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Tony Travers: Whitehall escapes the collective censure councils face

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The Home Office has come in for sustained criticism about its handling of Windrush generation migrants. The government’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy became little more than maladministration. Civil servants’ use of discretionary powers became an excuse for the poor treatment of individuals.

It would be wrong to blame officials for such failures. They act on ministers’ orders. Successive governments, worried at the time by Ukip’s advance, sent out policy messages about migration that were meant to be read by the electorate in a particular way.

Having said this, Whitehall departments have been responsible for a range of dismal policy failures in recent decades. Cost over-runs, late delivery and poor outcomes have regularly featured in National Audit Office reports.

In their wonderful book The Blunders of Our Governments, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe attempted to work out why disaster afflicts policies such as the Child Support Agency and the London Underground public-private partnership. They concluded that issues such as ministers’ short tenures in office and the failure of central government to understand peoples’ motivation often explained policy disasters.

In addition, many policies are pursued without much of a risk that bad outcomes might come back to haunt the minister who made the decision to go ahead in the first place.

Central departments are lucky. A failure by one is never seen as systemic. If the Home Office is described (as it was by Dr John Reid) as “not fit for purpose”, other parts of Whitehall are not viewed similarly. Defence procurement, rail franchising or NHS computer system blunders are not thought to tell us anything about other government services.

But when a council fails, the whole of local government must live with the consequences. Ministers and civil servants will read a failure in Rotherham or Northamptonshire as evidence of why devolving powers and taxation to local authorities must be done slowly, if at all. There remains a deep suspicion within central departments about the capacity of local authorities, despite their astounding success in handling post-2010 austerity.

The Home Office will survive its current problems, and so should councils which get into trouble. Moreover, local government’s record should be judged by its best achievements, not its worst.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The equality impact assessment on the Immigration Act was a bit too high level to be of any use in identifying the Windrush cohort of British citizens, although it did refer to potential problems for 'older migrants', with inadequate mitigation. The Head of the Home Civil Service (was that Bob at the time?) needs to ensure that officials are trained not to treat these as mere tick box exercises.

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