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Cuts, consultants and book-buying

The failure to address the underlying causes of crime, drugs and family breakdown costs the UK econo

Everybody's mind is focused on public spending cuts and filling the growing "black hole" in the Treasury's accounts. But there is another, bigger black hole: the cost to the UK economy of failing to address the underlying causes of crime, drugs, child abuse, family breakdown, mental illness, and so on. According to a report released on 15 September by the New Economics Foundation and Action for Children, the total will come to £4trn over the next 20 years if we carry on as we are. No other European country faces anything like such costs: Italy comes closest, but its costs are still only two-thirds of ours, while Finland's are a quarter and Denmark's and Sweden's a little more than half.

The answer - it may be a cliché, but it's still true - lies in early intervention and prevention during childhood, not in patching things up later. The report suggests not so much that the UK spends insufficient money on children, but that it spends money badly, particularly in the means-tested cash transfers that Gordon Brown favours. What makes the difference in Sweden, Denmark and Finland is universal childcare and generous paid parental leave (on which Brown has recently scaled down his promises). The report proposes that the Treasury issue bonds allowing it to spend £620bn over 20 years on these and other measures to improve child well-being. We would then - and Action for Children quotes hard evidence from its own projects - save £1.5trn in social costs, giving a net saving (once the costs of the bond scheme are included) of £486bn, or roughly five times the NHS annual budget.

Those who babble incessantly about "inefficiencies" in public spending should pay more attention to these figures.

Brown: my part in his downfall

It may be fanciful but, as troubles pile up on Gordon Brown, I keep wondering if I played a tiny part in adding to them. In May, I wrote for Education Guardian a profile of Barry Sheerman, long-serving chair of what used to be the education select committee. Though generally favourable, it highlighted his record as, to quote parliamentary sketch-writers, "a perennial fav­ourite for creep of the year" and "not so much a greaser as a Channel swimmer . . . smeared in whale fat". He "couldn't be described as a Rottweiler", said the headline.

Only a week or two afterwards, Sheerman started criticising Brown and calling for him to go, and he has scarcely stopped since. The latest tale is that, when MPs return to Westminster, he may stand for chair of the parliamentary party, presumably on an anti-Brown ticket. Was his pride stung by my comments and did they prompt him to end his long career as a reliable cheerleader for whoever happens to be Labour leader?

“Gordon Brown: My Part in His Downfall". A good chapter heading for the memoirs I shall never write and that nobody would want to publish anyway.

What's up, doc?

Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, proposes to abolish GP boundaries and "can see no reason why patients should not be able to choose the GP practice they want". I can think of lots of reasons. A further loss of the sense of community in British life, which is based on people using the same shops, pubs, schools and medical services. More use of cars. More locums making night visits. More unnecessary prescribing and more skiving, because doctors will fear losing patients if they don't give them the pills and sick notes they want. More health inequalities, because middle-class patients will desert struggling practices in deprived areas.

Post-Thatcher politicians suppose choice to be an unmitigated good. But to many of us, choosing doctors will be another anxiety-
inducing and time-consuming irritation to add to choosing energy providers, telecom operators, bank and pension "products", and so on. The time and psychic energy could - to put it in terms that New Labour ministers might understand - be diverted to raising GDP.

Price, penury and the pen

At the launch of a book by my friend and former colleague Ian Jack, the former editor of Granta and the Independent on Sunday, now a Guardian columnist, I buy a copy, as is customary on these occasions, and invite him to sign it. It occurs to me that this is more than I have paid for any book since I last attended a launch. Normally, I rely on two-for-one (or similar) offers, Amazon or Abe Books, and tokens I receive as presents. Are book launches, I wonder, the only occasions when publishers and authors still benefit from anything like the full cover price? And, since these launches are attended largely by other writers, do authors now make a living chiefly by selling their books to each other? Is this sustainable?
Perhaps an economist can advise.

Try consulting Roget's

James Carville, Bill Clinton's political adviser during his presidency, once said that he would like to be reincarnated as the bond market, because it exercised far more power than any elected politician. I would settle for reincarnation as a consultant. According to one estimate, British companies spend £25m on consultants every working day, while public bodies have spent more than £70bn on them since 1997. The latest example, reported in the Times Educational Supplement, comes from Ofqual, the exam regulator, which sometimes has to explain to the public that the marking of exams isn't wholly reliable. But Ofqual doesn't want to use the word "error" - it suggests somebody is to blame, and that would never do - so it hired a "communications messaging consultant", at heaven knows what cost, to find an alternative. The consultant came up with "variance", "uncertainty", "discrepancy" and "inconsistency". Couldn't Ofqual have used a thesaurus?

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 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter