Journal Column – We need accountability from our civil service

Harper Lee
What Everyone Gets Wrong About Harper Lee
15th February 2021
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We need proper responsibility and accountability from our senior civil service

The coronavirus pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges facing this nation for quite some time.  As with all national crises, we have seen the best and worst of human nature.

The nation clapped its appreciation for nurses and other key workers who stepped up to take on the virus.  Many gave generously to Sir Tom Moore’s charity walk.  In contrast, there was sheer bewilderment at some of the monumental incompetence by senior public sector managers who bungled and wasted billions mishandling the pandemic. And let’s not forget all the blatant commercial nepotism with their business pals.

The corona pandemic has cost the nation a lot. Indeed our national debt now stands at £2 trillion. This is a massive number. To put that into context, 2 trillion seconds is 64,000 years. We have been given a huge wakeup call and the country is no longer prepared to put up with inefficiency, waste, incompetence and unaccountability any longer.

The news that senior NHS and PHE managers spectacularly failed to provide and deliver quickly and efficiently the PPE and the test and trace system was jaw dropping on its own, but almost every public sector department is no better.

I have written before about the unaccountable public servants and others who oversee and poorly run our public sector. Perhaps one of the most controversial is the HS2 project.  A clear example of a public sector project that has spiralled out of control.  Mark Thurston, the person in charge of this white elephant, is paid a staggering £625,000 pa. That’s 25 times more than the average wage of a NHS nurse. No doubt Thurston and his fellow cronies will defend his whopping pay packet on the basis it needs to be that high to attract the best executive for the job.

The HS2 budget has risen from an initial £32 billon to a now monumental £100 billon plus under his stewardship and not a single piece of track has yet to be laid.  At about £1 billon a mile it seems an awfully expensive way to shave a mere 20 minutes from a rail journey between Birmingham and London.  Well, these public sector mandarins have very different definition of what a quality executive is to me. And I wager I’m not alone.

Closer to home, Newcastle city council has announced again there is to be cuts to public services, but as I’ve mention before, the council chose to spend close to £80 million on loans to a failing hotel and a lavish refurbishment of the civic centre.  The council defends its decision to invest in these two projects as a revenue making investment.  However, it has been less forthcoming with any detail of how these two very expensive projects will yield any significant revenue streams.  In simple economic terms, the council will not yield any real revenue until full £80 million is repaid. Personally, I’m not convinced either of these very expensive schemes will ever yield a single penny of profit.  A classic example of a worthless vanity project that helps practically no residents or ratepayers in the city.

One of the biggest issues, in my view, is when times are hard, money is scare and essential public services are facing cuts, is the enthusiasm for public sector organisations to waste finite time, money and resources engaging in knee jerk reactions to protests and vanity projects at the expense of the more mundane need to deliver the key public services of their primary remits.

For example, following the BLM riots, London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has made much publicity of his plans for a ‘Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm’.  A panel of 15 will review London’s, statues, street names and ancient buildings that may have tenuous links to the commonwealth or the slave trade of 300 years ago.  However, while on the surface this may appear a noble thing to do; it will involve redirecting finite time, money and resources from providing essential public services.  May I suggest that London Mayor Khan and any other councils, thinking about doing something similar, contact Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, and ask him just how much better life is now for the disadvantaged of Bristol since the removal of Colston’s statue last year. I suspect his answer will be “not one Iota”. So it begs the question – why bother?

However, there may now be some light at the end of the tunnel.  It was reported recently that former chief magistrate, Judge Howard Riddle and retired High Court judge, Sir Richard Henriques, have urged that there should be an independent criminal investigation into five senior Metropolitan police officers at the centre of the disastrous Operation Midland sex abuse scandal.  Home secretary, Priti Patel, has vowed to personally intervene as there are ‘outstanding questions’ that need to be answered.

This is welcome news. It’s early days, I accept, but I do hope that if the enquiry finds these senior public servants guilty of misconduct that they are properly admonished and punished accordingly.  If they end up being dismissed, banned from public office and stripped of any knighthoods or honours then we may see the start of a new era where, along with their six figure salaries, we will start to see proper accountability and responsibility from our senior public officials.



This column was published in the Newcastle Journal on the 4th March 2021