Monday, June 16, 2008

Column, November 27, 2007

MURPHY’S LAW – Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.

WE’VE had our letter of apology, so that’s alright then.
I dare say quite a few of you have had one too, well, if you’ve got school age children will have.
Suitably contrite it was too given that 25 million of us are now hoping that our bank details are languishing in some Inland Revenue post room rather than on the laptop of some hacker who is intent on booking himself a trip to the Bahamas courtesy of my overdraft facility (I’d get in there quick if I were you sunshine, because you could best sum up my usual level of liquidity using a phrase involving two farthings not being rubbed together)
I’ve got to say as cock-ups go it has a truly epic quality. I mean, this isn’t just a few missing millions, it isn’t the farming industry down the swanee with blue tongue or foot and mouth, it’s the bank details, national security numbers, addresses, kids’ names and dates of birth of everyone getting child benefit.
It is simply staggering in the monumental nature of just how idiotic this mistake is. But what elevates it from idiotic to supremely irritating is the way the Government has tried to pass it off as some sort of junior clerical error that could happen to anyone.
A minor clerical error costs you £10, a minor clerical error means you have to queue up for some sort of refund.
A minor clerical error does not leave the bank details and personal information of half the country wide open to use by fraudsters.
This passing of blame to some hapless pen-pusher, or rather mouse-monkey, out in the Siberian wastes of the civil service is, frankly, a little bit pathetic.
It’s like giving a five-year -old a hand-grenade and when the ensuing carnage inevitably happens, washing your hands of it, saying: “Well, he was under strict instructions not to pull the pin, the pulling of the pin was completely unauthorised.”
The senior management of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs set up the system to handle our date and they are answerable for their management of HMRC to the Government.
If they have set up a system whereby a junior member of staff is able to download the personal details of 25 million people, remembering Murphy’s Law, they should know damn well that that is exactly what will happen, no matter how many rules and regulations they have in place telling them not to.
If he is on £12,500 a year then he is not exactly a minor cog in the wheels of government, he’s the oily grit that gathers between the cogs, he has aspirations of one day becoming a minor cog.
I’ve got to say I was slightly irritated by national commentators suggesting that because he and his colleagues were only on £12,500 a year this made them somehow more likely to flog off our details to fraudsters – as if low income and dishonesty come hand in hand, if anything, the reverse is true.
But he is at the lowest level of competence and decision-making in the civil service and as such should not be in a position whereby he could download such vast amounts of sensitive information. It ought to have been physically impossible for him to have copied that data onto a disk without a big red light flashing in Alastair Darling’s office with a Tannoy shouting in his ear “Warning – election losing blunder alert.”
Because when you leave most of the country poring over their bank statements looking to see if anyone has been ordering champagne and caviar at their expense then that’s the sort of memory that lingers when it comes to the polls. Gross incompetence is not a vote winner.
You see for all his bluster about this being the action of a minor member of staff, what people want of Alastair Darling is that he put checks and balances in place to make sure a minor member of staff is simply not able to get anywhere near doing this.
But the fact is that this Government merged the Inland Revenue with HM Customs and cut staff as a result.
The inevitable consequence of such a move means more work for fewer staff and therefore work is delegated down to staff on lower levels and it ends up on the desk of hapless desk-jockeys who simply do not realise the implications of what they are doing because they do not have sufficient seniority or experience.
And who was in charge of this whole mess before Alastair Darling accepted what he might now be regarding as a poisoned chalice – that’s right, Gordon Brown, the Iron Chancellor, the steady hand at the tiller, the economic rock upon which New Labour’s success has been built.
I have to say that I don’t buy the idea that out there some Bond-esque villain is holding the discs with all our details on them laughing: “They’re mine, all mine I telly you, mwahahahaha!” I’ve spent too long reporting magistrates court to believe in criminal masterminds, the terms are mutually exclusive.
Most criminals are a) thick b) pitiful c) violent or d) any combination of the above and if this disc were to fall into the wrong hands it would more likely be passed off as a knock-off copy of Pirates of the Caribbean down the Dog&Duck for a fiver than used to siphon off our every last penny.
But that does not absolve Darling and his boss from blame. If you create a system whereby you are able to lay the blame for the loss of sensitive data about half your population on the shoulders of a junior civil servant, then it is you who should be collecting your cards, not him.
Any Minister out there doubting just how damaging this could be should be reminded about Murphy’s Law, and also Flanagan’s Precept, which states categorically that Murphy was an incurable optimist.

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