Friday, 13 February 2004

Busy, but why?

Clive Summerfield @ Friday, February 13, 2004
In today's Guardian, Polly Toynbee writes in defence of the rising numbers of people employed by the Civil Service, and is highly critical of Michael Howard's proposed cost savings of £80billion by slashing their ranks.

She starts - not atypically - with a melodramatic outburst, comparing the cost saving against various department budgets, but rather out of context. She then mounts a robust defence, identifying the marvellous public spirited works these people do.

Unfortunately, she completely misses the point.

The Inland Revenue has more staff to deal with tax credits, which go to many more families than before.

Well, most of the additional IR staff are being employed to oversee an increasingly complicated system. Given that tax credits replaced allowances, then it is hardly surprising that more people are getting them than before. However the system is so complicated that many people eligible for them are put off from applying, and more staff are required to understand the continually changing legislation. Various accountancy organisations have repeatedly criticised Gordon Brown for his machine gun approach to introducing legislation which - in many cases - costs more to police than it raises. IR35 anyone?

The Crown Prosecution Service has more lawyers to take over the police work of deciding who should be charged - wasting less court time and releasing more police officers.

One shouldn't forget to mention the bureaucratic overhead of preparing the documentation for the CPS. Or the fact that the police staff released are in many cases not front-line crime fighters. And if more police are being released to crime-stopping duties, where the heck are they? Not around here as far as anyone can tell. And the CPS is hardly a paragon of virtue when it comes to selecting cases.

The Passport Office and the immigration service have grown: how else can passports and asylum cases be processed faster?

In the case of the former, getting the new computerised system working would have been a good thing, as anyone who queued during at a passport office during the fiasco a while back could tell you. And let's not even go down the asylum and immigration route shall we. Implementing a sensible and manageable policy would be a good first step. Rather than just throwing human resources at an unworkable system as at present.

The Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence have more staff to deal with terror threats around the world and with war and reconstruction in Iraq

Now Polly, you're just being silly.

Among those on the Howard hit-list are Job Centre personal advisers who make the New Deals such a success that yesterday unemployment hit the lowest ever recorded.

You're joking now Polly, aren't you? I mean, raising the New Deals as beacons of light in the morass that is unemployment.

If you look closely, there's a thread running through the above, that can be summarised in one simple word - efficiency.

The prime mover behind rising number employed in the civil service - an employment sector that is primarily a revenue sink for the nation, and thus funded exclusively by those who do work in generating national income - is that they are trying to support a terribly complicated and inefficient edifice. The Inland Revenue is so inefficient that when recently challenged to produce evidence of the cost against benefit for legislation introduced explicitly to reduce tax avoidance, it was unable to do so. So how do they know whether or not such legislation is having an effect.

Likewise the Police, the CPS, the Immigration Service, etc, etc, etc.

The point that should have been made was that the cuts the Tories are proposing should only be made in conjunction with quantifiable improvements in efficiency. The improvements would undoubtedly be dependent on the passing of suitable legislation in order to introduce simplicity and clarity to the system.

The bottom line is that Polly believes in government as an expression of the people, is a supporter of the Left's belief in big government as a power for good, for reform and for justice. That no government has ever really achieved such a pinnacle is not an excuse to give up. It is however, a cautionary note on why the balance between big government and individual freedom of choice is a narrow and precarious place.

And today, I'm sorry to say, the government is too big, too interfering and too unaccountable.

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