Friday, March 26, 2010

We're all better off grounded

The British Airways cabin crew trying to disrupt people’s flights over the coming days and weeks are just another nail in the coffin of the aviation industry.

If you aren’t caught by a strike at home, there’s every chance you’ll be hit by an air traffic controllers’ dispute in France or a baggage-handlers’ go-slow in Spain.

And you can pretty much guarantee your plane won’t take off or arrive anywhere close to the scheduled times.

While we protest mightily if a train is half an hour late, we sit in stunned acquiescence as airlines fail to tell us what’s going on for hours on end and dump us at our destinations at midnight rather than mid-day.

That’s always assuming they actually take us to the place we want to go.

It’s quite normal to expect to return to Birmingham Airport but actually land at Luton or for the flight to Madeira to be diverted to Tenerife where there is no-one to find you accommodation let alone tell you how they intend to get you to your destination.

Air travel is an abomination.

Last time I went through airport security I was frisked, quizzed, humiliated and hounded no fewer than eight times by “security”.

Every time I fly, I swear it’s the very last time. The whole process is a slow, painful, dreary exercise which makes travelling abroad the last resort.

From the moment you arrive at an airport and try to park the car on some grossly over-priced wasteland before breaking your arms manhandling your cases onto a random “shuttle bus”, you enter the 24 circles of Hell.

You are ordered to arrive two or even three hours before the departure time. That’s so you can queue.

First off it’s the check-in desk – or, in some places, the first security scanning desk – where you hang around for hours while officious little girls who speak little English ask inane questions like “Did you pack your own baggage?”

What would they say if I said, “No, my wife packed it”? Would they rip it apart in search of bombs? Would they take me to one side and strip-search me? Would they ban me altogether from the flight? Obviously I wouldn’t dare risk a joke with these harridans.

I once resisted a surcharge imposed because my single case was too heavy though, as it contained clothes for two people, it was way below our combined allowance.

After being threatened with arrest I was forced to go and buy a new case, rearrange the luggage, and go to the back of the queue. It might have been cheaper to cough up in the first place.

Then there’s security, immigration and passport control. They are often quite pleasant people who are only doing their job. We all want safe flights. But it’s more queues.

You have to remove most of your clothes – including your shoes, which means remembering to put on socks without holes.

They rifle through your hand luggage throwing out any bottled water you may have because the airport wants to sell its their own at excessive prices once you’ve made it into the shopping mall known as the departure lounge.

Here, you while away the hours waiting for your flight to be called. There’s nowhere comfortable to sit unless you go to one of the many food and drink outlets and blow the holiday money on a couple of cappuccinos and a croissant.

Finally you get to departure gate 273 by traipsing down endless corridors where the travelators don’t work. And you sit. Usually on the floor because the 100 seats available for the 350 passengers are all taken.

At this point you might pluck up the courage to ask one of the BA staff why the flight is two hours late so far and when they think they might deign to take off.

They order you, in not very polite terms, to go away and mind your own business. As soon as they have some information to impart, they will let you know.

Finally you queue again to have your boarding card and ticket checked. At length, you’re allowed onto the plane.

The cabin crew look on disdainfully as you turn right into the cheap seats and struggle to squeeze yourself in beside the fat bloke in the aisle seat who is your companion for the next four hours.

You can’t sleep because the seats are too uncomfortable so you let yourself graze on the disgusting food all the time knowing the plastic trays themselves would be more nutritious.

And all of this takes place as you check out your fellow passengers to identify the terrorist and remember those stories, real and fictional, about planes plunging from the skies.

A strike is the best service BA could offer its customers. That way, we can book to go somewhere exotic and enjoy a fantasy holiday without enduring the grim reality of having to go through with it.

Robert Louis Stevenson once said “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”. Obviously he’d never flown.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cash for contacts - it's a Byers market

Either Stephen Byers is greedy and boastful and his eyes lit up at the prospect of easy money or he was telling the truth in his interview with Channel 4's “Dispatches” programme.

He can’t, surely, get away with claiming he was merely full of hyperbole and actually he has never influenced anything.

But of course Byers and his fellow ex-Cabinet Ministers Patricia Hewitt and Buff Hoon are not alone in seeking to turn their contacts into cash.

Dozens of MPs of all persuasions will be on the jobs market on May 7 and many of them will be casting around for a way to replace their expenses with as little inconvenience as possible.

The price a commercial company might have to pay to change the law is probably small in comparison with the costs they might face if the Government is not talked out of whatever mad ruse or regulation it has got in mind.

A tame MP on the payroll is almost certainly money well spent.

The scandal here is as much about the idiocy of Government – and that means any Government of whatever party – as it is about the venality of our MPs.

Whitehall rarely considers the commercial consequences of its legislation or, if it does, it assumes that big business can somehow shoulder the financial burden without any consequences for the economy.

This is nonsense, of course. Every new law and regulation has a price. It makes this country less attractive and exports jobs, expertise and, in the long run, diminishes our shrinking economy still further.

There should be no need for lobbyists like Byers, Hoon, Hewitt and the dozens of others we don’t know about.

But “influence” is a valuable commodity in a corrupt political system where the simple expedient of asking our Parliamentary democracy to make the decisions has been abandoned.

Was Byers offering to take money for nothing or did he actually have valuable influence and contacts which could help companies buy their way to a better future? Was he being "economical with the truth" to the TV or is he being "economical with the truth" now?

Do we really think ex-Cabinet Ministers have no power to influence decisions in Whitehall? And do we really think they are not prepared to sell that influence to the highest bidder?

Lots of departing Tory MPs will be licking their lips at the prospect of a Cameron Government. Suddenly all those years in opposition will not have been wasted.

It’s significant that retiring Bromsgrove MP Julie Kirkbride, the expenses queen, was approached by “Dispatches” but turned down their offer.

She said she did not regard the approach as credible and duly alerted her Tory colleagues to the threat of a sting. Very clever, Julie, at least that’s one scandal you’ve managed to avoid.

She did not say she would have refused the work if it had been genuine. If the “Dispatches” reporter had been a bit more credible, would she have been so honourable? I wonder.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

MPs are a striking example

Thousands of civil servants went on strike last week. Nobody noticed.

It’s a shame, really, for the 200,000 people who withdrew their labour.

After all, if you go on strike and lose two days’ pay, you like to think you’ll have some impact otherwise what’s the point?

You’d hope your bosses and your customers might be at least a little inconvenienced.

Instead, life carried on pretty much as usual though they did manage to close the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.

Most people would regard that as a valuable contribution to the nation’s well-being. Pity they didn’t shut down the Houses of Parliament as well.

Otherwise, it was business as usual.

The Department for Work and Pensions told those staff still in the office to pretend they were answerphones, tell callers to ring back later and hang up.

But as that’s what normally happens if you try to phone any Government department that supposedly deals with the public, callers wouldn’t realise anything had changed.

Our public servants are complaining about attempts to reduce the amount of redundancy money they’re entitled to if their jobs are axed.

It’s understandable they’d be worried – especially as whoever wins the General Election will have no choice but to start chopping away pretty drastically.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) claims civil servants are low-paid, under-valued, unsung heroes who keep the country running.

It’s true we do need people to collect our taxes, sit at immigration booths looking bored, man Jobcentres and risk their lives supervising driving tests.

They’re not badly paid and enjoy good pensions. The strike is about plans to cut their redundancy pay from three years’ salary to two.

Thousands of people who have lost their jobs can only dream of getting a pay-off worth two years’ pay let alone three.

The union complains that, at the moment, someone aged 41 who earns £24,000 and has 20 years’ service, would be entitled to redundancy pay of £72,000. Under the new plans, that would be £60,000.
How many private-sector taxpayers could hope for anything approaching such munificence?
What would someone get who was also 41, earned the same salary, and had worked for the same employer for 20 years but was not paid by the taxpayer?
The Government’s own web-site gives us the answer. A private-sector employee would be legally entitled to 19.5 weeks’ pay at a maximum rate of £380 per week. That’s £7,410.

It’s awful for anybody to lose their job. If you get booted out by the Government, it’s just as painful as if you’re the victim of a small business closing or an American-owned processed cheese-maker shutting a chocolate factory.

But even under the Government’s new plans, our “typical” civil servant will get sixty grand to cushion the blow – compared with maybe as little as £7,410 in the private sector.

It’s not the civil servants who should be going on strike over their unfair treatment, it’s the rest of us.

Bizarrely, by going on strike, the unions are biting the hand that feeds them.

This Government has been lavishly generous towards public sector employees not just because they’re heavily unionised but because Gordon Brown thinks the State knows best how to run our lives.

After the election, life will get tough for civil servants. It’s not a threat; just a fact of life. The country is broke, the recession will drag on for years, the private sector is limping along, ordinary taxpayers are becoming poorer.

A new government, even led by Mr Brown, will have to reduce public spending drastically. It will have to face down much tougher unions than the PCS.

It will even have to take on the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, which one health professional told me is as militant and inflexible as Red Robbo was at British Leyland in the 1970s.

The unions know the score, which is why they’re trying to defend their redundancy payments.

If I were in some cushy publicly-funded little number with a nice, fat, index-linked pension to look forward to, I’d be indignant as well at the Government’s attempts to curb my redundancy money.

But our civil servants clearly don’t realise how featherbedded they really are. Haven’t they seen what’s been going on over the past 18 months? Surely those working in Jobcentres must realise we’re up the creek.

Even our Prime Minister admits we’re not out of recession. His pay freeze for top people – NHS managers, judges, generals, consultants and so on – is beside the point. Most of them should have pay cuts.

Yet he still plans to give increases to the majority of civil servants and, even if it’s just one per cent or so. When thousands take pay cuts rather than lose their jobs, even this is a bit rich.

That may be because our MPs have just awarded themselves a 1.5 per cent pay rise – which, of course, will boost their pensions when many of them lose their seats in a few weeks’ time.

With leadership like that, no wonder civil servants have a sense of entitlement you don’t find in the real world.

Double dip before the election?

The taxman has thousands of businesses in a vice-like grip and may yet squeeze the life out them.

They are all in deep debt to the inland revenue – and a lot of them can’t pay.

Gordon Brown doesn’t want his own Government to march into companies large and small and close them down just before the election.

But he does need to raise as much as he possibly can in tax. Which leaves his money-gatherers in an impossible position.

It seems Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is wrestling with a massive dilemma – close down up to 12,000 West Midland companies or wait, perhaps for ever, to be repaid over £200 million they owe between them.

A year ago, on Government orders, HMRC offered its “customers” a break from paying tax and National Insurance.

For some months, all a company had to do was phone their friendly local taxman to be given a tax “holiday”.

This worked wonderfully until late last year when the Government noticed it was owed billions of pounds by businesses large and small.

And, with the Government’s own cash-flow looking dodgy, the taxman was told to tighten things up again.

Between November 2007 and December last year, the revenue approved more than 249,700 time-to-pay arrangements, worth a total of £4.37 billion.

But if you try to get more time to pay your tax bills now, you face a Spanish Inquisition from a taxman who has reverted to type and cares only about getting his hands on your money.

This is understandable. After all, as long as taxes exist, someone has to collect them so the Government can spend money on schools, hospitals, wars and repaying its own debts.

The snag is hundreds of companies are now being told that they won’t get any extra time to pay their new debts.

And companies which have already been given a tax break are being told to start repaying their old debts and keep up payments on their new ones as well.

If business has picked up and cash-flow is looking good, this shouldn’t be a problem. But for hundreds of Black Country businesses it hasn’t picked up and there isn’t enough money to repay the revenue.

So whose problem does this become – the business’s or the taxman’s?

If the revenue insist on getting all the money owing to them as soon as possible, and the businesses haven’t got it, there’s only one result – the company goes bust.

When that happens, people lose their jobs. The Government has to pay their benefits and loses the income it gets from their taxes.

At the same time, the bankrupt business has no chance of ever repaying its debts to the Government.

The taxman doesn’t get any of the repayments he’s demanding and he certainly won’t get any revenue from the company in the future because the company hasn’t got a future.

Yet the Government is owed the money and it would be wrong for HMRC simply to write off the debt. Apart from anything else, that would be unfair on other businesses which were paying their taxes.

Sadly, the revenue is like the big banks at the time of the credit crunch. As an expert in these things told me: “HMRC is now one of Britain’s biggest sub-prime lenders.”

You will remember it was “sub-prime lending” that did for the banks when they offered loans to people who never had a chance of repaying the money.

As things stand, the taxman has lent people money – by giving them a payment holiday – without checking on their ability repay it.

At the last count, I am told, there were no fewer than 12,000 companies in the West Midlands which have taken advantage of this temporary tax relief.

They only owe an average of £18,000 each, which means they’re mostly small firms with only a few employees. But it all adds up. Collectively, they owe an estimated £216 million.

Sadly, many just don’t have the money to repay the revenue.

Can HMRC really scour the region shutting down companies? It’s already responsible for half of all company bankruptcies.

Could it simply to write off the debts altogether? It would be a huge loss of revenue but it could allow the business to survive, employ people and pay taxes in the future.

That’s highly unlikely to because HMRC’s job is to gather taxes. It doesn’t have to worry about unemployment and public spending increases caused whenever people are thrown onto the dole queue.

But with so many thousands of companies in hock to the taxman, the fear now is that a new wave of bankruptcies is on the way.

The last thing Gordon Brown wants is a dip back into recession on the eve of a General Election. But unless he tells the taxman to go easy on small businesses, that’s what he might get.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

High speed off the rails

It would be lovely to be whisked through the countryside from Birmingham to London so fast the whole journey would take only 46 minutes.

But will it ever happen and can we afford it?

Now the Government has published the route for HS2, the high-speed railway line intended to make Britain compete with other European economies, everyone is drooling over how marvellous it will be.

We’re the only major country in Europe without such 21st century infrastructure, we are repeatedly told by the scheme’s many supporters.

How much, though, are we willing to pay to reduce the journey time between Birmingham and London by half an hour?

The price tag for this little scheme is a cool £34 billion. And we can be certain that will have doubled by the time it’s finished.

The development process will take years. If you live in the leafy Chilterns, you will not want the quiet of your countryside disturbed by some silver bullet train flashing by at 225 mph.

So there will be NIMBY protesters all down the line demanding that the line does not run through their back gardens.

And who can blame them? Few people would relish their peace being disturbed by half-a-mile long express trains rocketing past.

It will take millions of pounds just to get planning permission to build this route and the delaying tactics of expert lawyers will ensure the process drags on for years.

Meanwhile, any simpler, cheaper, quicker transport developments will be put on hold because the high-speed rail link will dominate the planners’ thinking for years to come.

It is claimed the development has the overwhelming support of the West Midlands business community. This is simply not true.

While many business people would be happy to see the route developed and would enjoy the speed and style of the new trains, they don’t all think it is worth the time, trouble and expense involved in getting there.

They are split over whether there should be two Birmingham stations – one in the city centre and another at the National Exhibition Centre – or one and, if it’s only one, where that should go.

And many of them really do not think the time saving of a new line would be worth all the expense.

The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce claims the new route would stimulate the West Midlands economy to the tune of £2.24 billion. That’s a lot of money.

But the Chamber admits this increase would come over a period of 60 years. It works out at just £370 million a year.

How can a business organisation seriously expect to support a scheme which brings in £2.24 billion over 60 years in exchange for investment of £34 billion cost. If the Chamber's members conducted their own businesses this way, they'd all be bust by now. Why should we expect the taxpayer to shoulder such a burden?

It would no doubt be fantastic to see sleek new high-speed trains dashing through England at breathtaking speeds. No doubt they would be comfortable, safe, reliable and the last word in 21st century chic (unless it snows and the trains get stuck in a tunnel as they do en route to Paris).

Sadly, we do not have the time to indulge in these fantasies. And we certainly do not have the money. This is the high-speed train to nowhere.

Welcome to the national lottery

If schools are so vital to the future of our children and our nation, it’s about time parents were given more say over where their kids are educated.

At the moment, thousands of places are doled out on an almost random basis because all the best schools are full.

But as the ridiculous annual fiasco of allocating school places took place again this week and the results dribbled in, it was clear up to half the applicants have lost out.

About 200,000 kids won’t be going to the secondary school of their choice next September.

We are constantly assured that parents have real choice in where their children are educated.

Unless you can afford the fees to go private, your options are severely limited. And few people can afford such fees.

Eton costs £28,851 a year. (The fees are advertised as £9,617 per half, which might lead you to think it’s under £20,000 a year until you discover that a “half” is actually a term and there are three terms in a year. So for the very rich, a half equals a third.)

Wolverhampton Grammar School will set you back £7,939 a year assuming your kids are clever enough to win a place.

There are state-funded grammar schools, of course. And very good they are too. That’s why most parents make them first choice if their children have any chance of scraping through the 11-plus.

But there aren’t nearly enough grammar schools and, scandalously, there won’t be any more under a Labour – or a Tory – Government.

So, for about 600,000 parents a year, school places are allocated according to some impenetrable criteria set by their local authority.

There are ways round the system. Favourite is, of course, buying a house in the catchment area of the school of your choice.

This won’t guarantee you a place but it helps. It means house prices can be excessively high in the vicinity of good schools, even in these hard times.

It means posh areas have posh schools and places are won according to the wealth of the pupils’ parents.

As a form of selection, it’s a lot more secure than having little Johnny try his hand at the 11-plus.

It’s been going on for years and is even more popular than grammar schools. But it leaves most parents scratching around looking for the second or third best options.

If you want a place at a faith school, you have to start going to church. I know a number of agnostic parents who go to church religiously so they can secure a coveted place at a successful, over-subscribed school.

You could try lying to win a place for your child, of course. It’s illegal but lots of parents get away with it.

The Government thinks about 3,500 parents cheat though only 1,100 get caught.

Scams include claiming to live at a relative’s house in a the catchment area of a good school or briefly renting a flat nearby.

Some parents will use the address of an empty property, a bogus post-code or an invented street name.

Couples even claim they’re getting divorced and one of them will move alone into the catchment area for a few weeks, just to win a place.

In theory, parents can be prosecuted for fraud. In reality they get away with it.

The demand for secondary school places is entirely predictable because local authorities know well in advance how many 11-year-olds they will have to cater for.

Yet every spring, they sift through their applications and announce to thousands of parents and children that they won’t be going to their choice school.

In Brighton, the places are allocated at random because the council thinks its fairer that way. But it’s a lottery everywhere.

Schools are allowed to be selective. They’re just not allowed to select on the ability of the pupils.

It’s ridiculous that schools which specialise in science or languages, say, are not allowed to recruit kids who are good at those subjects.

The inner cities would be much improved if there were specialist sports academies which were free to choose kids who were good at sport. That’s not allowed.

Instead, parents are subjected to a bureaucratic and patently unfair system for allocating places.

Successful schools are told how many places they can have. Poor, failing schools are given every help to fill places even though nobody wants to go there.

Why shouldn’t good schools be allowed to expand? Why not introduce real competition for pupils, allowing parents to shop around rather than make do with whatever they can get?

The Tories once proposed a voucher system which would allow parents to buy a place at the school of their choice.

Instead of being told where to go, parents would control the funding and that would give them the power. Overnight, schools would focus on the consumers –parents and children – rather than council bureaucrats.

Why not revive the idea?

Good schools would get a chance to earn more money and expand to meet demand. And if that meant poor schools closing down completely, so much the better.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Tax is for little people

There is something disgusting about the fact that people who avoid paying tax in this country can bung their ill-gotten gains at a political party – and enjoy a peerage to boot.

Never mind the cash-for-peerages scandal, the truth has always been that rich men can buy themselves a seat at the top table.

It's a whole lot easier to be rich and buy yourself power and influence if you don't pay high taxes in the country where you flash your cash. You’ve got so much more to spare.

What's so offensive is not so much that rich people can buy themselves power and privilege – 'twas ever thus.

What's sickening is that they can do so at our expense. We, the little people, pay our taxes out of our hard-earned pittances.

Yet if you're mega-rich, you can avoid most taxes in this country and, as a result, have so much un-taxed money you can afford to funnel millions into the political party of your choice.

The other night, Michael Gove tried to intimidate the BBC as it was reporting on Lord Ashcroft's tax status by warning that the way it treated the other political parties, which also accept massive donations from rich "non-doms", would be monitored by the Conservatives.

Fair enough. But the veiled threat implied in his smug, self-satisfied grin was a worry. Two wrongs don’t make a right, Mr Gove, and while the BBC is politically biased against the Tories, you still need to be careful in choosing the ground you fight on.

Furthermore, it is unbelievable that William Hague and David Cameron did not know the details of Lord Ashcroft’s tax status.

The peer has more or less bought their party lock, stock and barrel.

We are assured the Conservatives will win the next election because they have done so much groundwork in the marginal constituencies that they will buck any national trend.

If that is so, they have Lord Ashcroft’s millions to thank.

The millions he has pumped into marginal constituencies – a good £25,000 a year for about 100 seats over three years which I make £7.5 million – that give him his own office, personal staff and private command centre at CCHQ.

If the party’s leaders truly didn’t know the details of Lord Ashcroft’s tax status, it is because they didn’t want to know. They were willing to turn a blind eye in exchange for his largesse.

If they did know, then it’s no surprise they wanted to keep quiet about it.

Either way, if political parties and seats in the British Parliament can be bought and sold by people who are, to all intents and purposes, foreigners, then we are nothing but a corrupt banana republic.

We have no right to complain about the way elections are bought and sold elsewhere in the world.

And yet again our political masters prove the truth of the hideous boast that “tax is for little people”.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

It's the economy, stupid

Ten reasons why the Tories are not 27 points ahead in the polls (as Labour were for months before the 1997 General Election):

1.The vacuousness of the policy of “sharing the proceeds of growth” was exposed by the banking crash of 2008.

2.It left the Conservatives’ economic policy in tatters and indistinguishable from Labour’s.

3.Having abandoned the idea that tax cuts were, in principle, a good thing, the Cameroons have been flailing around ever since looking for a policy which saves money and maintains spending.

4.They can’t find such a policy because it doesn’t exist.

5.If they had a principled belief in lower taxes, and had been making the argument for them during the fat years, they would have greater credibility in the lean years.

6.That is why posters promising to cut the deficit not the NHS have no credibility and should be airbrushed out of the election campaign pronto.

7.The Tories have no answer to the righteous indignation of the ordinary taxpayer over the scandal of bankers’ bonuses.

8.Everyone knows cuts are on the way but the Conservatives are terrified of spelling this out so they are no more trusted than the Labour Party.

9.Can the Tories be trusted not to raise taxes as well as cut spending? Few people think so.

10.Then there’s:

•The meltdown of Cameron’s “cast iron pledge” to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty;
•The abandonment of grammar schools even though the Tories continue their bleeding-heart policy of claiming to care about society’s inequalities;
•The high-handed approach to the party’s own members by the fat cats at party headquarters;
•The lack of credibility this gives to claims the party would devolve power;
•The party is bankrolled by someone who doesn’t even pay tax in this country;
•It’s Shadow Cabinet is anonymous except for a few characters who really should be (see Michael Gove’s cringe-making performance on “Newsnight”);
•The perplexity over whether or not the party is in favour of tax breaks for married couples;
•The terrible blunder over how many unmarried mothers there are on sink estates. The fact that nobody questioned the misplaced decimal point (it is actually 5.4 per cent of girls in poorer areas who have had a pregnancy by the age of 18, not 54 per cent) exposes the party’s prejudices, unreliability and de haut en bas patrician attitude to the British people.
•An MP who can’t stand travelling steerage on the train because of the class of person one encounters.

Oh and we haven’t even looked at immigration.

I still think the Conservatives will win with a majority of about 30 because the incompetence and mendacity of the Labour Government is even worse than that of the Cameroons.

But it’s difficult to imagine that it will make a fat lot of difference to the state we’re in.

No wonder the big winner at the election will be None Of The Above.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Why does everyone pretend the NHS is fit and well?

Why are Cameron's Conservatives a mere two points ahead in the polls? Policy-lite politics is the answer. Consider the following:

Health Secretary Andy Burnham claims the scandal surrounding Stafford Hospital is a local issue. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

The terrible truth is that the NHS cannot be trusted with our lives. The unnecessary deaths in Stafford – anywhere between 400 and 1,200 of them in three years – are not unique.

Our health service is an antiquated, bureaucratic, self-serving edifice with rotten foundations and is crumbling just about everywhere.

It’s only when, as at Stafford, the facts start to leak out as the death toll rises, that we get a glimpse into the real life of an average hospital.

Actually, it’s supposedly above average – at the height of the scandal, the hospital sought and won the coveted Trust status which supposedly marked it out as a caring and effective institution.

It’s no wonder the bereaved families of the poor people who suffered and died in Stafford think even this week’s behind-closed-doors inquiry isn’t good enough.

Stafford is not the only hospital stricken by a fatal dose of obsession with budgets and targets.

It’s not alone in spending £628,000 on spin doctors or getting one in four of its prescriptions wrong.

Managers are partly to blame but where were the doctors and nurses when their patients were neglected, suffering and dying?

Why weren’t they caring properly for their patients?

They can’t hide behind “budget cuts” and “bureaucracy” all the time. They are highly-paid “professionals” – why did they let down so many people so badly?

Don’t they even notice when their patients are left sobbing in their beds as a result of sheer neglect? Obviously not.

What has happened to the massive sums of money poured into the health service in the past 11 years?

Spending has soared from £39.9 billion to £102 billion yet researchers Policy Exchange reckon our hospitals needlessly kill 78,400 patients a year.

These death are caused by “adverse events”, which means accidents, the wrong medication or the wrong treatment.

If you are unlucky enough to fall into the clutches of the health service, you will know some treatment is superb. Some wards are clean, some nurses are kindly and caring, some doctors are wonderful.

You will also know some conditions are Third World, some staff couldn’t care less, some doctors are rude and arrogant and some “service” comes on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

It’s easy to blame NHS managers and staff shortages for the tragedy that is our modern health service. But it would be wrong to do so.

The infection has spread far and wide and, rather like MRSA and other killer bugs caught in hospital these days, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.

Yet none of our political parties is willing to look at the NHS and even consider that it might be a suitable case for treatment.

Nobody bothers to ask whether this is the best way to provide health care to an expanding and ageing population?

Everyone knows the NHS is Labour’s secret weapon. Despite the evidence, voters apparently think it’s safe in their hands.

The staff may be but Stafford Hospital proves the patients certainly aren’t. That’s why Mr Burnham wants to keep the scandal confined to one maverick hospital. He daren’t admit there are wider problems.

Yet the Conservatives are so terrified of being thought anti-NHS they have no serious alternatives to offer. They won’t even look at whether the taxpayer gets good value for all the money we pour into it.

We should note the struggle Barack Obama is having to introduce universal health care in the United States.

Over there, people are terrified of a Socialist solution to health care. They mistrust it because they are certain it will lead to lower standards and less chance of getting the treatment they need when they need it.

They’re afraid if the Government is in charge of health care, their chances of survival will fall.

Our experience proves they’re right. Yet we delude ourselves into thinking we have the best health service in the world.

Just because it’s free when you need it doesn’t mean it’s good.

A public inquiry into the Stafford scandal would not just reveal the depths to which that hospital has sunk but show us how the NHS is really run – for the benefit of the staff, the functionaries, the contractors and politicians, not patients or their families.

Then, maybe, we will see the service as it really is – deeply flawed and tragically out-dated – rather than as we like to think of it.

No other organisation would be allowed to survive after absorbing so much money for so little effect.

Yes, the NHS still saves lives. And, when it does, it enjoys the abject gratitude of its patients, their family and friends.

The overwhelming relief that they aren’t dead blinds many people to the grim realities of life in the NHS.

It is run along the lines prescribed by 19th century Socialists (only without the carbolic soap). We need a 21st century remedy for the plague of incompetence and indifference now sweeping the service.

But the political spin doctors are all off playing golf with their chums the hospital consultants.