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Home > Politics

Blunkett and Ming: You never see them in the same room

26 June 2004

Whatever happened to David Blunkett?

In opposition, Blunkett was perceived as 'that nice, left-wing guy with the beard' - sort of a cross between a supply teacher, a union rep and a navy Action Man. But without Eagle Eyes, obviously.

However, in government, Blunkett has drifted gradually toward behaviour that wouldn't be strange coming from Ming the Merciless. ID cards, promises to 'nail' an alleged (note: 'alleged') football hooligan, and ordering Humberside police chief David Westwood to resign.

Unless you have indeed spent the last week on Ming's homeworld Mongo, you'll know that Westwood has been told to resign because Humberside police failed to identify Iain Huntley as a high-risk individual who should not have been allowed to work with children. (Huntley managed to get a job as a school caretaker despite a lengthy string of accusations against him, including sex attacks and having sex with underage girls.)

As home secretary, Blunkett has the power to dismiss Westwood. And Westwood isn't blameless - he has been criticised for saying that his force erased information about Huntley to comply with the Data Protection Act, when this was not the case.

However, most of the errors in dealing with Huntley occurred before Westwood was appointed chief constable. And in fairness to the police, none of the allegations against Huntley resulted in a conviction, and he also used an alias. In the absence of a clear (and computerised) system to track potential sex offenders, it's not surprising that someone without an actual conviction and who uses an alias could pass under the radar.

So should Westwood resign? There might be a certain decency in doing so, but that's about as far as the benefits go. Whenever senior members of a police force, or government or business, are called upon to resign over wrongdoing or incompetence lower down the organisation, it raises two questions.

Firstly - are they really responsible? In Westwood's case, he doesn't appear to have done anything wrong except presiding over a system that was deeply flawed. And it's hardly likely that he ever went around Humberside Constabulary saying 'Don't bother to do any filing, lads, let's give those paedos a sporting chance!'

Even in the case of corrupt businesses or incompetent government departments, there's still the issue of how much an individual can be expected to do in large, complex modern organisations. There's a big difference between, say, Enron, where sharp practice was standard at an executive level, and the resignation of Beverly Hughes, who appears simply not to have known what immigration officials were doing.

The second problem is that calls for resignation are usually just scapegoating. And quite often it's prompted by the media: if someone resigns, something has been seen to be done. The journos get their splash and they can go home and feel self-important because they've influenced events, while the chances are that any real change to flawed organisations will be years in coming.

Is Blunkett playing this cynical game and trying to look decisive for the media? It looks like it. In fact, it's a nasty little by-product of New Labour. Successive ministers seem to be strangely adept at alienating people they should be working with: Blunkett with the police, Charles Clarke with his 'medieval' universities and poor teachers, Alan Milburn implying that doctors were neglecting their NHS work in favour of private practice (some do, most don't).

Of course, the police can't be allowed to hide behind the excuse 'we meant well/we risk our lives on the streets every day/etc.' every time they cock something up. But perhaps the criterion for establishing whether an individual ought to resign should be: would another person have made the same mistake? In the case of Westwood it seems entirely likely - because the failing systems were firmly established in Humberside Constabulary, regardless of who was in charge.

But this is probably too sensible for New Labour, who too often judge the success of policies by how much flak they've managed to avoid from the right-wing press. Either that, or the old adage that power corrupts is all too true.

If Blunkett continues down this road, maybe we should expect to see him setting a date for his forced marriage to Dale Arden.



Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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