Whitehall singin’ the Alibi Blues

Listen to this article


With Browns on the slide and Blues making a strong recovery, there has been some dismay in Whitehall over Tory plans for the civil service. This week George Osborne, shadow chancellor, threatened that a Tory government would sack civil servants who failed to give taxpayers value for money. All officials would have a “fiduciary duty” to taxpayers.

The news brought some heavy sighs from Whitehall. “Sounds like the Tories are creating an alibi for crimes they haven’t yet committed,” said one Whitehall knight. “What are they going to do when they want to buy military hardware and officials say it will cost £100m in the UK so they must buy it from Korea where it will only cost £50m? They seem to think you can draw a line between policy and its implementation – you can’t.”

One of the splendid examples of Labour government waste given by the Tories is the National Health Service computer system whose costs have increased sevenfold to £13bn with no effort made to quantify the benefits of the scheme. “It should have gone through the green book procedure,” said my knight. Eh? It seems this is a system for carrying out cost-benefit analyses and, under current rules, all major projects are meant to be subject to it.

So what went wrong? “Probably Treasury officials could see the thing was going to be a huge cock-up so they didn’t do it,” I am told. In other words officials decided politics was the better part of valour and they should not upset Tony Blair, then prime minister, by stymying his pet project. No reason to think they would act differently under the Tories – although there is already a perfectly good existing system allowing senior officials to put on record a formal note of dissent if they believe ministers are spending taxpayers’ cash improperly.

Sir Tim Lankester, then a top official at what is now the Department for International Development, spoke out very publicly over the Pergau dam in Malaysia. The British government had tied aid in the form of the dam to an arms contract. Which government? Er . . . a Tory government, which was not best pleased with Sir Tim. Whitehall has other questions about Tory plans.

“Will this fiduciary duty be a legal requirement?” asked my knight. “If so will the judges decide how officials have performed? If not, who will? What will be the appeal system if an official insists that ministers overruled him or did not provide enough money or time to fulfil a particular policy?”

Tory plans to bring greater financial transparency and discipline to Whitehall must be welcomed but some people do seem to have sackings on the brain. Lord Jones, former UK trade and investment minister, called for half the civil service to be sacked, which not only upset his former officials – as I said last week – but made some of them extremely angry. Lord Jones has now e-mailed all those in UKTI, putting the record straight. He tells me he stands by what he said but admits more rigorous analysis needs to be done on how many officials could be “lost”. (Is that clear?)

Oh – and it was Business department officials who upset him, not those at UKTI. Some of the latter are unimpressed. Says one: “Since we all know exactly what Digby said, when and to whom, attempts to explain it away cut no ice: he seemed happy to take our help here and is now equally happy to diss us when he’s left.”

Ermine earnings

Is there no one in the political class who is not on the take? First we have MPs trying to cover up their expenses – we had a result there when they were forced to back down, though I learn that Gordon Brown is furious with Harriet Harman. He had not focused on what the leader of the House of Commons was planning until it was too late (well, he does have other things on his plate.)

Still, we all reckon some MPs are on the take but we expected better of their lordships. Now Labour peer Lord Taylor boasts of being paid £100,000 to help clients wanting changes in parliamentary bills. Some PR consultants are gobsmacked. “I wouldn’t pay him £100,000,” said one. “That’s what I’d charge a relatively large client for a whole consultancy package. I’d feel very uncomfortable if one of my companies had a paid peer – it’s banned in the Commons and it shouldn’t happen.”

Wondering why Lord Taylor did not do his due diligence and check out the journalists who trapped him, the consultant added: “If a company has a good case for changing a bill, why not openly go and put the case – for free – to ministers or civil servants, who like to be as well informed as possible?”

Send your comments to sue.cameron@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.