New horror as 220,000 Social Fund files accidentally thrown into furnace by crack civil service team.

Posted from a very sick and overworked dongle in the Welsh uphills

One of the downsides of compacted, easily stored digital data is that it’s very easy to store, but also very easy to lose.

However, such a dilemma had nothing to do with the Social Fund’s loss of 220,000 files – a misfortune quietly reported in some of the press media last Friday. For these were good old-fashioned, whopping great paper files. So it becomes less easy to smile and accept the explanation that the files were destroyed ‘accidentally in a paper reduction exercise’. It smacks of rock clubs being accidentally destroyed in a fire shortly after the bank foreclosed.

This isn’t as gratuitous a comment as you might think. And equally, the ‘accident’ that has befallen the Social Fund seems to be more complex than one’s first cynical hypothesis would suggest.

In my case, the hypothesis was ‘major New Labour overspending cock-up quietly disposed of’. But this doesn’t stand up at all: the Treasury’s estimates suggest that overall around £9 billion was lost from Social Fund fraud and error in the 2005-08 period – but as public unease mounted, the Progressives finally got things under control. In the period to which these torched files referred, the ‘overpayments’ were a paltry £106 million.

All of which makes one wonder why the NAO’s Chief Executive – Auditor General Amyas Morse – made a point in the media release of saying the loss was ‘significant’, because there were ‘material levels of error’ in the files. £106 million is considerably less material than £9 billion : so what on Earth might Amyas have meant by this?

The Slog can’t add anything definitive in the way of hard evidence about this sad loss to the national archive of incompetent government largesse. But I would make two points:

1.      It takes a concerted effort, a big furnace, and quite a few Social Fund dweebs to immolate 220,000 bulky physical files: the weight alone would be in excess of 15,000 kilograms. So maybe their destruction had more to do with determination than incompetence.

2.      Rumours persist of the illegal use of taxpayer monies (in a vain attempt to rescue Gordon from humiliating defeat) during the run-up to last May’s General Election. One middle-ranking Whitehall staffer told The Slog in February 2010 that Lord Mandelson’s flamboyant army of Brownshirts were routinely referred to as ‘CREEP’ by certain influential groups. CREEP was the acronym for Nixon’s re-election team during 1971 – a perverted can-do inner circle who wound up burgling the Watergate Complex in their desire for right to prevail.

During the summer of 2009, a disgruntled Blairite also told me that he “didn’t like to think about” what the consequences might be following a discovery by the media of misuse of public funds by the then Government. This could, of course, have meant anything. But it does suggest that a rather more investigatory attitude from the media to this extraordinary ‘loss’ of files might be in order.