By Tony Collins
The slogan “take back control” implies Britain is adept at running what it currently controls. But is it?
Ministers and officials now control central government administration. The following summarised case studies give an indication of how well they cope with this task:
– Ministers and senior civil servants lost billions on the National Programme for IT in the NHS after repeatedly telling Parliament of its successes. The scheme was “dismantled” in 2011. Afterwards a new organisation was formed, NHS England, which went from IT disaster to IT disaster.
– The biggest reform in central government, Universal Credit, is, so far, 11 years behind schedule and is the second botched welfare reform programme, the £2.6bn “Operational Strategy” being the first.
– Central government’s largest department, the DWP has had its financial accounts qualified every year for the last 31 years because of high levels of fraud and error. Overpayments and underpayments are now at their highest level since 2005-6.
– The Emergency Services Network is more than £3.0 over budget and isn’t expected to pay for itself until 2029.
– The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy continues to tell Parliament of the success of its £12bn smart meter rollout programme. But the few dozen latest-generation SMETS2 smart meters installed in Britain’s homes are said to have cost £28m each.
– Last month a report of the National Audit Office said government data is of such poor quality that officials try to steer around it.
– Last week, the Public Accounts Committee’s annual report said, “we see the same pattern of mistakes repeated consistently across Government”.
– It said the same in its 2018 annual report. The repetition of problems and mistakes was “depressingly familiar”.
– When a minister tries to cut what he sees as the exorbitant costs of central government administration, senior civil servants fight against him. Former Cabinet Office minister Lord Maude, who wanted to bring down the costs of central government IT, later lamented the “overt disobedience” of some senior civil servants.
– Transparency in central government is almost non-existent. The LSE found it impossible to establish the costs of central government administration, in part because civil servants keep changing what counts as an administration cost.
As an aside, a look at how well ministers and officials handle the nation’s finances shows that net public sector pension liabilities are £1,865bn, the equivalent of more than £68,000 per UK household and 92% of GDP.
The shortfall between assets and liabilities increased from £2,420bn to £2,565bn in 2017 and borrowing rose by £58bn – far more than the entire “Brexit divorce bill” of £39bn.
[Medical negligence claims on their own stood at £78.4 billion at 31 March 2018.]
The little openness that exists in government IT depends to an extent on EC open tendering regulations. Open competition for contracts is also largely the result of EC regulations.
These regulations ensure contracts and winners are published; and the EC investigates allegations of breaches of its rules.
Without these regulations, ministers and officials would have more freedom to award large contracts to the same companies – ones that may later recruit them.
Anyone who regularly reads National Audit Office reports knows that there are pockets of competence in central government but consider how IT over the last 30 years has cut costs for the private sector and compare that with the increasing costs of running central government.
There are impressive exceptions, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport being one.
A frightening thought?
EC regulations deter corruption among ministers and officialdom. Why would anyone be in a hurry to be rid of them?
UK central government administration is largely unaccountable and opaque at the moment, particularly when it comes to arm’s length bodies such as the Post Office. After Brexit, central government administration is destined to become less open and accountable, and thus more costly – a frightening thought for anyone who cares how their taxes are spent.