Plundering the Public Sector, by David Craig, with Richard Brooks

Constable, London, 2006, viii + 263 pp., paperback, 1 84529 374 6, £9.99

This is a carefully researched study of the British Government’s love-affair with consultants: both management consultants and information technology consultants. It shows how vast sums of public money have been wasted through inappropriate use of consultancies, poor drafting of contracts, the elimination of competition, inadequate management, and poor performance.

The copyright notice reveals that Richard Brooks of Private Eye wrote chapters 2, 7 and 8, and that David Craig wrote the rest, which must be one of the reasons for a certain amount of repetition. This is one of those books which could easily have been shorter than it is; but it’s still worth reading carefully, because the cumulative case against the Government is fairly devastating.

The brief account of the introduction of tax credits comes early in the book (pp.7-11):

‘One of the most noteworthy fiascos must be the system developed by EDS and now run by Capgemini for the Inland Revenue to pay tax credits to poor families. A policy that could not have been designed to be more administratively complex combined with inadequate software to produce unprecedented confusion and hardship for hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable members of society. The policy itself, demanding repayments of tax credits in-year when claimants’ incomes increase, was a recipe for disaster for people on relatively low incomes who tend to spend their money and have trouble meeting demands for repayments out of the blue. It was never going to be helped by a useless computer system’ (pp.7f).

Whilst the Treasury, Inland Revenue and the Department for Work and Pensions get plenty of attention in the book, one management and computing system significantly unmentioned is that of Child Benefit. Presumably Child Benefit’s simplicity means that nobody ever thinks it necessary to involve consultants of any kind in its management and technology. We hope it stays that way.