Wednesday 21 November 2007

I take it all back

Actually, I take back everything I wrote yesterday. Clearly we as a nation cannot be trusted to run our own affairs when some goon can copy the entire child benefit database, comprising half the population, onto two unencrypted computer discs and casually lose them in the post. I must admit that my first reaction was amazement that you could get 25 million names, addresses, National Insurance numbers and bank details onto two computer discs. Isn’t modern technology amazing?

Then I thought, not for the first time: what a stroke of luck I haven’t got any children.

After that, I began puzzling as to what the Inland Revenue (a tax collecting department, I always thought) was doing doling out benefits. I always assumed that this was the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, which is apparently the current incarnation of what was once the Department for Health and Social Security, and before that the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. I knew it well, because I grew up in the shadow of its rambling, single-storey quarters in Longbenton. Local legend had it that the building had been constructed with a view to its easy conversion into a military hospital when World War III started (which was provisionally scheduled for August 1964).

It was only after I had got through all that I began to think: what an unbelievable, world class, laughing-stock-making cock-up. And, yet again, there was a local angle, because the nameless (for the moment) mug with his name in the blame frame is apparently a “junior official” in Washington CD, as we traditionalists call it. CD being County Durham. You’ve got to admit that it sounds a lot snappier than the bogus Heath-Walker “county” of “Tyne and Wear”.

Then I thought: what sort of total arses would create a system which afforded the potential for screwing up on such a truly Biblical scale, and then try to pin the blame on some hapless junior when it duly happened? Say what you like about the late and unlamented board of Northern Rock, at least the directors have never tried to pretend that their £24 billion shortfall was down to some junior clerk pressing the wrong keys on his computer. But then, I guess, that’s the public sector for you. When things go really wrong, your superiors rally round, shop you to the media and you end up mysteriously bleeding to death on some path in the countryside.

As luck would have it, while all this was going on I was furnishing a load of information to HMRC, for them to lose in the next fiasco but two. A couple of weeks ago, I received out of the blue a completely incomprehensible form about the winding up of the pension scheme of my one and only former employee. It came as news to me, but apparently I am the administrator of this piffling arrangement. My first inclination was to chuck the thing in the bin, but a covering letter warned of all sorts of dire penalties if I did not send it back without delay. So I did. It was returned to me with remarkable promptness, given that it was sent to an address that bore only the haziest relationship to the one I had written on it, with a note curtly informing me that it was now “mandatory” to supply this information online. So in order to advise the authorities that I am no longer the administrator of a pension scheme, because it has been wound up, I have to go through the rigmarole of playing Twenty Questions so that I can register as a pension scheme administrator online. And then wait for them to send me a Scheme Administrator ID by post, which seems to run rather counter to the whole spirit of the brave new mandatory online world.

At least there is one ray of sunshine in all this. If the British public proves idiotic enough to allow this shower to set up and run an ID card database, then I will know for certain that the country is finished and can make other arrangements without delay.

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