Belgium


A politics-free zone

YOU SHOULD expect the unexpected from a country occupied largely by Flemish and Walloons.
I’m sorry if this offends any Belgian readers, but to my English-speaking ear “Walloon” sounds like something out of Monty Python – and the country’s record 541 days without a government could have been scripted by a satirist too.
On December 6 a new Government was finally sworn in (in three different languages). A caretaker administration has been holding the reins since the last Government resigned in April 2010.
Our own politicians must be looking nervously over their shoulders, because Belgium’s national life appeared to work well without interference from national politicians. Regional and community authorities looked after most day-to-day matters and bureaucrats handled the rest.
In February, when Britain was still in recession, Belgium recorded 2.1% growth for the year. Foreign investment doubled and unemployment was well below the European average.
So here’s what I’m proposing. We have elections every four or five years and the winning party (or coalition) slaps its manifesto on the table and says to the Civil Servants: “This is what we’re doing for the next four (or five) years; go away and get on with it.”
The politicians can then go back to their day jobs, turning out only in the event of a national disaster, a bit like the RNLI volunteers. The £450million a year it costs to run Parliament could be used to support a couple of thousand new small businesses.

WE WOULD have to start by setting up some strict safeguards to stop Civil Servants going mad with our money (which they already do). Perhaps an off-with-his-head disincentive scheme for the ten worst over-spenders.
The past decade has seen public money wasted in a way not witnessed since the Egyptian pharaohs’ Pyramid Job Creation Scheme. Tens of thousands of peasants were set to work building those gleaming monuments to death in the desert. We quite like to visit the pyramids now, but 4,000 years is a devil of a long wait for a tourist attraction to start earning money.
We have had our own crazy taxpayer-funded job creation schemes here. Actually, most seem to be aimed at cutting jobs, so we should call them job-destruction schemes. The most recent to go belly-up was the mad idea to have nine regional fire control centres. “FiReControl” (note the snazzy mix of capitals and lower case, which probably cost a couple of hundred thousand in fees to a branding agency).
The £1.4billion scheme, which started in 2004, aimed to operate all fire brigades in the South West from Taunton, which everyone I spoke to thought was a really bad idea. It has now been officially scrapped, with eight centres around the country standing empty because of problems with their computers. An astonishing £342million of taxpayers’ money is committed to paying rent on the empty sites. One of the centres has had a £25,000 coffee machine installed … with no one there to drink from it.
Earlier this year the fire control fiasco seemed to be in a class of its own, but now we learn that the NHS’s abortive integrated IT system has lost us several billions. Because of the way the contracts were drawn up, just scrapping the project will cost us another £2 billion.
Ditto the two new aircraft carriers. The last Government approved contracts that are more expensive to cancel than they are to complete. Were they complete idiots, or merely corrupt?

FATHER TIME is portrayed as a stooped, toothless old man with an hourglass in one hand and a scythe in the other. He doesn’t half move fast for a decrepit old cove. I’ve just had some routine medical checks after changing to a new GP (my patient records followed weeks later by snail mail, of course).
One check-up was a high-tech lung-capacity test where you blow into a tube and it tells your fortune, near enough. The charming nurse praised me for having the lung function of a 45-year-old. A what? Am I supposed to be pleased? In my head I’m still 35, and that’s where I’m planning to stay, thanks very much.

An edited version of this article first appeared in The Herald

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