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Sunday, August 29, 2010

And the winner is... Competition

Something that's really irked me recently is a podcast from the BBC's Today programme about the dismantling of the Audit Commission in the UK. David Cameron's Conservative Party have been in power there for several months now, and are pursuing an agressively cost-saving agenda that is purportedly a way of digging the UK out of deficit, but is also raising concerns about the value that Cameron's Conservatives (13 Old Etonians in the Cabinet, folks) place on services that are important to poorer people, as well as institutions that hold government accountable. It seems that any time a Prime Minister tries to position himself as a regular, balanced kind of guy who's just like you, he's about to try and justify a plan to reduce the checks and balances on his own office.

Now, who knows whether the Audit Commission was doing a good job or not? Whether it was necessary or not? Whether it was efficient or not? Its stated aim was to monitor and regulate the spending of local government and the NHS - which certainly makes it sound like the commission was saving money rather than wasting it, but maybe there's more to it than that. Lord knows I can't claim to be an economic expert. What bothers me about all this is the way in which the Conservative government has gone about dismantling the body, and the dubious reasoning they have used to justify it to the public. It seems to be one of the least attractive character traits of the right wing that they demonstrate a low opinion of the public's intelligence, and show a tendency to push blatantly dishonest reasoning onto us, and then steadfastly defend it with a straight face. It's insulting - and very, very irritating.

The aforementioned podcast featured an interview with Local Government Minister Bob Neill, who had been sent along to explain the reasoning he - and Secretary of State for Commumities and Local Government Eric Pickles - used in making their decision.

Incidentally, this is what Bob Neill and Eric Pickles look like.

I think we can all agree that - speaking purely aesthetically for a moment - you couldn't find two more objectionable examples of everything people hate about Tories.

Anyway - among the things the Audit Commission is attacked for in this interview are:

- Buying pot plants for its offices
- Providing bagels for guests who had come in for meetings
- Funding a 'day out at Newmarket Race Course' for its staff

Incidentallly, on that last point - what they had actually done is hire some conference rooms at Newmarket for staff training (on a non-racing day), as they had established that this would be cheaper than maintaining in-house facilities. This is so absurdly different that it makes the government's 'spinning' veer dangerously close to outright lies.

Bob Neill boasts in this interview that the Conservative government has just cancelled the contract for newspapers delivered to minsters' offices, "because we don't think that's necessary. Individual people can bring in their own - that's what happens in most of the world isn't it?" This view of newspapers as recreational shows a terrifying lack of interest in world events that has echoes of George W Bush's White House. Besides, how much money is this going to save? Less than a fiver a day? Not going to make much of a dent in the 160 billion pound deficit, is it?

But the really offensive part of the justification comes when the government attempts to explain why they want to replace the Audit Commission with identical services farmed out to the private sector. Asked whether he thinks these private companies would spend similar or greater amounts on catering, conference rooms, etc, Neill replies incredulously that that would be entirely a matter for them, and certainly none of his business - as if these expenses exist completely independently of the companies' business activities, and will have no effect whatsoever on the ultimate cost charged back to the taxpayer.

One of the words that Neill uses repeatedly in this interview is "competitive" - using the private sector is better because the prices are more competitive; the Audit Commission has been dumped because it was not competitive enough. But I don't want my public services to be competitively priced - at least, I don't want that to be their first concern. I want their first concern to be that they do the job required of them, properly and thoroughly. Does anyone really believe that the private sector can do these jobs more cheaply because they've found a magical way of getting 150 pence out of each pound? Or do we all actually understand that they do so by cutting corners, fudging figures, manipulating appearances, exploiting workers, and of course charging things through the back door?

Blindly prizing the wisdom of the private sector over good public ownership has often produced horrific results - from the woeful train services in the UK, to the USA's notorious healthcare situation. But it saves money - so no doubt conservative politicians will keep following the same road, in their endless quests for tax cuts. Like everyone else, I think it would be lovely to have lower taxes because we've saved waste in govenment - but I don't see that abolishing the Audit Commission is a very logical way to do that.

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