Government by blunder: From The Dome to HS2, the hubris, incompetence and mindless waste of our ruling class makes you want to weep. But then itâ€™s only YOUR money theyâ€™re squandering,
Do you ever worry that the Government wastes your money? If the answer to that question is yes, you donâ€™t know the half of it.
The all-party Public Accounts Committee released a damning report recently into the Blair governmentâ€™s scheme to upgrade Englandâ€™s NHS computer systems, branding it one of the â€˜worst and most expensive contracting fiascos in the history of the public sectorâ€™.
The project quickly ran into trouble and was abandoned. Yet this is far from being ancient history, because incredibly â€” 11 years on â€” we are still paying the bill.
Initial reports put the cost at Â£6.4â€‰billion. But that turned out to be an under-estimate; in fact, the total cost is likely to rise to at least Â£12â€‰billion, enough to pay for dozens of brand-new hospitals.
The incompetence, the hubris, the sheer mindless waste make you want to weep. There could hardly be a more damning indictment of a political culture that throws taxpayersâ€™ money at public projects, without thinking through the costs and benefits.
Yet the really disturbing thing, as a powerful new book argues, is that no one paid the price for such a colossal failure. And what is worse, there is every sign the Coalition is repeating the same mistakes, with the expensive white elephant of the HS2 rail link top of the list.
The bookâ€™s title, The Blunders Of Our Governments, says it all. Its authors are two of our most distinguished politics professors, Anthony King and Sir Ivor Crewe, and their meticulous study of ineptitude, arrogance and wastefulness could hardly be more depressing.
At the heart of the book is the Labour government that ran this country for 13 years until May 2010.
And on this evidence, many senior figures should hang their heads in shame. Perhaps wisely, the authors do not consider the biggest blunder of all, Tony Blairâ€™s lunatic belief that we could charge our way into Iraq and bloodlessly install democracy at the barrel of a gun. But the story they have to tell is still dismal enough.
Here, for example, is the sorry saga of Peter Mandelsonâ€™s Millennium Dome, which opened on January 1, 2000, and became a byword for political incompetence. Organised by three bodies, two ministers and two accounting officers, the Dome was an utter shambles.
We were told 12â€‰million people would turn up to see it. In fact, barely six million came.
The commercial strategy was based on selling tickets to families â€” at a cost of Â£73 for a family of four. But when Mr Blairâ€™s old flatmate, Lord Falconer, succeeded Mandelson as the Domeâ€™s boss, he announced free entry for a million children, and so completely undermined his own business plan.
The Dome was the perfect symbol of the Blair government: hugely expensive, massively over-hyped and intellectually vacuous. And since no one was really in charge, no one paid the price â€” except, of course, the taxpayer.
Other blunders were much more serious, such as the disgraceful tale of the Labour governmentâ€™s failure to pay English farmers the money they were owed under the EUâ€™s Common Agricultural Policy.
In 2003, the EU changed its rules so instead of getting payments for the different commodities they produced, farmers would receive subsidies depending on the amount of land they maintained in good order.
But while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland adopted simple, straightforward ways of handing over the money, Labourâ€™s Agriculture Minister Margaret Beckett, announced a mind-boggling scheme for English farmers.
It combined the old and new approaches, which no one but a statistician could be expected to understand. The result was chaos. In May 2006, after 18 months, only 15 per cent of the money had been handed over.
A few farmers had been overpaid by up to Â£100,000 each. But thousands more, through no fault of their own, had received no money whatsoever.
On the ground, the fiasco of the Rural Payments Agency was a matter of life and death. During the first few months of the agencyâ€™s operations, at least three farmers killed themselves because of their financial problems.
So were the authors of this dreadful folly punished? Not a bit of it. Margaret Beckett was promoted to Foreign Secretary, while her senior official, Sir Brian Bender, was rewarded with the top job at the Department of Trade and Industry.
The real problem â€” quite apart from the total absence of accountability â€” was Whitehallâ€™s blind ignorance of the way real people lived. The politicians simply never understood that farmers could not afford to wait months for their money; they needed it on time.
As one farmer later remarked, the scheme had been devised by people with â€˜absolutely no idea about agriculture, farming, horticulture, anythingâ€™.
They were â€˜people who havenâ€™t been out to see what England is really likeâ€™, said another farmer.
Itâ€™s a recurring theme of the excoriating book about government blundering: time after time, expensive schemes run into trouble because privileged ministers and pampered bureaucrats canâ€™t fathom how real people live.
A classic example, which would have been hilarious if it were not so dispiriting, was Blairâ€™s suggestion that the police should punish thugs by dragging them to a cash point and forcing them to pay an on-the-spot fine of Â£100.
It never occurred to him that not everyone in Britain had a bank account, carried their debit card or always had at least Â£100 in their account.
But Blairâ€™s ignorance â€” which reflected his privileged background and isolation in Westminsterâ€™s gilded cage â€” was typical of the breed.
The Tories are equally guilty. Only last year, facing a planned tanker driversâ€™ strike, the millionaire Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude advised people to hoard fuel â€˜in a jerry can in the garageâ€™.
Rarely can a minister have given such foolish advice: only days later, a woman was badly burned after pouring petrol into a container in her kitchen. But as King and Crewe point out, it evidently never occurred to Maude that two out of three families do not own a garage.
â€˜Like Blair, Maude clearly assumed that almost everyone in the country lived a life that, at least in this respect, was like his own and that of his ministerial colleagues,â€™ they write.
To be fair to New Labour, this problem did not begin in 1997. During the fiasco of Mrs Thatcherâ€™s poll tax in the Eighties, for example, her Eton and Oxford-educated aristocratic minister Nick Ridley had a suggestion for hard-pressed families facing whopping bills.
They could, he said completely seriously, â€˜always sell a pictureâ€™.
Even more glaring was the chaos surrounding the Child Support Agency, set up under John Major in 1993 to ensure absent fathers paid towards their childrenâ€™s upbringing.
Like so many initiatives since then, it was adopted in a rush, with very little parliamentary scrutiny and with one eye firmly on the headlines.
The result was an administrative catastrophe, leaving many fathers facing unfair bills and single mothers deprived of the support they needed.
Things were so chaotic that the agency spent years harassing one man about his daughter â€” despite the fact he was gay and had never had children. Meanwhile, senior officials, who must have been living on Mars, were reportedly â€˜surprisedâ€™ when mothers told social services clerks that theyâ€™d had children by two or more fathers. As one minister naively put it: â€˜We hadnâ€™t appreciated how complicated some peopleâ€™s lives had become.â€™
Inept as Mr Majorâ€™s government undoubtedly was, things got even worse after 1997.
Tony Blairâ€™s ministers seemed affected by a contagious hyperactivity, falling over themselves to introduce legislation even as they rotated endlessly from department to department.
As Alan Johnson â€” who held five Cabinet posts in just six years â€” admitted last week, many policies were adopted purely to win applause at Labourâ€™s party conference.
â€˜I was as guilty as any of my colleagues in scouring whichever department I was in charge of for an initiative to announce in my ten minutes of airtime by the seaside every year,â€™ he told the New Statesman magazine.
Yet Mr Johnson also firmly pointed the finger at New Labourâ€™s architects, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
â€˜Even more pernicious was the Prime Ministerâ€™s demand for policy announcements in the leaderâ€™s speech,â€™ he said. â€˜At least as Secretary of State, I knew my patch and had to live with the consequences of my actions. The occupant of Noâ€‰10 and his acolytes would appear like invading Vikings, pillaging policies and leaving us to clear up the mess.â€™
So it was that one terrible cock-up followed another. Indeed, turning the pages of this book becomes ever more painful as you contemplate the billions wasted on wheezes that never worked.
Take the fiasco of New Labourâ€™s Individual Learning Accounts, which were supposed to help under-qualified people get onto training schemes.
In classic New Labour style, the cash went not to established colleges, but to â€˜new providersâ€™ â€” many of which, it later transpired, did not exist. The result was yet another shambles.
With no checks on whether people were taking the right courses â€” or even if the courses were happening at all â€” the scheme was a fraudsterâ€™s dream.
One supposed college turned out to be a disused pet shop, another was based in a garden shed and a third kept its records in bin bags in a toy warehouse.
Meanwhile, 6,000 supposed â€˜learnersâ€™ were registered at the same address, while another list of â€˜learnersâ€™ turned out to be a long list of Hindi swear words. By the time the scheme was wound up in 2001, it had wasted Â£300â€‰million, almost Â£100â€‰million of which lined the pockets of fraudsters.
Then there was Gordon Brownâ€™s tax credits scheme, which required millions of people â€” many of whom had never filed an income tax return â€” to complete complicated forms about their past and projected earnings.
Little wonder that it rapidly degenerated into farce.
â€˜We have had an utter fiasco with the tax credits,â€™ wrote fellow minister David Blunkett in his diary at the time. â€˜Tens of thousands of people without any money and no sign of their getting it in the near future.â€™
To his credit, Blunkett lent some of his own money to one desperate constituent, who later paid him back. But this was hardly a universal solution, and as King and Crewe remark, â€˜the amount of human anguish caused by all thisâ€™ can easily be imagined.
So are things getting better? It would be nice to think our current politicians have heeded the lessons of recent history.
Unfortunately, King and Crewe are not so sanguine. The Coalition, they write in their downbeat conclusion, â€˜appears to have learned little from the mistakes of its predecessorsâ€™.
From the botched award of the West Coast mainline rail franchise to the abortive attempt to flog the nationâ€™s forests, one rushed, mismanaged policy has followed another.
Sad to say, if King and Crewe write a sequel to this book, they should have plenty of stories to choose from.
After all, HS2 alone seems likely to consume at least Â£42â€‰billion â€” all just to shave a few minutes off the journey time between London and Birmingham.
The authors identify a host of causes, from civil servants who seem incapable of picking up the phone, to politicians who have never experienced life in the world outside Westminster.
For my money, though, the basic problem is simple. Over the past few decades, governments have tried to do too much.
Obsessed with winning headlines and propelling themselves up the political ladder, ministers rush to interfere in our everyday lives, hurling money around without stopping to consider the consequences.
In King and Creweâ€™s wise words, we are suffering not just from a financial deficit, but a â€˜deficit of deliberationâ€™.
And so we lurch from one initiative to another, the headlines dominated by endless reforms that achieve little â€” apart from wasting billions of pounds of taxpayersâ€™ money.
In an ideal world, we would have a government that thought more, talked less and was not afraid to do very little â€” or even nothing at all.
Sad to say, that is probably too much to hope for.
The Blunders Of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe (Oneworld Publications, Â£25). To order a copy for Â£20 (P&P free), call 0844 472 4157.