Richard North, 02/04/2006  

Home, sweet home?Things have come to a pretty pass when I actually agree with Simon Jenkins, but his piece today in the Sunday Times, headed "Desperate dispatches from the banana republic of Great Britain" is right on the button.

He starts by recording the disastrous collapse of the single farm payment scheme, leaving England's 120,000 farmers begging for their subsidies. He then notes that although Margaret Beckett, Defra’s secretary of state had declared: "I take full responsibility," all she actually meant was that she had just sacked one of her officials, Johnston McNeill, so as to save the skin of her farm minister, an obscure Tony crony called Lord Bach. The latter had spent six months deriding critics of his scheme as "shoddy" and creating "unfounded alarm and uncertainty".

The shambles at Defra, writes Jenkins, might win more publicity were a similar litany of woe not rising from every corner of Whitehall. He then goes on to record but a mere fraction of them which put together, speak of a nation, the administration of which is falling apart at the seams.

Booker picks up on the single farm payments shambles, in the limited space afforded him, calling it "easily the worst administrative fiasco the government has created in farming since the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001", and notes that it is in part due to "the unique complexities of the system devised for England by Margaret Beckett, and the collapse of the computer system devised by Accenture (the same company that is responsible for the chaos engulfing a £6 billion computer system for the NHS)."

He also notes that, while Johnston McNeill, as head of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has been suspended, he continues to draw his £160,000 a year salary.

Failure, it seems, is no bar to prosperity when you are in Blair’s public service. Jenkins notes that part of the trouble with the NHS is Hewitt’s extraordinary decision to proceed with Accenture’s £6 billion “choose-and-book” computer. This is an unnecessary machine, he writes, for which no health professional ever asked and which was sold to her predecessors by the smooth-talking salesmen now beating a path to the softest touch in global computer procurement, the British taxpayer. A leaked report in February suggested that the NHS computer may end up costing a mind-numbing £ 50 billion.

The Sunday Times business section cites one public procurement expert saying the scheme had been "cretinously and ineptly procured… the reality is that the original deal was hammered through with very little real understanding of the consequences on either side. Some of the participants had no idea what they were taking on."

Yet, as The Business reports, Accenture is now to bid for the contract to provide biometric technology for the UK's identity registry, which will underpin the government's identity card scheme.

That, in a way is good news. If its efforts are at least as good as its work RPA and the NHS, Accenture will ensure that the identity card scheme will never actually function, but the one certainty is that even the LSE’s pessimistic forecast of £18 billion for the cost of the scheme will be a gross underestimate. Jenkins records that the cost is escalating past £12 billion towards, on one estimate, £30 billion.

This is not public administration but public chaos Jenkins adds despairingly, but it is not only the administration which is going to wrack and ruin. Henry Porter in The Observer sets out the savage damage done to the constitution by New Labour, echoing a theme we have raised in this blog, with a call for a Bill of Rights.

Porter’s thesis is that Labour's programme of legislation challenges the British constitution like no other administration before it. In a thousand tiny - and not so tiny - cuts Labour threatens our rights and freedoms, the rule of law and the sovereignty of Parliament.

For the past two weeks he has been going through all the Labour legislation that has reduced our freedoms, compromised our rights and menaced the life of Parliament. He found it an extremely depressing experience, not least because he has now discovered that parliament – "your and my elected representatives" - has been sidelined. Welcome to the world, Porter.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, though, Jeremy Clarkson takes us to his world, a world infested with speed cameras, the increase in numbers of which, he shows, exactly matches the slackening off in the rate of decline in road deaths. Commenting on those who have fallen foul of the reign of Gatso, he observes that he’s be willing to bet they'd trade Tony Blair's idea of a nation state for anything. Even the EU.

We cannot agree, as things are hardly better there. For instance, The Business records in depth the total Horlicks that Peter Mandelson is making of EU trade policy while Allister Heath asks: "Is France ungovernable".

However, Clarkson does have a point. Excuse me while I retreat to my bunker.


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