Sometimes it's better not to read things . . .

Apr 24th, 2008 | By | Category: Cross Channel

Not knowing who Jennifer Lopez was earlier this evening, I flicked through the Review section of last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph which was still lying on the kitchen table, to try to discover what might be going on in the bits of the world that pass me by.

There was a review of Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller, a book about women singers from the sixties and seventies, and beside it a review of a book that has the sort of title that you might expect in the Daily Telegraph, Squandered: How Gordon Brown is Wasting over One Trillion Pounds of our Money. Except that Dominic Sandbrook’s review of the book by David Craig reveals a writer who is not party political, but whose work can only leave one deeply angry and frustrated.

Here is what Sandbrook writes,

Book reviewers often like to tell their readers that such-and-such a book is “truly important”: a novel about women in post-colonial Africa, say, or a ground-breaking history of the reign of King Stephen.

They almost never are, of course. But we can only pray that David Craig’s chilling audit of government spending for the last 10 years – a book much more readable and entertaining than it sounds – does turn out to be a genuinely important book. It is no exaggeration to say that if the right people read it, take it seriously, and take appropriate action, this book could not only save the taxpayer billions, it could save lives.

A management consultant and an author with, as far as I can see, no ideological axe to grind, Craig has produced a sober indictment of what he calls “a sorry spectacle of ever-shifting policies, apparent stupidity and inveterate incompetence that is probably unequalled in British history”. The publishers are marketing it as an attack on Gordon Brown, but actually he is rarely mentioned.

Instead, Craig’s target is the culture of administrative and bureaucratic incompetence, indifference and corruption found in almost every branch of British government, and common to all political parties.

No doubt the Tories will take great delight from this attack on 11 years of New Labour, but they do not deserve to. For, as Craig shows, much of the disgraceful fraud and excess of British politics has its roots in the Thatcher years – and given his past as an unelected government advisor and PR man, there is almost certainly no chance that David Cameron would do anything about it.

Undoubtedly the book’s most depressing section is the early chapter on the NHS, a saga of bloated, worthless management, filthy hospitals, overcrowded wards and political indifference that will surely do wonders for the private healthcare industry. It is appalling to read, for example, of a hospital so dirty and degraded that an outbreak of the bacterial infection C Difficile killed 90 people, while patients with diarrhoea were told to “go in their beds”. This after £269 billion extra spending since 1997.

Yet the NHS is less a relic of doctrinaire socialism than it is the bizarre progeny of centralised planning and free-market dogma.

So, thanks to the Tory policy of “outsourcing” cleaning and catering, enthusiastically embraced by New Labour, hospital cleaners are provided by external agencies.

One day they might be cleaning a football stadium, the next an A&E ward. But if nurses see them using dirty, infected water, or moving patients into beds stained with blood and faeces, they are not allowed to say anything to the cleaners.

“They have to phone the manager responsible for cleaning,” reports Craig, “who then has to contact the outside cleaning company.”

Underpinning all this is the same culture of arrogant irresponsibility familiar to anyone who has worked in, say, the prison service, the police, the Audit Office, or, in my case, higher education.

We read, for example, of the defence procurement that has left our forces in Afghanistan with just eight Chinook and 12 Apache helicopters.

Or the immigration service, typified by the revelations that two immigration judges filmed themselves having sex with one of their Brazilian cleaners, and that illegal immigrants not only cleaned the Home Office but worked as bodyguards to Gordon Brown.

Or there is the priceless nugget that the man chosen to run the government’s disgraceful ID card programme was one Richard Granger, the consultant under whose aegis the cost of the NHS computer programme escalated from £2.3 billion to £12.4 billion in three years.

Do these people have no shame? Do they never learn? The answer to both questions is no. Craig points out that politicians are not solely to blame: in the case of the police force, which has been very generously funded under New Labour, much of the bureaucracy, waste and mismanagement can be laid at the door of the police themselves.

But I defy any reader not to become enraged when he reaches the section on MPs’ salaries, expenses and pensions, or when he reads of the NHS manager who resigned after her squalid hospital succumbed to a fatal dose of C Difficile, and who was rewarded with £250,000 in severance pay.

By contrast, the parents of an 18-month-old baby killed by poor treatment in an NHS hospital were given £12,000 in compensation. This is a terrifying book, but a brilliant and necessary one. Please read it.

No matter how bad Ireland may be, we have still some way to fall to reach such depressing levels.

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  1. As a close watcher of the NHS you should be aware that Craig peddles a very strange set of half truths. Reference to the NAO, the FT, or an examination on the ground in the NHS will show you the truth. ‘David Craig’ – not his real name due to his previous employment history is out to sell tabloid copy not the truth. Beware.

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