New governments take a delight in axing the cherished projects of their predecessors. Nothing wrong with that: it’s all part of how democracy is supposed to work. If voters vote for change, they should get it. So our new coalition government is following a familiar pattern. Out have gone ID cards, home information packs, the third runway at Heathrow and much else.
But should it require an election and a wholesale culling of ministers for government to admit it may have got the odd thing wrong? Since governing, like most other human activities, is at least in part a matter of trial and error, might we not have better government if ministers were more prepared now and again to admit that some of their trials had simply produced errors and that they were now going to try something else?
This thought arises in the light of what the new government is doing about the protection of children. After the Soham murder of two young schoolgirls by Ian Huntley, a school caretaker, in 2002, the last Labour government took measures to try to protect children from those in whose care they were supposed to be. In future anyone employed in a job involving contact with children would first have to pass a criminal record check. A new national Criminal Record Bureau would collate all such records.
It was not long before it became apparent that in pursuing this wholly desirable purpose the government had created a monster with a life of its own. It was not just that yet another piece of bureaucracy was clogging up the system of hiring staff. It was affecting innocent people and curtailing valuable activities in ways that no one had imagined or wanted.
Parents who hitherto had given their time to drive their kids’ sports teams to away fixtures discovered they had to pass CRB checks before they were allowed to continue doing so. Famous children’s writers, happy to visit schools to talk about their writing and inspire children to write for themselves, were told they too needed CRB authorisation before they could cross the threshold of the school. Some, like the novelist Phillip Pullman, simply refused, arguing that it was an absurd and intolerable infringement of his liberty. Examples of how the new law was getting in the way and stopping innocent activity that had gone on without trouble for years started to fill the press.
This week the new home secretary, Theresa May, has instituted a thorough review of this vetting and barring policy and has put on hold a registration scheme to implement it due to go into force next month. It is some measure of how widely the old scheme was stretching its tentacles that she had to write to 66,000 organisations telling them to hold their horses.
The point here is that her decision to blow the whistle on the child protection policy is of a different order to other policy changes such as the abandonment of ID cards or the third runway at Heathrow. There the change reflects a clear and simple difference of opinion with its predecessors about what outcome the new government seeks. Here, though, there is no such difference. For it seems inconceivable that any minister in the last government, or any civil servant advising it, actually wanted, let alone planned for, the policy on child protection after Soham to become what it became. Rather, the consequences which have caused so much trouble were largely unforeseen.
It’s true that the last government did try and tinker with the policy once some of these more absurd and damaging consequences became apparent. Even so, many of the absurdities just went on. Only this week a bishop reported that he had discovered an elderly woman, who had given her time free to the church for decades, having to fill in a CRB form in order to go on doing so.
So the question arises: why didn’t ministers in the old government feel free to do what the new government is doing, call a halt and start again?
The reason would seem to be that in our adversarial political system it is almost impossible for politicians to admit that they get things wrong. In over twenty years on interviewing politicians on the Today programme I can recall only one case of a senior politician (David Blunkett) actually saying on air that he was now doing one thing because he had got another thing wrong.
Much more common was the attitude expressed to me by another senior minister in an earlier government. In private he admitted that his government had got a policy wrong and he wanted to change it. When I asked why he didn’t say this in public his reply was that he couldn’t. If he did, he said, he’d be slaughtered in the House of Commons the following day. Quite possibly he’d have been torn apart in the media even before then.
Of course it is difficult for all human beings, never mind politicians, to admit they are wrong. But changing your mind and being open about it (and about why) need not be such a terrible thing. The great economist, John Maynard Keynes, was once challenged for saying something in direct contradiction to something he had said earlier. His reply might offer useful guidance to politicians too frightened to do the same. “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir”, he retorted.
Even on the issue of child protection the adversarial system seems to dictate the script. After the home secretary announced her decision, an opposition spokesman, Meg Hillier, accused her of a “knee-jerk reaction”.
Whether or not the new government will follow the old pattern remains to be seen. But there seems little reason to suppose that it won’t. It too will make mistakes; it too will blanch at the prospect of admitting it; it too will face an opposition and a media just waiting for the opportunity to pounce. But is this the best way to run a country? And is there any way we can change things?