Power, corruption and where some solutions may lie

“He [Stanley Baldwin] noted the disintegrating effect of Lloyd George on all with whom he had to deal and came to regard him as a real corrupter of public life. He saw this corruption as affecting ministers, the civil service and the House of Commons. He regarded the Prime Minister’s unfastidious use of the honours system as the most obviously shocking but by no means necessarily the most dangerous manifestation of the system.”

Baldwin by Roy Jenkins

“Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s all the difference in the world between the two…. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’ – I seen my opportunities and I took ’em”

George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall quoted by William L Riordon

“Mr Cameron, who has made tackling corruption one of the key topics of his four-day tour of South East Asia, had been urged not to meet the premier. He confronted him face to face, before raising the need to tackle corruption in a meeting with Malaysian ministers.”

The Times, July 31 2015

“People who amass suspicious quantities of wealth in Britain will be ordered to prove that it was not obtained through corruption under proposals being considered by the Home Office. New unexplained wealth orders… are being championed by Sir Eric Pickles, David Cameron’s anti-corruption tsar.”

The Times, August 31 2015

“Democratic man… is corrupt himself: he will take whatever he can safely get, law or no law. He assumes, naturally and accurately, that the knaves and mountebanks who govern him are of the same kidney – in his own phrase, that they are in public life for what there is in it.”

Notes on Democracy by HL Mencken

“A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit nor can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit… Wherefore by their fruits shall ye know them.”

St Matthew 8,18

Corruption is a notoriously tricky activity to define and hence to control. One consequence of this is that very little ever gets done to tackle the various difficulties. In considering some of the better-publicised cases, we might then suggest measures to reduce the scale of the problem.

I will begin by pointing out one or two aspects of the position adopted by David Cameron with regard to corruption. The first is that he is against corruption abroad, but then who isn’t? He is vague on the details, knowing full well that there is little or nothing that he can about the corruption practices that he views with disfavour around the world.

The Prime Minister is strangely elusive about corruption in the Britain because so far as the UK is concerned, he is in a position actually to do something about it.

There are two possible explanations for his aloofness on home-grown corruption. The first is that he may take the view that there is no such corruption to speak of. The second is that he would prefer to avert his gaze because to admit its existence would require effective action on his part and at that point things could get tricky.

The Labour Party needs to review its approach as a matter of urgency in order to prepare the ground for an attack on the Tory policy of turning a collective blind eye. Labour could then develop an alternative strategy to deal with corruption, starting with the most serious offences and offenders, and, crucially, starting at the top.

The objective would be to create a climate of honesty and transparency in areas where there exists solid evidence that this is currently not the case.

To begin with a statement of the obvious, if an area or activity is open to corruption because of lax or no controls, then it follows that there will be some corruption with those inclined to sharp practice leading the way.

It might be helpful to start with the nature and level of corruption within the party political system. A handful of examples will suffice and others will have their own favourites in this category.

The recent additions to the House of Lords did little to assuage voter concerns about corruption in politics. Cameron more or less conceded that his objective was to restore the number of Tory supporters in the Upper House that would ensure a Government majority as and when required. This, in turn, required just one quality in the newly appointed – namely, obedience and this quality was present in abundance. A good political deal for Cameron was carved out in the best traditions of Tammany Hall. Inflate the numbers in the Lords and pass the costs thus incurred to the taxpayer.

One relatively recent example of political corruption is particularly galling. This occurred when the Liberal Democrats, irritated by the negative vote on proportional representation, decided to reject the recommendations of the Boundary Commission on changes in constituency sizes to end some of the anomalies. The fact that the goal of equal numbers of voters in the constituencies dates back to Oliver Cromwell’s day cut no ice with the self-proclaimed guardians of democracy. The man said to be behind the assault on core democratic principles was Lord Rennard, who was later to gain prominence for his allegedly hands-on approach in political gatherings.

The stretching of the rules on parliamentary expenses continues to erupt from time to time as the more enterprising Members peruse the rules for scope to identify nice little earners. Most of the worst abuses may have been curbed but we continue to read about this or that imaginative interpretation of the rules by this or that Member. The more cynical voters will have noted the predictably sharp pay increases awarded to MPs following the recent general election – this at a time of zero or close to zero pay awards to most of those that had elected them.

Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, both former foreign secretaries, gave unwise interviews to investigative reporters indicating that they were available for work based on deploying their access to those in power for lobbying purposes in exchange for substantial rewards. Both were secretly filmed offering their services. Looking back on the hilarious encounters it is difficult to decide which was the more worrying feature – the stupidity or the greed. Both were cleared of any wrongdoing but the public cannot have been impressed and neither man is likely to be nominated for a peerage in the very near future.

But do we actually need a second chamber and, if we do what should be the criteria for selection? Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues could opt for good old-fashioned cost-cutting via head count reductions – an approach that will endear itself to all but those who want a peerage. There may be some on the Tory benches in the House Commons would not be sorry to see sharp cut in the numbers in the Upper House

The obvious solution to the shambles is that of a drastic membership cull. My suggestions would retain all the existing responsibilities and functions of the House of Lords, and in particular the essential function of keeping an eye on the Other Place.

Let us start by listing the weaknesses in the present arrangements of the House Lords. Far too many members.  Far too many aged members. Far too many members have gained entry on the basis of a dubious CV marinated in deference and obsequiousness. Far too many members have been sleeping partners rather than active contributors.

All this presents to the wider public an organisation which on a busy day resembles an old folks home and, on a quiet day, a morgue.

Short-term de-selection measures could include: Membership to be reduced to 300 which would be half the number of 600 believed by Cameron to be adequate for the Commons. Compulsory retirement at 65. The 300 selected to remain to comprise 150 non-politicals and 150 politicals  For all those below 65, a review of the extent to which they have actually contributed to the institution. It would be relatively straightforward to identify and weed out those who have treated the Lords as a leisure centre. The main parties should agree among themselves their selections to represent them in the new slim-line Upper House.

A restructured Upper House would benefit from the fact that the Lords currently combines over-manning and with excessive remuneration – both classic hallmarks of the time-honoured practice of looting the public purse.

The definition of politics by Ambrose Pierce as the conduct of public affairs for private advantage is arguably more apposite in our time than in any earlier era. Similar measures could be put in place to curb the activities and the antics of another major source of political corruption: quangos. Politicians routinely argue for significant reductions in the scale and influence of quangos, but when faced with the task of actually doing something, they remember the need to find cushy numbers for their friends, and the issue is kicked into long grass.

Labour should apply two simple tests to all quangos, starting with the biggest. Review the performance of the quango and decide if it is to be allowed to continue. If in doubt, close it down. Review the performance of the senior managers and, in particular their reward packages. In many cases, the answer is likely to involve the issuing of a P45.

“And now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

First epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians xiii, 11

“Angelina Jolie resigned from a mine clearance charity made famous by Diana Princess of Wales in a dispute over trustees paying themselves up to £500 a day.”

The Times, September 2 2015

“An IT director who was unfairly sacked from a charity favoured by Diana… has rejected a payout of £500k and insists that she wants to return to her job.”

The Times September 9, 2015

“Jane Ashcroft, CEO of Anchor Trust, is one of Britain’s best paid charity executives after her earnings rose by £50k over the past four years. The Charity Commission has been urged to review pay levels amid concerns that high salaries are bringing the charitable sector into disrepute.”

The Times April 21, 2015

The management of charities also needs to be looked at. Charities have two core functions: the raising of funds and the dispensing of funds.

The recent adverse publicity given to recent examples of dubious practices carried out by senior executives of charities has triggered an intensive search for dishonesty right across the sector. To the surprise of no one, the sector has been found to be rife with dubious practices with an unseemly combination of incompetence and greed at the top.

Chief executives of these august bodies professed themselves shocked at the methods used by their respective charities to raise funds. One quote from Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children, will suffice to explain the inadequacy of the senior managers. “The Daily Mail has done a public service in outing this. The methods were completely unacceptable and shocked us as well as shocking you”

This is rather like the CEO of Sainsbury’s confessing that he had no idea that his shops sold sausages and washing powders.

All political parties  – and especially the Conservatives, given that they can easily and quickly take the required actions – should strive to put in place effective measures to ensure charity funds are raised using civilised methods and, equally importantly, distributed to intended recipients rather than to managers on the make.

Let’s put in place strict controls to be strictly enforced to ensure that charitable donations are dispensed to the causes for which they were given in the first place. Additional actions should include the requirement that those engaged in raising funds supply details to would-be donors of the terms and conditions of their senior managers.

We also need to address possible irregularities in the setting of pay and other elements of the reward packages for senior managers in the public sector.

Let us see some evidence.

University chief in junkets row to cut 50 jobs.”

The Times, April 13 2015

The report below this headline told how Bill Rammell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, took his partner, Helen Bailey, on business trips to China and the United States. Helen Bailey was employed at the University of Bedfordshire as Professor of Dance, and the case for her to accompany her partner was not immediately obvious.

Bill Rammell received a £40,00 pay rise while simultaneously imposing a pay freeze on staff at the university. He also recently announced that he “needed 50 employees to be made redundant”.

University staff and students were not quoted on these and other possibly contentious proposals but it is safe to assume that they did not meet with widespread support.

Rammell, in a previous life, had been a minister for higher education before losing his seat in 2010. He, more than most, would know how to exploit the system

“Exams conman fiddled £1.5m from taxpayers.”

Daily Mail, June 9 2015

A simple enough scam here. Timothy Springett “was paid £1.5m in government grants to provide courses for the under-skilled or unemployed in Kent. But his students did not exist. In reality, staff at his Want to Learn centres were fabricating their details while Springett pocketed the grants.” He has since been jailed for four years.

It was good that this story had a happy ending, but two points arise. Why did he do it? Because he could. And was anyone keeping an eye on the handing out of the funds? If not, why not? If yes, what action was taken to wake them up?

“Police scrap major probe into VIP sex parties abuse parties.”

Daily Mail September 14, 2015.

The headline refers to the flurry of police activity following allegations that some senior politicians had been involved in sex abuse parties where the offences were said to include the murder of children. The allegations were widely publicised but the name of the whistleblower was withheld.

The accusations against Jimmy Savile triggered a pendulum swing whereby it became de rigeur to accuse this or that public figure of this or that transgression, secure in the knowledge that if things worked out the accuser might be rewarded and, if not, nothing ventured nothing gained. The police were happy to lead the hunt, one consideration perhaps being that it was less demanding than catching burglars and dealing with domestic violence.

To add an element of spice, the police worked closely with the media when arresting high profile suspects. All splendid fun – unless you were one of the unfortunates on the receiving end.

Why did the police over-react? Because they could. What might be done to improve matters? For a start every senior police officer should be repeatedly reminded of the relevant words from Dickens’ Great Expectations when Mr Jaggers informs Mr Wopsle that: “The law of England supposes every man to be innocent until he is proved – proved – to be guilty”

Other measures might include the scrapping of the ludicrous appointment of police commissioners, an innovation guaranteed to create confusion.

”£360k head quits a week before term.”

The Times, August 27 2015

A straightforward story here. “Britain’s highest paid head teacher [Sir Greg Martin] has quit his job a week before the start of the school year under mounting pressure over its unorthodox finances and governance…He was paid £360k last year for running the school and a leisure centre on the site. He was also criticised because a dating company in which he was an investor was registered at the same site.”

Why did he do it?  Because he could. Why did he stop doing it? Because he had broken the 11th commandment which requires: “Thou shalt not be found out”.

So, who decided to award Greg Martin a knighthood and why? What is being done to remove the knighthood from Sir Greg as in the case of Fred Goodwin? What arrangements had been in place to ensure that this type of abuse could not happen?

If none, why? If there were safeguards, what action should be taken against those responsible for monitoring them?

Any policy review consider: a claw back of looted funds; those found to helping themselves to be sacked immediately; tight procedures to be in place to ensure that public sector managerial reward arrangements are tightly and continuously scrutinised.

Memo to Sir Eric Pickles, our anti-corruption tsar: follow the example of Tsar Peter the Great and get on with it.

This article first appeared in Tribune on October 12, 2015.

Image courtesy of Toonpool.com

 

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Author: holdenforth

50 years in management - mostly as a sharp-end man. Occasional contributor to Tribune.

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