Minutiae – the big failing

There are many wise heads in senior positions in Whitehall (and many who think themselves wise, but they are easily run around). The upper levels of the Civil Service are staffed by the best of those who are allowed through the flawed selection process.

In that case, why is everything that comes out of government a bit rubbish?

The chain of action

I have observed the top brains making high-level decisions to mould policy from policy, which decisions are then passed down to the lesser levels to flesh out the practicalities; then these decisions (through however many levels are required) eventually come down to the junior level to put into effect.

At that junior level there may be bright sparks, but mainly those who just want to do a day’s work according to their best understanding of instructions, and go home. They have not sat in the top-level meetings where the strategy is grown and the purposes are defined, and get the idea only through Chinese whispers.

A jobbing clerk has little incentive nor ability to “own” a project. Work to the end of the day, play safe, do not be shouted at – do not use initiative. You can see everyday carelessness in detail such as documents written on computers still set up with Microsoft defaults, US-English and font styles never used n the text, or forms which look nice but which cannot be completed on-screen without reformatting. You can see it in forms which cannot cope with variants in personal circumstances or understanding.

Form design could be a whole volume of jeremiad. Perhaps the junior officers tasked with it are told not to spend too much time, but it is a false economy as every shortcut can cause an exponential effect of wasted time when members of the public try to grapple with it.

In the detail of regulations too, the same effect is seen.  I lose track of the number of times I have had to intervene in a consultation on new regulations to point out the obvious that has been misunderstood or just passed over as tedious detail.

In 2007 I even saw a draft Statutory Instrument referring to such countries as ‘Portuguese Timor’, ‘Kampuchea’, ‘Zaire’ and (amazingly) ‘Cyrenaica’. I was able to point this out before they were published. The enacted SI still has Portuguese Timor and Zaire, amongst other anachronisms.

Details are off-putting to those with better things to do with their limited time, but detail matters because it is the level at which members of the public interact with the state.

Furthermore, every failure at the interface requires more work, more calls to helplines, more repetition, more frustration and more justification for the individual circumventing the system my misreporting. Failure in detail costs money and frustrates the purpose of the government activity concerned.

Political style

It makes no sense for the government at the political level to say that they are in favour of, say, equal treatment of every part of the realm if documents produced at the junior level forget the existence of Scotland and Ulster, or mention them only as an add-on. When the government is committed to preserving British interests, it makes no sense if online forms refer to the Falkland Islands as the ‘Malvinas’ (which is the case in some drop-downs I have found).

Where there is a fixed political policy which should be reflected across the board in government communications and actions, there should be consistency.

Away from policy, there are also fixed standards which may mean nothing to middle- and junior-level officials but which are important in the wider scheme of things: for example in any publication referring the armed forces, one always say “naval and military” not “military and naval”, because the Royal Navy is the senior service. How many would be aware of that one? Grammatical standards, presentational style and good practice – all are should be kept up to ensure the government machine not only works but is respected.

One cannot expect every individual in the civil service to be aware of every political or stylistic policy possibly affecting what he or she is doing by drudge -work though, so consideration is needed as to how to bring consistency to the sprawling machinery of government. Some better communication of policy priorities is a possibility but it can only have a limited effect given how mealy-mouthed government communications are and given the limited hours there are in a day for a junior official to do his or her work. Therefor another approach is needed.


The complexity of the chain of command suggests a high risk of failure.  Experience shows this happens very frequently. There are systems in place to minimise the failures, but systems create their own inflexibilities, and there will be no committee tasked with correcting errors, no cross-departmental thinking and no method of intervention.

In that case, Whitehall needs a mechanism for direct intervention could be deployed when a system has gone awry. This is micro-intervention.

A μ-intervention unit would be cross-departmental, operating out of the Cabinet Office or Privy Council Office (or even the Lord Chancellor’s department, since the Lord Chancellor in days of old was responsible for standards in official documents).

It is little use if it just writes standards that might not be followed: that is useless on its own. In any case there are committees writing standards, as for example in the digital realm the Government Digital Service and the ‘Design Community’ do – and yet forms are still written badly.

No – a micro-intervention unit would need authority to dig into systems at every level, accessing computers directly to fix mistakes and make improvements.

It is petty detail that they would strike at, but with the intent to save more time, more money, and improve the practical interface between the citizen and the state.

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Where the Remainers were right

Now the Withdrawal Agreement is signed by both sides and nothing is in the way between now and Brexit on Friday, we can say openly that Remainers did have a point sometimes. Not in the conclusion, but in several important issues that must be addressed in the trade negotiations that are to come.

The deal must be done in eleven months. The guideline is the Political Declaration, as mightily improved by Boris Johnson. The issues flagged up by the Remain side in the referendum campaign and ever since still have to be dealt with, and they can be.

The most important issues, specifically tariffs, are to be dealt with according to the Political Declaration. There is detail though, and issues not fully covered.

To take a few random examples:

Value added tax

VAT is an odd but working system, not always understood by the man in the street if he des not run a business. We all pay VAT on purchases, including businesses. A VAT-registered business charges VAT on its sales, and sends the tax to HM Revenue and Customs at the end of the quarter, but it also reclaims from HM Revenue and Customs all the VAT it has paid in that quarter on its purchases: this ensures that although the tax have been paid at every sale, the burden falls only on the final sale to the customer.

It is the same system across the European Union, so a business may reclaim for tax paid on a purchase from abroad in the EU too, and a European business may reclaim from its own tax authorities the VAT paid to a British supplier. If after Brexit there is no continuing VAT co-ordination then businesses lose out. Either sales abroad would have to be VAT-free, which puts import at an unfair advantage over those purchases in the home market, or sales would continue to have VAT added and there could be no reclaim, putting importers at a disadvantage. In addition, there wou7ld be no adjustment between tax authorities for money collected across borders.

Getting round this will require continued co-operation and sharing of data between tax authorities. An upcoming problem may be where VAT standards begin to diverge between Britain and the continent, specifically as to what is VATable and what is not. It should not be problematic, as there are differences already, but this must be flagged up.

Intellectual property

Intellectual property is trademarks, patents, copyright etc: it is owned and is a valuable asset but is intangible and exists only because the law recognises it. This is vital to continued commercial relationships. Britain has long led in the field and this was recognised when the European Intellectual Property Office was to be established in London. (It is now finding a new home.)

At present, most patents and trademarks are registered nationally, but there are Europe-wide registrations, which is very convenient, and saves money for IP-owners. If patents valid across the EU are suddenly not recognised in Britain, or vice versa, innovators are open to predatory exploitation, and a valuable asset have been stripped from them without compensation. The Political Declaration recognises this field, and the Withdrawal Act automatically validates Europe-wide patent and trademarks as if they were British – and they must be maintained by continued registration as British patents and trademarks are.

It would be more convenient for a degree of co-operation to continue between the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office and the European Union Intellectual Property Office to enable entrepreneurs to register across both territories with minimal duplication.

Home enforcement of standards

Product standards will diverge between Britain and Europe pretty quickly, which is one advantage of Brexit. However, that means that British authorities will no longer be able to certify compliance, with the familiar “E” mark. There may be stopgap ways round this, but ideally some system is needed whereby British authorities can certify compliance before the goods in question cross the Channel (or indeed the border). Such a certification system would be under the control of the EU and the ECJ as it is their rules.

If such a system, as sort of EU-licensed certification and enforcement system were introduced, it opens the possibility of having the same arrangements with other major markets.

Farm subsidies and consequent tariffs

It is generally accepted on this side of the Channel that the EU farm subsidy system is a form of lunacy. However, the consequences of dropping it entirely are interesting. If, for example, French beef is subsidised but British beef is not, will that mean that French beef imports must be taxed to remove the price advantage? On the other hand it has been argued that we should not stand in the way of another country’s government paying to make our food cheaper.

On the other hand, we may ask where the subsidy actually goes: does it feed the farmer’s family or does it simply allow the big supermarkets to drive the farm-gate price down, so the subsidy is actually ending up in the supermarkets’ pockets?

There are serious concepts to be considered, and no one right answer.

If subsidies exist on both sides of the Channel, to balance each other, if they are calculated on a different basis, this opens a question of genuine equivalence. They will diverge, and it must be considered that the subsidy system was largely invented to benefit inefficient French farms – albeit that they may not be as inefficient these days as when the system was devised. Britain always had a bad deal from the subsidy system, which was the justification for Mrs Thatcher’s Budget Rebate.

Financial services

This was always a difficult one given the importance of financial services to the British economy and lack of consideration of them in the negotiation. The intangibility of the services is a problem for those considering the field, and the lack of understanding of the enormous scope that comes under this label.

However, financial services out of London are also of vital importance to the European economy: if a German company wishes to raise finance, he could look to the Frankfurt Börse, but the world’s top market is London. If European regulators cut London off, they could bankrupt their own companies. Having said that, they may not appreciate this, until their pensions stop being paid.

The access of British companies, and British-based companies, to the European financial market should be uppermost in the minds of negotiators.

Movement in academia

One of the big moments early in the referendum campaign was an open letter by 200 academics arguing that Brexit would be disastrous because it would end the ability of academics to move between institutions. It was one of the most ridiculous arguments in the campaign: it only takes a line in the immigration rules to allow such movement, without the need for panoply of EU bureaucracy.

That said, it is a good point that academia should flow freely and so we do need that rule. It might say “Send your brightest intelligences to our universities to shine their wisdom in those halls – because on the current showing there is none there now.”


Aeroplanes will not stop at borders as we were told, but do not forget to put the standard international agreements in place.

In addition, our airspace is minutes from European airspace, mere seconds in the case of the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, so co-ordination is required, as indeed we should co-operate with all neighbouring states, not just in Europe.

Fish stocks

The current position is that British seas will stay British. Some agreements might be possible, but nothing is on the horizon.

However, it is not just about who can fish in what waters: also we have to think about fishing stocks. Fish do not carry passports, and if Spaniards scoop up all the fish in European waters before they have reached the our waters, those stocks will not recover then next year.

Quotas are unpopular with fishermen, but their children’s livelihoods depend on those fish being there in the next generation. It will be easier if only British boats are allowed about as they can do less damage than if half a dozen nations are emptying the same seas. They will have to accept quotas though.

The Brussels Regulation on civil disputes and judgments

This is less of a niche area than one might think. When a commercial or consumer dispute heads to court, the Brussels system decides which country’s courts should deal with it. The mutual enforcement of judgments is another matter covered. Barristers have been particularly vocal in this area, or at least those who deal with international disputes.

The issues could be handled simply by the wider international conventions which exist already; specifically the Hague Convention. An extension of the Brussels system in some way is possible, but this has the objection that the EU’s European Court of Justice would put itself in charge. It may be better to agree a “Hague +”, or just stick with the Hague Convention.

And also…

There is far more than these random ideas have brought to the surface. Al are eminently solvable, but that does not man ignoring them. No such issue should be forgotten,, and if it was a point urged by the Remain side, it may be a good point – they had their reasons for arguing for Remain, so do them the courtesy of listening to the reasons and dealing with their legitimate points.

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Act now!

Yes! Royal assent at last, and the Bill is now an Act; the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, after all the fighting. The commentary on this site will shortly be updated to “The Act – a commentary”, but for the moment is a time to reflect.

It has been three and a half long years, with one referendum, two general elections, three Prime Ministers, several unprecedented legal actions and many longstanding Conservative highfliers cast into the dustbin of history for rebellion.

Amongst those departed Members, we may wonder about their feelings. Are they content in their hearts that they stood for a principle even if they cannot remember what it was, or wistful that they threw their careers away in vain when they could have come aboard and still now be feted in golden coaches, or are they glad in retirement that their actions, however shocking at the time, brought about a general election that handed the Conservatives a majority of 80.

Next week will be ‘Brexit week’ culminating in the actual British Exit at 11 pm GMT on Friday 31 January 2020. We will wonder in future years how this point ran so close.

Today’s royal assent should not be momentous: it is just an Act of Parliament authorising the government to sign an agreement, and to put it into effect. The actual withdrawal was enacted under Theresa May; it is just that she could not make it stick even with a sovereign act, an Act of Parliament, commanding it. That is where it all went wrong for her.

The clog in the road was the unlucky Section 13, forced into the Bill by extreme Remainers and Labour. It said “all this means nothing unless your withdrawal agreement gets a vote in the Commons and a new Act of Parliament too”, and so the Withdrawal Act was neutered. All this, a year of political crisis, was forced by that one Section in the Act, a bastard child of K Starmer and D Grieve. The new Withdrawal Act repeals Section 13, and good riddance to it.

Therefore, quite inadvertently, this is a momentous moment, and the moment Brexit is finally, mercifully sealed.

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Not sure I should be bored

It has got quiet. Apart from the near war with the Persian Empire, and the most powerful statesman in the world beginning an impeachment trial, and a major epidemic sweeping the East that threatens the world, and Australia burning, and Australia flooding too.

Ah, and the impending consummation of Brexit, and the onset of frantic trade talks. Then there is the major reform of the civil service being planned, with a sweeping away of quangocracy, and maybe the beginnings of tax reform.

The woke thing still goes on, and however many times people tell me it is at a turning point and the whole movement about to be overthrown by its own absurdity and popular resistance, it still seems to be going on as before. This time it is just another actor, and tomorrow just another innocent victim and any rebuff will be forgotten and the movement passes on unchecked to new depths of absurdity.

The environment keeps heating up too, sort of, but the arguments are hotter than the global warming. (It showed great foresight to set weather stations up throughout the world in fixed, remote locations measuring temperatures and rainfall. Has anyone worked out how to adjust for the sudden appearance of suburbs next to them and the effect of the warmth from central heating?) Now in a hotel I could not even afford to look at across the street, we have a fight between the commander in chief of the worlds largest army, and a 17 year-old pseudo-prophetess. No one likes a bully, which actually could apply to either of them.

There is also the Labour Party leadership campaign – now I really am yawning.

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The work begins: constitutional reform

The Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission will be established probably this year.  Nothing in the Conservative Manifesto suggested radical changes in the constitution – it is, after all, a conservative manifesto – but Parliament would be failing in its duty were it not to knock a few blocks back into line where they have become dislodged.

Even a majority of 80 is not enough to overturn the fundamental elements even if that were tempting. The changes proposed are barely even changes. This reality has not stopped incontinent rages on social media.

The Commission from the first day must handle its work sensitively. The objective has been set out up front:  rebalancing our understood constitutional norms, strengthening the rule of law and strengthening the operation of democracy.  Momentum-type commentators like Owen Jones and his endless identikit clones are prophesying instead the destruction of democratic norms and the rule of law, rather like a socialist state I suppose:  this accusation must be met by such demonstrable practical contradiction that the likes of Jones are humiliated.

The motto for any Conservative with a position of strong political power should be one from Shakespeare:  “Oh it is marvellous to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it as a giant”.

The essential duty is to do the right thing.  Politically though it is not enough to do right – the whole process must be handled in an open manner with clear, unarguable objectives and all decisions must be traced to those objectives.  Left-wing commentators will claim credit for preventing a destruction of democratic norms (which is a lovely irony), so politically the derivation of the result must appear as a logical outcome of principles.

There is a trust issue.  It is legitimate for commentators to be wary of constitutional changes when there is a government with enough strength in the Commons to drive through almost anything. Trust must be won by demonstrating trustworthiness.

All this will not be enough to quieten shouty people on Twitter as reason does not rule in that sphere.  Lack of credibility does not stop people getting on Sky News to talk of their fantasies of tyranny. (In America, where not a jot nor tittle of the Constitution can be changed without 34 bickering states and Congress agreeing every word, there are Twitter warriors sincerely telling their followers that the President can cancel elections and rule for life.)  The answer to lunacy is lucidity.

Nothing grand will come of this – Parliament can do anything to the constitution, but  Dire warnings are welcome, but thy must be realistic to be credible, and so we start with what we know.

There will be popular and unpopular decisions to be made, and timing these will be crucial.  It is tempting to make unpopular choices at the beginning and finish the rest of the term with popular ones to boost poll ratings, but government does not work like that, and voters are not so daft either.  Tony Blair announced from the beginning of his time a serious of measures to win over opinion, and the warm glow in opinion permeated through his period in office in spite of all the other things he did. Establishing goodwill and trust early is valuable.

The problem areas for any government determined on doing the right thing are measures which do good but sound bad. Tax cuts for the wealthy may fall into that sphere. The most relentless drain on poll-ratings may be cuts and virtual cuts (‘virtual cuts’ being where money was spent as an exceptional item one year and is not available the next, or where the same money is switched to different priorities). We know this from day-to-day policy, that the right decision looks wrong, and this will apply throughout this parliament, sapping at support and trust. In that context of contested reforms and mistrusted motive, constitutional reform must be handled very delicately and with openness, but not at the cost of failing to do the right thing.

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