The Sketch: No one is to blame in age of ministerial irresponsibility

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The Independent Online

I've been introduced to the idea of an "acephalic society". I'm very excited by this. It means "headless". (But you knew that.) My anthropological adviser says we are increasingly heading towards headlessness. This explains a great deal about my experience of the House of Commons (Sketches passim). I knew the futility, the fatuousness, the obvious vapidity of the scrutiny process was more interesting than it seemed; its uselessness is almost overladen with meaning.

In an acephalic society it's hard to know who's responsible for anything. James Paice used those very words with regard to the Rural Payments Agency fiasco. "No single person could be responsible," he said, for so large a mess.

Not nice young David Miliband, he's only just taken over. Was it Margaret Beckett's fault? If ministerial responsibility meant anything she would have resigned but she got the head of the agency to resign instead. Will current failures be pinnable on Miliband? He'll have moved on. He won't be responsible any more than he is now.

One quality of headlessness is the lack of clear, consistent direction in the rest of the entity. Acephalic theory would predict that different parts of the headless thing will be doing quite contradictory things. So I was delighted to see in Local Government questions, that there is to be far greater freedom for local authorities to experiment with their own ways of doing things. This is very much at odds with (let's pick an Act at random) the Schools Inspection regime. This Act takes 120 words to say (I know this because I was browsing through it over the weekend) that local authorities should reply to parents who write in about their children. That is on the statute books. Far from liberating councils, central government is using an Act of Parliament to give them tips on how to run their correspondence.

But then, there aren't penalties laid down for non-compliance with this piece of legislation. It's more of an assertion of how life ought to be, written up in the emptiest legalese. If people were personally responsible for the work, responsible to some head, this sort of thing simply wouldn't happen. It is so indefensible that you could only say you were doing what was wanted but that no one could be found to tell you what it was. That's what acephalic means.

This is a very fine principle on which we can hang a good deal of decoration.

NB: And as a bonus, a collectable David Miliband quote: "The honourable gentleman doesn't understand how government accounting works. That figure of £131m is a non-cash figure."