By itself, even the most public of scandals won’t fix the police, the banks, the energy companies. It’s time for the sledgehammer

These institutions are behaving like alcoholics who cannot resist another drink


Over the last few years much light has been shed on institutions that previously functioned in semi-darkness. One consequence is that we know more about the misconduct, greed or incompetence of those whom we used to trust. Yet the misconduct, greed or incompetence recurs like some eternal nightmare. The light might be brighter but the offenders do not seem to care. From bankers to the police, nothing seems to be learned from the previous scandal. Instead, there is a familiar sequence. A crisis erupts in some revered institution; for a time, all hell breaks loose; then the fuming scrutiny subsides and, sooner or later, the same offence is committed again.

Recall the raging headlines in relation to the Metropolitan Police after the original Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Or the discovery of unhealthy relationships between officers and journalists in the various hacking investigations. Or the revelation of a scandalous cover-up over the Hillsborough stadium disaster. None brought about a culture of determined virtue. Next, we had the Plebgate saga that led to the downfall of an elected cabinet minister. Mendacity and cover-up played their parts once more.

In 2008, bankers who had led economies to the precipice and grabbed vast bonuses fleetingly showed a degree of contrition in public. Now, they go for it all once more, grabbing even bigger bonuses although aware of the outrage that will follow.

The layers of BBC management with blurred lines of responsibility for output were the fundamental cause of the recent crises that have rocked the Corporation. But as the broadcaster bids for a higher licence fee, it is threatening to cut output while the layers of managers remain largely in place.

And what about newspapers? Some journalists broke the law to get stories. In response, newspapers insist they are above the law, seeing no reason why they should accept the regulation Parliament seeks.

Meanwhile, energy companies are under huge political and public pressure over their pricing policies. Yet their response, last autumn, was yet more above-inflation increases in customer bills.

Recurrence is the theme, here. All these different industries and institutions are behaving like alcoholics who know they are in trouble but cannot resist another drink – and, on some level, believe that they are entitled to have one. What is the mindset of the senior bankers at the Co-op who have done little in their new posts?

They will have seen what has happened to others who showed indiscriminate greed. Still they go ahead, though, awarding themselves gargantuan bonuses. What was the thinking, after all the coverage of police misconduct, behind the suggestion the best way of dealing with Andrew Mitchell was to lie about what he said in a private meeting with officers?

Politicians might huff and puff, but in the end cultural pressures are not enough to bring about necessary change. Partly, the explanation for repeat offending lies in a lack of clear, robust accountability. A senior and decent figure in the Metropolitan Police has complained to me that officers are accountable to the Mayor, the Home Secretary and others. They are responsible to so many in theory, but to no one in particular. Complacency breeds in such circumstances. The banks were lightly regulated, the only debate whether the rules should be lighter still. Energy companies move as one and customers can do little about it. When Ed Miliband proposed to act, the outrage was completely over the top in some quarters. No wonder that companies feel protected. The BBC tends to respond to crises caused by over-management by appointing more managers, its only overseer – the BBC Trust – virtually powerless to intervene.

The repetition of the same damaging sequences is common. In the 1970s, the darkest recurrence revolved around the trade unions. The Heath government fell as it struggled to implement an incomes’ policy. The Wilson administration noted the failure and pledged not to repeat it. But it very quickly did and, under Jim Callaghan in 1979, it too fell while struggling hopelessly to maintain a statutory pay policy. Finally, a sledgehammer was required to address the repetitive crises.

It is wholly beneficial that light shines on institutions that are used to darkness, but transparency is not enough, by itself, to avoid repeat offending. Both Tory and Labour governments have proven to be reluctant interveners. There are no other elected bodies that will do so, however. The Government therefore has no choice but to become more vigilant. Evidently the police, and not just the Metropolitan Police, must be reformed, with the addition of intense and persistent scrutiny from ministers. Equally, the bankers apparently do not realise that 2008 marked the end of the free-for-all, so will have to be compelled to act differently. The only alternative is that we are horrified by similar revelations again, and again, and again. It is time for another sledgehammer.

Stop the speculation, Nick

The Liberal Democrats’ mid-year conference generated headlines about Nick Clegg’s future plan. No doubt this was not the aim, but the contradictory news stories certainly highlighted the dangers of speculating about the unknown future.

Some suggested Clegg would stand down after the 2015 election if there were no coalition. Others reported the clarifying statement in which he declared it was his intention to stay on as leader in any circumstances. Intentions can change, though. I would be very surprised if Clegg served a full parliament as leader from the opposition benches, but none of us can know for sure.

The Lib Dems face a daunting challenge at the next election. I spent a few days in Bath last week, a seat currently held by them, and kept on bumping into people who had voted for Clegg’s party last time but who insist they will not do so next year even if that means the constituency elects a Tory MP.

Since the party’s victory in the Eastleigh by-election last year, there has been much talk of how the Lib Dems will surprise everyone by performing better than predicted in 2015. They might do, but their poll ratings suggest that they will struggle.

If they want a role after the election, then they should brush aside all hypothetical questions and focus solely on keeping as many of their seats as possible. Speculative responses not only lead to dangerous misunderstandings,  they can appear  presumptuous, too.

Twitter: @steverichards14

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