We can understand the UK’s anger and resentment… Public procurement scandals, there as here, have often hogged the headlines
By Jan Arden
At the Manchester Tory Conference (October 1-4, 2023), PM Rishi Sunak, had a tough job on his hands. It required of him to be innovative, reformist and to restore hope to the population after 13 years of his party’s incumbency and a succession of failed prime ministerships, some with doubtful integrity during the Covid pandemic and a botched Brexit deal to boot. His personal and wealthy family image did not help in a Britain that looks bleak with food banks, impoverishment, inability to curb illegal migrants, massive underfunding in public infrastructure, housing, health, and education services, and with unemployment and inflation biting large sections of the population. That’s quite a mouthful on his plate, despite some well-heeled financiers, media, and City support.
A Labour government would recover billions of pounds lost to Covid fraud as part of its mission to “rebuild Britain”, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said at Labour Conference. Taxpayers had lost £7.2bn during the pandemic, with “every single one of those cheques signed by Rishi Sunak as chancellor”. “And yet just 2% of all fraudulent covid grants have been recovered,” she said. Pic – Sky News
The Labour Conference that followed in Liverpool (Oct 8 to 10, 2023) had its own problems for Sir Keir Starmer, after some notoriously divisive issues (green policies, antisemitism in its ranks, dithering on Brexit and general lack of credibility on the economic management front) failed the party badly in previous electoral jousts. In the recurrent tussles between its working-class or trade-union credentials and disconnect with the middle classes, the Labour Party, since Tony Blair or perhaps earlier, knew it could not aspire to win the electorate without moving to a more social-democratic position, greater business credibility and firmer leadership reins.
After winning the Labour leadership in 2020 following the party’s four successive electoral defeats in a row, Starmer – a former DPP – knew and faced some difficult internal challenges: taking over the party machinery and sidelining the left without capsizing the boat. He also had to establish a plank of economically credible proposals on the back of what many believe have been a disastrous spell of prolonged Tory rule. Not very charismatic, was Starmer the leader to re-ignite hope with party workers, activists and the disillusioned electorate across the country that « New Labour », as the old saying goes, is primed for office? While the City or some media and financiers will continue to find grounds to grumble, he seems to have largely achieved those objectives.
Incumbency was coming at a high cost for the Tories, running 20% behind Labour and with almost 9 of every 10 Britons today believing that the country deserves a fresh team of leaders, according to a late September IPSOS poll monitor. Marc Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England from 2013 to 2020 has endorsed the Labour Party in a major coup for Keir Starmer and his shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves. In a well-received speech, as policy driver of that new Labour credibility, she had to attack the wealthy, the privileges, the cronies and the corrupt, and promised Labour would “wage a war against fraud, waste and inefficiency”, by cracking down on “Tory ministers’ private jet habit”, by slashing government consultancy spending and by going after “those who profited from the carnival of waste during the pandemic”.
Much of the UK population had been aghast at Tory bunglings, cronyism, fraud, corruption and mismanagement with emergency procurement procedures and other unethical goings-on including partygates during pandemic lockdowns and sufferings for millions of ordinary folk. “The cost to the taxpayer of Covid fraud is estimated at £7.2 billion with every one of those cheques signed by Rishi Sunak as chancellor and yet just 2 per cent of fraudulent Covid grants have been recovered,” Reeves said, adding, “we will appoint a Covid Corruption Commissioner equipped with the powers they need and the mandate to do what it takes to chase those who have ripped off the taxpayer, taking them to court and clawing back every penny of taxpayers’ money that they can.”
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Corrupt procedures and people
On the home front, we may not compare in many ways with the Westminster model of democracy, either through the functionings and dysfunctionings of our Parliament or our variety of costly « institutions » to tackle high-level fraud, scams, and corruption. Yet we can understand the UK’s anger and resentment at princely salaries, perks and lifestyles of its governing political leadership, its fawning cronies, and its appetite for signing mega-projects funded by taxes, devaluation and public debts, when the common man, the small entrepreneur or the elderly and invalids are hard hit by soaring pharma products, food and fuel-pump prices. Public procurement scandals, there as here, have often hogged the headlines.
Press reports this week have it that the Metro Express, whose extension to the airport had been dropped in favour of the costly Reduit to St Pierre, Moka Smart City and the white elephant at Core d’Or has now been dropped too. A minor matter of some Rs 10 billion saved from the contract signing and spending spree.
Need we recall that in a similar management mess made by cronies and nominees, Air Mauritius forked out hundreds of millions in various consultancies, selling off brand new planes for spares and peanuts during the pandemic and resorts nowadays to leasing some older aircraft to meet post-Covid travel demand.
Need we also recall procurement procedures, even without the Emergency qualifiers, are being side-stepped at the Central Electricity Board, where its unresolved St Louis corruption episode is still hanging mid-air. Or that a stable, forecastable long-term fuel supply agreement with Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited was ditched seven years ago in favour of spot bids and tenders with agents, brokers and commission buyers allegedly making merry and hot-footing it to the bank at taxpayer expense.
Or again at the STC, where government-imposed levels of excise duties, VAT and various added « contributions » that all commuters, drivers including old-age pensioners, small and medium businesses pay to central government coffers, are felt as exorbitant, raking in more than Rs 35 per litre of fuel at the pump to fund both its social dish-outs, interest on its public debt mountain and the government’s unabated spending spree.
An April 2022 article in l’express detailed the « jackpot to government » that these controversial taxes represented. Undeterred, the government has raised fuel prices again in October with some Rs 10.2 billion going to central government coffers only in excise duties and VAT, as per l’express of 10th October 2023. Then there came the inglorious backpedaling three days later, leaving eggs on many faces and fuelling questions on the image and reality of competency in high quarters.
Mismanagement, errors, and mistakes are regularly reported by the Audit Office whichever government has been in place, but the pandemic here, as in UK or other resilient places, have opened the door wide open to corrupt contracts, procedures and practices that UK’s Labour Party is proposing to tackle on the Thatcherite tone of « We want our money back! ».
Collective shame and a sense of disgust with the powerful, wealthy, and corrupt elites is perceptible in the UK public and they reflect in the Labour Shadow Chancellor’s pledge. It will be intriguing to see what legal form her proposed Corruption Commission might take there and what lessons our own legal and constitutional minds make of it.
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 13 October 2023
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