Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Tax offices, roast potatoes and the accountability of experts

Anyone who was even half-awake will have spotted the roast potato story. You know, the one where the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) advised us that we'll catch cancer from crispy roast spuds, well done toast, thin crust pizza and trendy thrice-cooked chips.
"The Government has been accused of “massively overreacting” by telling people not to eat crispy roast potatoes or browned toast despite there being no scientific proof of a link to cancer.

Experts said the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) new campaign, which warns people against cooking starchy foods at high temperatures for long periods, risks undermining support for “real” public health priorities like tackling obesity."
The thing here is that it's "the government" providing this advice, the government that's run by those people we elect. Or so we're told. Especially during court hearings about who's the boss, parliament or government. Now I've trawled through dozens of news reports looking for a comment on this story by a minister of the government that has made this announcement. An announcement that is so misleading and lacking in evidential support that it undermines the credibility of the FSA, the organisation set up by the government to make sure our food is safe. Nor (although I may have missed it) has anything been said by Heather Hancock who chairs the FSA "Board".

What's clear here is that no-one is looking the FSA's experts in the eye and saying something like: "Are you really sure you want to tell folk roast potatoes are bad for them on the basis of a very tiny increased cancer risk? You'll look very silly." Or, after said experts have rushed out with their shocking advice, no-one is pulling them into the office and telling them to go and change the bloody advice to something that doesn't make the FSA look like a bunch of rather dumb health fascists.

Let's imagine for a second that some MP - maybe Philip Davies - asks the appropriate Secretary of State (it's pretty tricky to actually find out who this is by the way) what's going on and why, despite the lack of scientific evidence, they thought is just fine to tell folk not to eat well-done toast. I'm pretty sure that the minister in question will respond with some sort of well-honed quip followed by an explanation that the FSA is a "non-ministerial department, supported by 7 agencies and public bodies" so nothing to do with me guv.

All this brings me to the matter of tax offices. Now, whatever we think of Her Majesty's Revenues and Customs, there are a lot of people working in tax offices. And, here in Bradford we have two of these offices - one in the centre of Bradford and one at Shipley. The nice people at HMRC propose, as part of some sort of reorganisation or restruture, to close these offices and open a brand spanking new shiny office. The problem is that HMRC propose to put that office in Leeds. Apparently (although this isn't very clear) because they don't think they can recruit the right quality of staff if they're based in Bradford.

It may well be that all this is absolutely the right thing to do, that the efficiency and effectiveness of tax collection will be enhanced by the merging of these offices into the new super-office in Leeds. But just like the roast potatoes it's pretty difficult for us to make any persuasive contrary argument - such as why not have your super-office in Bradford. I know this because Philip Davies did ask questions of the correct minister who defended the HMRC decision. It's important to note here that the minister, for all his willingness to respond, is not really in a position to overrule the HMRC on this matter because HMRC is a "non-ministerial department, supported by 2 agencies and public bodies".

There's nothing new about this problem and ministers have for three decades hidden behind the semi-detached nature of these "non-ministerial departments" with their "boards" and "directors". From the prison service through defence procurement to decisions about overseas aid such agencies act without proper accountability while making pronouncements and decisions affecting millions without the benefit of public accountability. They are the experts and neither their "boards" not ministers seem able to control what they do.

Here in Bradford we'll keep making the case for those tax officials to come to Bradford but the experts in question - the HMRC management and its property advisors - do not have to do anything except politely nod, smile and proceed to remove a few hundred jobs (and a pile of business rates) from Bradford. And the worldwide coverage of roast potatoes will fade while the advice remains on the FSA website and gradually becomes, like salt and raw milk, received wisdom among those who enforce food standards.

There's plenty of good reasons to have agencies of these sort and plenty of reason to listen carefully to what experts tell us. But there are also good reasons why our Government - by which I mean the secretaries-of-state and assorted ministers not officialdom - should be accountable for their decisions and empowered to change them if they seem wrong or unhelpful.


1 comment:

Bill Sticker said...

It's not so much the 'Government' as the Non-Governmental Organisations government takes its advice from.