Monday, December 18, 2006

Honesty in politics: Is it misleading or lying?
Lord Norman Warner of Brockley has resigned from his job as health minister. He says he wants to “spend more time with his family and not his red boxes”. Downing Street denied it was anything to do with the IT project of the NHS he was overseeing at the time although it was silent on whether it had anything to do with his misleading Parliament over the use of life coaches in the Department of Health. Oh dear, that old chestnut of politicians not telling the truth versus lying is up for debate again.

In September this year, the Lord stated in a written Parliamentary answer that his department had no contracts with executive coaching companies Praesta and ER Consultants. Two months later, he had to sheepishly admit that in fact, this was not so: “I regret that the answer I gave . . . was inaccurate . . . This was caused by human error when extracting data from the department’s accounting system and was not a deliberate attempt to provide misleading information.” Ah, it was accounts’ fault. This was the latest in a long line of NHS gaffes from the Brockley Baron. And speaking of money, you would have thought that life coaches, who can earn some £250 per hour, would have left something more behind than just a bill. Considering we - the taxpayer - ultimately pay life coaches like Praesta a small fortune to help our leaders become `better’, we ought to take an active interest in their work. The Sunday Times says they become `critical friends’ to our public officials and use role-play to improve their confidence. Hmmm. I can’t recall a shy politician ever canvassing for a vote. Residents of Lewisham ought to take an additional interest since Bridget Prentice the MP for Lewisham East is also parliamentary secretary in the Department for Constitutional Affairs: Her department alone is spending nearly a quarter of a million pounds with Praesta. What’s that all about?

It seems to me that there is something wrong here. In the Code of Ethics that Praesta subscribes to, it places great emphasis on professionalism when it says: Ensure that any claim of professional competence, qualifications or accreditation is clearly and accurately explained to potential clients and that no false or misleading claims are made or implied in any published material. If it’s good enough for the practitioner then it ought to be good enough for the client too. Especially if said client has control over the NHS. And what of misleading someone versus lying to them? Does it always hinge on unknowingly misrepresenting the truth as against acting with deliberate deceit? How can you demonstrate you genuinely did not know something? Isn’t it impossible to prove a negative? And isn’t this even worse in politics when there are umpteen layers of administration for such lapses of knowledge to fall between? For all the pomp and majesty of the House of Lords in particular and the centuries of tradition of Parliament in general with its cut and thrust of debate, the first casualty, like in war, is the truth. And considering that one of this country’s most controversial entanglements in decades – Iraq - was allegedly based upon flawed information, can we ever trust our politicians when they speak? And when they are inevitably found out, what then? In recent times, the commonly used device is to try and `spin’ out of the mess, with predictable groans of contempt from all around. Which is what makes the legacy of the late John Profumo, arguably the best critical friend a politician should ever need, glow all the more brightly…

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