Andreas Whittam Smith: When things go wrong, it's rarely one person's fault

Proper procedures can't always prevent calamity. Failure to observe them is a just a handy excuse
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The Independent Online

When the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, made his statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday that explained how the records of 25 million people had gone missing, he believed that he had given an accurate account of the calamity. As he said later: "Everything I said in the Commons was absolutely right." I accept this good intent but I am fairly sure about something else – Mr Darling hadn't understood that his very words would change things.

Note the narrow precision of what the minister said: "In March," Mr Darling stated, "it appears that a junior official in Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs [HMRC] provided the National Audit Office with a full copy of HMRC's data in relation to the payment of child benefit. In doing so, the strict rules governing HMRC standing procedures were clearly not followed."

I wonder what the junior official concerned made of this? Apparently he is a lad in his early 20s, now held in a "safe" house as if he was part of a spy thriller. Did he really apologise for having single-handedly caused, on his own initiative, the loss of the personal records of 25 million people? It doesn't ring true. He is more likely to have pointed the finger at colleagues who occupy a higher place in the hierarchy than him. And within a day or two, it duly emerged that officials up to the level of assistant director were involved. Mr Darling had been naive.

Gordon Brown was no better the next day. His way of answering the questions put to him by the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, reminded me of the advice I once received when I was due to appear in court to defend an editorial decision. I was told that I should content myself with giving a limited set of answers to the questions, never go a step further and keep on repeating my first reply. Thus the Prime Minister: "The procedures that should have been followed were not followed." And again: "It [the procedure] just was not followed." And then a third time: "There is no excuse for not following proper procedures."

If only proper procedures could prevent calamities. Was it a lack of proper procedures that led to the botched rescue of Northern Rock? Or explained the government's widespread employment of illegal immigrants including the man given the job of guarding the Prime Minister's car? No, but it suited the senior executives of HMRC to define the cause as a procedural shortcoming in order to avoid the charge that the failure was systemic, that it was the inevitable consequence of the way in which HMRC is run – that it was, in short, the result of bad management.

No purpose is served in denying the obvious. All big errors have systemic causes. A few years ago a serious fire broke out on one of Shell's drilling rigs in the North Sea. At first it seemed as if it were an isolated incident, an unlucky accident, perhaps a worker had incautiously lit up a cigarette in a no-smoking area. But then the subsequent inquiry showed that the fire had not been out-of-the blue for there had been a series of smaller conflagrations in the months leading up to the big explosion. And the root cause was identified as having been management deficiencies.

To take another example, didn't the fatal shooting of the innocent young Brazilian in the aftermath of the London bombings appear at first sight to have been an unfortunate stumble? Yet the inquiry showed that the incident was the result of numerous failings by senior officers of the Metropolitan Police. Informed by these examples, and many others of a similar nature, ministers' response on hearing HMRC's single-track explanation should have been incredulity.

I have a final puzzle about Mr Darling's approach. HMRC is not a classic government department. It is run by a board led by an executive chairman. It has a great deal of operational autonomy. If this kind of structure is to have any validity, then government ministers should keep a distance even during crises. Otherwise I don't see the point of having the paraphernalia of a board of directors.

For this reason and for the others I have mentioned, I wish Mr Darling's statement to the House of Commons had been couched in a different way. He should have started by saying that "members will have seen the announcement earlier today by HMRC that ..." It would have recited HMRC's explanation for the failure without accepting it as being the full account. And only after this standing back should the Chancellor have announced, as he did, that various inquiries were to be established. That would have left responsibility where it truly lies without letting ministers escape from their duties, and it would have kept the Chancellor and Prime Minister clear of HMRC's self-serving explanation of what went wrong.