Saturday, 20 June 2009

A question of accountability

Snatch Land Rovers are briefly back in the news with a fourth family joining the group that have signalled their intention to sue the MoD for deploying a vehicle which they say should never have been on the front line.

The latest recruits are Karla and Courtney Ellis, the sister and daughter of Private Lee Ellis. Private Ellis was killed in an IED attack near al Amarah in February 2006.

Inevitably, there are mixed responses to this action, with some hostility to the idea that families should go to court. But, to suggest that the case is not pursued, in the absence of any alternative, is also to suggest that the people who made the decisions to deploy and maintain the Snatches in place should not be held accountable for their actions.

Nominally, of course, the responsibility lies with the minister on whose watch the decision was made, but this constitutional fiction does not reflect the reality of power. Discussing this generally with an ex-defence minister recently, what comes over is not an impression of all-embracing power but precisely the reverse.

Confronted with an array of technical experts, military brass and defence contractors, all of whom are pressing for a course of action, it is very difficult for a "lay" minister to reject the advice he is given and make a decision that goes against the grain. In effect, the minister is a prisoner of his advisors.

In some respects, this rather confounds the doctrine of ministerial accountability. The real responsibility for many failures rests not with politicians who signed pieces of paper but with the ranks of officials, in uniform and out, who actually made the decisions.

The idea of ministerial responsibility is further confused by the time which usually elapses between a decision being made and the tenure of a minister. By the time consequences of decisions become apparent, ministers have usually moved on. In some cases, completely different governments have been elected. The idea then that the single man (or woman) actually in post at the time should be held responsible for failures made on their predecessors' watches is fraught.

The question thus arises as to how to hold to account those who actually make decisions and, if the normal constitutional fiction does not provide satisfaction, then some other mechanism must be found. So far, all other avenues have been blocked, other than now the recently announced Iraq inquiry, where there is no expectation of any thorough examination of the Snatch issue.

The courts are a far from perfect means of exploring highly complex issues and are very much the last resort. But if the system does not afford any other relief, then there does not seem to be any other option than to follow this route.