Eminently qualified - for some other job

The choice of a new chairman for the Government's advisory body on social security is a disgrace; Perhaps he has been mugging up on the social security system for 'Mastermind'
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The Independent Online
Think the unthinkable: let's take an expert in the maddening intricacies of the social security system, a man who knows how housing benefit tapers for every extra pound earned, a man who can explain the new rules on the child care disregard, a man who understands the labyrinthine workings of entitlement to legal aid.

Now, throw away his expertise and give him something entirely different. Let's make him Chief of Staff of the Army of the Rhine, or Deputy Chief of Defence Staff. We could send him to serve a spell in Oman, Malaya or Borneo and he could write a book called Conventional Deterrence: into the Nineties.

Imagine the expression on the faces of his fellow officers as he walks into the mess on his first day, clad in his brand-new uniform and swagger stick, ready to take command. A military press officer, eager to excuse the patent improbability of this appointment, wrings his hands awkwardly and murmurs to those assembled that although the new chap may not know much about soldiering, "he is committed to acquiring quickly the required expertise". Shouldn't take long, really, easy-peasy, pick it up in next to no time.

This, of course, did not happen. If it had, the thin news weekend would have bristled into life as battalions of outraged Blimps proclaimed that this was the end of the great British professional army. How was a man whose talent was for understanding the claim form for family credit fit to lead men into battle?

This is what did happen: in the deathly quietness of the bank holiday weekend, with virtually every politician comatose on some foreign beach, Peter Lilley, Social Security Secretary, slipped out a brief notice announcing that Lieutenant-General the Hon Sir Thomas Boyd-Carpenter had been appointed as chairman of the Government's Social Security Advisory Committee. He has no experience or track record in the field of social security benefits, or at least none he lists in Who's Who.

Maybe the workings of the social security system 1945-95 is an unlisted hobby or perhaps a subject he has been mugging up for Mastermind. Alas, he is not available for interview, perhaps for fear that impertinent journalists might ask his opinion on the difficult interface between council rents and housing benefits.

Let us assume there was no one else with any greater experience of the social security system to take on this job. For the sake of argument, let's pretend that among all the academics, civil servants, economists, voluntary agencies and the myriad others who have devoted their lives to this arcane subject, not one was deemed suitable. Even then, the Hon Sir Thomas would have been a disgraceful appointment. For honest government, appointments not only have to be free of nepotism, but clearly be seen to be so.

Let us suppose a somewhat unlikely scenario in which those who put him forward did not know his background or his ancestry: no bells rang at the sound of this faintly familiar name. If so, once they discovered it, they should have withdrawn his name at once, for fear of the smear of nepotism. He is the son of Lord Boyd-Carpenter, a Conservative Party dynast, influential Tory minister from 1951 to 1964 (Minister for Pensions and National Insurance, an expertise not usually genetically transmitted). Even more important, Sir Thomas is the brother of Baroness (Sarah) Hogg, the recent head of John Major's policy unit, who invented back to basics, among other less calamitous policies. (His own CV lists those military posts mentioned above, and the DSS press officer really did say: "He is committed to acquiring quickly the required expertise.")

The Social Security Advisory Committee remit reads: "The committee gives impartial advice: it is independent of both government and sectional interests." But like most government bodies its independence depends solely on the character of its members, especially on its chairman. The members are mixed politically, from Conservative dames to more left-wing professors, but all have a wealth of social security experience. By law, the committee must be consulted on changes to social security regulations.

The committee made news under the nine-year chairmanship of Sir Peter Barclay, a respected expert in welfare issues. "Oh good heavens!" he said when told of the appointment. "Well, it's a highly technical job, dissecting regulations that have enormous power over people's lives. It is extremely important that the chairman should have a wide understanding of these issues, and report on them fearlessly. I can only wish him well."

Behind closed doors the committee interrogates officials about the devilish detail of social security regulations. Sometimes it uncovers serious errors and persuades politicians to change their plans. But often ministers, in a flurry of enthusiasm for some already announced policy, ignored the committee's warnings. Then the committee has published its forebodings, with statistical details refuting government claims and projections. This has been, of course, embarrassing and irritating. It was especially galling for successive ministers to read in the press what became a stock phrase: "Ignoring the advice of his own advisory committee..."

Of course it is not and should not be in any real sense "his own" committee, though he selects its chairman. Boyd-Carpenter may not turn out to be the man who will silence these troublesome people, but at least Peter Lilley must think he's on to a reasonable bet.

The committee is entitled to indulge in a great many I-told-you-sos against the Government, never a popular stance. It told the Government that cutting benefits for 16 and 17-year- olds would lead to serious social disruption, more teenage crime and the new spectacle of young people begging on the streets. That is exactly what happened. When it warned about the social fund, its predictions of its chaotic introduction and unjust working were amply fulfilled. In fact, in the past decade the committee's miserable role has been to stand outside the gates of the DSS like a latter-day Cassandra, warning of the avoidable disasters it sees coming, all unheeded. Now it is warning of a huge increase in repossessions likely to greet the Government after October, when it introduces reduced mortgage payments for the unemployed.

The committee is not a knee-jerk opposition, but frequently recommends new policies to be introduced with more care and circumspection. This time, for instance, it quite reasonably suggests the Government should wait six months until insurance companies show some sign of introducing policies that will genuinely offer unemployment cover for mortgages, of which as yet, there is little sign. However, the Government is pushing ahead regardless.

This appointment is a small but fascinating case study in the ways and means of the last days of a corrupt and decadent government, redolent of that same hubris, arrogance and pig-headedness that brought us the poll tax. But then this is a government notable for not learning by its mistakes.