Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The truth about Theresa May, and passport queues

Political Scrapbook is crowing about its discovery that, back in 2004, Theresa May called for a Home Office minister to resign over a row involving... officials letting immigrants into the UK without full background checks being made, in order to clear a backlog. The full, almost forgotten, story is here. No doubt it seemed important at the time.

May demanded:


I do think Beverley should resign as minister on this particular issue and I find it absolutely extraordinary that she’s… blamed officials in her department ... I'm sick and tired of government ministers in this Labour government who simply blame other people when things go wrong.


Well, yes, of course she did. She was in Opposition. Just as Yvette Cooper is now. (And I must say, she seems to be enjoying it a lot more than government.)

The circumstances weren't precisely the same: the 2004 case involved actual immigrants, this week's row is about passport queues. But the principle is, indeed, similar. British constitutional theory (if not practice) demands that ministers are answerable for the actions of their officials. British political practice is that Oppositions demand ministerial resignation whenever something in their department goes seriously wrong. Or when something is claimed in the Mail to have gone seriously wrong, which of course isn't always precisely the same thing. Ministers, for their part (the new convention probably began with Michael Howard, if anyone out there still remembers him) will answer that their responsibility is discharged by blaming the official held to have supervised the blunder, whatever it is.

Theresa May thus stands revealed to be (gasp) a politician. Who'd have thunk it?

What happens next invariably depends on largely extraneous factors, such as: Is anything else is going on in the world that is particularly newsworthy? Is the minister concerned a particular friend of the prime minister? Is this a first offence or has the minister blundered before? Is the minister popular with the press, with his or her civil servants, with colleagues on the back benches, with the BBC? The actual rights and wrongs of the situation tend to come a long way down the list.

For my part, I can only think that the decision to reduce time-consuming identity checks at airports (for non-EC citizens, who the current discriminatory regime deems to be lower than vermin where borders are concerned, even if they're Americans) during the height of the summer season was obviously the correct one, whoever took it. Even if (as we do not know) someone undesirable had slipped into the country unnoticed as a consequence of lax security, many many more people will have had a slightly more pleasant holiday or business travel experience as a result. And that matters. Especially at a time of economic gloom, the country relies on tourists and foreign business travellers coming here, spending their money, doing business, and finding the process at least tolerably hassle-free. And coming back. The advantages to the nation as a whole of relaxing some of the more laborious biometric checks - checks that we managed to do perfectly well without for decades and even centuries - far outweighed any disadvantages.

Passport queues are not nothing. They are not simply time-consuming, they are burdensome, expensive to carry out, and inherently degrading of the 99.9% of honest, innocent travellers who merely want to get on with their holiday or business meeting. They make international travel an ordeal, fray tempers, can have adverse health consequences for some passengers and increase the cost of moving people around the world. The fact is that there are simply too many people wanting to pass through airports to make the carrying out of rigorous checks compatible with basic human decency. So people are treated like convicts, or at best like suspects, and this is not good for anyone.

Whether or not Theresa May gave Brodie Clark the nod to implement these modest measures at a few airports, she should be justifying it, indeed taking credit for it, explaining that in an imperfect world a balance must be struck between absolute security and civility and that efficient, fast-moving passport queues are something worth striving for. Clark deserved a promotion.