Christopher Booker's notebook
Spirit of service drowns in paper Our costliest law must wait A vision of pompous apathy EU accounting does not add up
It seems impossible for our mainstream media and politicians to take on board what has arguably become the most insidious governmental failure of our time - as exemplified by a little incident on the Today programme last week. The presenter, Martha Kearney, introduced an item on why the public services have so much difficulty recruiting and retaining nurses, doctors, teachers and policemen. This was triggered by an Audit Commission report which found, she said, that "the single biggest thing which turns them off was paperwork and too much bureaucracy. They felt stressed and that they didn't have enough autonomy". But somehow in the interviews that followed this was completely overlooked.
Look at the report itself, however, and page 21, based on asking former public service professionals why they had left, shows how stress caused by "too much bureaucracy and paperwork" easily topped the list, cited by nearly 80 per cent of those interviewed. Talk to anyone working in the health service, schools or the police and it is immediately obvious what a demoralising, all-pervasive problem this has become.
The real scandal is that, since the disaster created by this explosion in bureaucracy first became obvious a decade ago, it has only got worse. It is 10 years since I reported that a GP registering a mother and baby as new patients, who would formerly have had to fill in two forms, now required 19. It is nine years since I reported that to bring one petty thief to court, the Chelsea police had to fill in 135 pieces of paper, only to see him fined #1.60.
Last year I reported how, at a family gathering, I spoke to a former head teacher who had taken early retirement because, he said, the deluge of pointless paperwork meant he could no longer teach. I then spoke to a couple whose daughter had just completed her nursing training but was giving up because so much of the job involved pointless paperwork that she had no opportunity to look after patients. Finally, I asked about a 19-year old cousin who, when I last heard, had been desperately keen to become a policeman. He had given it up, I was told, after being warned by his sister's fiancee, a chief inspector, that police work these days involved so much pointless paperwork that there was no time left for catching criminals.
Yet somehow our politicians seem incapable of recognising that this problem exists, let alone that anything should be done about it. The Audit Commission produces yet another glossy report, to tell us only what we have known for years. The politicians, and the presenters of Today, indulge in their usual inane, self-regarding chatter. And so our public services continue to disintegrate, because the deformed monster of our political process has lost any connection with the world in which the rest of us have to live.
Following a campaign by this column supported by Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, and his front-bench spokesman, John Bercow, the Government has put on hold its plans to sneak in the most expensive item of legislation in history while MPs were on holiday.
Last week, the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed that the Secretary of State, Andrew Smith, had not signed new asbestos regulations as planned because he was "on holiday". Yet last month I was told that the regulations, costing many billions of pounds to businesses, hospitals and local authorities, would definitely be signed on August 29, to come into force before the end of the recess.
The shelving of the new law follows a trenchant letter to Mr Smith from Mr Duncan Smith, protesting at the attempt to smuggle it in while MPs were absent. This was followed by a long letter from Mr Bercow highlighting the nationwide scam whereby, even before the new law comes in, 800 contractors licensed by the Health and Safety Executive as specialists in asbestos work are already exploiting confusion over science and the law to rip off the public on a huge scale.
Much of the evidence informing Mr Bercow's letter came from the startling response of readers of The Telegraph to recent articles exposing this racket. Since January, our expert John Bridle has received more than 600 emails (on firstname.lastname@example.org), as a result of which readers have been saved nearly #1 million through his advice.
Mr Bercow's letter outlined six ways in which the public is being defrauded, beginning with the growing reluctance of building societies to grant mortgages on properties containing asbestos of any kind.
Many property owners have been quoted grotesquely inflated prices for removal of asbestos which was often unnecessary. The owners of a Welsh canteen were quoted #100,000 for work on a damaged asbestos ceiling, which eventually was safely repaired for less than #100.
Next Thursday, at a conference to be held at HSE headquarters at the instigation of the Federation of Small Businesses, senior HSE officials will be challenged on the extent to which they have abetted what is fast becoming another wholly unnecessary national disaster. This is even before the new law which, by requiring 1.5 million businesses to pay out for managing asbestos, will put them even more at the mercy of unscrupulous contractors whom the HSE seems unable to control.
Last week's BBC film report by James Smith on the Botswanan government's forced removals of bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was superb. While faithfully reflecting all shades of opinion on this tragedy, it nevertheless put over the unmistakable message that the Botswanans, abetted and funded by our government and the EU, are committing a hideous crime.
Nowhere was this better reflected than in a sequence showing Glenys Kinnock, as "a spokesman for the European Union", being flown into the New Xhade resettlement camp which the bushmen call "the place of death". When the bushmen were summoned to meet her, Mrs Kinnock watched as their chief spokesman, Roy Sesana, was silenced in his dignified attempt to express their anguish at how they are being dispossessed.
After the bushmen had protested at this denial of his right to speak, a government official explained that they were merely expressing their anger at Mr Sesana, because he was so unpopular. Sitting there cocooned in uncomprehending self-importance, Mrs Kinnock brought to mind those Western visitors to Kolyma in 1944 being assured by Stalin's NKVD that the prisoners in the Gulag were well fed and happy with their lot. Most chilling of all was that she was supposedly there as our official representative. Thank heavens the BBC team was there too, to record this surreally awful scene.
A senior London accountant, Christopher Arkell, draws my attention to the startling implications of the charges by Marta Andreason, the European Commission's chief accountant, that the EU does not operate by internationally recognised accounting rules. Miss Andreason, sacked by Neil Kinnock, the commission vice-president, for her attempt at whistle-blowing, confirms that the EU does not even employ double-entry book-keeping.
Mr Arkell points out that, under stringent official rules, the UK government may not give taxpayers' money to any organisation that does not produce certified accounts drawn up under recognised standards.
Therefore in no way does the EU, whose accounts are so irregular that the EU Court of Auditors has consistently refused to approve them, qualify as a proper and legal recipient of taxpayers' money, and under normal rules, the UK would be obliged to demand the return of the #150 billion it has handed to Brussels since 1973.
No doubt this suggestion would be dismissed as absurd, frivolous and irrelevant. But can Gordon Brown please explain why the normal rules do not apply?