How the Home Office got it so wrong with Linton-on-Ouse asylum seeker plans - David Behrens

The fiasco over the future of the old RAF base at Linton-on-Ouse betrays not only the deep divisions between Whitehall’s fiefdoms but also the depths of ineptitude and secrecy within the biggest of them.

For four months now, the Home Office has held the Sword of Damocles over the 1,200 or so residents of this small settlement on the outskirts of York. Their houses have been rendered unsellable; their personal safety compromised. And for nothing.

There had never been much in the way of dialogue from Priti Patel’s department over its choice of Linton to accommodate 1,500 single male asylum seekers for six months at a time; there had been only ultimatums.

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Even when the threat was finally lifted on Tuesday, the Home Office remained silent – to its supposed colleagues in government, as much as to the rest of us. It had been warned many times about its delays in processing the paperwork, said the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, as he announced that his ministry had withdrawn the offer of its property. Indeed, they had known since last month that the deal was off the table; still they said nothing.

Residents protest against the plans to open an asylum seeker centre in Linton-on-Ouse.Residents protest against the plans to open an asylum seeker centre in Linton-on-Ouse.
Residents protest against the plans to open an asylum seeker centre in Linton-on-Ouse.

This abject contempt for the public – not to mention the incompetence in failing to fill out the papers in time – is a national disgrace, but not a surprise. What did anyone expect from a department that takes 10 weeks just to issue a passport; how were they ever going to process the forms for an entire air base in a timely fashion?

The nature of the way the climbdown was announced was as revealing as the news itself. There had been no warning it was coming, but when Mr Wallace visited another part of Yorkshire and was asked about progress, he chose to respond with a straight answer. That’s a commendable trait that will get him nowhere at all in politics – an arena in which knowledge is power, and the more you know, the less you say.

But the Home Office’s ostrich-like response to the criticism of its plans for Linton had more to do with conceit than with power; that and a self-imposed culture of secrecy designed to shield officials from the consequences of their many mistakes. Working in government today means never having to say you’re sorry.

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The case of Kate Josephs, the disgraced chief executive of Sheffield city council, reveals yet more about this bell jar of Whitehall life. She has been allowed to keep her £200,000-a-year job after six months on paid leave while she was being investigated for throwing an illegal drinks party at the height of the pandemic. She was head of the official Covid “task force” at the time.

She had chosen initially to remain silent about the party – and about her police fine – on the basis that government officials had asked her “to respect the confidentiality” of their own investigation. In other words, they wanted to close ranks and watch each other’s backs; to put their own interests ahead of those of the community.

As a result of her obduracy, Sheffield is now – as the former council leader Lord Paul Scriven put it – hampered for years to come by trying to rebuild trust in one individual.

But that’s not the end of it, because last week the council refused to publish the report that informed its decision not to sack Ms Josephs, claiming it was “not necessary”. In so doing it demonstrated how little it had learnt from the tree-felling travesty on its streets, when officials criminalised protesters and misrepresented expert advice in order to literally bulldoze opposition from residents.

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What this has in common with the Linton scandal is the belief among officials – national and local – that the public is an impediment to the process of decision making and not, as should be the case, the beneficiary. This is a conviction that can be overturned only by driving the proverbial bulldozer through their own departments.

Margaret Thatcher famously did exactly that shortly after she assumed office – conducting a regal procession through Whitehall which, as the biographer Robert Harris described it, left mandarins bobbing like driftwood in her wake.

Liz Truss, whom Ben Wallace had turned out to support when he made his unscripted announcement about Linton on Tuesday, may soon have cause to follow in Mrs Thatcher’s footsteps – and it is to be hoped that today’s mandarins are quaking in their boots at the prospect.