The price of bureaucracy

IF ever a lesson were needed in the perils of centralised planning, there is one plainly set out in the new report by the independent monitoring board at HM Young Offenders Institute in Northallerton.

Since the introduction of centrally agreed contracts for prison services, the report reveals, catering staff have effectively been banned from using their own initiative to introduce cost-saving schemes such as buying cheaper food that is close to its sell-by date.

It is impossible to exaggerate the arguments against this type of thoughtless bureaucratic intervention. The sums involved may be small when compared with the total prisons budget, and the Northallerton institute only a comparatively minor part of the prisons system, but that is entirely the point.

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Precisely because these are centralised contracts, this type of bureaucratic bungling is being repeated throughout Britain. In every prison and young offenders institute, inflexible regulation is producing the kind of asinine decision-making being forced on the administration at Northallerton whereby staff have to obtain three different quotations for the provision of a specialist prison TV channel even though there is only one provider in the entire country.

Then, too, there is the knock-on effect. The edict on buying food, for example, means that prisons are prevented from putting money into the local economy, with centralised contractors replacing small suppliers in a complete mockery of another Whitehall policy, that of supporting local businesses.

Nor should anyone be under the illusion that this type of lunacy is confined to the prisons service, or even the Home Office. Across the public sector, the centralising instincts of the last government have had the effect of driving costs up while simultaneously stifling the initiative and common sense of its own staff.

At a time when the new coalition Government is trying to achieve major savings, while at the same time talking about devolving Whitehall power and trusting people to make their own decisions, it can only be hoped that Ministers realise that, all too often, these two worthy aims amount to the same thing.