Has this government learned from the policy blunders of its predecessors? Don’t hold much hope.
Everyone, except presumably a few underworld capos, thought it a great idea. In February 2003, a new government body, the Assets Recovery Agency, began work. Armed with new powers of confiscation under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, the new agency was to deter organised crime by initiating confiscation proceedings against convicted criminals.
David Blunkett, then home secretary, said his asset strippers would come after ‘the homes, yachts, mansions and luxury cars of the crime barons’.
Best of all, the Treasury-funded body would pay for itself, becoming self sufficient within two years and a net contributor to public funds thereafter.
Four years on, the Assets Recovery Agency was wound up after spending £42m more than it had collected.
The odd thing is that, although I reported the fiasco in a national newspaper at the time, until last week I had completely forgotten the agency’s existence. Perhaps my memory is going soft with age, but more likely the saga was just too humdrum - just one of the many public policy fiascos, frequently involving expensive computer technology, to hit the headlines over the past 15 years or so.
It all came back when I read an important and very readable new study of public policy cock-ups, The Blunders of Our Governments*. Respected academic authors Anthony King and Ivor Crewe confirm what Whitehall and Westminster watchers have suspected for a while, that recent UK governments have been particularly prone to policy blunders of the Assets Recovery Agency type.
Nostalgia buffs will enjoy the book’s accounts of fiascos like the poll tax, the scandalous promotion of personal pensions over the state scheme, exit from the European exchange rate mechanism, the Millennium Dome, tax credits, the failure of London Underground’s public-private partnership (another one I had forgotten) and the whole dismal saga of the national identity card.
But more importantly the book also tries to explain why recent governments are so accident-prone, compared with historic success stories such as the introduction of decimal currency, for example.
Some of the explanations are familiar: short-term thinking, rapid turnover among ministers and senior civil servants, a dearth of project management skills. The authors also explore ‘group think’ and ‘operational disconnect’, exemplified in the difficulty that Treasury mandarins had in seeing the tax credits scheme through the eyes of people on benefits.
However the most interesting finding is of a deficit of deliberation. Although some exhibits King and Crewe’s chamber of blunders were foisted on the nation amid much parliamentary heat and rhetoric, parliament had a minor role in actually formulating them.
The authors note that: ‘British politicians meet, discuss, debate, manoeuvre, read submissions, read the newspapers, make speeches, answer questions, visit their constituencies, chair meetings and frequently give interviews, but they seldom deliberate.’ The contrast is with the German Bundestag, where members of committees see themselves as law-makers, rather than rubber-stampers or blockers, according to political allegiance.
Are we learning? The authors’ early verdict on the coalition is, it seems, no. They identify big flashing lights indicating ‘blunder’ over the NHS reforms, which seem to share classic indicators of the species. Police commissioners, the Leveson inquiry into the press and the pledge to meet net immigration targets should also be on ‘negative watch’, they say, not to mention universal credit.
They do not mention several projects of more immediate interest to Gazette readers which also tick boxes: civil litigation reforms, cuts to legal aid, the pledge to make criminal justice paperless by 2015 all seem to have been rushed through with more heat than deliberation. Perhaps they will turn out fine, falsifying King and Crewe’s thesis. But I am not optimistic.
*The Blunders of our Governments, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, Oneworld £25
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor