The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 30th, 2007

This way to the darkened room, Gordon

Drop those finely honed instructions and plans, scrap those self-audits and bossy, bloated quangos

Long ago I gave up new year’s resolutions for myself. These days I make them for other people, especially for politicians. It is more satisfactory to watch them breaking the resolutions than to watch myself. This year I am going to make only one resolution for one person. It’s for Gordon Brown and it’s simple. If he can persuade himself to make it and to keep it, he will save himself an immense amount of money, time, work failure and blame. Brown’s new year’s resolution should be to do less. Much, much less.

His attitude should be like that of the drawing room exquisite who said that whenever he felt he should be taking exercise, he lay in a darkened room until the feeling went away. So with our hyperactive prime minister. Whenever he is tempted by an initiative or a pledge, he should immediately open a demanding book – such as one by Adam Smith, whom Brown rather oddly admires – and read furiously until the initiative evaporates.

Quite apart from ethical limits to what government should do, there are natural limits to what government can do well or do at all. Going beyond those limits, or failing to recognise them, will end in disaster, as Brown is finding. One of those many limits is what these days we call “resources”, meaning the wherewithal.

For years we have watched Brown and Tony Blair throwing money at health, education and child poverty, with little to show for it. We have put up with all this astonishingly mildly and are only now beginning to recognise the waste and bossy incompetence with which our money has been squandered.

An independent group that has been trying since 2004 to draw our attention to all this is the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Each year it produces a Bumper Book of Government Waste and next week it is publishing its third annual Non-Jobs Report. It is a protest against the prodigality of local authorities, but since their priorities are dictated by central government, the buck stops at No 10.

The survey paints in some detail the flurries of unnecessary activities that councils take on at government behest and their mounting cost to the taxpayer – all this despite the fact that Brown admitted three years ago that savings could be made by cutting non-essential public sector jobs.

That has been screamingly obvious for years. Whether you consider gender awareness outreach co-ordination work a job that is merely non-essential, or whether you consider it a disgraceful nonsense, we can all agree that it is not and should not be a priority, comparable to looking after the sick and the needy and the disabled, or indeed providing proper schools, hospitals, libraries and rubbish collection.

Yet these non-jobs proliferate, while old ladies lie neglected and unwashed and children in so-called care are moved on again and again, like Jo the crossing sweeper in Dickens’s Bleak House, from one unhappy place to another, while social workers sip caffe latte on trains to away days.

There appears to be no end in sight to the demand for comfortable, overpaid makework. Under Blair and Brown 800,000 new jobs have been created in the state sector. As is now notorious, advertisements for such nonjobs appear weekly in The Guardian’s Society section – a butt of humour to journalists for some years.

For 2007, according to the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the total cost of the jobs advertised there was nearly £500m. That is merely the cost of hiring these people and giving them generous pensions; it does not include the no doubt greater cost of all the wasteful initiatives they are employed to dream up and implement, intruding into everything that local authorities do.

One ought to point out that not all the jobs advertised in Guardian Society are self-evidently non-jobs and some are not obviously state-funded, although in the case of charities they will be so in practice, as charities become dependent on the state. A more authoritative survey would be a breakdown of what one large inner city council does, who does it and why.

Nonetheless, the TaxPayers’ Alliance report is a useful irritant to all those who ought to be trying to cut their coat according to their cloth, including Brown.

I have another document that is even more irritating and ought to galvanise the prime minister into inaction. It’s a 12-page document of minute and statutory instructions for teachers of foundation stage children from three to five. Put out by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and still extant, it contains no fewer than 107 goals for each tiny child, which must be ticked and perhaps commented upon every term. With a class of 25 that means nearly 2,700 individual goals to monitor and tick each year, along with written elaboration where necessary.

What, you may ask, are the important details that the diligent teacher must painstakingly report upon? Here are a few: “demonstrates fine motor control and co-ordination”; “expresses needs and feelings in an appropriate way”; “investigates places, objects, materials and living things by using all the senses as appropriate”; “knows that in English print is read from left to right and top to bottom”. You get the idea.

Even more absurd are “understands that people have different needs, views, cultures and beliefs that need to be treated with respect” and, best of all, “understands what is right, what is wrong and why”. All this for tiny children.

It is not only breathtakingly banal, stupid and subjective. It is also pointless, because it is insultingly unnecessary for good and good enough teachers and useless for bad teachers, quite apart from the colossal waste of their time and our money. It’s a perfect paradigm of what is wrong with Labour. Don’t do it, Gordon. You know it hasn’t worked and we can’t afford it anyway.

Drop all those finely honed instructions and plans, scrap those endless self-audits and life plans and bossy, bloated quangos. Imagine the energy – imagine the money – that you would release if you told government great and small to get off our backs. Less is better, a lot less. Resolve to do it, in this alarming looking new year, and you might become a great prime minister.