Politicians’ apologies

In the last week, ‘sorry’ seems to no longer be the hardest word. Nick Clegg apologised before the Liberal Democrat conference for pledging to protect tuition fees before the general election and before eventually voting with the Conservative consensus to triple them. And on Monday morning, Andrew Mitchell reiterated his written apology, saying ‘sorry’ for allegedly swearing at police officers outside Downing Street and calling them ‘morons’ and ‘plebs’. This was reported by a national newspaper whose reports have to be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly in light of revelations by the Leveson inquiry. Of course there are times when police officers ‘lose it’ with a member of the public, so it’s not one-way-traffic. But it was a particularly sensitive time for such a confrontation in the light of the murder of two highly-committed female police officers in Manchester.

All politicians have to apologise from time to time – as do all human beings. Neither politics nor day-to-day living are perfect performances. But here is a real question about how politicians should be held to account for ‘delivery’. Was the failure to deliver on a particular manifesto pledge the result of changed circumstances, an over-ambitious or extravagant set of promises, or a simple failure to drive the proposal through in government? Could it have been a failure to vote as promised, or a failure of leadership when in power?

It does make a difference – and make no mistake, delivery in government can be quite difficult, as I discovered when I became a Home Office Minister in 1997. We had made five ‘pledge card’ promises – and I had personal responsibility for one of them. Mine was the promise to “halve the time it takes to get young offenders before the courts”, with the intention of “nipping things in the bud” with young offenders. “How are we going to do that, Minister?” asked my officials, “we don’t know how long it takes.” So our first few weeks were taken up in research to work out the average time – 143 days – in order to set the target (71 days). And I’m proud to say that it was achieved within the five-year timescale that we had set ourselves. That was a small step forward in making the criminal justice system more effective – as it was something I cared about. As the Chairman of the Cardiff Juvenile Bench – and through the experience of working with young offenders I came to realise that by the time they came to court, some of them couldn’t even remember the offence, never mind feel remorse. It occurred to me that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ – for the victim and the offender.

Successful delivery is good news so keeping that pledge didn’t make headlines. But it’s in everyone’s interests for each political party to be clear about its promises and for its performances – good or bad – to be clear for all to see… as well as how it deals with what Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events”.

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