Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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Whatever happened to the buck stops here?


THE outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, has made his final appearance before the Defence Select Committee. According to the Telegraph, one startling revelation was that he, the head of the Armed Forces, was not responsible for bringing new equipment into service.

There, in a nutshell, you have everything that is wrong with the government machine – no one takes responsibility. Which, of course, means that no one is accountable. In turn, this means that no one is motivated to solve problems, rather to obfuscate and apportion blame.

There used to be a doctrine of ministerial accountability, last exercised (I think) by Lord Carrington, who resigned because the Foreign Office failed to predict the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. Compare and contrast with the dodgy dossier that Blair took us to war on. More recently, the utter failure of the NHS to be ready for Covid has led to the ennoblement of Simon Stevens, who was head of the health service for seven years and surely has some responsibility? And of course, little Matt Hancock was fired only for some office hanky-panky, not the gross incompetence that the NHS exhibited throughout the crisis, nor even his complete lack of grip.

We select our politicians for many reasons, but competence is not one of them. However our Chiefs of the Defence staff (and other senior generals) are groomed and trained for this role over a career stretching over 30 to 40 years. At more junior levels, officers are responsible for everything from the state of the equipment that they command (which may be worth many millions of pounds), to the welfare of their soldiers and, indeed, to a large extent their soldiers’ actions. 

In the 1980s there was a problem in Ulster with soldiers having ‘negligent discharges’ – i.e. firing their guns by mistake. (Note, not when on patrol but when unloading their weapons back inside their camp – a combination of fatigue and the relaxation of returning to a safe environment contribute to carelessness). In a professional army that is unacceptable. The then Commander of Northern Ireland let it be known that the next ND would result in the culprit’s commanding officer (a lieutenant colonel) being sacked. And one duly was: cue massive increase in supervision of loading and unloading. The point is that the sacked colonel was not directly responsible for the ND as he was neither handling the weapon that fired nor directly supervising the sloppy soldier. It happened in his chain of command, so he was culpable.

As it happens General Carter commanded a regiment in Ireland at about that time, so he must we aware that in a well-run force (the British Army of the 1980s was superb, with a habit of winning wars) officers take responsibility for all the actions of all their subordinates. Perhaps he’s spent too long in Whitehall and the corrupting corridors of power.

In the commercial world the CEO is responsible for all actions of the firm and its employees, as some have found out the hard way in circumstances of serious accidents and injury. If a company director can be sent to jail for a breach of health and safety procedures by a subordinate, why is the head of the NHS not responsible for the lethal failures of his department, or indeed a general for the multiple procurement failures of the organisation that he heads?

The awful truth is that the Blob (as Michael Gove termed the Whitehall machine) is poorly run, no one is accountable and our current crop of politicians are unable to hold it to account, let alone fix it. Until we, the electorate, wise up and start demanding better politicians (perhaps capable of running a business) we face a future of paying ever more tax for p*ss poor public services.

It’s time for Reform.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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