What if Jim Hacker had been Minister for the Environment?



It has recently been revealed that the UK Government’s Flood Helpline is (or possibly now it’s had such bad publicity ‘was’) a premium rate number costing those that rang it up to 41p a minute. This is my take on how that could have happened.


Scene: The Environment Agency (some years ago)

Jim Hacker: Good morning Humphrey. Come in and take a seat.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Thank you Minister.

Jim Hacker: Humphrey, how are we getting on with the plans for my idea of a 24 hours a day, seven days a week flood helpline? You know my views on this: I’m trying to deflect public attention from the fact that we haven’t dredged the rivers or built the flood defences the voters want and a nice long number we can get displayed in big figures on weather forecasts on all the television channels, on our website and in the newspapers will look like we are doing something.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well Minister, prepare yourself for a bit of a shock. Since you asked me to look into this last year, I have had a working party of civil servants plus the inevitable sub-committees working tirelessly on the logistics, and perhaps more importantly the cost, of such an enterprise and I’m afraid their final report doesn’t make for comfortable reading. (Humphrey opens a bulky report but doesn’t offer it to Hacker to read) I’ll summarise the findings for you shall I?

Jim Hacker: Please do.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: With environmental change happening so rapidly, we assess that such a department may, during periods of heavy rainfall,  get inundated with calls. (Humphrey smiles at the use of the word ‘inundated’) The advice is that we would need four teams of ten staff working three eight-hour shifts each shift having two supervisors. Even on our lowest pay scales that will cost nearly £1 million per annum. Then there’s the computer workstations, the software, the furniture, the rental of the telephone lines, the networking costs, heating and lighting of the accommodation, etc. As well as the initial outlay for these things there would be the usual on-costs incurred from the IT and facilities companies that we out-source to. Need I continue?

Jim Hacker: Good grief Humphrey! Do we have the funding for any of that?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: No Minister.

Jim Hacker: Well something has to be done. A lot of these places that are vulnerable to flooding are in marginals you know. I want them to at least have a number they can call while they are filling their sandbags.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: I do have a solution to this problem Minister if you will allow me to explain?

Jim Hacker: Please do Humphrey.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: I happened to have lunch last week with the director of a company that runs call centres. He assured me they could take on this flood helpline project and do it all for a fraction of the price that it would cost us. They already have the staff, necessary software and hardware. All we would have to do is give them secure access to our computer systems at minimal cost and leave it to them.

Jim Hacker: Wait a minute. Don’t these call centres charge for premium rate calls?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: A mere technicality Minister. When someone is wading around their lounge in their wellington boots, listening to ‘Raindrops Keep Failing on my Head’ while they wait for their call to be dealt with the last thing on their mind is the cost of the call. In any event by the time they get their phone bill, if they still get a paper one, they will have completely forgotten what that expensive call was all about or, if they’re still flooded, the bill will have been rendered unreadable during its float from the front door to wherever they open it. As a further precaution we will make sure the cost of the calls appears in very small letters under the number wherever it appears either on television, on the Internet or in print.

Jim Hacker:  I’m not sure about this Humphrey. Where are these call centres? Will they be familiar with the locations in question? Doing it ourselves here at The Environment Agency using UK citizens might provide a better service and would at least create nearly fifty new jobs.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Minister, you really have to stop worrying about such things. Wherever the call centres are I’m the staff will have full access to Google Maps. My friend the director also assures me that his company pay far more than those who run so called ‘sweat shops’ where they pay their staff 5p an hour.

Jim Hacker: So using this company is helping relieve poverty in the Third World. I like the sound of that. How quickly can this be done Humphrey?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: I have the contract for you to sign here Minister. (Humphrey pulls out a multi-page document from the bundle on his lap) Don’t bother reading it Minister – I’ve already checked it myself.

Jim Hacker: Thank you Humphrey (Hacker signs on the last page) See that the number is released to all interested parties as soon as it’s set up.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes Minister.

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