Don’t civil servants know it’s a recession?

I’ve got a new hobby. Something to while away the time during those long evenings now that few of us can afford to go out any more.

It involves looking up the social life of civil servants. Stung by accusations that civil servants have been living it up at corporate hospitality events, Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell has published a list of lunches, dinners and sports fixtures to which mandarins were treated in 2007.

How fascinating it is to see how the other half live. Some of the dining feats, not least by the MoD’s top brass, are verging on the legendary. On November 23, 2008, air chief marshall Sir Jack Stirrup, managed lunch at the Army Benevolent Fund, followed by dinner at the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces Association.

Air chief marshall Sir Glenn Torpy enjoyed lunch and dinner at BAE Systems on January 8, 2009 so much that, two days later, he was back for another lunch with the company. The chief medical officer had such a good dinner at the Royal Society of Medicine on June 12 last year that he was still there the next day at lunch time. And so it goes on.

Sir Gus, in a recent speech at Lancaster University, said he was “disappointed with much of the recent coverage of the issue of hospitality”. He went on: “It is a vital part of the running of the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, for example, to build relationships with businessmen and women. If we are going to develop policies to help business, we need to hear their concerns.”

Sir Gus has certainly been doing his bit to hear the concerns of entrepreneurs – especially those who run the All England Tennis Club and the Football Association, both of whose hospitality he enjoyed in 2007.

Jonathan Stephens, permanent secretary of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, was so committed to developing policies favouring the tennis industry that he accepted the All England Tennis Club’s invitation to Wimbledon twice in the same week.

Funnily enough, there are fewer declarations of hospitality from the owners of food-packaging plants in Scunthorpe or metal-bashing works in West Yorkshire. Sir Gus has been listening to the concerns of BP’s executives but owing, I am sure, to pressures on his time, these weren’t conducted in the canteen at a distant oil refinery but at the opera.

It would seem, though, that our civil servants aren’t yet attending quite enough corporate hospitality events. Just think: if Sir Peter Ricketts, permanent under secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, had stayed for afternoon tea following his lunches with Lehman Brothers and the Royal Bank of Scotland, he might have got to know the boards so well that he’d have been able to give the government advance warning that the banks were going to go belly-up.

I’m sure that Joe Harley, CIO and director general of corporate IT at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), learned a lot during his four dinners as the guest of US computer contractors EDS. Perhaps he should have a few more just to make sure EDS won’t do to the DWP what it did to the Inland Revenue: design a computer system that crashes while trying to pay tax credits, throwing the whole benefits system into meltdown.

EDS has only just stumped up the remainder of the £71m compensation it agreed to pay the Inland Revenue in for the 2003 fiasco. Mr Harley may have to go without a starter next time.

Sir Gus is pleased with the ethos of the civil service. Of a survey of “fast-streamers”, he boasts, “90 per cent said it was important to them to have a job that benefited wider society. In the private sector, that was just 15 per cent”.

After his fifth glass of Chablis, I’m sure a civil servant can well believe he is doing the world a favour every time he puts on his suit.

Picture: source

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