By Joshua.Chambers

16 Nov 2011

Keith Vaz is the chair of the home affairs committee, and an acerbic critic of the Home Office and UKBA. Joshua Chambers hears him analyse the Home Office’s weaknesses – and give a rendition of a song about white flags.

“We would not necessarily describe our jobs as being dangerous... although I haven’t seen your article yet,” says Keith Vaz (pictured above). Has my interviewee, the chairman of the Commons home affairs committee, just threatened me? But no, he’s smiling as he points out how safe the jobs of MPs or journalists are compared to those of police officers; it’s a contrast that, he believes, badly weakens the government’s case for reducing police pay packets and reforming working practices.

A minute later, though, Vaz is sombre; he takes his commitment to the police extremely seriously. A politician who wears his heart on his sleeve, the Labour MP makes for a surprising interviewee: one minute he’s coruscating in his criticisms of the civil service; later he details a moving story of loss at an early age; and a few minutes after that, he bursts into song.

If he doesn’t like this article, I will not be the only person on the wrong side of Vaz. During the interview, he criticises the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the UK Border Agency (UKBA), three permanent secretaries, the previous home secretary and the current one. In fact, only the police escape criticism.

Golden age
Vaz first became involved in the home affairs select committee almost 25 years ago, a year after he was first elected to Parliament. “At that stage, select committees were considered to be very dull; not very imaginative,” he says. “They didn’t really push the boat out very much: the witnesses that we called were not the best and the brightest in a particular field.”

Now, though, Vaz thinks we are in the “golden age” of parliamentary scrutiny. The fact that no party has an absolute majority in the Commons means that “we have members of parties in equal numbers, whereas for 13 years we had a big Labour majority on select committees – therefore one was wondering whether or not they were independent of government; and under the Conservatives you had the same thing.”

Vaz believes many committees are very different beasts these days: “We go out of our way to find the people who really count, and I think that’s really important because where else do you get the key players coming together, as we did for example in the inquiry into the riots?” One day in July, he recalls, his committee took the leadership of the Metropolitan Police to task over phone-hacking while, in the next room, the culture committee quizzed Rupert Murdoch about another aspect of the same issue.

Spats over cats
While Vaz is positive about today’s select committees, he’s less optimistic about the Home Office. “It remains unwieldy because of the various functions that it has,” he says. “Has it improved? Yes, it has improved, but it is not the most efficient and smooth department.”

Ultimately, he doesn’t think the organisation has an appropriate remit – and the blurring at the boundaries of its responsibilities leads to unnecessary “spats” with the Ministry of Justice. “The fundamental problem is that the last Labour government should not have separated prisons from the rest of the Home Office,” he says. “The criminal justice system has been split in half by mandarins and, as a result, it just can’t work. It should have remained as part of the Home Office, so it was seamless from the time you start [a criminal justice process] to the time you finish.”

In part, Vaz believes, the weaknesses in the Home Office reflect the civil service’s tendency to promote ‘generalists’ to top jobs rather than policy experts. “One of the problems we have now is that we don’t have Home Office specialists in charge of the Home Office,” he complains. The department’s permanent secretary Helen Ghosh, he points out, “is not a former police officer”. And, he goes on, “Lin Homer headed the UKBA and was a former local government chief executive; now she’s running transport. With the greatest respect to Birmingham [City Council], which she originally ran, and the UK Border Agency, running them is not the same as running transport. So I think we have a problem with the civil service. How do they know anything about their subject?”

Vaz adds that civil servants are promoted or allowed to move between jobs and departments far too readily, without being tested sufficiently on tough questions such as: “Did you leave your agency or your department in a better state?” He was particularly surprised by the seamless movement of former Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington straight from his civil service job into his new roles as lead civil service commissioner and commissioner for public appointments. “I think there needs to be a bit more loyalty given to the jobs that people work in to make them as effective as possible,” he comments.

A final bugbear is the payment of bonuses to civil servants. “I don’t think anyone in the civil service should have bonuses; they should be paid a salary,” he argues. “I don’t see how you can justify someone like Lin Homer, who was on a salary of £215,000 [at the UKBA], getting a bonus of 10,000 quid.”

Isn’t a bonus an incentive to improve performance, I respond. “At that level? I think if you’re appointing someone at your level and my level it is different; but at that level, do you think £5,000 extra is going to make Lin Homer work harder? She and anyone else doing the work that she was doing at the UK Border Agency should do their job because of the salary they get and because of the prestige of having that post,” he says.

The UK Border Agency
Vaz’s irritation with such bonuses may also reflect his views of the UKBA – an organisation repeatedly savaged in his committee’s reports. What’s the problem with the UKBA? “It’s bad management, I’m afraid, over a period of time,” he replies. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard from previous secretaries of state about their frustration with what has been going on there.”

There are many good workers in UKBA, he adds, but “there have been far too many changes and there has been a lack of resources for the people who are actually doing the work”. Indeed, a few days after our interview the UKBA hit the front pages again with a story that seemed to point to manpower shortages, when it emerged that passport checks had been relaxed on non-EU citizens – a controversy that rapidly led to the departure of border force chief Brodie Clark, and has threatened to bring down the home secretary.

Unfortunately, Vaz thinks the problems at the agency are, in some cases, getting worse. For example, his committee was curious to discover the agency’s ‘control archive’ – a name he ridicules as “a Doctor Who type term: ‘I will put this file in the control archive, Doctor.’” In fact, he adds: “The control archive should be renamed ‘lost and found’, because this is where they put the lost applicants. As of last November, there were 18,000 people in the control archive. It has now risen to 124,000 cases.”

All that said, Vaz has “high hopes” that the UKBA’s new chief executive, Rob Whiteman, will turn things around – hopefully in concert with the Treasury Solicitor’s Office, which handles much of the UKBA’s legal work. “If they dealt with some of these cases early on, they would be much easier to resolve,” he says. “The key to all this is early decision-making. When someone claims asylum, you get through their case quickly, give them a quick decision, and tell them ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. We’re not doing that.”

Strengthening scrutiny
To ensure that the Home Office and UKBA keep on improving – and to keep a track on whether select committee recommendations are being implemented – Vaz says his committee will be holding regular hearings with a handful of senior civil servants. Helen Ghosh has been asked to appear in front of him twice a year; UKBA is to be monitored on a four-monthly basis.

The committee has also set out for the Home Office a series of key indicators, which Vaz dubs ‘the ten commandments’ – though he admits that there aren’t ten of them, but 47. All too often, he says, when select committees publish reports, “there is press interest at the time we publish it, then it goes quiet, and years later people ask: ‘What happened?’”
The committee’s solution to this problem is a ‘traffic light’ system designed to track whether public agencies are acting on its recommendations. “All of our reports, after we get the government response, are given traffic lights,” Vaz explains: “A green for where the government said ‘yes’ and implemented it. A yellow for when they’re on the right track. And a red for when they’ve said ‘no’ and we think they’re wrong. We’ll publish the traffic lights based on all the reports at the end of each session.”

Catalysing cooperation
So far, however, the committee has not found the Home Office particularly responsive to its new approach. “We were very disappointed with their last response, because I gave them a series of letters asking about the ‘commandments’ the committee has issued,” Vaz says. Rather than writing an answer to the committee’s questions, the department replied with a web link – a response which Vaz found “very rude, discourteous”. The committee insisted on a written response, he adds – and eventually got one.

The UKBA too has irritated Vaz by evading his questions. When his committee wrote to the agency asking about its action against “bogus colleges”, he recalls, “they said they don’t recognise the term ‘bogus colleges’. We thought this was very odd, because yesterday they sent out a press release telling us exactly how many bogus colleges they’ve closed down – so it’s clear that we have a cultural problem.”

That cultural problem comes from the top, he believes. Vaz is concerned that home secretary Theresa May is barring many officials from giving evidence to the committee. Rather than let the new head of the National Crime Agency appear, he says, May has maintained that she is the agency’s chief executive and thus the individual accountable to Parliament. Similarly, rather than let IT adviser Lord Wasserman come before the committee, May has insisted that she will give evidence on Home Office IT herself. “She is, if anything, brave to do all of these jobs. She is in charge of IT personally, she is in charge of the National Crime Agency, and she’s also the home secretary,” Vaz comments. “She’s a very busy woman.”

Police efficiencies
Asked about the coalition’s policies on the police, Vaz reverts to classic Whitehall language. The government is “undertaking a very ambitious and challenging approach” to police reforms, he says. But he soon offers a translation: what he means, he explains, is that he doesn’t like the coalition’s moves on pay and pensions.

Police morale is bad, he says lugubriously: “According to the Police Federation, morale is the lowest it’s ever been.” Vaz is particularly worried that police officers “will suffer the possibility that we would have an Australian-style police service”, with part-time officers. He hates the idea: “I was horrified. Imagine if you get someone in to decorate your house, and they turn out to be a police officer.”

Vaz says that the government’s moves to change police working practices and reduce workforce costs are “very, very worrying”, and that “at this particularly time, as the riots showed us, we should value the police service more than ever”. And then, explaining why police officers deserve good rewards, he tells a very personal story.

“The first time I really remember a police officer is when there was a knock on my door, when I was 14,” he recalls. The officers asked whether his father was at home: “I said: ‘No. It’s Saturday, and he goes out on Saturday.’ Then they said: ‘Is your mother at home?’ I said ‘Yes’. They went into the sitting room and said: ‘Is your husband here?’ She said ‘No’, and the policeman said: ‘Well, I’m sorry to tell you that your husband has died.’ And, um... it’s delivering those kind of messages that make it a different job,” he says quietly. Gone is the brio and the bullishness; for a minute Vaz seems vulnerable, and very human.

Then he brings the subject back to politics, arguing that many politicians don’t understand the importance of respecting the work of the police: “I’m sorry to say that Jacqui Smith didn’t understand this when she was the home secretary, and therefore against the wishes of Gordon Brown – who rang me and asked me not to go – I went on the demonstration in support of police pay: the biggest demonstration in London by the police since the 1920s. I did it because I believed that was the right thing to do.”

“Theresa May is going the same way,” he adds, “and the Treasury also don’t understand it.” The people whose wages and working practices are being squeezed, he argues, “are people on the front line, who deserve our protection and support because they protect and support us.”

National Crime Agency
So Vaz doesn’t like the government’s reforms to police wages and practices. But what does he think of its organisational reforms – specifically, the creation of the National Crime Agency (NCA)? “I do agree with the idea in principle. I think it’s a very bold... an ambitious idea,” he replies. “It is the home secretary’s flagship and, as the words of that song go” – and here the chairman of the home affairs committee unexpectedly breaks into song – “I will go down with my ship, I will go down with my ship, na naa na naa na naa na na naa.”

Vaz breaks off and turns to the photographer: “Who sings that song?” Not satisfied with the answer, he sticks his head into the other room to ask his assistant, and sings his snatch of lyrics again. The mood has suddenly changed completely once again. He returns: “Well, anyway, that one. That is what will happen, I’m afraid, unless she gets some people on her ship, she gets some sails up, and she tells us what’s going in it, because at the moment we don’t know.”

The problem is, he says, that as things stand the NCA will be a ghost ship: “It’s like – let’s stick with the shipping example – the Black Pearl.” At this point, with Vaz referring to a zombie-crewed ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the popular culture references are at risk of getting out of hand. After one more rendition of our mystery song, I drag the subject back to the NCA: does Vaz think it should absorb specialist unit the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP)? After all, its former chief Jim Gamble opposes the merger (see  article).

The jury is out, replies Vaz, though the committee is “minded to keep it independent.” They do want to “load the ship,” though, and would like to see the NCA take counter-terrorism work from the Met police after the Olympics. “We don’t think it’s necessarily a function of the Met,” he says. “The Met, as we have seen, has undergone huge problems over the last few years. Oh, hang on, my daughter will know the song. I’m becoming obsessed with this.” He pulls out his BlackBerry and taps out a text.

“Anyway, I’m worried about the Met,” he continues. “They need to go back to their core functions, and they’re not doing their core functions.” Surely they wouldn’t be happy about losing counter-terror powers? “They’re not delighted at our suggestion, but it will allow [new Met police chief] Mr Hogan-Howe to do what he wants to do: be Dixon of Dock Green.”

It was Dido
Faced with what he sees as persistent and serious problems within the Home Office and UKBA, Vaz is deliberately changing the role of his select committee; rather than examining a particular topic in detail and then moving on, he wants to maintain a focus on a set of specific issues until he’s forced ministers and civil servants to implement real change.

“This is new territory for Parliament,” he says. “Parliament is only supposed to produce weighty reports telling the world what we think should be done.” But if a committee sees a “failing government department, and wants to help it improve”, he continues, “then it’s our job to mark them on certain criteria – and that’s what we’re doing on UKBA.”

With the 124,000-strong ‘control archive’ providing another chapter in the sad story of UKBA’s case backlog, Vaz is clear that UKBA is far from fixed. And last week’s revelations about a loosening of border controls – which rapidly drove a very visible fracture between the home secretary and one of her most senior civil servants – will only strengthen Vaz’s determination to keep his committee’s spotlight fixed firmly on the organisation.

One final question: did we get an answer on the song? He checks his phone. “White Flag, by Dido,” he says. As we’ve learned, white flags are not a topic that Vaz knows much about: in his forthcoming battles with the Home Office and UKBA, he is unlikely to be waving any.

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