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1 May 2021

The Uncivil Service

Tag(s): Politics & Economics, Business
Every day there is continuous media coverage of the Prime Minister’s redecoration of the flat he and his fiancée and their baby son reside in over No 11 Downing St. The question of how it was paid for is under investigation by various bodies ranging from the Electoral Commission to the Prime Minister’s own newly appointed standards adviser, Lord Geidt.  The issue is not unimportant and it is possible that there has been a serious breach of the rules, but there are no such investigations going on into far more serious issues in the civil service and other public bodies. Britain is leading the world in its approach to the vaccination against the Covid 19 virus. This is primarily due to cooperation between the private sector and a university. The government did have a role in helping financially at the beginning of the development and the NHS which is used to delivering regular vaccinations against flu has done a good job in rolling out the vaccine. But in every other respect the handling of the pandemic by the government, Public Health England (PHE), and the NHS has been nothing short of catastrophic yet no investigations into that are taking place.

Boris Johnson has been criticised for many things and some of that criticism is fair but criticising him because he appointed Kate Bingham to head up the vaccines task force is ludicrous. This criticism ranged from the fact that her husband is a conservative minister to her lack of vaccine experience. Despite the criticism featured in many newspapers at the time she went about her business quickly and efficiently using her own private contacts to extraordinary effect ignoring the usual layers of bureaucracy and taking action swiftly. The rest of the world is understandably jealous while our so-called European friends have reacted to this with lies and stupid rules. In reality the Oxford vaccine is turning out to be very successful and safe.

PHE’s initial response to the crisis was hopeless. They had previously said that the UK was one of the best prepared nations in the world for a pandemic, but it turned out, at least among developed nations, to be the worst. It had insufficient beds, insufficient PPE and insufficient general preparedness of staff. But none of this has been investigated except by the more vigilant media such as Private Eye. Indeed, for the best coverage of this crisis from start to finish I have relied on the Private Eye correspondent who writes under the pseudonym MD but is in fact a General Practitioner in the Bristol area. His reports on the crisis from its start to the present day have been outstanding and he has been proved right on every count.

Private Eye also covered the post office scandal from a very early period whereas it only seems that in the recent past the rest of the media have caught up with it now that the 39 sub- postmasters whose lives have been ruined by the post offices have been vindicated in Court. They and hundreds of others were accused of theft when the truth was that the Horizon software was deeply flawed and only now has Paula Vennels, the then head of the post office, resigned from her current directorships but I have not read yet that she has had the decency to return the CBE that she was awarded only two years ago for her services to the post office. The post office scandal is the greatest scandal of its kind that I can remember and yet no heads rolled, no one has been prosecuted, and no minister has apologised until this week. If you read Private Eye as I do on a regular basis then you have been fully aware of this truth for over two decades. I find it extraordinary that when something is so clear but politicians and other public servants are not apparently aware. The judge in the case stated that the denials of the facts by the post office was “the 21st century equivalent of saying that the earth is flat.”

It is clear that the politicians and civil servants were not ready for the pandemic even though many people have been warning of it for several years. It is after all the fourth that has come out of China in this century. There was SARS, there was swine flu, and there was bird flu and so it is absurd that our public servants do not prepare for such things. Not only was PHE and the NHS unprepared but so were the public officials responsible for the administration of our education system. Ofqual made a complete pig’s ear of the examination system thus potentially ruining the lives and careers of a whole generation of young people. It seems unlikely that they have learnt lessons for this year as there seems to be wide variety of approaches being taken by schools. We know as a fact that on average predicted grades by teachers are highly inaccurate in both directions. In some cases, the teachers are too optimistic about their children’s chances in examinations but in other cases they may give a relatively low estimate which motivates students to work harder and achieve a better result in the actual exam. In general, the exams have credibility among those in higher education and future employers. But for this generation the credibility of their grades will be zero. But has any minister or public servant fallen on their sword over this issue or apologised for the disaster that they have caused? The question is rhetorical.

And what of the police? It is true that the coalition government of 2010 to 2015 made huge cuts to the police force in most parts of the country closing hundreds of police stations. It is also true that the present government is committed to recruiting 20,000 new police officers but that does not get us back to where we were in 2010 or get anywhere near to where we need to be. There was a mistaken view that crime was on the decrease when almost certainly it is on a considerable increase even if much of it is now online. I cannot remember the last time I saw a policeman walking in the local high street though I did see a police car parked in my local supermarket this week because presumably the policemen involved were picking up their lunch. Again, has the Home Secretary or any other senior public servant apologised for this mess? The solving of several crimes is almost non-existent. Rape, burglary, assault and dangerous driving all go without much investigation if any. Just in this morning’s news is the appalling story of a 17-year-old black girl with mental difficulties asking for the police for help. Instead, she was beaten up receiving 30 blows to her body. The policeman in question has been dismissed but the Crown Prosecution Service has decided not to prosecute. Why?

In our so-called democracy there is no democratic oversight of our public officials. While the media rant and rave over the indiscretions of our Prime Minister it turns out that one of his civil servants at the same time as drawing his Civil Service salary was being paid by a private company. It seems that the Civil Service is happy to support this kind of arrangement for its own members when clearly it would never allow any minister to do the equivalent.

I am currently reading a wonderful book called Bad Buying written by a highly experienced procurement expert who has worked in several different industries and has advised the public sector.[i] He describes a number of serious mistakes that are made in purchasing both by private companies and by governments. What stands out is that when the private companies make these mistakes they very often finish up losing business or even going out of business while when the governments make these mistakes it is only the taxpayer who suffers. The biggest mistakes in terms of dimension are usually those made by the defence ministries where cost overruns and delays and in the end inadequate equipment are very common, even the norm.

And here is a recent letter to The Times:

“The inappropriate relationships between civil servants and business …is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s, I was fighting to get an order for a company in my constituency when I found the civil servant in charge obstructive and unhelpful. Eventually I won my case and ministers overruled him. Shortly afterwards he resigned and joined our competitor for the order. When I suggested to the company that it should complain about this, it said that if it did so it would fatally endanger its relationship with the civil service for years to come.”

 Mike Thomas, MP for Newcastle-upon-Tyne East 1974-83; Brill, Bucks

By contrast here is a letter to The Guardian:

The current efforts to portray the civil service as systematically corrupt are unfair and unfounded. I have never worked for the civil service but have had dealings with many parts of it. Most of the “civil servants” caught up in the Greensill affair are from the commercial world, brought in at a senior level by the Conservative Government. They do not have the life experience of career civil servants, who are expected to work solely in the public interest.

Career civil servants are taught early the lines that should never be crossed. The idea that commercial experience would improve the civil service displays a fundamental ignorance about the nature of the two worlds.

The civil service has been undermined by the government’s failure to understand the value of the “deal” implicit in the old ways of running it. Bright young people could dedicate their lives to public service knowing they would never become rich, but could count on job security, a reasonable income and a fair pension. None of this is true any more. The erosion of salary levels, increasing redundancies and the pressure to make officials paid ministerial failings have destroyed job security and reasonable wages. The effects of ill-considered Treasury reforms of the tax treatment of pension contributions have affected the entire public sector. Every aspect of the “deal” that attracted people of ability to the civil service, and kept them honest for more than a century, has gone. We will all pay the price.

Simon Higman, Kingston upon Thames, London.

They’re probably both right.

[i] Bad Buying. Peter Smith. Penguin Random House.2020

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