EconomyThe great British policy bodge

The great British policy bodge

It’s well known that Boris Johnson’s government is leaky, but had we realised the cabinet was also rickety? There are signs that its programme for rebuilding Britain is held together with the policy equivalent of cardboard, plastic sheeting and gaffer tape.

Fears about the cost of living have rocketed to the top of the list when pollsters ask the public about their worries — Ipsos Mori this week shows inflation and prices at number one and poverty at number four, way above the NHS or immigration.

In response to what is fast becoming a crisis for households, Rishi Sunak is under pressure to reverse his opposition to a windfall tax on privatised energy companies. But without a substantial intervention from the chancellor — who also dismissed helping people with soaring energy bills this early in the year as “silly” — the proposals being mooted by his colleagues look a little, well, shoddy.

The latest “innovative ideas” include reducing the need for an MOT test on your car from annually to every two years, and allowing childcare providers to increase the ratio of toddlers to adults.

This may be just kite flying, but these are some repeatedly patched-up kites. Veterans of deregulatory brainstorming in Downing Street confirmed that both proposals had been discussed and rejected in earlier trawls for cost-saving policies. Polly Mackenzie, chief executive of the think-tank Demos, was a senior policy aide in the coalition and involved in 2011’s “red tape challenge”.

She calls the process “spurious and speculative and based on political judgments about who wants to avoid being blamed” when people get harmed as a result. Previous discussions, she recalls, raised the possibility of lifting the ban on children’s nightdresses and dressing gowns made from flammable materials. It dates back to an era of electric bar fires and open hearths — modern central heating is much safer if you are a child twirling around in nylon with ties and tassels.

But who wants to be the minister responsible for the first accidental deaths caused by relaxing regulations?

A wish list of cost-saving policies based on looser health and safety will never work, argues Mackenzie, because even if the balance between lives saved and regulatory burden has become less defensible, “it puts the political onus on not changing anything”.

Last time increasing nursery ratios was suggested, in 2013, it became a battle between Liz Truss, as an education minister, and Nick Clegg, then deputy prime minister and Mackenzie’s boss. Clegg nixed it on safety grounds. I remember another Lib Dem minister describing the row: it was game over once they imagined headlines about tots choking unnoticed on inhaled toys.

Discussing the rickety policymaking in Whitehall, a recent debate between former senior civil servants and ministers came up with a host of reasons. “Churn” of officials and ministers was damaging, they agreed, as were excessive rewards for “Whitehall warrior skills” (in negotiations with other departments) over real-world insights or specialist policy knowledge.

And secrecy. Important decisions were being made behind closed doors — the lockdown of schools during Covid came up repeatedly. “What’s the trade off?” asked Gus O’Donnell, former head of the civil service. “We should make it much more explicit.”

Perhaps ministers’ hunt for renovated ideas should just revel in its resemblance to a make-do-and-mend campaign. It could be televised as The Great British Policy Bodge. A bit like Repair Shop, the sleeper hit from BBC TV, but with the broken bits of UK public services strapped together by cabinet members (not makers) and the efforts, pitting savings against safety, put to a vote.

Perhaps someone in a flaming nightie could host it? Just remember: don’t try this at home.

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