By David Beeson
One of the promises of the ConDem coalition was that it would sweep out lots of tired old Labour abuses in its drive to freshen up government and restore confidence in its workings.
Part of that drive involved curtailing the excessive use of special advisers in government. Do you remember that ghastly ‘holier than thou’ phase David Cameron went through up to the election and a little beyond? You know, like someone who’s recently given up smoking and can’t stop himself looking saintly when his friends persist in lighting up?
‘You watch,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘we shan’t have any of those ghastly PR cockups that those nasty fellows in the Labour Party used to keep springing on us.’
Well, now he’s like the guy who’s back on forty a day but doesn’t like to admit he couldn’t live up to his own self-righteousness. He’s got eighteen advisers of his own. And look at the kind of people he’s appointed.
The pick of the bunch has got to have been the departed but unlamented Andy Coulson. I love it when someone has to argue vociferously that he’s a fool because the alternative would be admitting that he’s a knave. Andy Coulson has made it absolutely clear that he knew nothing about the nefarious doings of his underlings while he was Editor of the News of the World and Scotland Yard has no evidence against him. No admissible evidence.
In this country we’re all innocent until proven guilty so I naturally accept that his denials are true. That tells you a lot though, doesn’t it, about how he kept his finger on the paper’s pulse? Which in turn tells you a lot about the qualities of the people Cameron wants around him in senior positions.
And Cameron’s running our government, God help us.
Now Cameron’s added Tim Kelsey to his team, to help with transparency. Interestingly, Kelsey was a co-founder of an organisation called Dr Foster, with which he worked for many years. The company achieved national fame in 2009 when it alerted the Healthcare Commission to the desperate problems at Mid Staffordshire hospital, specifically highlighting the 400 to 1200 more deaths than would have been expected between 2005 and 2008.
Interestingly the Healthcare Commission, sharing the widespread concern about the danger of drawing misleading conclusions from mortality figures, left them out of its report into the hospital, though it certainly found serious care failings.
Even more curious, and a lot less well-known, when Dr Foster published its Hospital Guide for 2009, it ranked Mid Staffordshire ninth in the country for patient safety.
Dr Foster’s 2009 Hospital Guide shows Mid Staffs in the top category for patient safety (5) and ninth in England overall.
Nothing would please me more than to believe that a hospital can turn itself round, in mere months, from suffering major care problems to becoming a bit of a beacon for safety.
Unfortunately, just because a belief is comforting doesn’t make it true. It’s probably safer to base yourself on evidence and plausibility. Call me cynical, but might it not be easier to wonder whether Dr Foster got their methodology exactly right?
Despite concerns over Dr Foster’s approach, and I am far from being the only cynic out there, Dr Foster’s business growth within the NHS was nothing short of spectacular. A crucial milestone in their rise came in 2006 when they set up a joint venture with the NHS Information Centre. Those party poopers on the Commons Public Accounts Committee took a bit of a dim view of how they’d pulled this off, describing it as a ‘back room deal.’
I don’t know about you, but among the many words I could imagine to describe this track record, ‘transparent’ wouldn’t figure anywhere near the top of the list.
On the other hand, I suppose what Kelsey doesn’t know about the problems of lack of transparency isn’t worth knowing. Maybe that’s what this government likes so much about him.
Time to light another cigarette while we check whether King Herod might be available to head up the government review of children’s services.