Steve Richards: Governments do not become accident-prone by accident, as this one is learning to its cost

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The Independent Online

I suppose it is natural to seek instant explanations when a calamity occurs. Very quickly, we need to make sense of it all. The disappearance of two discs containing the private information of 25 million people is a calamity on such a scale that the immediate judgements are even more sweepingly extensive than usual. After reading the newspapers yesterday morning, listening to endless interviews and watching Prime Minister's Question Time, I offer a brief summary of the verdicts delivered.

The merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs is a disaster. Cuts in staffing led to chaotic inefficiency. There are systemic failings. The state has too much information on us. The Government is to blame and in combination with the Northern Rock crisis is facing the equivalent of John Major's Black Wednesday, doomed to have a lasting reputation for economic incompetence.

Perhaps some or all of these instant verdicts will prove to be true over time, but there is little evidence so far that any of them is correct. For now, I detect a whiff of hypocrisy amid the rush to judgement.

I am especially interested in the hand-wringing over the so-called efficiency savings in Whitehall. In the abstract, there are constant calls for tax cuts in the newspapers and beyond. In order to meet this demand, both the major parties went into the last election proposing major cuts in the civil service. The merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs, supported by the Conservatives, was one consequence. The Conservatives were proposing bigger reductions.

Cuts in spending have consequences. They are rarely painless, which is why the abstract debate about tax cuts to be paid for by "savings" is so dangerous. Now some of the newspapers and politicians who were previously calling for efficiencies to pay for tax cuts condemn them in the light of the disappearing CDs.

This is one of many examples in which general debates are turned on their head when specific incidents arise. Another relates to the public services. A fashionable demand is for the Government to stop interfering in public services, unless something goes wrong, when everyone attacks the Government for not interfering enough. In this case, there is another twist. I am not sure the terrible cock-up was the result of the merger and the pressure on staff. No doubt the changes have caused immense strain, as structural reforms nearly always do. But friends of mine who work in the civil service tell me it is still generously staffed compared with their experiences in the private sector.

It is not clear yet that the individual who posted these discs did so because he or she was overworked. Nor do we know for sure that the individual was transferring this data in such a casual way because more experienced superiors were overworked elsewhere. There is no evidence yet of systemic failures, as we know that procedures were in place that were not followed.

Perhaps the crisis was caused by a wider cultural complacency. A few years ago, ministers used to complain privately about an outdated culture in Whitehall, from a tolerance of primitive computer systems to an indifference to delivery. But they were accused of interfering with the neutrality and effectiveness of the so -called Rolls Royce machine, and kept their heads down.

The fearful protestations about the amount of information available to the Government are also laced with a confused hypocrisy. When there is a crisis over missing immigrants or prisoners or paedophiles, the cry goes out: why doesn't this useless government have the necessary information? The media call on ministers and senior civil servants to spend days and nights looking over data, not too dissimilar to the information on the missing discs. We want the state to be on top of detailed information. We regard it as sinister at the same time.

So let us wait and see. Perhaps there will be proof that the merger and the job losses caused the cock-up. Perhaps the procedures are inadequately applied on a regular basis, ministers were aware of this and failed to act. Until we know, this crisis and the Northern Rock nightmare are nowhere near the equivalent of Black Wednesday, when the Major government wasted billions in a failed attempt to prop up the pound.

It is still possible, although increasingly unlikely, that the Government will not lose any money in relation to Northern Rock, an issue that was a trap with no obviously safe way forward. Again, I note some confused hypocrisy over the Northern Rock saga. Until the summer, there were noisy complaints that banks were over-regulated. Suddenly, regulation is in fashion and the Government is condemned for not regulating enough. I agree that the Government is culpable for its light regulatory touch, but let us not then dismiss "regulation" so quickly in the abstract.

After Black Wednesday, the Major government was stuck with a running story over Europe with a divided party and a small majority. The same fatal political dynamic does not apply to missing CDs and a bank in trouble.

Still, I do not underestimate the importance of perception in politics. The opinion polls in the coming weeks will almost certainly be bleak for Labour. Urgently, the Government needs to discover a sense of momentum. As I have written before, there is an iron law in politics. Governments do not become accident- prone by accident. The current administration has not found its voice. It seems both tired and inexperienced at a point when the bar is much higher. Labour made many cock- ups after the 1997 election and several ministers were out of their depth. No one noticed in the long honeymoon. Ten years on and the government will get the blame for everything. As they have discovered in the most extraordinary circumstances, proclaiming competence and a risk-free pragmatism is in itself highly dangerous.

The fate of the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, is emblematic. Mr Darling is a well-meaning, managerial politician. In the past, he made his absence from the news pages something of an art form. As Transport Secretary he occasionally announced a review of the reviews as a means of making incremental progress that few would notice. Over the summer, ministers asked mischievously whether the Chancellor was in the cabinet, as he kept his familiar low profile. Suddenly he is on the front pages in the most damaging of circumstances. Conveying competence is not enough. If Mr Darling can navigate his way through these events for which he is not to blame he needs to break the habit of a lifetime and make waves. What is his economic policy? If he has one, he should let us know or he will be bashed around by events.

The same applies to the previous occupant in the Treasury. Mr Brown must convey a much clearer sense of purpose or he will remain the victim of bleak events, too.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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