Friday 22 April 2022

Following orders


The top civil servant in the Home Office has apparently found it necessary to tell the department’s staff that they will not be breaking the law nor be guilty of racism if they implement the Home Secretary’s plan to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda. The claim that the plan does not break any laws is a bold one for a civil servant to make; ultimately it is for the courts to decide whether the plan is legal or not, and we can be certain that there will be legal challenges aplenty. The question as to whether it is racist or not is more complex. It is arguably not directly racist in the sense that race will not be a factor in the criteria for deciding which of those migrants who arrive by one particular mode of entry will be sent; but since the overwhelming majority of those arriving by that route are of African or Middle Eastern origin (Europeans generally having safer routes available to them, as well as less need to seek sanctuary - current circumstances notwithstanding), there is every probability that it will be indirectly racist.

But perhaps the most significant part of the mandarin’s lecture to staff was the bit where he said that staff were obliged to implement ministers’ decisions. That sounded a lot like telling them that they must always follow orders, an approach to government which many will have thought to have been seriously discredited at Nuremburg. There are lots of things in human history which have been entirely legal under the laws in force at the time – including, of course, slavery – but being ‘legal’ doesn’t make them right, and it doesn’t absolve those implementing them of all moral responsibility for their actions. Where to draw the line is far from being an easy question: a situation in which different civil servants draw the line in different places depending on their own consciences would clearly cause untold difficulties. But the precedents for a government which falls back on instructing its servants to do as they are told regardless of any reservations about legality or morality – which is where we seem to be headed – are not exactly good. The Civil Service is, quite rightly, expected to be neutral rather than partisan in implementing the policy of the elected government of the day. But acting in a neutral fashion isn’t – and should not be allowed to become – the same thing as acting without any sense of morality. The fact that the head honcho at the Home Office doesn’t seem to understand the nuance here is something that should worry us all.

1 comment:

dafis said...

One little thing you fail to mention - the probability that the idea of shipping a "problem" to Rwanda or indeed anywhere else originated from a working party of senior civil servants. Combine a bunch of malicious politicians with an equally amoral permanent staff and you get outcomes like this one. No doubt there will be servants at the sharper end of the operation who will be very concerned about the legality but those senior guys are often cut from nastier bits of cloth than the political rotters they "serve".