Saturday, 24 November 2007

Competent authority

Government cuts, mergers and attempts to save money are all horribly and visibly coming home to roost. Something has got to change before we all explode with frustration. Has not getting involved in politics become the new political correctness? Is that why we let this destructiveness continue? 62% of Britons aged 18-24 now "believe in" horoscopes, apparently. But considerably more of us seem to have been content to believe at least six impossible things before breakfast. We believed that experts were running the country, that newspapers told the truth, terrorists were all around us, government secrecy was necessary for security, processes were too complicated to understand and any kind of public protest both fruitless and really rather embarrassing.

But when people start noticing that the Emperor's credibility has finally lost its elastic and is crumpled around his ankles, this is surely a time to act. Our docile handing over to such a naked dullard the responsibility for our lives needs looking at. It is time to reclaim common sense.

The personal details of 25 million people sent from the HMRC offices at Washington's Waterview Park to the National Audit Office by courier disappeared, taking with them with the very last shred of confidence in a government ID scheme. Had the HMRC not heard of Access Control? The technology exists to make systems safe. But then, cutting edge technology seems only to have reality in the private sector along with management skill, creative thinking and rigour. In the public sector what we see are cuts.

The Treasury has funded small-minded policies with a big tight fist. As more cuts are made and more jobs go, morale of the staff reaches an all time low. This has been true at DEFRA for years now. In a Department that has become more and more politicised, the rank and file of DEFRA staff have kept their heads down near their boots - and, from all we hear, their spirits have been even lower.

But the Army, Navy and Air Force have much greater power to raise concern. When no fewer than five ex-service Chiefs angrily and very publicly deplore cost cutting, lack of understanding and government contempt for its personnel, newspaper headlines start seriously to reflect a national unease. Lord Boyce in the House of Lords, put it rather well:
"The smoke and mirrors work of the Government and, in particular the Treasury, actually means that the core defence programme has had no effective budget rise at all."
Sure enough, up popped Des Browne to proclaim on the Today programme that black is white, day is night and
"We have in the UK the second highest defence budget in the world in real terms."
These real terms are as real as Hilary Benn's commitment to meat and two veg. - or his assertion that "Working in partnership with the farming community has been an integral part of our approach..." There has been precious little partnership with anyone in the past years and funding has been the meagre pittance that a Treasury, wholly indifferent to rural and farming concerns, has seen fit to toss to the despised Department. It is Treasury cuts, mainly overseen by our present Prime Minister, that have resulted in our lamentable animal health record: a woeful lack of resources has given us a third rate level of expertise, lack of state of the art diagnostics, rotten surveillance and a defensive attitude from the heirarchy that will brook no criticism.

Meanwhile, animals go up in smoke and farmers go out of business.

Which all brings us back to the home life of our own dear DEFRA and the spectacle of Helen Ghosh, Defra's Permanent Secretary of State, and her attempt to repackage the swingeing cuts that everybody knows are going to be made. Wearing one of her Department's white exterminator's suits she bludgeoned the English language into insensibility:
"It's just a reprioritising exercise against a new strategy."
And poor Hilary Benn, looking more and more like a bewildered aunt from the world of P.G.Wodehouse, has also caught the DEFRAspeak virus. Of the plan to get farmers to bail out DEFRA after so much expensive failure (the RPA managed to send out a cheque for one penny this week) Mr Benn talks of farmers becoming "much more deeply involved in the key policy and operational decisions" and that formal proposals on disease cost and responsibility sharing will be put out for consultation ‘before Christmas’.

Spare us the consultation.Of course those who pay for them must be deeply involved in "key policy and operational decisions". And for this to happen we need to get free from the tyranny of a Department that murders animals and the English language.

The EU likes to refer to "competent authorities" but this is now a contradiction in terms. Europe's massive one-size-fits-all mentality needs some trenchant downsizing. We need a panel of independent experts who understand the science and technology, can manage people and funding and who are not allergic to change. Such a new kind of group to keep things grown-up, rigorous and efficient is long overdue. Its members must be seen to be independent of the government and they must, with DEFRA but not answerable to DEFRA, set the Performance Bechmarks by which policy is judged. We need them - and they need clout enough to tell DEFRA where it needs to go.

Post script. Cuts at DEFRA? Not for officials in Suffolk

When Vincent Cable spoke in the House of Commons about the 24 billion pounds-worth of public money used to bail out Northern Rock, he pointed out that this amounts to £900 for every taxpayer. Our money, it seems, can be found when it is needed. And where it has also been needed lately, apparently, is to accommodate DEFRA officials in some of Suffolk's most prestigious and expensive hotels more than 20 miles from the site of the H5N1 outbreak. The East Anglian Daily Times tells us that the officials are staying at the Ickworth Hotel in Bury St Edmonds. This is a hotel which charges £310.00 for dinner, bed and breakfast in a "standard double" room. DEFRA is not revealing how many of its staff are staying there nor what the price tag will be. Its "accommodation needs" are handled by the private company,Expotel.

At a time when family and tenant farmers are in such deep distress, and DEFRA is being pressured to make savings of £270m. this decision to flaunt such wads of cash might be considered unwise.

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