GOVERNMENT WASTE: How the Sir Humphreys pissed our money away


Hallelujah, the News Corporation has finally done something useful. Mind you, it did come from one of the titles old Roop is keen to sell – but let’s not be picky: The Times scoop today on Whitehall waste is a great step forward for all those folks like me fed up of being told we’re curmudgeonly just because we hate every Sir Humphrey in the land.

For twenty years – from roughly 1980 to 2000 – I worked with Government ministers, senior Whitehall pinstripes, and the organisation they had created to avoid utter and total financial incontinence – the COI (Central Office of Information). Over that period, I formed the opinion that your senior civil servant is, on the whole, a cunning but incompetent person with a large shovel he or she would dearly like to use during access to the Bank of England’s gold reserves. That archetypal ‘servant’ will also do anything – no matter how bad for Britain – in order to ensure an unholy trinity of promotion, power, and pension.

As for the Ministers, my view was much simpler: they were all incompetent, and interested only in policies that would win votes.

What the Times investigation does, however, is put numbers on my experience of these reptiles. So all those busy telling me over the last eight years about my ‘incessant cynicism’ and ‘Sample of One’ overview, suck on these statistics from the National Audit Office:

* In the two years since January 201o, Whitehall has wasted £32bn of public money, while the Osborne ‘cuts’ have achieved savings of just £15bn.

* The HMRC has some £25bn outstanding in unresolved tax bills.

* MoD budgets remain £6.1bn over budget – see various Slog posts passim – and we still await the first firing of an MoD Sir Humphrey at Administrative Service level.

* Labour’s Private Finance Initiative (PFI) has liabilities of £130bn – and counting.

* Total  Government expenditure this UK fiscal will be around £705bn. In 2015, it will be nearer £736bn.

Now read what Public Accounts Committee Chairman Margaret Hodge has to say:

* Civil servants do not have the management, planning or IT skills to negotiate cost-effective contracts with the private sector.

* Billions of Pounds worth of cuts in NHS Hospital, Armed Forces and social services expenditure might have been avoided.

* The PFI represented “outrageously poor value for money”.

For those of us in the private sector who have ‘enjoyed’ having Government Ministries as clients, none of this comes as any surprise at all. But what even Ms Hodge has fudged is just how over over-staffed these civil service organisations are.

Tory MP Bernard Jenkin is a central character on the PAC. He thinks the answer is to hire more private sector recruits and thus add more skills to the Civil Service cadres. I don’t. How can the answer to taxpayers being ripped off by private contractors be to hire private contractors? And how much difference will one or two gesture appointments make?

David Cameron wants to ‘review the role of the civil service, and what it provides to politicians’. This is far nearer the mark, but nowhere near radical enough….and redolent of the kind of asinine balm that Dave puts out when he hasn’t a clue what to do.

I know you’ve all heard this before, but it deserves to be repeated. We need to stop seeing the Civil Service as either (a) fit for purpose or (b) a feature of government. What’s required is NOT privatisation, but mutualisation: deconstruct the Civl Service structure completely, and put some Coop or JLP executives in there. Make what was the Civil Service into something that earns its crust from giving objective advice to government, that is paid per project by government, that is not employed by government, and has no profit motive – merely the need to break even after having shared out a surplus among all its employees.