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Monday 18 October 2010
Letters: Government spending and waste
Backward step for Whitehall
The idea that Government departments might save money by centralising their purchasing arrangements, as recommended by Sir Philip Green, may bring a smile to the faces of civil servants who remember the late 1980s, and early 1990s, when decentralisation was all the rage.
The "Next Steps" report of 1988, product of a team led by Sir Robin Ibbs, argued that efficiency would be improved, first, by carving up Departments and hiving off routine work into free-standing "agencies", and second by giving individual managers responsibility for decisions on budgets, personnel and the purchase of stuff like office equipment.
A unit was set up within the Cabinet Office to push through these changes. Semi-autonomous "agencies" were created (some of them now seemingly tarred with the same brush as the derided "quangos"). Central provision of services such as advertising (Central Office of Information) and printing (HM Stationery Office) was deemed wasteful. Pay and other personnel matters were decentralised (the Civil Service Department had already been jettisoned); departments were told to negotiate their own terms and conditions of service.
Now, along comes another – Green – knight, not to chop off limbs but, in effect, stitch them back together: economies of scale are the new "Next Steps". Meanwhile, in the NHS, budgetary control is to pass from primary care trusts to the service's smallest unit, the GP surgery.
You couldn't make it up.
"Staggering waste," says Sir Philip Green of central government's lamentable failure to make use of its scale and buying power. He should turn his lens next on the same central government's deliberate policy of atomising the education service.
Successive governments presided first over the demise of highly efficient central purchasing departments like those run by Essex, the West Riding and the GLC. More recently in the name of "freedom for heads" they have allowed every school to organise its own contracts for goods and services, to place extravagant advertisements for staff and to determine salary scales and conditions of service.
Does anyone really believe that corner shops are cheaper and more efficient than Tesco or Sainsbury? Whereas heads used to be able to devote most of their time and expertise to leading their teams of professional teachers, now they are expected to oversee administrative services which once were provided economically by their local council.
Devising an economical schools service does not seem to be high among Michael Gove's or his department's priorities. Instead of doing that, their aim seems to be to fragment the service and encourage schools to compete against each other with ever more rose-tinted advertisements and ever higher salaries, and make each school accountable directly to the centre. For "freedom" read "divide and rule."
Agenda behind the Big Society
Furious arguments rage about whether this, that or the other budget should be cut and by how much, or this that or the other quango abolished – hardly any about the ideology behind it all.
Behind the windy rhetoric of Cameron's Big Society is an ideological agenda which seeks to end the gains painfully achieved over the past century, supported by the likes of Lloyd George, Keynes, Beveridge, and the 1945-51 Labour government, based upon the notion that the state has a duty to protect the poor and vulnerable against the worst effects of free-market capitalism, and provide small but significant benefits which would slightly reduce the vast inequalities that it creates.
In the Big Society, with the state's role in education, health, housing, old age and poverty relief minimised, it will be everyone for him- or herself. Inevitably it will be the rich, powerful and cunning who will win out.
The deficit, combined with the abandonment by Clegg and others of everything decent that they stood for, provide a wonderful opportunity for Cameron and his party to achieve a historic change, using the disguise of a government bringing in expedient measures to cope with a short-term crisis.
It important to defend one's corner against the cuts. In the long term it is more important to fight against the ideological agenda behind them.
With the inquest into the 7/7 London bombings under way, it is well worth remembering that the UK once had the Civil Defence Corps, effectively disbanded in 1968 by Labour, and the Royal Observer Corps, dismantled by the Tories in 1995.
Both of these volunteer organisations would have been very useful in several of our national emergencies, such as the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic and the London bombs. Instead of squandering them, the goodwill and expertise of the thousands of people manning these useful bodies could have easily been channelled to fulfil post-Cold War needs.
It is irksome to hear politicians blather on about the "Big Society" when it is they who have destroyed it.
The "Big Society" idea cannot work in today's self-obsessed society. Most of us are too preoccupied with what we have, materially, and not with who we are, as human beings. We are now simply too selfish and only concerned about having the latest gadget, following celebrity fashions, climbing the social and housing "ladder" and updating our Facebook pages.
The idea of altruistic behaviour and concerns about ethics are now rare.
A pizza and a forced smile
I read your article on Pizza Express training their staff to "flirt" with customers and nurture a special relationship, with a depressed sigh (14 October). This is yet another example of the phoney "buddying" these giant conglomerates try to pile on us via their overworked and underpaid staff.
Forced small talk builds a relationship only slightly more meaningful than the one we have with the garlic bread. Usually during this bogus love-in, we both know that they simply want to get on with their jobs, get home and enjoy life. We simply want to let them.
At my gym, the Virgin Active staff bellow "Hello!" at me as I walk through the door, even though I haven't noticed them and they are 30 feet away. Later on they yell "Bye!" at me as I crawl out of the door. I recently witnessed an external staff trainer chastising one of them for not doing it.
If Richard Branson wants to get to know me and make me feel "special", then I'll happily pass on my details and we can maybe talk space travel or beards over a lemongrass milkshake. But making his poor staff force hollow, manufactured greetings on to customers from a distance is just weird.
We do not want to be best friends with giant corporations. We want them to treat their staff with the respect they deserve, stop making their jobs harder, not steal their tips and stop treating us like pliable cretins.
Swearing an oath to Israel
Dr Jacob Amir writes from Jerusalem (letter, 16 October) that Israel "does not strive to be a purely Jewish state" and the "requirement to be loyal to the Jewish and Democratic state of Israel refers to 'Jewish' as a people not as a religion".
Of course, this confusing sleight of hand between Jewish ethnicity and religion could easily be avoided by simply requiring people to be loyal to the state of Israel, not to any particular ethnic or religious group within that state.
Unfortunately, this loyalty oath is strongly promoted by Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, who most definitely wants Israel to be a purely Jewish state, as he regularly calls for the ethnic cleansing of Arab Israelis. It appears Israel increasingly prefers his road to fascism over its traditions of democracy.
Dr Jacob Amir writes: "Many democracies demand a swearing of allegiance as a part of becoming a citizen. The proposed Israeli Law of Allegiance is no different". The proposed Israeli Law of Allegiance is very different, because it applies only to Arabs who apply for citizenship. Jews who immigrate into Israel do not have to swear allegiance.
Just as 80 per cent of Israelis are Jewish, so approximately 80 per cent of Americans are Christians. One can imagine the protests if Jews were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States of America but Christians were not – and they would be quite right to object to such discriminatory treatment.
Last hope for honest politics
Michael O'Hare (letter, 15 October) no doubt reflects the views of a great number of voters who feel let down by politicians. He says he is joining many others in becoming politically cynical. But before people do that, there is one party left to consider.
The Liberal Democrats have betrayed a huge number of people: students, the middle class, the working class, pensioners, disarmament campaigners, and others. They promised to introduce a new politics: if that new politics involves crossing your fingers when signing pledges, it's understandable that people are cynical.
But the Green Party still stands for everything the Lib Dems used to stand for. Free higher education paid for out of general taxation. Proper, proportional, voting reform. Proper action on climate change, not sham, green-washed action. Opposition to NHS privatisation. A living wage. A decent pension. Genuine action on the estimated £100bn of taxes that are avoided by the rich each year. The scrapping of Trident. And sensible, not populist or oppressive, policies on migration.
If disaffected Lib Dem or Labour voters are off to join the ranks of the politically apathetic, I would ask them to think once more, and go for a party which, up and down the country, in councils, assemblies and parliaments, is still with them: and is still keeping its promises.
Mike Brayshaw (letter, 16 October) asks how Labour voters would feel if the Lib Dem party were to get all they wanted in the Coalition.
Well, as a former Labour supporter for 65 years I will tell you. I voted Lib Dem out of disgust at the expenses fiasco. I hoped to see a three-party system that would supply checks and balances to raise the level of ethics in British politics. What did I get? Thatcher Mark 2. I will now vote for the Green Party. At least they are not the puppets of right-wing media tycoons, or exclusively concerned with their bank balance.
Newcastle upon Tyne
Universities are a social good
Andrew Meads (letter, 15 October) suggests that D J Powell's upholding of the view of education as providing social and not merely individual benefits (letter, 14 October) is "undermined" by his example of firms paying graduates higher wages. What a wonderful example of the narrow accountancy mentality which created the problem in the first place!
Why ever might we see the benefits here as just economic? Why would we not see them rather in terms of happier, more whole, more broadly fulfilled individuals and organisations operating, as we all do, in the social domain, greater financial fulfilment being just one part of this?
The grim, atomised philosophy that sees only a few professions (teaching, medicine) as yielding "positive externalities" for society is surely not one most of us subscribe to; yet this is just what the Browne report would foist on us.
The world financial system was brought to the brink of meltdown by allowing financial institutions to give large loans to people who were not in a position to pay them back. And now we learn that a new proposal is to be laid before Parliament to reform the university system by ... er ... forcing a generation of young people to take out loans of £30,000-£40,000 to pay for their education, in the expectation that many will never be in a position to pay them back. This, we are told, is "progressive".
Latest outrage against English
I had just about come to terms, after a long time, with "level playing field" and "at the end of the day", but I'm finding it very difficult to accept the latest in-phrase. Its use has become more and more prevalent during the past couple of years, and now it has well and truly entered mainstream usage.
Last week the term "up for grabs" was used many times in respect of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Fiona Bruce on the BBC news stated that there were many medals "up for grabs".
Last week in my local paper, a headline read "£1,000 of free parking 'up for grabs' ".
This term is now used, it seems, to cover anything that can be won, competed for, achieved, is available or is attainable. I feel that it may indicate a change in society whereby an aggressive rather than patient approach reaps the rewards. Its demeans whatever has been achieved.
Frinton on Sea, Essex
Safe sex films
So "Fear infects the LA porn industry after star tests positive for HIV" (report, 14 October). During the past 10 years you have published letters from me about the need for all filmed pornography to show protective sex. Is this such a difficult proposal to enact?
(Principal Examiner, British Board of Film Classification, 1993-2000)
Perspectives on defence spending
Stay out of those foreign fields
Let us hope that the defence review will be just that – a review of how we defend our island nation, and not how we attack other people.
The idea that attack is the best form of defence may be true as a tactic, but as a strategy it is disastrous. It leads to the American idea of pre-emptive attack – attacking countries we don't like because we think that they may attack us.
Politicians never properly estimate the consequences of their warlike actions. They make decisions about our lives on an over-optimistic view that they will always win, and win quickly at low cost. They never seem to ask the question, "What if we lose?". And we do.
We have found ourselves embroiled in two recent wars, both of which we are likely to lose at a far greater cost than anyone estimated. Our only successes have been in those cases where we co-operated with the UN, usually at the request of the existing government (Kuwait, Kosovo). Why do we never think that people will fight back when we invade their country? It's their home and we would do the same thing.
The defence review should concentrate on "defence" and not on "offence" – defending our country and not on attacking others. The English Channel and the North Sea are our biggest defensive asset, so we need a strong air force and a strong navy. We do not need a big army if we don't intend to attack another country.
Given that we are now in a Union with the rest of Europe, our defences need to be in concert with our friends. The only time when we need an expeditionary force is to defend British possessions elsewhere, such as Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. This would not be the invasion of an enemy but the rescue of a friend, and would not need the kind of force that we are presently using in Afghanistan.
The French have the same problem with their overseas territories so they are again a natural ally.
Port Solent, Hampshire
Why we are in Afghanistan
Dr Mark Campbell-Roddis (letter, 14 October) has a short memory. We went into Afghanistan because of the 9/11 attack in New York, planned and carried out by Bin Laden, who escaped from Afghanistan years ago. So why are we still there, killing thousands of innocent people?
I quote the words of the late Peter Ustinov: "Terrorism is war of the poor and powerless. War is terrorism of the rich and powerful."
A carrier at sea without aircraft is an Exocet strike waiting to happen. Portsmouth is rather short of car parks. The Royal Navy is rather short of money. Should the new flightless carrier be leased to NCP?
Worthing, West Sussex
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