Many people today have woken up to the news that this government is incompetent. For the first time many have had the scales taken from their eyes, as the dreadful truth sinks home that this time the government’s incompetence has left them personally vulnerable.
Every family in the land now knows they must watch their bank accounts nervously to see if the important private data the government has lost has got into the wrong hands. For busy families struggling to get to work on the government’s congested and useless transport system, trying to pay the higher mortgage and Council tax bills this government’s policies are visiting upon them, and trying to comply with the myriad forms, regulations and requirements of an ever more intrusive state, this is just the last straw.
Many of us already had personal experience of the government’s incompetence. Farmers have felt it as payments have failed to materialise when promised, and as the government’s mishandling of disease and floods left a grief stricken countryside and many dead animals. Estranged parents have felt it, as the CSA has struggled to get a grip on their caseload. Many recipients of Tax credits have been on the wrong end of it, as case after case emerges where people are asked to repay large sums they had been awarded months earlier. Northern Rock depositors have felt it, as the Treasury and the Bank failed to keep confidence in markets this autumn. We have all witnessed it at the Home Office, with farce after scandal over borders and prisons.
Too many people have believed that Gordon Brown was a talented Chancellor who ran the Treasury well. Now his successor has taken over we can see what a tacky inheritance he received. Gordon dined out on the soundbite that he had made the Bank of England independent and this was good for the UK economy. The first banking crisis to hit showed that far from making the Bank independent he had crippled it, so it was unable to handle the crisis itself and needed the involvement of the FSA and the Treasury. Under Darling this ring of three failed to head off the run on a bank, and failed to keep the markets liquid. They lost control of short term interest rates, and precipitated a credit crunch. The Conservative Economic Policy Review chronicled how Brown had damaged the Bank of England and how it left us vulnerable to a crisis, in a section written months before Northern Rock and published well before the bank ran into public difficulty.
Over the 10 years of Gordon’s stewardship the UK had to pay higher interest rates than our main competitor economies, and ended the period with higher inflation than our main competitors. He did not even make the Monetary Policy Committee truly independent, retaining the ability to appoint all the members either directly or indirectly, and refusing to answer questions about why some were reappointed and others were not. He overrode their policy by changing targets at a crucial time.
Of more immediate impact for many British people was Gordon Brown’s raid on pension funds, taking around ??5,000 million a year from them every year in additional taxes. He allowed a new supervisory and regulatory framework to create a system which few companies wanted to live under, so we have seen a flight from offering final salary pension schemes. Gordon’s lethal mixture of higher taxes and more regulation is denying a new generation of employees access to a final salary scheme, something their parents took for granted in most jobs.
The only thing the government has been good at is taking our money off us. Because this matters most to these Ministers, it is done with military precision. If anyone is five minutes late back to a parking place they are likely to face a ticket. If you dare to live without a TV at home you will be bombarded with aggressive notices claiming you are dodging the TV poll tax. The beefed up Customs and Revenue has been much more aggressive than its predecessor Inland Revenue in dealing with law abiding companies and individuals. I have more cases now of people being required to pay tax they do not owe thanks to errors and dubious decisions. Local Councils have followed suit, harassing people to pay Council Tax and to fill in regular records to maintain their single person discounts.
The casual incompetence and carelessness of this government is on display every day of my working life as an MP. Much of my office’s time is spent referring cases where the Inland Revenue or the CSA or the Immigration Service have made a wrong decision or have failed to make any decision at all. More time is spent chasing departments for answers, and chasing them again for a proper answer once the standard reply has come in. Papers and documents produced to Parliament are often error ridden. Bills are rewritten in great chunks just before Report stage. Ministers sometimes do not know the detail of the Statutory Instrument they are putting through so debate is fairly pointless with them. The Bank of England’s official copy of its last annual Report presented to Parliament and kept in the library of the House had several important pages missing which no-one at the Bank had bothered to check. Ministers do not appear to proof read anything themselves or to go over the detail beforehand.
In this environment the actions of the Customs and Revenue this week are neither surprising nor out of the ordinary. I was not shocked by it, as I would expect nothing less from a government that has so neglected the arts of departmental management and administrative discipline. I am very sorry for all those families whose data has gone astray, but pleased that this incompetence was so noticeable that maybe now more people will come to understand that this is the nature of this government. If organisations behave casually it is because the signals sent from the top are casual. Too many Ministers in this government fail to stress the need for accuracy and care at all stages of their department’s work. They live on the media and die politically on the media. They have still not learnt that as a Minister staying out of the papers is usually more difficult and more successful than getting into them. Papers mainly want to report mess up and conspiracy.