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Patrick Barbour: Better government


Barbourpatrick Patrick Barbour was chairman of two public companies, Barbour Index plc and Microgen plc, and has authored a new paper for the TaxPayers’ Alliance campaign on Better Government, available here.

“John Reid’s Brain is Missing” screamed the front-page headline of last Thursday’s Sun, together with a photo of an appropriately confused-looking and lobotomised Home Secretary.  According to the paper, there were “fears for his sanity” after his failure to get to grips with the crisis engulfing the prison service.

Reid deserves serious criticism for his performance, but the personal nature of the media’s attacks risks obscuring the bigger picture.  The successive Home Office debacles over the past year are much more a reflection of the dysfunctional system of government in Britain than of the short-term performance of the latest Home Secretary.  John Reid’s biggest mistake was accepting the job in the first place.  When the prison and probation services are close to full-scale breakdown and we face the prospect of prisoners being released early en masse, the person responsible for sorting out the mess was for many years a Labour Party apparatchik and has just a few short months’ knowledge of the criminal justice system and little real management experience.  Also, he will probably only be in this job for a couple of years at most, having had no less than eight jobs in ten years. 

A similar pattern of inexperience exists elsewhere.  We have a former press officer, Patricia Hewitt, running the National Health Service – the world’s third largest employer.  We have a former postman, Alan Johnson, managing the affairs of every school in the country.  We have a former solicitor, Des Browne, deciding on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

This is not meant as a personal attack on these Ministers, each of them I am sure have their own skills.  But imagine if a major company like Tesco behaved in a similar fashion: in a time of crisis, replacing chief executive Terry Leahy with someone who had no experience of managing supermarkets (or anything complex, in fact) but who was nevertheless a very competent graphic designer.  It is, of course, a ridiculous scenario that could never happen.  But this is effectively how we choose to run the Government of the fifth largest economy in the world.

With this bizarre and archaic system, it is hardly surprising that British government malfunctions across the board, and has done so for decades.  Our education system is a shambles and there is no doubt it is already leaving us less able to compete with rising powers in Asia.  One in four children leave primary school without sufficient reading ability to tackle the secondary school curriculum and almost 60 per cent of 16-year-olds do not achieve a GCSE grade C or better in the three core subjects of English, Maths and Science.  The British Medical Journal has ranked the NHS second from bottom among 19 developed countries on quality of care.  Our criminal justice system has basically failed. 

As usual, the poorest in society suffer the most.  Only a quarter of pupils eligible for free school meals achieve five GCSEs at Grade A*-C; there is a huge gulf between the rich and poor in healthcare outcomes; the British Crime Survey shows the risk of almost every category of crime is significantly higher the poorer the population.  The risk of burglary is 63 per cent higher than the national average for those earning less than £5,000 a year.

Politicians assure us that they will sort things out in the end but after years of persistent failure – under governments of both main parties – people understandably no longer believe them.  Public disillusionment is widespread and growing fast.  The TaxPayers’ Alliance has just taken a snapshot of this disillusionment with a new ICM poll.  60 per cent agreed with the statement that “Politicians have almost no experience of managing the vital things they’re in charge of, they aren’t in touch or competent, so whichever party wins nothing will improve.”  No wonder 4 out of 10 didn’t bother to vote at the last election. Extraordinarily, nearly 70 per cent of people now think more than a fifth of what government spends is wasted.  People have simply lost hope that things will get better – a very serious situation for the health of our democracy.

We cannot seriously address this disillusionment until we end our 19th Century system of government which fails, and replace it with a new structure that can actually enable meaningful change.  The first step is attitudinal: politicians must acknowledge reality and admit that when government monopolises as much as it does, they simply have impossible jobs.  They try to run organisations like the NHS that are so complex they would be beyond the world’s best business minds.  And it is politicians’ persistent failure which goes to show that civil society knows better how to run hospitals, schools, welfare, and large areas of the criminal justice system.  Politicians should only be responsible for those things that civil society cannot run, like foreign and defence policy.    

The next big step is that politicians should not involve themselves in management.  MPs are typically former press officers, parliamentary researchers, local councillors or lawyers.  Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, has never had a job outside of politics.  MPs are not usually professional managers and so, like in the United States, the Prime Minister should be able to appoint competent outsiders to run scaled-down departments in a smaller, better government.  These managers should be left with the time and space to run things as they see fit – as in the private sector.  In other words, politicians should not be involved in management and management should not be involved in politics.   

No doubt many will highlight the electoral difficulty of selling such a reform programme. But the same TaxPayers’ Alliance poll shows that while there is disillusionment with the political process and a feeling that “nothing changes”, there is also enthusiasm for the prospect of radical reform.  There is widespread support for wholesale change to the way the NHS and schools are funded and managed, and for real police reform with direct accountability at local level.  It also shows that people understand that it is perfectly possible to have lower taxes and better public services. This is increasingly a mental stumbling block for politicians, not the public.

If we want to avoid Britain declining to the status of a third-rate power, we need to bring our Victorian system of government into the 21st Century.


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