I am a collector of classic newspaper headlines, probably ever since I saw details, I think in an article by Claude Cockburn, of the Times’ sub-editors’ competition in the 1930s to get the most tasteless headline into the paper. The winner, by common consent, was the truly toe-curling:

“Small earthquake in Chile: not many killed.”

Which comes from the same stable as the vintage Anglocentric classic:

“Fog in Channel: continent cut off.”

Football comes out well in this competition, whether for the truly inspired response to Celtic 1 Inverness Caledonian Thistle 3:

“Super Cally go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious”

To the slightly more subtle, not to say surreal, response to Cologne’s Japanese substitute Okudera’s late equaliser in a European Cup tie against Nottingham Forest (yes children, Nottingham Forest used to play in, and win, the European Cup):

“Forest sunk by Japanese sub”.

I always wanted to know if the Manchester Evening News was inspired or just lucky with:

“Missing dog breeder: new lead”.

But perhaps my all time favourite was the Ormskirk Advertiser’s utterly inconsequential front page lead:

“Man falls off bike in High Street – not hurt”.

I must therefore congratulate the BBC News website, and by extension the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee as the body ultimately responsible, for the following gem:

“Civil service job cuts will harm services, MPs warn”.

Apparently Government departments have failed to find new ways of working that do not threaten the provision of services, following the shedding of 35,000 jobs as a consequence of the 2010 Spending Review, with another 35,000 still due to go. According to Richard Bacon, PAC member and media regular:

“Senior civil servants had gone for the easy, low-hanging fruit”

Which does rather encourage the thought that perhaps the cull should have started with senior civil servants.

Clearly on a roll with his statements of the bleeding obvious (@ Fawlty Towers c.1976), Mr Bacon proceeded to announce that:

“not doing things that don’t need to be done, working smarter, making it more normal to do things digitally – in other words on the internet (no, he really said that – he is versatile enough to do patronising as well as obvious) – while at the same time protecting people who don’t have access to the internet”.

Among the examples of good practice that Mr Bacon quoted (which to be frank marks him out, to a tax practitioner, as verging on delusional to add to his other qualities) were HMRC’s online services, for “saving money and making it easier for taxpayers”. Shame for those of us who have to try to deal with them by post or telephone, then!

Cutting through the spin, what Mr Bacon is trying to say is that services have suffered as a result of cutting civil service staff numbers without reference to the ‘service’ element of the title (one of my business partners, herself an ex-HMRC employee, is fond of saying that “the civil service is now neither civil nor a service”, which says it all really), and there’s lot’s more where that came from unless those in charge work out how to deliver the following virtuous triangle, delivered at the Autumn 2011 CIOT conference by Sue Walton, HMRC Central Director of Policy, in a talk about the HMRC Spending Review context, with a commendably straight face:

                                                                                MAXIMISE REVENUE FLOWS






STABILISE AND IMPROVE                                                                                         CREATE SUSTAINABLE              

THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE                                                                                  COST REDUCTIONS

Sorry if that looks rubbish on the blog, it looks OK in a Word document!

Having achieved which, presumably senior HMRC staff will proceed to solve world hunger, engender world peace and reconcile Israel and Palestine. Then after lunch ……..

So given that level of realism in political and senior civil service circles, we are probably not that surprised that service standards have slipped dramatically, and wait with dread for the next round of HMRC staff cuts to see how much worse it can get. Meanwhile bears continue to relieve themselves in the woods and the Pope resolutely affirms his Catholicism.