What a Home Office tweet tells us about the corruption of government

By Mike Phipps

Now here’s an interesting tweet from the Home Office, mendacious of course, but also instructive. It was issued on October 9th.

“Yesterday we returned 14 dangerous Foreign National Offenders, who broke our rules & abused our values, to Lithuania. Our efforts to return those who arrived via illegally-facilitated routes were frustrated by legal claims. Our asylum system is broken but we’re making it fairer.”

It’s worth spending a moment deconstructing this. First, as others have pointed out, deporting foreign national offenders has absolutely nothing to do with the asylum system. Second, whether they are dangerous or not is open to question. Presumably, having completed their sentence, these offenders are due for release. Had they been UK nationals released onto the streets of Britain, it is unlikely the Home Office would have been bragging that it had released “dangerous offenders” into the community.

Third, the second sentence makes no sense – unless you happen to know that the Home Office was trying to put rejected asylum seekers on the same flight. Lithuanian nationals, being citizens of the EU, would not have arrived through “illegally-facilitated routes” – they have a right to come.

Fourth, the Home Office’s efforts to return asylum seekers were not frustrated by “legal claims” – for the simple reason that lawyers, especially the “lefty lawyers” much derided by Home Secretary Priti Patel don’t have the power to stop asylum seekers being deported. But judges do – and they will – if they believe the government is breaking the law in its haste to deport.

Fifth, if the asylum system is “broken”, as the tweet claims, it is the Conservative government that has been administering it for the last decade.

In her Tory Party conference speech, the Home Secretary attacked “the traffickers, the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers, the Labour Party” for profiting from a broken system. Boris Johnson repeated the allegation in his speech a few days ago.

Both the Law Society and the Bar Council both objected strongly, arguing that their attacks on lawyers undermined the rule of law. Lawyers are at risk of physical attack if politicians continue to ‘sling insults’ at them, the Law Society warned.

We are used to politicians making cheap political points and being careless with the truth. But the above-quoted tweet is very unlikely to have been written by a minister. It was almost certainly composed by civil servants – and its deliberately inaccurate content underlines the extent to which neutral government officials have now been corrupted by overbearing politicians.

Civil servants operate under a code of strict impartiality. They are not allowed to act in a way that is determined by party political considerations, nor use official resources for party political purposes. Yet they are often under relentless ministerial pressure to do just that.

A 2018 study by Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee highlighted a deteriorating picture of ministerial behaviour towards officials, which contributed to the high rate of churn in the civil service.

Boris Johnson’s government is taking this to a new level. While no minister has been sacked for any of the government’s multiple bungles, from coronavirus testing to the A level exam grades fiasco, senior civil servants have been sidelined for their unwillingness to cheerlead for Tory policies. These include the Cabinet Secretary and the permanent secretaries at the Foreign Office and Department of Justice, whose departure has apparently been hastened following pressure from prime ministerial advisor Dominic Cummings to make the Whitehall machine more compliant.

But it is the Home Office that is the focus of most concern. The department’s top civil servant, Sir Philip Rutnam, resigned in February, alleging he had become the “target of a vicious and orchestrated campaign” coordinated by his boss, Priti Patel. She, meanwhile, clings to her job, despite allegations of bullying across three governmental departments over a five year period, and a Cabinet Office enquiry that has still not been released to the public months after it was completed. Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds branded the government’s failure to publish it as “disgraceful”.

The use of career civil servants to pursue a narrow and even questionably legal political agenda fits part of a broader picture to run down the civil service and centralise power. The increasing reliance on management consultants to the cost of more than £1.5bn in 2017-18 has further undermined the civil service. Consultants cost twice as much as getting in-house officials to do the work, but they have the advantage to government of not being bound by a pesky code of conduct, and therefore are more likely to reach the conclusions the government wants. Again, it’s the Home Office that is responsible for the largest departmental increase in spending on consultants over the last three years.

Small wonder the government is so incompetent, as its methods encourage groupthink and subservience at all turns. In the process, civil servants are sidelined, bullied or corrupted into behaviour which flagrantly breaches the ethos according to which they are supposed to operate. The long-term implications are a matter of grave concern.

Meanwhile, the government continues to ‘fix’ the broken asylum system, by evicting thousands of refused asylum seekers who were provided with emergency accommodation at the start of the coronavirus outbreak because of public health concerns about leaving them to sleep rough. Dawn raids began in early October. Amid mounting outrage from mayors, faith leaders and hundreds of NGOs coordinated by the No Accommodation Network, we can no doubt expect more cheerleading tweets from Home Office officials in support of this barbaric policy.

Image:  Priti Patel; Source: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/policyexchange/8077475823/; Author: Policy Exchange; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.