Horse row no laughing matter – but NHS scandal even worse

Allister Heath
IF you agree to sell something, it is your responsibility to ensure that the product or service you deliver is exactly the one you and your customer agreed to. That applies to financial products just as much as to food. That is why I disagree with those who believe that the horse meat “contamination” row is a storm in a tea cup, little more than a joke. The issue is one of trust and of the sanctity of contracts, both of which are vital to capitalism.

Those suppliers who decided to secretly pass off horse meat for beef conned their customers. They need to be sued and brought to book. They did wrong and should not be allowed to get away with it. They have damaged trust in the modern globalised food chain, which is a tragedy given that it has helped make varied and good quality food available to millions of people, especially the poor. Large buyers of meat products – such as supermarkets – also need to further up their game and routinely employ DNA tests to prevent this nonsense from happening again.

But while it is an important story that needs to be tackled, and no joking matter, the horse meat row hasn’t killed anybody. It is certainly ridiculous that the story has a much greater public profile than the deadly and still growing scandal engulfing the NHS. What has happened in some of Britain’s hospitals, as detailed in the shocking Francis report last week, is a genuine catastrophe, the sort of scandal that ought to be epoch-defining and lead to drastic changes in policies and attitudes. Thousands of people have died in vain, often in horrid, inhumane conditions; yet more hospitals are being dragged into the fray, with 14 hospitals now being investigated.

In fact, this affair is a far greater scandal than Libor, itself a very serious matter which will hopefully end in criminal prosecutions and jail sentences for perpetrators. While a disgusting betrayal of wholesale customers of financial services and a major blow to the City, the Libor rigging affair probably had very little impact on consumers, and didn’t even actually bolster the bottom line of the likes of RBS (as opposed to that of some individual traders). Tragically, the callous incompetence of some staff within the Mid Staffordshire NHS trust led to an atrociously large numbers of deaths.

So the real question remains: why has nobody been prosecuted for negligence at the NHS? Why has nobody resigned? Astonishingly, the chief executive retains his job. Why are the Libor and horse meat scandals still grabbing a disproportionate share of the national conversation, and attracting all the venom, while the mass slaughter in some hospitals is being met with astonishing cool? Where is the outrage about rewards for failure, high pay and the rest at affected hospitals? Where are the televised grillings by MPs? There is something wrong here. This is no time for double standards.

Britain’s economy continues to stagnate, dragged down by a frighteningly long list of problems. But there are a few signs of (relative) hope. The economy is probably no longer shrinking and appears to be on a slight improving trend. As Global Insight’s Howard Archer points out, the OECD’s leading indicator for the UK edged up to 100.7 in December from 100.6 in November, 100.5 in October,100.2 in September, 100.0 in August, 99.7 in June and a low of 99.2 in early-2012 and late-2011. It had previously trended down from 101.5 in early 2011. Other evidence is contradictory, of course, but most doesn’t suggest another savage contraction in the first quarter. Fingers crossed.
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