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Leader comment: Compensation: the cost of governing badly

24 May 2024

IT IS a statement that many campaigners in many fields would love to hear. On Tuesday, the Paymaster General, John Glen, told the Commons: “As the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, there is no restriction on the budget. Where we need to pay, we will pay.” The tales told this week by sufferers from the infected-blood scandal will quench any doubts about the level of compensation that they deserve. The ordeal that they have been put through, with years of official denials, delays, and obfuscation, removes any room that the Government might have to negotiate or procrastinate. The total cost to the public purse is said to be about £10 billion. For once, politicians can see what it costs to govern badly.

We are, sadly, all too familiar with the concept of compensation for medical harm. In 2022-23, the NHS paid a total of £2.6 billion (out of its total budget that year of £182 billion). It would be a simple exercise to compile of list of people whose lives have been harmed by other forms of mismanagement. There are large-scale disasters, such as Hillsborough, Grenfell Tower, or the Manchester Arena bombing, in which carelessness, neglect, or criminal culpability contributed to the number of casualties. Arguments, too, could be made for people whose lives have been blighted by the lack of social care, or the underfunding of the justice system, or broken promises about house-building. More widely still, countries already damaged by climate change are seeking reparation from the largest polluting nations. For too long, it has been too easy for those who fail to exercise power correctly to shrug off their responsibility when things go wrong, allowing the cost to be borne by countless powerless and unorganised individuals. Redress is not without its own inbuilt injustice, however: there is an inherent absurdity in the idea of paying compensation for poor use of the public finances out of those same finances.

Since governing badly is becoming so costly — and ought, we would argue on moral grounds, be costlier still (namely, the adversarial response to many medical compensation claims) — it behoves the political parties, as they prepare for a General Election, to concentrate more on how to govern well. There is no shortage of advice about how to do it. This issue of the Church Times contains sound prescriptions for improving education in the UK written by experienced practitioners. Here is an opportunity to use public finances to prepare the ground for the next generation. The cost of failing them is impossible to contemplate; and yet that is what is already happening, as school buildings crumble and overworked teachers leave the profession. Politicians and the electorate need to grasp that, in many instances, what looks like cost-cutting — in schools, prisons, social care, and in government itself — is all too often merely cost-deferment. To govern well, the next incumbents of the government benches must spend well.

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