Sunday, June 17, 2007

The day that compassion dies?

I'm not often critical of the civil service, after all, it would be like eating one's own children. However, I have always believed that government is not simply a set of rules, it is an opportunity to understand why people do unpredictable things or act in a manner which appears at first sight illogical. That implies that civil servants should exercise discretion, empathy and, believe it or not, an element of compassion.

And so the seemingly endless saga of Jamil el-Banna speaks to me of a situation where all of these aspects have failed. Jamil has recently been advised that he will be released from Guantanamo Bay after more than four years of illegal detention there. He would, not unreasonably, quite like to come home to London and rejoin his family, who fled here from Jordan as Jamil was deemed to have justifiable fear of torture had he remained there.

Jamil's case was considered by the Home Office, and he was given leave to remain. And now the story takes a rather sick and twisted turn. It would appear that the Home Office are of the view that his absence for more than four years has negated his original approval, and that he may have to return to Jordan.

So the facts as we know them are quite simple:
  • Jamil is acknowledged to be at risk of being tortured if he returns to Jordan
  • he was detained by the US authorities in a manner which breached his human rights
  • they now accept that they can find nothing to charge him with
  • he has been out of the United Kingdom for more than four years through no fault of his own

And yet, it appears to be beyond the wit of my colleagues in the Home Office to reach the obvious conclusion, which would be to overlook his period of illegal detention. In the 'good old days', before politicians concluded that the best form of bureaucracy was a partisan one, a fairly junior civil servant would have made the decision, passed it to a more senior colleague for approval and then issued a sensibly-worded letter acknowledging the situation and indicating that the right to remain had been renewed.

Sadly, the effects of political interference have now gone so much further than direct meddling in administrative processes. Civil servants, especially higher up the food chain, are now so conscious that their every move is being monitored that they tend towards self-regulation so as to avoid the risk of upsetting their political masters, an invidious trend if ever I saw one.

Which begs the obvious question. Is this moral cowardice on the part of the civil service, or direct meddling by a minister whose only yardstick for making decisions is the likely response of the tabloid press?

Jamil has one thing on his side, the determination of his local MP to plead his case, and I wish her all the luck in the world in her efforts to get justice for the el-Banna family...

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