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In the News

An influential committee of MPs lambasts test and trace

Mike McCartney

10th March 2021

A good example of how the legislature scrutinises the executive

A major news item today (knocking the royals off the top story on the radio this morning - remarkably) is the release of a report from the powerful Public Accounts Committee.

According to the BBC:

'The impact of NHS Test and Trace is still unclear - despite the UK government setting aside £37bn for it over two years, MPs are warning.

The Public Accounts Committee said it was set up on the basis it would help prevent future lockdowns - but since its creation there had been two more.

It said the spending was "unimaginable" and warned the taxpayer could not be treated like an "ATM machine".'

Note that the PAC as a body massively predates the departmental select committees established in 1979, and its existence can be traced back to Gladstone era. So just a note of caution if you are planning to include this in a written answer.

The sums spent by the government do seem enormous. I know that thinking about the opportunity cost (what economists say when they are talking about what you could have bought as the next best alternative) and governments is a bit nebulous and reminds me of that scene in Yes, Prime Minister when Hacker quotes from a school Maths paper which asks how many starving children could be saved if the army didn't spend £5b on nuclear weapons, and Sir Humphrey says none, because they would spend it on conventional weapons instead. But I worked out, back of the envelope style, that the £22b spent so far this year could have funded a laptop, a wifi connection, and three free meals a day (every day, not just term time) for every child of school age in Britain for about two years. You could maybe try a similar exercise and calculate how much of a pay rise for the NHS the government could have afforded?

The PAC has been in the press in recent years for also disclosing details of egregious wastes of money by the government, in the shape of the failed attempt to create an IT system for the NHS that would allow efficient storage and retrieval of patient records. This project started in the early noughties and was abandoned in the year Con-Lib coalition years at an estimated cost overrun of anywhere between 400 and 700 per cent!!

If you want to know more about other such blunders, I would heartily recommend a book called, funnily enough, 'Blunders of our Governments', by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe: (although other booksellers are available).

So the PAC report today is a good example of executive scrutiny. But, on the other hand, this is a 'damning report' on what many see as a failed multi-billion pound IT based project, just a few years after another, erm, failed multi-billion get the idea.

On the subject of accountability, a very bright student once asked a few years ago why no-one ever seems to end up in jail for these kinds of things. I found it difficult to argue with him.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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