A couple of articles in the news this morning demonstrate, each in their own way, a worrying trend of unquestioning contempt for the function of the State. This kind of contempt is depressing for its lack of hope, but also because (as in these cases) it appears to be irrational. Firstly, the Guardian report that the Department of Health has been exposed running a tax dodge for 25 of its top employees, avoiding (and helping employees avoid) paying National Insurance contributions and income tax. It’s crazy and more than a little ironic that those at the top of the department responsible for the NHS have such a lack of appreciation for the service that they refuse to pay their contributions. These are the same people, all of them on more than £100k a year, tasked with delivering the government’s cuts and efficiency targets for the NHS which has and will see thousands of lower-paid staff lose their jobs.
Secondly, an article by Sue Cameron in the Telegraph castigates the State for the supposedly high level of successful appeals against State judgements ranging from immigration to benefits to parking tickets. The writer proclaims “Whitehall’s hidden scandal” and that the State needs to ‘get it right first time’. She claims that the ‘whopping’ 39% of successful appeals over support allowances and the 63% of similar appeals on parking tickets shows that the State is ‘incompetent’ and submitting people to the ‘dead-weight of bureaucracy’. What she completely neglects to do is provide context for any of her figures.
She says that there were 197,000 appeals against the Department of Work and Pensions over employment and support allowances, and that 39% were successful. This might seem like a lot, but Institution for Fiscal Studies shows that in 2011 the DWP dished out benefits of one kind or another to 30million recipients. That 39% successful appeals out of 197,000 total appeals means that the State got it right first time 99.7% of the time.
Next, she complains that 62% (my math) of the 70,985 parking tickets appealed were annulled. However, depending on which figures you use there were a total of between 8 and 10million parking tickets distributed last year, which gives the State a first-time success rate of at least 99.5%.
Figures for the other two statistics she complains about are harder to find. Immigration figures from the Office of National Statistics put the influx at 590,000 for 2011. From the Telegraph article we presumably sent a further 60,000 back home, so roughly 62,000 of that 590,000 were successful appeals. So even in the legally and practically complicated sphere of immigration, often spread across the vast grey areas between national and international law, the State got it right first time in 88.5% of cases. I have nothing to gauge whether that’s a good figure or not, (no comparisons with other countries, etc) but I would say that I found the figure surprisingly high having been regularly saturated in the view of our ‘failing immigration system’.
Lastly, the figure on School admissions. Again the figures are hard to come by, but there were 25,500 successful appeals out of 513,000 offers in 2011 – leaving a 95% first-time success rate by my count. Dig deeper into the figures and you find that 85% of families were offered a place at their first choice school which means that there were only 77,000 who could have any reason to object. Yet the Telegraph claims there were 85,000 appeals? Clearly some figures are off somewhere – however what this shows is that it’s likely that basically every family that didn’t get what they want appealed the decision. This sounds like a problem with the schools system specifically rather than a hidden scandal of ‘State incompetence’.
So while there may well be some continued work that needs doing on immigration, and the Schools admissions process appears to be very weak (I am unqualified to analyse further), the idea that the State is widely failing in its judgements is absurd. Let’s be clear, the overall general picture in these cases is not one of ‘bungling bureaucracy’, but of a competently-run system. Let’s stop this unquestioning and wholesale contempt for the state, and instead engage in measured discussion on what areas need improving, and how we do it. I might suggest we start by re-assessing the current cuts agenda and ensure that all areas of the state are given the resources necessary to do their jobs properly.
- “Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason”
- Thomas Payne, 'Common Sense'