No one would want to excuse overruns in IT investment. However, there appears to be a misunderstanding in your article "Labour's computer blunders cost £26bn" (19 January).
Ministers do not directly engage in procurement. They are responsible for authorising policies and for asking the right questions about costs, as well as approving investment. But they do not make assessments themselves of the appropriateness of companies; nor do they open or agree to the contract. The way in which the Civil Service works and the arm's-length nature of political control has long been misunderstood.
There may well be arguments for much closer scrutiny, including overseeing the work of the Office of Government Commerce, which provides a "gateway" approval at each stage where major projects are undertaken. But again, this is a procedural matter, rather than one which is dealt with in the political arena.
However, your article does raise a very interesting question – one related directly to the deficit reduction plan and the ability of government to reduce borrowing without draconian cuts in public services.
We need a substantial change in how procurement is undertaken by government and its agencies. The "approved bidder" list and the way in which those who have already held contracts (mainly very large companies) automatically qualify even if they have made a complete mess of previous contracts, whilst smaller, innovative companies cannot get in on the assessment and contracting process, is damaging to good government. The small companies are sub-contracted by the main bidders and are paid a pittance, with the big companies pocketing the difference.
Direct purchasing and a much more innovative view of how best to get what is possible for the future, rather than what has been delivered in the past, would not only have major cost savings but also put government in the driving seat.
Rt Hon David Blunkett MP
House of Commons
Your report presents a breathtakingly inaccurate picture of IT in the NHS. Patients and staff in every part of the NHS are benefiting from patients being able to make their first outpatient appointment through Choose and Book, doctors accessing digital X-ray images, GP records being transferred electronically and the public having a Summary Care Record which details allergy and medication information for use in out-of-hours care.
For nurses and doctors the National Programme for IT is providing information that critically improves diagnosis and treatment.
No money has been paid to suppliers for these systems until they are successfully working, so it is simply wrong to suggest that money has been squandered or that ministers have been naive. Not only have we protected taxpayers' money, we have recognised the huge difference that information makes to patients and those caring for them and therefore set about making it available across the NHS.
Health Minister, London SW1
Cameron's 'elite' teachers
Having worked as a headteacher for 20 years in secondary schools, I naturally hold scholastic achievement in high regard. However, the majority of those I have known who stood out as the best practitioners in the elusive art of good teaching depended more on their ability to communicate with their pupils than on their scholarship for their results ("Tories to encourage high-fliers to teach", 18 January).
A lively sense of humour, an ability to empathise with the young and above all a genuine ambition for those encountered in one's classes are keys to success. All these qualities may be found in teachers with first-class degrees, of course, but in my experience they lurk more naturally in those who enjoyed a broader university career, where the development of wider interests, to be shared later with the young, may even have jeopardised their ultimate degree class.
After all, the young are attracted more by personality than by academic pedigree. They are much like the rest of us in this respect.
But perhaps as the holder of a third-class degree myself, this is special pleading.
Kington Langley, Wiltshire
The Conservatives appear to be falling into their usual trap of trying to devise a state education system on the model of the public schools with which they are so familiar.
Having attended a public school myself, staffed by highly qualified graduates, and having subsequently watched hundreds of teachers teach over 25 years as an education adviser, I can assure Mr Cameron that there is no direct correlation between good academic qualifications and the ability to teach effectively. What he should be turning his attention to is the adequacy and appropriateness of the teacher-training system and the inadequacy of Ofsted, which his party set up. Teachers are criticised and demoralised after a snapshot visit, without continued effective support for those staff.
Academic students will succeed despite, in some cases, poor teaching. The obsession with academic results and league tables, promoted by the Tories, leaves behind the big problem of the "others", many of whom I see in my work as a volunteer with the Youth Offending Team. The examination-led National Curriculum does not suit a substantial number of school students, among whom can be found persistent truants and young offenders.
The really good teachers, with or without high academic qualifications, should be working with the less able, and with a more appropriate curriculum, to give them a better chance in life.
David Cameron regards teacher training as a "bureaucratic obstacle", which those with higher-grade degrees from the "right" universities can by-pass and you appear to agree (editorial, 19 January). Does this mean we can look forward to someone who fancies becoming a nurse going straight on to the wards (with a mentor to look after them, of course), or a prospective lawyer going straight into court?
If the Conservatives are serious about making teaching an "elite" profession, they can start by recognising that there is a great deal more to it than simply subject knowledge. It is also about inspiring, enthusing and motivating young people, day in day out, year in year out – and that takes professional training.
Newton Abbot, Devon
Six-day grit stock cannot be enough
As managing director of the country's largest privately owned gritting contractor, I believe that this county should not accept the excuses being offered for the fiasco that is a second year of national grit shortages. My company has successfully delivered service to all of our clients throughout this winter by effective supply chain management and stockpiling. We cannot claim any feat of genius, rather a grasp of the realities that have eluded our public-sector counterparts.
The UK cannot match daily production to daily consumption. When all roads are being treated the deficit is roughly 10,000 tonnes a day, or 50 per cent of total use. When conditions are harsh the shortfall is nearer 30,000 tonnes, or three days' production. How this can be reconciled with the six-day stock level practised by many councils, in accordance with Government advice, defeats me.
The desire not to tie up public funds in grit has been too influential. The economic and public safety impacts of a functional road network should be higher priorities than cash flow. The solution lies in building sufficient ring-fenced stocks for the road network. Holding this in regional depots would mean that public-sector users in a given area can be sure of fast deliveries when their own stocks start to deplete.
Managing director, GRITIT Ltd, Uxbridge, Middlesex
A friend told me yesterday that during the recent freeze she rang our local borough council to complain about the absence of grit on pavements, which had led to a number of falls resulting in broken ankles. The jobsworth at the council replied that their supply of grit was reserved for use on the roads to enable ambulances to reach people needing to be taken to hospital.
Financial monster eats Cadbury
I listened to Prime Minister's Questions and was amazed by an exchange between Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown. Clegg asked why the Government had not intervened to stop RBS (owned by the British taxpayer) lending vast sums to allow Kraft to buy Cadbury and endanger British jobs – all at a time when they will not lend to British businesses to enable them to survive the recession.
A perfectly reasonable question, I thought. The answer, a dismissive verbal shrug of the shoulders, accompanied by supportive howls from the Labour benches, showed both an extraordinary lack of compassion and an admission that there was nothing Mr Brown could or would do. We stopped this bank, and others from failing, and yet have absolutely no control over its activities.
Even a believer in the free market like myself is starting to question who is running the UK economy. It clearly isn't the Government. The taxpayer has funded the further growth of a monster that will devour British jobs and institutions in the pursuit of profit at all cost. Who would have thought it would be a "Labour" administration that could put us in that situation?
It saddens me to see yet another British Enterprise fall into foreign ownership, and for what purpose? Surely it was size and not earnings that motivated the deal, almost regardless of the costs of acquisition.
The only ones to gain in the short term will be senior management of Cadbury, paid millions, and the banks selected to advise on the bid. Who pays the ferryman? The employees, of course, by means of job losses. It was ever thus.
Plot to unseat the Speaker?
Is there any history of the Commons Speaker being removed from that office, immediately following a general election? It is rumoured that should the Conservatives win, some malcontents on the Conservative benches are minded to do just that.
Speaker Bercow will be elected under the banner of Speaker in his constituency of Buckingham. The main parties do not oppose the sitting Speaker. Should the malcontents get their way, and overturn the will of the voters, what then is the position of a then ex-Speaker Bercow, who would then have been elected to Parliament on a bogus platform?
In our daily delivery of junk mail, there is one document that stands out from the rest. On the front of an invitation, under a Royal Mail crest, are the words: "Hand delivered by the Royal Mail". I wonder what the alternative is.
While I agree with everything Henry Harington says about a televised debate promoting presidential-style politics (letter, 20 January) at least it opens the door to breaking the two-party system. Plenty of people foretold the mess that would come out of the Iraq war and the banking boom. In future such common sense must be listened to. If Nick Clegg can convince the electorate that as a coalition member the Lib Dems would force the Government to govern by consensus, ethically and with common sense, it will no longer be viewed as a wasted vote.
Drivers on the phone
I would go further than Malcolm Wild (letter, 19 January). Don't just seize the phone, seize the car, van or truck as well. With Bluetooth headsets now available for less than £20, there really is no excuse for holding a phone while driving, and I reckon a few high-profile forfeitures would soon bring the practice to an end.
With respect to the police shenanigans in the case of Paul Chambers' puerile comments ("Twitter joke led to Terror Act arrest", 18 January), I sincerely hope that this was only the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire finding something to occupy the dunces among his force. Otherwise, if this really represents the intellectual level of contemporary British police sleuthing, I am becoming worried. Either way the South Yorkshire Police should be prosecuted for wasting police time.
I have just received an email offer of tickets to see Waiting for Godot – from lastminute.com.
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