It’s Tuesday so It must be Polly Pot baiting

I got up this morning in what was, for me, a remarkably good mood.

Why? I couldn’t have told you to begin with. I just had the indefinable sense of anticipation about the day ahead, as if subconsciously I knew there was something about today that was worth looking forward to.

It didn’t take long to find it. A quick trawl of the blogs via their RSS feeds led me to Tim Worstall’s blog, a regular port of call for any discerning Brit blogger, a visit that quickly yielded the reminder that, yes, today is Tuesday and that makes it Polly Pot day.

Oh joy, says he, pausing briefly only to sharpen the satiric claws, I wonder what the Grauniads purveyor of vapid inanities par excellence has in store for us today. Tim sums it up very nicely:

Ministers can’t cope with everything so experts should do it instead.

Today finds girding her loins – not the best mental image to conjure this early in the morning – and taking up her sword of incandescent banality to leap to the defence of New Labour’s own fragrant supermum and Opus Dei-st, Ruth Kelly.

The sight of a minister devoured in a feeding frenzy should make any decent person feel sick…

…pines Polly, with barely a flicker of recognition that its the sharks in the office next door who’re doing most of the feeding to begin with – looks like this is going to be one of those ‘physician, heal thyself’ pieces on the iniquities of journalistic [lack of] ethics; and sure enough we have to wait only a further scene-setting paragraph before she hits her full naval-gazing stride:

A free press may be essential to democracy, but how grotesquely it exploits that necessity. Self-righteously we pontificate on politicians, free to damn ministers at whim, shameless about our own far worse venality and hypocrisy. Politicians try to get things done while we shoot them down from comfortable quarters. They come and go – but we stay on and on, never at risk of de-election from jobs no one elected us to. Instead we award one another prizes. We confront no dilemmas where there is no right answer; we always know the answer to everything.

Ah, but I am but a humble supplicant at the altar of democracy, eh Polly? Ever so ‘umble, I am.

Polly’s point, when she eventually gets to it, has some small measure of merit. The credo of Ministerial Responsibility, under which politicians swing for the errors and obfuscations of their underlings, is fundamentally unfair – it punishes the over-worked Parliamentary sock puppet for parroting the dissembling obfuscations of malign Sir Humphreys while leaving the semi-obsequious in place and looking forward to a nice fat pension and ultimate elevation to the Grand Order of St Laurel and St Hardy come the day of their retirement from years of loyal public dis-service.

I wonder. Is there a collective noun for civil servants? If not, how would everyone feel about ‘an obfuscation of civil servants’ has the right kind of ring to it, don’t you think?

To some extent Polly has a point. The overweening growth and complexity of government bureaucracy has created an uneven and, dare I say it, undemocratic power relationship at the centre of Whitehall. Modern government has become so complex that no Minister can ever feel anything but exposed and, well, naked without their surrounding cabal of policy advisors and senior civil servants to spoonfeed them the answers to even fairly routine questions, while anything that is genuinely complicated leaves our elected representatives all at sea. As a simple rule of thumb, the bigger the cock-up, the more civil servants will be found routinely accompanying a minister on their travels in order to prevent them giving anything that remotely resembles a candid answer to any question.

Ministerial responsibility does place politicians in an impossible bind. Once the official line has been fed into the Ministerial loop by civil servants and quoted by Ministers to their Parliamentary colleagues, there can be no deviation from the officially sanctioned truth – even if that ‘truth’ turns out to be a lie. Accountability is a one-way street in this relationship, a Faustian deal in which civil servants are spared the slings and arrows of public accountability, safe in the knowledge that should the shit ever really hit the fan they can push the Minister put front and centre and let them take the fall. Those of us who are inclined, rightly, to a cynical and suspicious nature in dealing with bureaucracy have long suspected that Civil Servants understand the dynamics of this relationship just that little bit well and milk it for every possible advantage it yields; that if the Civil Service has a motto is is likely to be:

Oh Minister. If only things were so simple…

Spoken, of course, with all the unctious insincerity of Sir Humphrey Appleby at his best

This being Polly, of course, she may stumble across a valid point from time to time, but usually at the expense of missing several others.

So it is that Polly’s immediate solution to the iniquities of Ministerial Responsibility lies in devolving ever more power to professionals:

Ministers should not make such decisions. In this example, before people are put on List 99 and banned from working with children, an education minister has to decide borderline cases; but he/she has no more clue than you or I. It needs a professional panel to examine each one.

None of which addressed the central problem, which is the wholsesale lack of accountability in the whole process. Ministerial responsibility may sometime deliver the wrong scalp when things go pear-shaped but at least it does deliver a scalp – devolving such decisions to a professional panel merely pushes decisions further into the dark heart of the civil service and into even deeper obscurity.

As with many of Polly Pot’s articles, reading it is rather akin to walking through a minefield – every safe step that takes you forward propels you inexorably towards the next mine that’ll take your leg off.

So we go from the eminently reasonable – if heretical in New Labour terms –

What all this reveals is the need now for a firm rule across all departments that ministers no longer do individual cases. They should do policy – that’s their job – and oversee others, such as ombudsmen, special panels and judges, to adjudicate cases fairly.

– straight into –

Yet every department is snowed under with individual cases that should not be handled by amateur politicians. Lazy MPs showing off to constituents by writing direct to ministers should be re-directed sternly to the proper channels – and only write to a minister when every other system fails. It should be regarded as improper for ministers to intervene in particular cases: as improper as the European courts found a home secretary’s handing out of jail sentences.

MPs should be ‘re-directed sternly to the proper channels – and only write to a minister when every other system fails’? What about public servants should be accountable to Parliament and to elected representatives of the people?

Is that not rather more in keeping with democracy. Polly?

As ever, Polly misses the most important structural points which underpin this issue.

Governments don’t end up in this position by accident or oversight but because they pursue policies which serve to bolster the proliferation of bureaucracy – and on that score this present government has an entirely unenviable track record.

The New Labour project may have succeeded in the key task facing a party in opposition, that of making itself electable, but in office it has failed in one of the key tasks facing any, nominally, left-wing/centre-left government, that of delivering effective public services without becoming over-reliant on centralised bureacracy as a means of trying to artificially engineer efficiencies.

Such a track is ultimately self-defeating – bureaucracy doesn’t create efficiency of save money, it merely transfers both into its own compendious coffers in order to justify the creation of even more bureaucrats and even more bureacracy. It is a parasite, the living embodiment of Agent Smith’s revelatory virus. It spreads and it consumes until, at some point, it will eventually come to eat its host.

I’m sure there are those on the right who would happily leap on that last statement as evidence to support their contention that markets and market reforms are the answer – I don’t believe they are. Markets may deliver greater financial efficiency but lack any real sensitivity towards the social role and values of public services, many of which are fundamentally unsuited to market-led approaches. The problems here are pretty simple; those with the greatest need and who place the greatest demands on public services are invariably those with the least ability to pay and the most important and essential public services don’t lend themselves readily to profitability in the marketplace, which is why you don’t see BUPA and others queuing up to bid for A&E services.

The key challenge for the left is to devise a means of driving public services which relies neither on bureaucracy or the presumed pre-eminence of market forces. Quite what that might be, is a matter I need to think through in more detail, but my instincts tell me that whatever it is it will entail a broader notion of measuring efficiency than mere productivity and that democratic accountability, at a very local level, will play a major role in driving service delivery.

Beyond that the present government and its ministers can consider themselves directly responsible for any public whippings they receive as a result of the manifest failings of Civil Servants, for which they have no one to blame but themselves.

As a managerialist government they can hardly consider themselves blameless when managerial failures arise – its no good blaming, as Polly does, the bureaucratic culture of the Civil Service when you belong to a government that bought into that culture wholesale and, with very few exceptions, went ‘native’ from day one.

If the degree of power and responsibility vested in Ministers is now too much for them to keep their eye on the ball on matters so obviously contentious as the issue of whether those on the sex offenders register should be permitted to teach children in state schools then government has become too centralised to function effectively and it is time to devolve power and responsibility back to Parliament and, crucially, back to Local Government and to local democratic institutions.

The failings in managerial government are even manifest in its approach to legislation.

Conceptual elegance and clarity of expression and intent were once the hallmark of Parliament. Today they are a rarity. Acts of Parliament are poorly drafted and unclear as a matter of routine, vague in expression and intent and often little more than a rough framework under which Ministers reserve to themselves the right to define and redefine the law at will using secondary legislation and ever more complex regulations. At 967 pages, made up of five parts, six schedules and 40 statutory instruments, the UK’s current housing benefit regulations are double the length of the EU Constitutional Treaty – and we call them bureaucratic?

Law-making has become a shambolic process in this country. Laws are routinely drafted in vague and highly subjective terms, stripped of almost all detail and clarity, the right to determine which is then reserved to the relevant Minister and his functionaries. Then we get the statutory instruments and regulations which, far from clarifying matters, usually heap further confusion and uncertainty on matters before leaving to the courts to sort the whole sorry mess out.

That would be bad enough in itself, but it doesn’t stop there. In the realm of managerialists, the judiciary is only free to interpret the law in the the precise manner the government intends it to be interpreted and not otherwise – which would be eminently reasonable if the government had specified its intent properly in the first place instead of dissembling at the legislative stage. So, of course, when that’s not quite how things turn out, when judges faced with unclear and badly drafted legiislation fall back on the time-honoured on proven traditions of natural justice, common law and simple common sense, then what do we get?

The obligatory review and promises that the law will be ‘tightened’ and ‘clarified’ – more legislation, more regulations and more bureacracy, all of which would be unnecessary if only laws were drafted properly in the first place and not rammed though on guillotined debates and committee proceedings which prevent them being fully and properly scrutinised at the time of their passage through Parliament.

Is there anything less efficient than constantly having to go back and redo jobs that weren’t done properly in the first place? And on that basis, is there a public institution that could be considered less efficient and more in need of fundamental reform than Parliament.

To give Polly her due, she does demonstrate a glimmer of recognition that such things are actually important when she notes at the end of her article that:

Kelly’s real test is not sex offenders; it is whether she produces an education bill unambiguously designed to do best for those with least – the most effective way to raise national standards.

Which I suppose is something, however this points to the real problem with the credo Ministerial Responsibility – it may permit, in limited circumstances, Ministers to be held immediately – and yes, unfairly – to account for the incompetence of their subordinates but what it doesn’t do is enable them to be held to account for the incompetence as legislators and policy makers. It should be remembered that one of key demands of the Chartist movement, and one that was nver realised, was annual parliaments which would force MPs and government to revalidate their mandate to govern and to represent every year rather than every 4-5 years at present – an idea that may have been, and still be, short on practicality bit big on accountability.