Blue skies balderdash
Published in: Daily Mail
While the Prime Minister parades his global social conscience at G8 this week, his government is up to its old cynical tricks.
After requests made under the Freedom of Information Act, it released more than 500 pages of previously blocked documents produced by the Strategy Unit under Lord Birt, the 'blue-skies' thinker who advises the Prime Minister.
It chose finally to release them last Friday evening, knowing full well that the weekend papers would be so preoccupied by Live 8 that they would pay little attention to much else.
The exercise was reminiscent of the notorious incident when the former adviser Jo Moore sent an email on 9/11 suggesting it was a good day to 'bury bad news'.
The government wanted to bury Lord Birt's advice because, despite the fact that chunks of these papers have still been withheld from public scrutiny, they present a devastating picture of government failure across the board.
After years of Labour government, they reveal, there is precious little to show for it. Vital areas such as health, education, transport, crime and drugs remain mired in failure.
One report, written in 2002, states that despite millions of pounds of extra spending poured into the health service, Britons are less healthy than in comparable countries and the NHS bears part of the blame. It is short of virtually everything. Compared to other countries, it has fewer hospital beds, fewer doctors and a far smaller base of advanced medical equipment.
This has resulted in far higher waiting lists and poorer results from medical treatment - so much so that, in a startling admission of failure, it recommends that more patients should be sent abroad for treatment where facilities are better.
Another paper on transport says that Britain's road and rail network are the least developed of any major country through decades of below average investment, with the most congested roads in Europe and overcrowding on many of the expensive and unpunctual railways -- and with improvements in punctuality made in the mid-nineties now slipping away.
Perhaps the most startling revelations are in a report written in 2000 by Lord Birt himself about crime. In this, he states that an estimated 130 million crimes are committed in Britain each year - some thirteen times higher than the official figure of ten million, and with drug offences accounting for no fewer than half of them.
At a stroke, this shows not only that the government's claim that crime is falling is palpably untrue, but that much of the problem is due to a combination of two things. First is the revolving door of the criminal justice system, with half of all crime committed by a hard core of 100,000 persistent offenders, of whom only 15,000 are locked up - leaving 85,000 free to commit more crime. And second is the catastrophic failure of drugs policy.
But the Strategy Unit's drugs paper exposes some of the limitations of Lord Birt's blue skies operation. While it provides a shocking snapshot of the current situation - showing, or example, that drug-motivated crime has been rising while other crime has remained stable or fallen - much of its analysis is remarkably superficial and even downright ignorant.
For this paper fails to grasp the significance of its own findings. It dwells almost entirely on heroin and crack cocaine as the drivers of social problems. Yet it also reveals that by far the highest number of drug addicts are cannabis users. More than one million are dependent on marijuana - quite apart from a further two million users - compared to 250,000 heroin addicts and 140,000 addicted to crack cocaine.
Moreover, it also reveals that cannabis has been causing 674 mental health admissions a year, almost five times the number caused by the class A drug crack cocaine. Yet these findings were available in 2003, seven months before the government downgraded cannabis from a class B to a class C drug on the grounds that it was relatively harmless.
The paper states correctly that even if more drug imports were intercepted, this would not solve the drugs problem. This has now been seized upon by drug legalisers, who claim that since the war on drugs has failed the argument for legalisation becomes overwhelming.
But the Strategy Unit does not grasp that the reason the war on drugs has failed is that drug use can never be curbed simply by attacking drug supply. The key policy must be targeting drug consumption through an utterly consistent set of signals aimed at reducing demand by prevention strategies such as robust drugs education, treatment and penalties for breaking the law.
The war on drugs has faltered because the government has failed to fight it, refusing to send out consistent signals that no drug use will be tolerated and backing away from tackling cannabis. This was paralleled by a catastrophic decision by crime and intelligence agencies to downgrade their drive against cannabis imports. This sent cannabis prices through the floor and created a glut on the streets - and so traffickers who had made their money from cannabis promptly switched to pushing cocaine and heroin instead.
These and many other complexities pass the Strategy Unit by completely. The paper on education, for example, records a dismal litany of failure, with a high number of poorly performing schools, disruptive behaviour and bullying on the increase, and vocational qualifications lagging behind our European competitors.
Yet at the same time it makes a 'powerful endorsement of the current education strategy', claiming general improvements based on exam passes, numbers in higher education and international surveys that do not compare like with like. It thus takes no account of what has become increasingly obvious, that rising numbers of qualifications have been achieved by progressively lowering standards and emptying education of any worthwhile content.
What all this adds up to is not merely a devastating indictment of the Labour government's record. It also raises serious questions about the role of Lord Birt himself. Among the papers disclosed last weekend was a letter from the Prime Minister's office which permitted the management consultancy McKinsey - which pays Lord Birt an estimated