The British government was ordered to pay £224m in August to the US defence contractor, Raytheon, for unlawfully terminating a £750m contract for an electronic border control system. Did heads roll or ministers make a grovelling apology for squandering taxpayer funds that might have been used, say, to build a new district general hospital? Not for a moment. There was no resignation and the UK Border Agency’s only response was “Don’t worry, border security won’t be impacted”.
I suppose a mere quarter of a billion pales into insignificance when compared to the £10bn lost by Revenue and Customs on its hopeless computer dreams, or the £12bn wasted when the NHS fantasy IT system was scrapped in 2011. Two years earlier, the IoD had singled out that project in a report titled “How to save £50bn”.
What was the press reaction? Minor indignation but then – let’s face it – it’s only taxpayers’ money, and on they moved to exciting stories about a minister’s breakfast which cost £39, or an MP who claimed for having his lightbulbs changed.
Politicians seem incapable of monitoring let alone controlling the costs associated with information technology, and the media indifferent to holding them to account. Surely government needs a special monitoring body with appropriate technical expertise devoted solely to IT procurement. Yes, it’s difficult and complicated. And boring – unless it’s the BBC or some other quango that newspapers love to hate, there will be little press attention.
But £10bn here, £12bn there… soon you’re talking real money – even by government standards.
Is there a new Establishment?
The title of Owen Jones’s new book – The Establishment: And how they get away with it – was circumscribed by Henry Fairlie 60 years ago as “the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised”. I am flattered to read that my career “could hardly be more embedded in the Establishment”. But isn’t there another establishment made up of chaps like Jones – Guardian writer, Oxford man and Newsnight regular? “Welcome to the elite” was the way his Times rival, David Aaronovitch, greeted him. What strikes me is the extent of the common ground a theorist of the old left is trying to roll back. A percipient critic says the book should be called The Consensus: And how I want to change it.
Reality check in France
I have written before about the French economy and over- regulation. Even the Hollande government has recognised this excessive red tape must be eased. The finance ministry says consumers pay 20 per cent more than their European neighbours for protected services, and practitioners make two-and-a-half times the profit enjoyed by unrestricted trades and professions. Architects, driving instructors, dentists, locksmiths, MoT testers and bailiffs are among those in the line of fire of deregulation. In France, only pharmacies are allowed to sell painkillers, and electricians and plumbers require three years’ experience before they can register for business.
The lifestyle of many French remains idyllic but, if even the Hollande government is deregulating (President Sarkozy backed off) it does suggest progress. It was an Italian rather than a Frenchman, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who explained it best: “If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.
Brussels blunders over cleaner ban
It does seem silly that Sir James Dyson thinks we should leave the EU over new regulations banning vacuum cleaners rated above 1,600 watts. The supposed energy-saving restrictions are daft – Which? warns that five of the seven models given its Best Buy status since 2013 fall foul of the rule. By all means charge consumers if they use energy-gobbling appliances, but don’t ban what should clearly be a matter of individual choice.
What is irritating is the Brussels regulators don’t understand that interfering with their household rights, and arousing the ire of a genuine business hero, will alienate the British public far more rapidly than the financial transaction tax or limiting bankers’ bonuses. The European Commission is not alone in foisting barriers on hapless consumers (Whitehall also generates ludicrous over-regulation). But some sensitivity might have denied Ukip an easy win which few EU enthusiasts will defend.