Monday 30 September 2013

Setting light to a bunch of £50s

I’ve long wondered who writes the weekly briefings to Liberal Democrat members from party chief executive Tim Gordon.

It’s unlikely he writes them himself, given that the mixture of policy detail and spin is not what one would expect from someone in an organisational role.

Whoever wrote last week’s briefing must have been stumped for a way to put a positive spin on the Public Accounts Committee’s savaging of the rural broadband programme. You can see its report here.

Amongst other cock-ups, it noted that DCMS had handed BT a publicly-subsidised monopoly; that the programme had ended up with BT committing £356m rather than the £563m expected, while local authorities must commit £730m against the £494m they were expected to pay; and that confidentiality clauses prevent councils comparing BT prices.

Labour’s Margaret Hodge might be the public face of this committee, but it has a clear coalition majority.

The Liberal Democrat members’ briefing said without elaboration that the PAC’s findings “are at odds with the findings of the National Audit Office. They found that the approach reduced the cost of the programme for taxpayers”.

Whoever wrote that was no doubt confident that few would bother to seek out whatever the NAO had said.

Happily, Liberator can help. This is what the NAO’s head Amyas Morse said: “The rural broadband project is moving forward late and without the benefit of strong competition to protect public value. For this we will have to rely on the Department’s active use of the controls it has negotiated and strong supervision by Ofcom.” The NAO report continued at some length in similar unflattering vein.

Two things flow from this. The first is that there is no point in trying desperately to spin away a balls-up when it can’t be spun away. How much better, not least for the reputation of politics, to admit it.

The second is that political activists of all kinds should keep an eye on PAC and NAO reports. They sound boring, but I have to look at many professionally and one becomes almost punch drunk with the tales of waste and mismanagement laid out there, in particular on defence procurement and government IT projects. The team behind Universal Credit recently chucking away £34m on a failed IT scheme was a classic example.

The horror stories are so relentless that one should be very wary of any politician of any party who claims they will pay for something by “cutting waste”. To judge from these reports, those responsible for large sections of Whitehall cannot even recognise wasted money, let alone control it, and in negotiations often have rings run round them by private sector suppliers.

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