The Sketch: Ministers fiddle as billions of pounds of public money goes up in smoke

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"No, er, we don't fiddle any formulae at all," one of Health's junior ministers told the House. He pointed his long, haunted face at the party opposite as it made noises of animal incredulity.

John Hutton's physical presence is an allegory of politics, the toll it takes. He's the only survivor of the Milburn days when the world was young and anything was possible. Now, gaunt and staring, he tells us there is no fiddling. The fiddling, of course, has never been worse since Nero.

We enjoyed three egregious examples from Mr Hutton's very question time. It's one of the bigger themes of this Government - the statistical debauchery of the public sector. Ministers simply do not know whether or not they are telling the truth. To any claim of improvement, the only prudent response is: "How do you know?" John Reid, the Health Secretary, said that no one now waits more than a year for an operation. But how does he know? As David Laws, the clever Liberal Democrat pointed out, many patients can't get on waiting lists until they have been seen by a diagnostician. The numbers on these waiting lists for diagnostic appointments are not published by the Government. It's something the Government is looking at "carefully". Very, very carefully, you may be sure.

If the data were published the Government would slump into its subsiding foundations. Of course it'll continue to fiddle us with its spurious figures.

Here's another one. Nine out of 10 patients in accident and emergency are seen within four hours. So the ministers say, but how do they know? My junior doctor friend witnessed the monitoring in her hospital when the four-hour target was tested. It was the last week in the quarter. Every resource the hospital could use was redeployed and thrown into A&E. Agency nurses were hired at great cost. Compulsory overtime. Leave cancelled. For that one week the targets were met; the very next week the waiting times crashed as things returned to normal. That's more than fiddling, that's fraud.

Finally, Alan Simpson from the Labour back benches produced a story so shocking you have to struggle to believe it. New health facilities in his constituency have been built, costing £5m to put in place. The bill that the NHS will have to settle is £25m. In Mr Simpson's universe this demonstrates the evil of private-sector involvement in the health service. Those who disagree with the analysis will still agree it is monstrous to pay, in Mr Simpson's phrase, Barclaycard rates for a public-sector mortgage (which would total £8m over 25 years).

Why is this, in the name of pity? The answer is that Gordon Brown has used a special financing device to keep that relatively modest £8m out of the public accounts. In consequence, he is prepared to have an extra £17m of public money paid out unnecessarily to preserve the fiction that this isn't public spending. Note: there is a total of £100bn of these contingent liabilities, under Mr Brown's stewardship.

So, the fiddling continues as the flames roar and the multibillions of public money go up in smoke.

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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