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Matrix of power Thursday, 14 October, 1999, 19:37 GMT 20:37 UK
The Home Office
The Home Office was set up to resist civil liberties not to enforce them
Geoffrey Robertson QC looks the changes sweeping through that most conservative of British institutions, the Home Office for episode 6 of BBC Radio 4's Matrix of Power programme.

The traditional view from Whitehall about subversive ideas like freedom of information was best expressed by Sir Humphrey Appleby, Britain's most famous fictional civil servant, in "Yes, Minister" - he was against it.

But walking the corridors of power in the Home Office these days is more like travelling on the road to Damascus.

The Permanent Secretary, David Omand, insists that his department's new attitude to freedom of information marks a cultural sea-change, with a presumption in favour of openness.

But just how much will the Home Office really change - as a result of the momentous constitutional developments being planned for next year, a Freedom of Information Bill going through Parliament and a Human Rights Act timed to start in October?

Changed role

There is a historical irony here: the Home Office was created in the late 18th century in order to suppress the demands for citizens's rights encouraged by the French and American revolutions, and it has been associated ever since with repressive policies, with spying and police brutality and with deporting refugees. Yet now it has the task of promulgating and implementing this government's human rights legislation.

Would it not have been better to entrust this great initiative to the Cabinet Office, or to create a new Ministry of Justice with the clout to carry it through?

The Cabinet Office might have had more clout, but there's no doubt about which minister has done most thinking about the role of human rights law as a check on the exercise of power, including his own.

Jack Straw, like a lot of Labour politicians, once thought that a Bill of Rights would undermine the authority of Parliament and provide a stick for judges to beat his government, but now he's a true believer.

And senior officials, like Permanent Secretary David Omand, are certainly coming out of the closet. In his last job he was invisible - he ran the ultra-secret GCHQ.

Today, he's perfectly willing to talk about transparency in the massive department, with 50,000 employees, that he runs from his office at Queen Anne's Gate, where he can oversee, in both senses of that word, New Scotland Yard.

Jack Straw does not want a separate Department of Justice
Once it was Labour policy - and it still features on the Liberal Democrat agenda - to fashion a Ministry of Justice out of the Attorney General's Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, so that all the good cops in that new ministry could keep the bad cops in the Home Office in check.

But Jack Straw knocks that proposal firmly on the head. His approach is: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"; and as far as he's concerned the current division of functions between Whitehall departments works well enough.

For the present, the Home Office remains firmly in the driving seat, steering the agenda for civil liberties. The Lord Chancellor's Department is responsible for the Courts, however, and if there is one thing that is certain about the advent of a Human Rights Act it's that the public servants in the Home Office will have judges breathing down their necks.

They can no longer feel relaxed about the six year delay before their decisions are condemned in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg: their behaviour towards prisoners and refugees and victims of police malpractice can be challenged in the High Court within a matter of days.

This means, of course, giving the judiciary additional power, the power to strike down decisions which unreasonably or unnecessarily conflict with human rights principles.

What the Home Office will now have to do is to establish an early warning system, to alert ministers - who remain party politicians - to policies that may fall at the first hurdle in the Strand, where our High Court sits, rather than the last hurdle six years down the Strasbourg track.

The Jeckyll and Hyde department

And with the English judge looking directly over their shoulder, the hope is that this will improve the performance not only of ministers and Home Office policy-makers, but those at the sharp end - police and prison officers and immigration officials who make the street-level decisions affecting people's lives.

Today the Home Office presents two faces to the world- one moment it's kindly Dr Jeckyll, dangling the Human Rights Act, next it's nasty Mr Hyde promoting an asylum bill which limits people's rights of appeal.

But at least the process of having to proselytise about human rights across Whitehall will make the Home Office more conscious of the moats in its own eye.

There is a danger - and as a QC perhaps I'm more aware of it than most - that the new Human Rights and Freedom of Information Acts will become a lawyer's paradise.

I have detected a rustling of expensive silks in the Temple.

My own view is that the government will have to establish - sooner rather than later - a Human Rights Commission, to take up cudgels on behalf of citizens with deserving cases who can't afford to pay for private lawyers.

Until then, the lead remains with the Home Office. For human rights to become a reality, we'll have to see politicians yielding up some of their power and that usually requires a revolution. The Home Office is an unlikely choice to lead even a velvet revolution, but it may yet surprise us all.

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