Philip Hensher: Take the axe to the naked civil servants

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The Independent Online

If you have ever wondered what Tony Blair's new army of civil servants do all day long, an extreme answer was provided by some of the employees of the Rural Payments Agency, an agency of Defra. An internal memo was sent by some staff at the agency to managers, saying they were "appalled at the level of depravity". They talked about "sick, shocking and obscene behaviour", which they called "misconduct", though any observer might think that description hardly goes far enough.

Some of the behaviour described includes sex in the toilets, drug taking in work hours, leaping from filing cabinet to filing cabinet both in the civil servant's underwear and naked, and a charming habit of vomiting into official cups and leaving the result in cupboards until they are discovered by the stench. It sounds quite incredible, but a lot of it has been captured on CCTV. One person has been dismissed, and disciplinary proceedings against others are under way.

Well, anyone who has worked in the public service knows that a certain amount of eccentric behaviour is to be expected from your colleagues. When I worked in the House of Commons, some of my colleagues were decidedly odd, to say the least. But these episodes from the Rural Payments Agency are really not very amusing at all if you know that one of the agency's jobs, the distribution of £1.5bn of European subsidies to English farmers, wasn't carried out on time this year, leading to terrible individual cash flow problems and, after one week, the sacking of a minister, Lord Bach.

This comes on top of the case of the Home Office immigration official who was recorded inviting an attractive applicant to have sex with him in return for favours. That, too, hardly looks like an isolated case, but, according to anecdotal evidence, a problem of the culture. What on earth is happening to the British civil servant?

The answer, of course, is that there are a lot more of them. The number of civil servants has increased steadily since 1997. There are now 1.25 million people employed in central administration. In the past year alone, the number has gone up by 45,000. The hilarious thing is that in 2004, Sir Peter Gershon, the "waste tsar" announced a programme which was supposed to cut government jobs by more than 100,000 by 2008. In fact, in many departments, the number of posts has actually risen.

And "civil servant sacked" is still a rare enough occurrence to make the newspapers. It doesn't take a lot to guess what the end result would be of a situation where tens of thousands of undereducated people are given jobs which they know they would never be sacked from, and here it is; bored people taking drugs in the office, leaping naked between filing cabinets, offering helpless members of the public favours in exchange for sex, and so on.

Since nothing else seems to be working, wouldn't it be nice if Sir Peter realised that the only way he is going to get his cuts is to insist that next year, the least productive and efficient 10 per cent of every government office is summarily sacked, and the exercise repeated until we see an end to these, frankly, terrifying stories? There doesn't seem to be any other way to attain an end which we all know to be necessary. At any rate, that would certainly put an end to the naked official antics in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The play is not the only thing

Channel 4's latest reality TV show is The Play's the Thing, in which members of the public have submitted plays to a panel of judges, one of whom, the theatre producer Sonia Friedman will subsequently put it on in the West End. It's kind of an interesting idea, though one wonders why someone who has written a play doesn't just send it to an agent. And I would suggest to anyone looking forward to working with Ms Friedman that they read Simon Gray's Enter A Fox, which catalogues in scarifying detail her practical commitment to one piece of new writing. I'm sure in reality she isn't as appalling as Mr Gray makes her sound, but anyone entering this profession for the first time would be wise to prepare themselves.

* A family of Bangladeshi origin is woken in the middle of the night by hundreds of police officers. In terror, one of them is shot. Their family, friends and community express astonishment that anyone could consider them terrorists, and in a week, the police agree, releasing them without charge. The only thing the police have to say is that the information was credible and specific.

And wrong. The very least we can expect, when this sort of thing happens, is to demand that the police explain exactly what the information was. If it was baseless, it can hardly be regarded as a matter of security any longer. If we don't want the police to start bursting through our own innocent doors at 4 am, I think we can start to insist that they will, at some stage, be held accountable for this ugly error of judgement. It is by sheer chance that Muhammad Abdul Kahar is recovering from his bullet wound, and not dead.

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