Friday, 8 February 2013

Horse meat and Mid Staffs

The news that rather more frozen lasagne are 100 per cent horse than we realised is really no big surprise, is it.  The story will run and run (as they say in horse racing circles).  But it does shine a light at the problems with regulators - and it reveals exactly the same problem that the Mid Staffordshire Hospital scandal does.

Does anyone really believe that the horse meat adulteration would have been brought to light by the Food Standards Agency if the Irish regulator had not stumbled upon the problem?  Regulators don't take a punt on these things normally because they are not set up to do so.

Here is the problem.  Our regulators were designed and structured in the age of targets.  They are designed for a world of tick-box regulation, the inspection of procedures, and the collection (though not distribution) of large amounts of data.  The Care Quality Commission still gets its figures from care homes around the country once a month by fax.

They were constructed in the New Labour period when regulation was all about targets, procedures and tick box auditing.  It was the height of the great fantasy that the screeds of figures that poured out of the new IT systems bore some relation to reality.

If we are going back to the basic idea of inspecting professionalism, rather than figures, as David Cameron implied, it means we are going to need professional inspectors, not automatons operating software.  We are a long way from there at the moment.  So pause a moment and think about these scandals - and the banking scandals too - not as isolated tragedies, but as the unravelling of the regulatory system.

In all these cases, the scandals were about abuses that were widely known about by managers.  In all these cases, these were ways of doing things that had become accepted, if not publicly known.

That is why public debate has not quite caught up with the problem, as I said yesterday.  When the Francis Report has nearly 300 recommendations, it is too much for any administrative machinery to swallow, too much for any one minister to lead.  We needed a big idea - professionalism rather begs the question: this needs to be a policy idea.  An proposal about where the big levers are.

Why is why I also agree with the indefatigable NHS blogger Roy Lilley when he says: "Francis is complicated when the NHS needs simple. Francis is a jungle and the NHS has a reputation for hiding in the undergrowth."

It is time we looked at solutions to the basic problem: the regulatory system inherited from the last government was precisely what undermines professionalism.

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