Archive for July, 2007

Cartels and Corruption

The BBC’s File on Four programme broadcast a story this week in which they revealed evidence of widespread corruption in the building trade.  Rigged bids for contracts with, among others, the NHS and local authorities may have cost millions (further information is at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/file_on_4/6284126.stm).  The story is worth listening to and a full transcript will follow.  Basically, companies colluded to fix an inflated cost for contracts where one ‘competitior’ submitted a high false bid, not wanting the contract, and allowing the other ‘competitor’ to submit a bid only slightly less than the inflated price.

There are a number of interesting aspects to this story.  First, this is an old story.  In the 1970s, major investigations considered corrupt practices in contracting arising, particularly, in the house building business around a certain John Poulson.  Two government commissions were formed to look at improving standards in public life.  And it is the same sort of thing that was going on in the 1980s as Compulsory Competitive Tendering came into the public sector.  Despite all the efforts, all the auditing and so forth, the problems remain.

Perhaps more surprising was the reaction of the authorities who were the victims of these cartels.  Their responses are defensive, downplaying the significance etc.  But why?  Some of it is down to incompetence at the local authority level and a degree of ignorance about how to tender effectively.  The Local Government Task Force, promoting ‘constructing excellence’, down played the seriousness of the issue.  Their spokesman did not like the use of language like ‘cheating’ or ‘pulling the wool over their eyes’.  As if that were harsh!  Indeed, the spokesman even suggested that it would be inappropriate to comment on what were the decisions of democratically elected authorities representing the wishes of the local people.  Bizarre.

Best of all, one trade association, while condemining the practice and having said that it would put a stop to it (we were not told how), explained that everyone else was doing it.  That old excuse.

Campbell’s Soup and other notorious advertising frauds

I had in mind writing about the Alastair Campbell diaries at the start of this week but decided against it.  Most of what I might want to say would repeat what is in the media and it has had too much publicity in any case.  And we know that it has been edited to avoid giving political ammunition to the opposition parties.  So why buy something that we know misrepresents what happened?  I will not be buying a copy – he won’t get any more of my money if I can help it.

Not so Stalinist now

Regular readers (perhaps there are some of you?) will recall the stories about Gordon Brown’s Stalinist tendencies.  Well, yesterday’s statement to Parliament put a stop to that.  Aside from some of the right wing and Eurosceptic press still complaining about a referendum on the EU or the West Lothian question, all commentators seem positive.

In fact, they seem stunned.  The range of changes are of the sort that many have been lobbying for for many years with little hope of it actually happening.  And now it has all come at once.  Talk of a written constitution, a bill of rights, reform of the House of Lords, reviewing voting etc.  And changes within Parliament and Whitehall too.  Gordon Brown has made allies of many who would normally be critics, including some of his own backbenchers and many on the opposition benches such as the Liberal Democrats.

It has often been said that politicians talk about limiting the power of the Executive when in opposition but quickly forget it once they are in power.  However, Gordon Brown is an interesting case.  He talked about it in opposition, as did the rest of the Labour Party.  But it is almost as if, in the past ten years, he has become as frustrated with the power of the Prime Minister as if he were still in opposition.  In a sense, perhaps he was.  He has certainly been chewing these ideas over for a while.

Just as with the dramatic announcement of the independence of the Bank of England back in 1997, he has shown that he means to change the way in which some things are done.  Some of these changes are very quickly and easily made.  It will be interesting to watch the debates around some of the bigger constitutional changes take shape.  The first rush of enthusiasm may wear off.  Students on the MPA in the coming year will certainly need to watch this space.

Read the Governance of Britain Green Paper at: http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/governanceofbritain.htm