Monday, 12 April 2010

JBP Gets it Right !

An article in UK newspaper the Mail on Sunday has stated that "millions of visas allowing foreigners to enter Britain are being issued by an American company and a High Street travel agent".

Mail journalist Jason Lewis pointed out that the system had never officially been announced to Parliament and that many applicants were being directed "to commercially run offices around the world" and that "hundreds of thousands of applicants simply fill in a form on a website run by the US company".

The two companies concerned, Computer Services Corporation (CSC) and VFS-Global (part of Swiss package holiday group Kuoni) handle roughly 80% of visa applications, according to Mr Lewis. 

He stated that a Home Office inspection of CRC`s Worldbridge visa office in Rome had raised concerns about "unhelpful" and "generic" wording of replies to customer queries.

A Home Office report in December had gone further, stating that CRC/Worldbridge staff running a visa advice hotline "were polite" but "had no information", rendering the service "completely useless". The report also drew attention to the high charges for using the service, said to be 14 US dollars (roughly £9.00) per call, payable by credit card.

VFS fare even worse. According to Mr Lewis, a member of their staff inolved in providing visa services to Pakistani nationals was arrested last year for allegedly taking £22,000 in bribes but absconded. He sounds a dependable character !

My own personal view is that even if the two companies were providing the best service in the world, the policy of outsourcing in this way should have been announced to Parliament. Clearly, the performance of the firms is subject to official scrutiny in the form of inspections etc, but ultimately elected politicians should be overseeing this and should have all relevant details placed before them promptly in an open and transparent fashion.

Inevitably, the Mail on Sunday, a Conservative newspaper, uses an otherwise excellent article for a bit of Brown-bashing, plus, arguably, a bit of xenophobia,  but while I think we`ve all had more than enough of petty political point-scoring by politicians and their allies, I have to concede that Ministers, including the Prime Minister, should absolutely be held responsible for their secretive and high-handed approach to these matters.

Having said that, this is only the tip of a very big iceberg and Labour are not the only culprits.

 Since the 1980s, the old government departments have been divided into Agencies, normally run by Chief Executives brought in from the private sector on three-year contracts and often relying heavily on casual staff. Hardly a recipe for stability, and certainly not a model of accountability (though thankfully, the original idea that Chief Execs should be `autonomous` has been quietly dropped, as it was perfectly obvious from the start that it would be). In truth, instead of providing a breath of fresh air from outside (which might well have been needed), the result has been to provide us with Agencies that are a weird hybrid of public and private and are often completely dysfunctional.

I don`t believe that either left or right can avoid a degree of blame for the excesses of the `80s. The ultra-left always distrusted the Civil Service as being too involved with a system of checks and balances and likely to be an obstacle to change. Mrs Thatcher agreed, but with very different objectives. `Orthodox` Marxists believed that civil society - the Courts, the Civil Service etc - was made up of `class-based institutions` which were ultimately reactionary (In Marx`s day this was almost certainly true). Prior to the Thatcher era, Labour and the Conservatives to a degree presided over a `post-war consensus` (a kind of  "welfare capitalism" as Tony Wright describes it in his book Socialisms) but failed to make it sufficiently responsive to people`s needs to engender any real sense of shared ownership.

 In modern times, of course, both major parties have been apostles of `globalisation`. I suspect that either would at one time have been only too happy to outsource public services to foreign firms.  

I do not claim to have any magic formula for a perfect society. I do not trust `perfect societies` ! If Mrs Thatcher did one good thing for public services, it was the decision to move many of the newly-formed government agencies out of London, and I do give her credit for that. A little decentralisation goes a long way, you may think.  We need to remind ourselves that public services are supposed to be accountable to Parliament and that Parliament is accountable to the people. I`ve never been very good at finding an ending for articles, but as ultmately we`re talking about how to make a democracy work, you might want to reflect on the words of J B Priestley in his wartime book Out of the People ;

"Let it be admitted, once and for all, that you cannot have democratic government long, cannot make a democracy function properly, if you have an apathetic and passive people."  


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