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Home > Politics

A Website for All Occasions

28 January 2006

This week the National Audit office revealed that the Department for Work and Pensions spent 31 million publishing 250 different leaflets last year. These leaflets, it found, were frequently out of date and difficult for the public to understand, prompting the chairman of the Commons public accounts committee to comment that the DWP was producing 'gobbledegook'.

Quelle surprise. Anyone who has had any dealings with government departments will know that they spew out endless 'guidelines' (as opposed to legally enforceable rules) and documents about things like 'best practice'. A large part of the paper mountain is specialist advice that only an 'interested' minority of people read, e.g. changes to wiring regulations in abattoirs. Such stuff is dull, but probably necessary. But what you really have to question is the government's advice to us, the general public.

Unfortunately, the rise of paternalistic New Labour coincided with the growth of Internet access and the 'information revolution' propaganda/bullshit that accompanied it. The result is not merely leaflets, like the moronic terrorism booklet sent to every home, but a seemingly infinite web of Internet sites run
by the government.

The spiritual home of government advice is a truly vast repository of information and endless links. Yet despite the diversity of the information on offer, there's a common theme running through much of it: it's shit.

Take Breakout! which includes a page devoted to protecting your kids against bullies, paedos, triffids, etc. Some of the advice is sound, if a little obvious:

'When out and about visiting places, always arrange a meeting point for you and your kids, in case any of you get lost.'

Well, yes, it's a sensible idea. But casting our minds back to childhood, we seem to recall that this was pretty much a matter of course. Unless you were spawned by utter morons, in which case your dad probably told you not to 'wait by the check-out' but 'wait by the nearest sex offenders unit'. However, some of the advice is distinctly weird - some might say 'paranoid'. When travelling by train, Breakout! suggests:

'Make sure you all travel together in the same train carriage, or have seats close together on a bus or coach.'

Pardon our French, but WHAT SORT OF A FUCKING IDIOT MANAGES TO LOSE THEIR KIDS ON A BUS? And how 'at risk' are kids on a coach if their parents are also on the coach? Are paedo gangs chasing National Express coaches down the motorway on scooters and grabbing kids out of the emergency door? Probably not.

DirectGov isn't restricted to serious issues like child abduction. It also features countless sections with titles like 'Ideas for your spare time'.

Apparently, 'You can have fun and get fit at the same time at your local sport or leisure centre.' This is news to us. Even more shockingly, there are activities known as 'hill walking', 'cycling' and 'volunteering'. Or you might want to 'learn a new skill' (whatever the jumping Jehosophat that could mean) or trace your 'family, local or house history'.

Apart from being bleedingly obvious activities (except perhaps for tracing the history of your house, surely an activity that could only appeal to Dorko, King of the Dorks) these suggestions are almost totally arbitrary. It's just... random stuff to do. Here's TFT's list of suggestions:

Have a wank.
Tear random pages out of books at your local library.
Have another wank.
See how long you can hold your hand in a flame.
Train an 'attack' cat.

DirectGov also suffers from that problem that faces anyone trying to put large amounts of information online - it requires an army of data inputters to do it in the first place, and another army to keep it up to date. Or as it might be called: 'Page Last Updated September 1999 Syndrome'.

Following DirectGov's suggestion that we brush up on our cooking skills, we followed a series of links to a listing of part-time evening courses in 'domestic cookery' in the Greater London area. The result was a listing of just eight courses, four of which were in Sutton (an archetypal chavscum town that's really in Surrey) and one of which was in Southampton. All the courses had already finished.

The range of information available at DirectGov is as patronising as it is vast. It suggests getting an allotment, if you're so inclined, the benefits of which include having 'an affordable source of fresh fruit and vegetables'. Apparently it also 'reduces stress and gives you a sense of achievement'. Well, running an allotment is no doubt calming (unless you're Arthur Fowler) but does it give you a sense of achievement? We at TFT can only speak for ourselves, but getting our novels published or film scripts made would give us a sense of achievement, not growing some fucking runner beans.

The one piece of advice that is conspicuously absent from DirectGov is, 'Why not just look in the Thompson local directory?' This surely is the easiest way to pursue any number of leisure activities and access local services. A case in point is the page that tells you how to 'Report an abandoned vehicle'. It offers advice and a dinky little online local government 'finder'.

Of course, you could just PHONE THE FUCKING COUNCIL. (Sorry, but the infuriating mindlessness of DirectGov keeps making this contributor keep hitting Caps Lock). Frankly, anyone who's so gormless they can't find a number for their local council deserves to find themselves barricaded into their own home by abandoned cars.

But as ever, the mother lode of nonsense relates to our old chum Terrorism. Here the government's advice is particularly ludicrous, because, unlike cookery courses, it's actually quite a serious subject. Among the usual 'keep a torch/blankets/tinned food/Al Qaeda repellent handy...' advice is:

'Know who and what you expect to see each day within your neighbourhood, and report anything suspicious. Ask yourself:

- is there anything out of place?
- is there anything there that is not usually there?
- is my home as I left it?'

It's hardly worth pointing out that none of the above advice would have made a jot of difference to the victims of the London bombings, but checking that your home is 'as I left it' is paranoia bordering on mental illness. Where does one stop? 'Before going to sleep always poke around under your bed with a sharp stick in case Osama Bin Laden is hiding there'?

The point of all this low-grade, patronising and sometimes downright *weird* information is unclear, but it's hard not to reach the conclusion that it's part of the nearest thing New Labour has to an ideology: in the absence of real policies, come up with a token gesture.

Maybe there should be a website.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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