13th August, 2017

Holding power to account has turned into a bloodsport

I spoke at an annual conference for the chairmen and chairwomen of health trusts a few years ago. The view among the audience was that the gravest problem they faced was not the NHS budget, or ageing populations, or rising expectations of medical care, but being able to recruit chief executives of sufficient quality for the job. They said no one of the highest calibre wants to do that type of task any more.

Leaders of public institutions of every kind are under sustained attack. I am not just talking about criticism from the media, or citizens, or even parliament. No, the danger faced by the bosses of our most important civic and business organisations is that they could get arrested and thrown in jail.

Four directors of Barclays bank are being prosecuted for alleged crimes committed nine years ago; former police chiefs are being prosecuted over the Hillsborough football disaster 28 years ago; and no doubt several senior council executives at Kensington and Chelsea are concerned that they may face criminal charges over the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy.

Perhaps all these prosecutions are justified, despite the very long delays in some cases. Unfortunately, there is no statute of limitations for any criminal cases in the UK.

Where justice is stimulated by the mob, it feels more like retribution than fair punishment, rational deterrence or crime prevention. If we expect near perfection and all-encompassing obligations from leaders in public life, we will end up disappointed.