Thursday, April 27, 2006

PAC Racks Meltdown Mandarins

Committee Room 15 was packed and sweaty yesterday as the Public Accounts Committee attempted to make some sense out of the meltdown at the Home Office. Charles Clarke had already been served in the Commons main chamber, and on the PAC menu we had Sir David Normington, the new Permanent Secretary to the HO, and Sir John Gieve, his predecessor. They were arraigned to answer questions on both the non-deportation of those foreign murders and rapists, and their shambolic financial accounts.

Shocking new details emerged. First, on the non-deportation of those foreign thugs:

  • The rate has actually increased threefold since last September, the point at which Clarke reckoned he’d tightened his grip: the monthly average is now 41, compared to 14 in the previous four years
  • Top management were long aware of the communications breakdown between the Prison Service and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (presumably like colleagues in any big organisation, they simply hate each other’s guts). However, their response was simply to convene yet more committees and issue yet more “protocols”. There was no attempt to “send prison governors a rocket” directly from the top, as one PAC member suggested
  • Neither Perm Sec seemed to have any real knowledge about their prisons: neither could even say how many there were, and it was clear they see the whole thing as a rather disagreeable function located far down in the bowels of the ship, well away from the bridge (what a contrast with say, Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco who not only knows how many shops he’s got in every one of the many countries in which they operate, but has visited hundreds of them personally)
  • Management information is shockingly poor. We know the HO didn’t collect any of this info before it was requested by Richard Bacon on the PAC. And even now, they don’t have the monthly numbers broken down by category of offence. Most extraordinarily, they have no idea from which individual prisons these thugs are being set free, so they can’t tell which individual governors are falling down on the job. Normanton said blandly he “had not sought that information”
  • Normanton admitted the HO had lost track of even the most serious offenders: they have no idea where they are, despite constant assurances that all released murderers etc have a "very close eye" kept on them
  • Although the entire system is a dangerous fiasco, it isn't possible for the HO to simply order the suspension of all releases of foreign criminals- Normanton suggested that "might be illegal" even though all prisoners leave jail long before the official end of their sentences. In effect, this whole outrageous set-up is beyond his control.

Things were just as grim on HO's finances (see previous blog):

  • Following the £3m black hole in the 2004-05 accounts, Normanton said he expected 2005-06's would also be qualified. Amazingly, he admitted he hadn't informed Charles Clarke of this- presumably because Clarke can't handle any more disasters, and anyway isn't expected to be around when they're eventually published
  • Publication of the 2005-06 accounts has already been put back by 3 months to September
  • Since 1998-99 only one year's accounts have not been qualified (although strictly, 2004-05's accounts were not qualified as such- they simply failed to appear at all)
  • Preparation of the £13bn pa HO accounts has until very recently been left in the hands of 3 relatively junior (HEO and EO grade) staff posted at an outstation in Liverpool. That's how seriously senior management took it.
  • Normanton signed off 2004-05 accounts knowing they were wrong, because he was "advised" he had to. There seems to have been no common sense over-ride at all.

You hardly know how to respond to all this. The overall impression from the entire extraordinary session was of top managers who are routinely hands-off with respect to the grubby details of delivery, for whom it is just as much of a mystery as it is to the rest of us. They came across as a more urbane version of those old school British Rail employees who greeted every passenger complaint with a shrug of the shoulders.

At one point, the exasperated PAC Chairman pointed out that a private sector MD could go to jail for presiding over such shambolic accounting arrangements. Normanton's unconcerned response was "Maybe- but all kinds of things happen in the private sector."

The truth is that both of these Whitehall knights looked as if they'd be much more at home sipping sherry in the Senior Common Room ruminating on the Hegelian dialectic. Which is where they should be despatched soonest.

PS I was sitting at the back crushed up against a rather stern no-nonsense grey haired lady who, judging from her sotto voce snorts, was extremely unimpressed by HO responses. She put me in mind of the fearsome Miss X, who used to be in charge of public spending accounts at HMT 25 years ago. I think we need her back.


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