Dr Findlay, alarms and the fake sheikh

The penny is at last beginning to drop about this government. Its policies have nothing to do with "empowering" ordinary citizens and everything to do with empowering the corporate sector. Following the publication of the Health Bill, with its plans to hand commissioning of secondary care to GP practices, most commentators have grasped that it won't usually be Dr Findlay getting on the blower to the local cottage hospital to have your ingrowing toenail seen to, but an impersonal private company that will say you've got to travel 40 miles to a hospital you've never heard of.

This is because, under competition laws, commissioning GPs will be obliged to consider "any willing provider", private or public. And once they discover the complications that entails, GPs will happily delegate commissioning to private companies. So the corporate sector is empowered twice over.

Again, most "free schools" won't be run by parents. They will be managed, on contract, by private companies such as Serco, VT Group and Edison, which already run some state schools, local authority departments and Ofsted inspections. In time, these companies will build up chains of schools, with brand identities that become as familiar as Tesco or Next. They will have their own teacher training and curriculum. Their economies of scale will make it hard for a community-run school to compete.

That is not a product of my fevered, leftist imagination. The companies, if asked, are quite open about their intentions: one executive told me he hoped to run a thousand schools. They are unfazed by the prohibition on providers making a profit. All they have to do, they explain, is form a charitable trust to own schools and then contract services from themselves.

Then there is the Localism Bill. Does anyone believe that its "neighbourhood forums", which will have power to draw up plans for a local area and put them to a referendum, won't be dominated by well-heeled business people? Indeed, the bill encourages commercial involvement in forums. Companies will no doubt soften local opposition to their plans by, for example, promising to tackle the potholes that elected councils no longer have money to repair.

So welcome to David Cameron's "big society", in which the corporate sector runs your school, hospital and neighbourhood. You still have a vote, but it will be about as much use as a vote in Tunisia under the Ben Ali regime.

Democratic deficit

Talking of Tunisia, you may wonder why western governments and opinion-formers never told us it was such a nasty dictatorship. Answer: Ben Ali was a keen privatiser who helpfully opened his country to western goods and capital. In the latest "global competitiveness report", drawn up by the World Economic Forum (WEF) to show which countries are nicest to capitalists, Tunisia ranked 32nd (out of 139 countries), ahead of Spain, Portugal and Italy and only just behind Ireland. In the same report, it ranked 15th for "burden of government regulation" - much less burdensome than average. We came 89th. Perhaps, after ousting the dictator, Tunisia will move up the human- rights league tables. But that won't do any good unless it continues to get high WEF ratings.

Wake-up call

Early in life, I discovered that, if I didn't set an alarm clock, I was quite capable of staying in bed all day. Does this make me what Nick Clegg calls an "alarm-clock hero"? Probably not, because I get up and write grumpy columns such as this rather than, as Clegg requires, "making the country tick". But the phrase - which, like Gordon Brown's "hard-working families" and Tony Blair's "Mondeo Man", implies that the unemployed and disabled are unworthy of help or sympathy - gives me an idea for an effective protest. I propose that we all take our alarm clocks, ringing merrily, and dump them on Clegg's doorstep until the government does something about bankers' bonuses.

Digging for Digger

Rupert Murdoch's News International, owner of the News of the World, is launching another "internal investigation" into evidence, contained in court papers, that at least one top NoW executive gave instructions for celebrities' and politicians' phones to be tapped. These investigations seem to proceed very slowly and come up with sparse results.

Yet the NoW has Mazher Mahmood, the undercover reporter (or "fake sheikh") supposedly responsible for exposing hundreds of villains, while the Sunday Times, also owned by Murdoch, claims that its Insight team has the world's greatest investigative journalists. Couldn't these people be deployed to speed up "internal investigations" or at least give Murdoch's detectives a few handy tips?

How not to pay tax

HM Revenue and Customs, it is reported, failed to collect tax at the 50p rate from 24,000 people who earn above £150,000 annually and have more than one job or pension. This, apparently, is because its computers couldn't amend the tax code after the outgoing Labour government changed the starting date for the new rate. I am reminded of C Northcote Parkinson, best known for his "law" that "work expands to fill the time available". Long before computers, he advised that you could avoid paying tax for ever by noting how long the taxman took to reply to a letter. Suppose this was five weeks. If you could send another letter after, say, four weeks, it would go to the bottom of the tax office's in-tray, delaying a reply for a further five weeks. Repeat the process, and no communication need ever reach you.

Clearly, computerised or not, HMRC still operates as it did in the good old days.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency