Leading Article: Sickness that spreads to the farthest reaches of government

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S system of government is falling into disrepute. Where public administration was once distinguished by accountability and probity, patronage and corruption are gaining the upper hand. Sleaze - a sense of behind-the- scenes shady deals - is evident wherever the Government's writ runs, be it in the National Health Service or the sale of arms abroad.

The Conservative Party, which has been in office for too long, has used its pre-eminence to centralise state control and stifle alternative expressions of power. In privatising many services without strict regulation it has created a pork barrel with rich pickings for the unscrupulous. Far from evolving as a modern state, Britain seems to be reverting to a pre-Victorian form of government run for political gain and private profit. The 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report, which destroyed that decadent system, complained that 'numerous instances might be given in which personal and political considerations have led to the appointment of men of very slender ability, and perhaps of questionable character, to situations of considerable emolument'. The authors might have been describing the present day.

A few weeks ago, the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons sounded the alarm. It warned of 'a departure from the standards of public conduct which have mainly been established during the past 140 years'. In a two-part report, the Independent provides ample evidence for that conclusion.

Today, the investigation details the web of patronage that has turned overseas aid from a budget to help the poor into a fund dedicated to the interests of big businesses that fund the Conservative party. This mutual back-scratching is anti-competitive, costly to the taxpayer and a theft from impoverished peoples. Yet it continues because it helps to keep the Tories in power. It is hardly surprising that Britain, apart from Japan, is the only country blocking international moves to stamp out bribery by companies trying to win overseas contracts.

Tomorrow, the investigation moves closer to home, to the quangocracy that is undermining local government, democratic accountability and the public service ethic of the great Victorian civil service. Here again, the theme is jobs for the boys. Faced with electoral annihilation in Scotland and Wales - and increasingly in the local authorities of England - the ruling party is using old friends, answerable to no one, to run the state. The same people crop up all over the place: on hospital trust boards, development agencies and Tory party fundraising events.

The civil service is being broken up and its functions delegated. Sir Robin Butler, the head of the civil service, acknowledged last November that a unified administration has been replaced by 30 ministerial head offices, 150 agencies, hundreds of quangos and thousands of contracts with private contractors, all of whom are trying to make a profit. The change is not necessarily bad: a shake-up could create more efficient services. But, with the lack of regulation, these changes lend themselves to the misappropriation of funds as faceless appointees spend millions of pounds of public money.

Reaction to these assaults on cherished democratic principles have been feeble. Select Committees are slowly waking up to their responsibilities. A few brave whistle-blowers have risked breaking the silence. The National Audit Office, the parliamentary watchdog, has sharpened its teeth. But the Government still rules in a high-handed, largely unchecked fashion. And so a sickness in the heart of the state spreads to its farthest reaches.

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