DJ Taylor: Daily life at the Circumlocution Office

After a bad week for civil servants, the Government might find the time ripe for Whitehall reform

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It was a notably bad week for the "gentleman in Whitehall", to use that immortal phrase coined by the late Douglas Jay, and for one or two of the gentlewomen as well. In particular, the sketch writers were riotously amused by the appearance of Dame Helen Ghosh, Home Office permanent secretary, before the Home Affairs Select Committee, where her glacial rejoinders suggested that the finest traditions of Dickens's Circumlocution Office are still going strong a good century and a half after they were first set down in Little Dorrit.

Described by one paper as "a severe product of St Hugh's College, Oxford", Dame Helen - who was appointed DBE in 2008 - had declined to release documents to the committee. All its chairman, Keith Vaz, could do when confronted with the elegant periphrases of her opening riposte, was to murmur: "So your answer to my question is 'No'." Asked if the Home Secretary's pilot scheme for border controls which got Brodie Clark into such hot water last week, would mean fewer staff, she offered a number of judicious equivocations about technology and flexible rostering when, as The Independent's Simon Carr pointed out, the answer was surely "yes". An invitation to distance herself from official disparagements of Mr Clark produced the Delphic retort, "He always led from the front."

Is it not Dame Helen's fault. From the Home Office to the Prison Service, every branch of state bureaucracy is in sharp retreat before a tide of public disquiet, and she knows it. In the past few days alone the Ministry of Defence has been charged with wasting millions of pounds of public money on consultancy fees, while the Public Accounts Committee has accused Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs' leading tax official of misleading parliament, after a deal with Goldman Sachs that allowed the bank to avoid more than £10m in tax penalties. And this is to ignore the border control fiasco which brought Dame Helen to the select committee in the first place.

All this – unlike the recent HMRC settlement with Vodafone, which allowed the company to pay £1.25bn in a tax dispute after receiving a bill five times that – adds up. A cynic might assume that an administrative system that has not changed in any essential regard since the late 19th century is beginning to show its age, and that a government which really believed in efficiency savings and taking on vested interests might profitably address the question of Civil Service reform. A few more glacial rejoinders from Dame Helen would be a small price to pay.

It was also a bad week, however indirectly, for Michael Gove and his team at the Department of Education. If the prolonged agonising over the latest batch of youth unemployment statistics proved anything, it was the hulking divide between what the British educational system achieves on paper and its practical accomplishments out there in the world of work. Several major employers, asked what they thought of the spectacle of more than a million 16- to 24-year-olds old on the dole, hinted that there were plenty of jobs to be had. It was just that a substantial chunk of the teenage population were not qualified to take them up.

It is all very strange. On the one hand, GCSE and A-level pass rates surge into the stratosphere. On the other, employers and university lecturers complain that school-leavers grow less literate and numerate from one year to the next. But just as Dame Helen is not to blame for her evasiveness before the select committee, neither is it Michael Gove's fault that, as he was lamenting the other day, schoolchildren don't know the date of Runnymede. If Mr Gove really wants to raise educational standards, as opposed to raising exam pass rates, then he has to find some way of taking on a mass culture that encourages people to be stupid. Were he to suggest – something, of course, that no government minister ever dares do – that each TV ad in which a wide-eyed family merrily sedates itself in front of the Wii means another spike in the unemployment figures, then we might be getting somewhere.

One of the depressing things about growing older is the constant volley of reminders that the world has moved on without you having noticed. The middle-aged man, alas, stands permanently poised on the threshold of an enticing rumpus room in which everyone else is playing a game whose rules have never been explained to him. This week's twitch on the chronological thread came in a survey carried out for Travelodge which claimed that the average man spends 81 minutes a day on personal grooming, including cleansing, toning and moisturising, shaving, styling hair and choosing clothes. Appalled by my own divergence from this norm, I decided to calculate a) the extent of my own personal grooming apparatus, and b) how long it took me to get ready of a morning. The answers were a) a razor, shaving foam, a comb and a deodorant bottle, and b) four minutes.

Worse was to come in a second survey, sponsored by Unilever, which suggested that the average person spends eight minutes in the shower. Eight minutes? What can they possibly be doing in there? All this, social historians would probably agree, represents a significant shift in human behaviour, part of a much wider movement from the Identikit to the narcissistic. Thirty years ago, a teenage boy who took an interest in "personal grooming" was thought to be faintly eccentric, if not downright effeminate. I used to think my father, who never took a shower in his life and maintained that "the smell of sweat is healthy" was rather overdoing his contempt for the modern world. Three decades later, he seems the sturdiest of individualists.

Well over a year ago, when the Leveson inquiry was but a gleam in the Government's eye, I asked one of the eminent figures who now sits on it what he thought the ultimate consequences of the hacking scandal would be. "It will have the same effect on newspapers as the expenses scandal has had on MPs," he briskly deposed. This may well be true: Fleet Street sportsmen are already taking bets on how many News International top brass end up in gaol. But one can think of certain other enablers of media excess who have yet to make an appearance before Lord Leveson.

After all, nobody could have tapped the Dowlers' telephone had the available technology not allowed them to do so. And why develop that technology, if the only use to which it could be put was nefarious? You have a suspicion that the part played by one or two major telecommunications companies in the hacking scandal is quite as culpable as that of Glenn Mulcaire. Will Lord Leveson be summoning them to appear before him? It would be nice to know.

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