A Home Secretary's first day on the job
Inside the secret world of Whitehall, it's Alan Johnson's first day as Home Secretary. How will he deal with the press? In this behind-the-scenes sequence, we tag along as Johnson gets briefed for his first encounter with a media wolfpack as Home Secretary. In The Dark Department, Michael Cockerell's unrivalled access to the corridors of power delivers a fascinating look at how government actually works.Watch the clip
Inside The Home Office – The Dark Department
By Michael CockerellArticle and discussion on the Daily Telegraph
The Home Office has long had a reputation as a glittering coffin. Many recent Home Secretaries have, as one of them put to me, left the place feet first. There have been six New Labour Home Secretaries in the past thirteen years – three of whom were forced to go.
To try and capture the culture and DNA of the most hazardous department in government for a new TV series on the Great Offices of State, I have had access to the latest Home Secretary and his Sir Humphrey, Alan Johnson and David Normington. And I have talked to many previous Home Secretaries and their normally camera-shy top mandarins.
Nearly thirty years ago the Home Office moved into new, specially built headquarters. Its brutalist concrete and glass exterior seemed to reflect the distinctive culture that had grown up among its civil servants – secretive, defensive and designed to repel boarders. Sir Hayden Phillips, a long time Home Office mandarin, says: ‘There was a sense of being bunkered – always being got at and not being understood – with people not appreciating you were trying to do a good and honest job’.
New Labour’s first Home Secretary, Jack Straw, says that he and his officials would refer to the Home Office building as if it were the notorious KGB jail. ‘We used to call it Lubyanka. It was like a prison and with little cells. As Home Secretary you could go up in the ministerial lift -- you had your own loo. And with a bit of luck you'd never be contaminated by any other form of human life -- except in a meeting. And later you’d go down in the lift and leave.’
The Home Office has long had the reputation of being a backward-looking and closed society where the policies would continue unchanged, whoever came in as Home Secretary. I put this to Sir Brian Cubbon, who was the Home Office’s Sir Humphrey, for a decade until 1988. ‘There’s inevitable inertia in all institutions and one of my tasks as Home Secretary was …’ ‘Freudian slip’, I said as Sir Brian corrected himself. ‘One of one of my tasks as Permanent Secretary was to explode occasionally and say: “Doesn’t the office realise that there’s been a change of government? Doesn’t the office realise there’s been a change of Home Secretary?”’
Michael Howard says that when he was the last Tory Home Secretary journalists would ring the Home Office to ask about policy and would be told by officials: ‘well, the Home Office policy is this -- however, the Home Secretary thinks …’
Howard had come to the Home office with a hardline agenda to cut crime. But he came up against the Home Office’s own distinctive view that had developed over the years. ‘ I was shown charts which showed crime rising inexorably and the officials actually said to me: “it is going to continue to go up and the first thing, Home Secretary, that you have to understand is that there is nothing you can do about it”.’ Howard felt in his four-year term he had managed to change that culture and was saddened to hear what his successors had found
‘ I hate to agree with Michael Howard about this’, says the former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, ‘but he and I shared the view that the Home Office didn’t really believe that they could change the world -- that they could really make a difference to reducing crime.’
And Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, recalls the presentation the Home Office gave to the New Labour Prime Minister: ‘They presented projected figures that showed crime inexorably rising during our years in Government. And they said this was a result of the economy improving and as the economy improved there’d be more stuff to nick and therefore there’d be more crime. We were a bit bemused by this and I asked what would happen if the economy turned down and we suffered a recession rather than a growing economy? They said: “oh well, crime would go up, there’d be more people to nick things”.’
The former Cabinet Secretary, Lord (Richard) Wilson, who was Home Office’s top mandarin under both the Tories and New Labour explains the official mindset. ‘In the Home Office you do have a sense that you are the department of Law and Order, in an age when authority may not be the most fashionable of the roles to play. They feel that faced with the growth in crime, this is the sum total of endless other failings which no one Home Secretary has the capacity -- however brilliant and however powerful -- to tackle.’
Blair’s first Home Secretary was Jack Straw, but over the years the PM came to feel that Straw had fallen prey to a defeatist Home Office orthodoxy on crime. ‘I did get irritated with Tony sometimes and used to say to him: “I think you're asking me to push water up hill, aren’t you?”, says Straw.
Blair chose the populist figure of David Blunkett to replace Straw. But the new Home Secretary came up against the new top mandarin -- Sir John Gieve. He believed that Blunkett was more driven by getting good crime-fighting headlines than by hard analysis. ‘David Blunkett wanted to shake up the Home Office’, says Gieve. ‘The political agenda was to seize this traditional bit of Tory grand and reclaim law and order as a Labour issue. That made the Home Office the main political battlefield’.
Blunkett admits: ‘John Gieve and I did have our clashes and frustrations. But what I needed was a can-do attitude’. Gieve counters: ‘I was responsive to David’s policy agenda but he should have been looking to me not just to be a supporter, but to be someone who was telling truth to power’.
Blunkett came to feel increasingly frustrated at the Home Office And as his private life became entangled in official business he felt one day that even the run-down building itself was in revolt against him . ‘I went in one morning and the building was creaking, it was beginning to fall apart, a kind of metaphor really’, says Blunkett.
‘And I walked in to the upstairs toilets and I was very quick on the uptake in realising there was something amiss here. And I was very glad I did, because I called in one of the private secretaries: he declared with an entirely straight face that the sewage system had obviously gone into reverse and the whatsit was now in washbasin and the bath area rather than down the toilet. And I thought well that just about sums it all up.’
After Blunkett resigned the Home Office moved to shiny new high-tech headquarters. Charles Clarke was the new Mr Fixit. But he become embroiled in a huge political row when it was revealed that the Home Office had over six years released a thousand dangerous and violent foreign prisoners – including murderers and rapists – without them being without being considered for deportation as they should automatically have been. And the Home Office had no idea where they were nor how many more such cases there were.
Charles Clarke says the scandal was the result of the ‘absurd and ridiculous system’ where one part of his sprawling empire did not know what the other part was doing. And in our film he takes the highly unusual step of publicly pointing the finger at his top mandarin. ‘I made the mistake in relying on Sir John Gieve who had assured me that he’d got the matter in hand in terms of dealing with the immediate situation – which turned out not to be the case’.
Sir John responds: ‘We should have dealt with the thousand cases better over six years – actually before I was there as well as when I was there. But obviously Charles Clarke had doubts about me, and’ – Sir John added, after a lengthy pause – ‘I about him. But I am not going to say anymore: I’m due to be at lunch in Baker Street.’ Exit mandarin.
John Gieve had left the Home Office by the time Charles Clarke was, as he puts. ‘sacked’ by Tony Blair over the foreign prisoners fiasco. The new Home Secretary was the Glaswegian hard man, John Reid,
Sir David Normington, who took over from John Gieve and remains Permanent Secretary says: ‘John Reid came in like a whirlwind. He was put here to steady the ship and take a grip’. Normington was at Reid’s side in the Commons when the New Home Secretary famously described his division dealing with asylum and immigration as ‘not fit for purpose’.
‘I agreed with his analysis’, says Sir David ‘but wish he hadn’t used the “not fit for purpose” phrase, because of course that then became the label that attached to the Home Office for the next several years and to some extent still does when we run into heavy weather.’
But what, I asked, had the phrase done at the time for morale in the Home Office? ‘Morale was low because the previous Home Secretary had lost his job’, says Sir David. ‘That was the result of something that we had done wrong. We’re here to serve our Home Secretaries, not to cause problems for them. Departments can lose their reputation in a moment and on that day our reputation was absolutely in shreds’
Over the past four years, Normington has done his utmost, to restore the Home Office’s standing. Although he had strong personal reservations, Sir David went along with the plan hatched up by Tony Blair and John Reid for the biggest shake up in the Home Office’s history . The department was split into two ministries on continental lines. Criminal justice, prisons and probation were handed over to the newly created Ministry of Justice. And the Home Office became effectively the ministry of the interior responsible for internal security, law and order, immigration and terrorism. That decision has led many former secretaries and top officials to wonder whether the Home Office any longer deserves its designation as a Great Office of State.
Sir David Normington responds: ‘The Home Office, because of its traditions, its history, the fact that it is responsible for the basics of the State -- law and order, the border, countering terrorism, protecting the public -- will always be a very important department. Whether it’s a great department of State, I’ll leave others to judge.’
So how does the current Home Secretary, Alan Johnson see it? ‘I’m pleased that we are no longer one department trying to straddle too many areas. But there are still a whole series of major events that can come out of the blue and affect us from day to day . But the nature of this job, the edginess of the Home Office is what makes it a really satisfying, political challenge’. But does Johnson think the Home Office is still one of the great departments of State? ‘Yes – of course I would say that. And it had better stay one of the great departments of State now I’m in it’.
- Michael Cockerell
- Michael Cockerell
- James Giles
- Michael Cockerell
- Executive Producer
- Martin Wilson