The Kafkaesque nightmare of the public sector

LIKE a pop group, the Hallett Inquiry is off on a national tour. Another £200,000 a day of our money going to waste to absolutely no public benefit. One day someone will make a film about it.

Whether that film has the impact of ITV’s Mr Bates vs The Post Office about the Horizon scandal remains to be seen. The then CEO of the Post Office, Paula Vennells, has returned her CBE and now faces calls for her £2.2million bonuses to be reclaimed. 

That an agency of our government (which owns the Post Office) purchased software which didn’t work is disappointing but no surprise. Indeed the inability to buy stuff is a feature of modern British Government – HS2, Ajax, the third runway at Heathrow and Sizewell C have all consumed public finance without delivering public benefit. In the case of Horizon, the people lavishly paid to run it failed, misled Parliament and abused their powers to prosecute the innocent. (Abusing their power is another hallmark of modern government, for example their enthusiasm for enforcing lockdown).

Whitehall rewards failure. Vennells announced she would step down from the Post Office in February 2019. Almost immediately she became Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, which she squeezed in round her other duties, which included being an unpaid priest. She stayed there for two years, stepping down in 2021 for personal reasons.

How on earth could an NHS Trust appoint, and continue to employ, a person who led the organisation that caused ‘the most widespread miscarriage of justice the CCRC [Criminal Cases Review Commission] has ever seen and represents the biggest single series of wrongful convictions in British legal history’? There is a lengthy tome on how such appointments should be made but that seems more aimed at ensuring that no individual has responsibility.

The reality is that our system of government rewards failure and Whitehall protects its own. The organisation that is supposed to hold the government machine accountable is Parliament. In this case that was Ed Davey. He accepted civil servants’ advice and repeatedly rebuffed Alan Bates. How is it that Davey was unable to challenge the information he was given? He may or may not be an inept windbag, but he is supposedly supported by highly capable, objective and honourable civil servants.

That description also applies to Boris Johnson when he was Prime Minister during Covid. As is now clear, the advice he got was as flawed as the decision-making process (a term I use loosely). The Hallett Inquiry seems to be taking an awfully long time to establish what the dogs in the street know (and what TCW had been broadcasting throughout the pandemic), i.e. that the modelling was wrong, that covid is about as lethal as flu, that facemasks don’t work, that the lockdown was pointless and destructive, that children were not at risk and that rushed vaccines might not be safe.

The disgraceful treatment of the sub-postmasters is yet another manifestation of the systemic malaise in the public sector. The system is broken and has descended into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Like any corporate turnaround, fixing it requires bold, determined and decisive leadership delivering a programme of reform.

Voting for any of the current Westminster parties who collectively got us into this mess will achieve nothing but more of the same – increasing amounts of public money being wasted implementing policies that are at best ineffective and sometimes disastrous (like Net Zero, but that’s for another day).

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