office in Salford. At one level, there are a number of very good reasons for expecting a resignation. Cabinet Office guidelines suggest that the Data Controller for Government Departments is the relevant Secretary of State.

As Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government, the buck, for DPA issues, theoretically stops with Hazel Blears.

Then there is s.8 of the Official Secrets Act 1989. According to this, a Crown Servant commits an offence if they “fail(s) to take such care to prevent the unauthorised disclosure of the document”…as they “may reasonably be expected to take”.

This is not trivial stuff: it’s a criminal offence and, if Hazel Blears is guilty, she could expect a short spell in jail, as well as a fine.

But never fear: prosecutions of this type require the say-so of the Attorney General. So the chances of a Minister being prosecuted are slight.
Meanwhile the Conservative Party continues to dig. Shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve has asked for urgent clarification of the facts in this matter – and is expected to do so until the full story comes to light.

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