Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson has to be good for something, even if it’s only a clichéd quotation. I was reminded of this one by the juxtaposition of two contrasting stories earlier this week.
First, we heard that the Government was to cut a £13 million grant to a charity called “Bookstart”, which apparently gives a package of free books to parents whenever a child is born. One wonders how many of the books are still around a few years later when the children might be of an age to appreciate them – and of those, how many are actually read. This decision applied only in England, so to add insult to injury, Welsh and Scottish babies were to have an intellectual head-start, of which English little ones were to be deprived. Shades of Maggie Thatcher the Milk-Snatcher.
Today we hear that after pressure from “Literary Heavyweights” (aka “luvvies”), the decision had been reversed, and Michael Gove had been forced into “an embarrassing U-turn” (to quote the tabloids and the Labour Party). These literary giants had triumphed after recourse to mighty metaphors and verbiage like “wanton destruction” and “gross cultural vandalism”.
But hang on a minute. Books today are as cheap in comparative terms as they have ever been. You can buy a paperback in Waterstones for a few pounds. You can buy a hardback at a car-boot sale or a church fête for 50p. Everyone can afford books. And we already provide free education at schools where text-books and library books are available.
Yes of course, books and reading are vital to education and intellectual development. But so are food and clothes, but we don’t provide them, or only indirectly through welfare support. If social security payments can cover food and clothes – and computer games and a TV in the bedroom – surely they can also cover a few books? I don’t dispute that Bookstart is doing a good and useful job – but let them do it as a charity, not as a tax-payer-funded public service. If savings must be found, then this is a perfectly sensible place to find them, even if it cuts into the royalties of Messrs Pullman and Motion.
But secondly, on the same day as the Bookstart news, we heard that International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell was finding an extra £40 million for an international disaster fund, because countries like China and Italy had failed to meet their commitments. How’s that for moral hazard? We’ve put up a sign saying “Don’t bother to pay up, because we suckers in Britain will make good the difference”. More generally, while we cut our armed forces and our police, we are finding billions for extra spending on overseas aid. I simply don’t understand this, and nor do most Conservatives and most voters that I talk to. Charity begins at home, especially in hard times.
We all know the stories about the way so much aid money is subverted, and ends up enriching corrupt politicians, or funding insurgents. If the National Health Service is expected to find efficiency savings, then so should the foreign aid budget – and it probably has more scope to do so than the NHS.
In another current news story, the Prime Minister of Haiti, Jean-Max Bellerive, complains that the aid offered to his country following the earthquake is being controlled by NGOs, and that his government is effectively side-lined. No disrespect to Mr. Bellerive, but I suspect that the NGOs are, on the whole, less corrupt than his government is likely to be. But 400+ NGOs? All working in the same small island, each with its own plan and budget and methods and objectives? Was there ever such a recipe for overlap, duplication, confusion, chaos, and waste?
Mr. Mitchell should do what other Ministers are doing, and look for efficiencies within his existing budget, before doing an Oliver Twist to the British taxpayer, and asking for more.
So I question whether we need £13 million for Bookstart, or an extra £40 million the international disaster fund, or extra billions for foreign aid in general. But most of all I question cutting books for English children on the same day that we announce massive extra spending on aid. It’s wrong, and the public won’t buy it.