Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

9 January 2008

English Justice Ministry: The real reason why they broke up the Home Office

Last May, when they split up the Home Office into two government departments – the continuing Home Office and the Justice Ministry – it was all supposed to be about arriving at a more rational division of responsibilities, enabling the respective departments to deliver their objectives more effectively. Hence, the Justice Ministry is now responsible for the administration of the whole justice system, particularly the courts, prisons and probation service. The Home Office, on the other hand, retained responsibility for crime-prevention and -detection strategy, the anti-terrorism effort / homeland security, and immigration control and the defence of the UK’s borders.

What they didn’t say – and I can’t remember any media comment picking up on this at the time – is that the Justice Ministry’s and Home Office’s areas of responsibility, with only a few exceptions, map on to the functions that have been devolved to the Scottish Government (in the shape of the Scottish Justice Department) and those that have been retained by the UK government respectively. The Justice Ministry is, then, in effect the English Justice Ministry; OK, technically the Justice Ministry for England and Wales, as there is only one justice system for both countries.

I say there are a few exceptions. One of these is the Justice Ministry’s responsibility for constitutional affairs, and particularly for administering the UK’s devolved system of government (ensuring a proper and effective division of responsibilities¬† and co-operation between UK and devolved government departments) and the running of elections (but presumably only UK-wide elections, and local elections in England and Wales, not Scotland-only polls). So one of the Justice Ministry’s few UK-wide responsibilities is to ensure the smooth running of devolved government. This expertise must indeed have served it well when it came to dividing up the Home Office itself into two departments: one UK-wide and one, err, effectively ‘devolved’ – relating to England and Wales only, but not in name.

Not in name, that’s for sure: you’d be hard put to find many references, in all the descriptions of its activities on its website, to the fact that most of its responsibilities cover only England and Wales.¬† Take the press release greeting its establishment, for instance, where all the introductory general blurb contains no reference to England and Wales at all, leaving the impression that the Justice Ministry’s responsibilities are UK-wide, which they overwhelmingly are not. And, as just noted, even some of those UK-wide functions are concerned with the division of responsibilities between the UK and devolved governments.

The distorted impression cuts both ways: some of the continuing Home Office’s responsibilities relate to England and Wales only, not to the UK as a whole. But again, you always have to look beyond the general information to become aware of this fact. So, for instance, the Home Office deals with the police service in England and Wales only, not in Scotland (the Scottish Justice Department deals with that). But you have to look towards the bottom of the page detailing the Home Office’s organisational structure to be alerted to that specific fact, where a link takes you to a separate website supposedly providing information about the UK police but which is of course limited to England and Wales.

Actually, that must be it: what those specialists on the constitution and devolution at the (English and Welsh) Justice Ministry have really built up a store of expertise about is designing government departments that are effectively England-only units but where the impression is strongly maintained that they are UK departments! Let’s re-name it the Department for Double-speak: run an English ministry but pretend so hard that it’s a UK department that not only the public but you yourself begin to believe it is one! After all, if people became aware that so many of the government’s departments dealt with English matters only, they might start thinking it was logical and fair for those departments to be accountable to the English electorate and an English parliament.

I suppose it should not be a matter of any surprise, then, that the Justice Ministry (the English and Welsh one, that is) is presided over by that overseer of the government’s programme of constitutional reform and arch-enemy of English devolution, Jack Straw. What hope is there that the reforms he may eventually propose will be anything other than an attempt to set the inequities of the current devolution settlement on a more permanent and seemingly legitimate constitutional footing – especially as one of the very raisons d’etre of the Justice Ministry is to maintain a rigid, but artificial and inconsistent, divide between UK / British departments on one side (even if they’re in effect English ministries) and devolved (non-English) departments on the other. Devolution and England: never the twain shall meet, it appears, under the auspices of the Justice Ministry – even though it itself is effectively a devolved English department.

Clearly, then, there’s little prospect of justice for England while England is not even allowed to administer justice in its own name.

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