The government’s refusal to accept responsibility for the loss of personal and financial records of 25 million people is absolutely typical. Blaming some “junior official” acting alone is simply an excuse to avoid the fact that ten years of New Labour have created the conditions for what happened at Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
Infatuated by managerialism, New Labour has tried to turn the state into a mirror image of the way big business functions. Like most of its other policies, this has proved an abject failure. Endless mergers and acquisitions of government departments, stuffing ministries out with consultants and corporate advisors, on top of ruthless “efficiency savings”, have created not only widespread chaos and confusion but major policy failures in every department.
The story of Revenue & Customs is typical. In 2005, when Brown was Chancellor, he merged what had been historically two separate departments into one. The price was paid by staff after Brown demanded that the merged department shed 25,000 jobs out of 94,000 – more than a quarter. Morale inevitably plummeted and management systems floundered. The disappearance of the child benefit data discs was only one in a string of breaches of security. Yet the government has until now refused appeals by the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas to do spot checks on government departments to see whether data protection is being observed. The Institute of Chartered Accountants has been warning of a catastrophe waiting to happen at HMRC. Chief executive Michael Izza said: “We have been flagging for most of 2007 that there has been a deterioration at HMRC. It manifests itself in things like postbags being unopened for weeks. It now takes 13 weeks to register a new company for a VAT number.”
The mantra of “efficiency savings” has contributed in other ways to the data loss disaster. Apparently, officials at HMRC told the National Audit Office (NAO) that it was too expensive to select the data the NAO wanted and that it was cheaper to download the entire database onto a disc. Then there is the way the discs were transported. Not for New Labour the use of expensive, in-house services. No, TNT Logistics, a major global corporation, has the contract for HMRC. As to the idea that one, young civil servant is totally responsible for the breach of security, this is simply laughable. New evidence suggests senior officials were aware that data including addresses and bank account details of 7.5 million families, was to be provided to the NAO. Sir John Bourn, the outgoing comptroller and auditor general, told a secret session of MPs on public accounts committee that a senior business manager at Revenue & Customs had authorised the information to be released in its full form. His email approving the sharing of the data was copied to an assistant director.
So now the government is involved in a cover-up of what really happened. While it builds an oppressive, authoritarian, surveillance state, New Labour can’t even provide basic protection of the data it holds on citizens. It’s time Brown and company were packaged up and sent unregistered (preferably by TNT) to some faraway destination.