Eyebrows have been raised this week after the Prime Minister appointed his “personal photographer” to a civil service post. The Daily Mail thinks that it’s “defying his own austerity regime.”
Surely someone in Number 10 must have anticipated a backlash from this move? This position shouldn’t be funded by the taxpayer. Number 10 has claimed that “he will work for cabinet office, not just the PM.” That doesn’t mean it’s all of a sudden value for money. Many in the public and private sectors fear for the security of their own jobs, so taxpayers will not be happy to fork out for an official Government photographer. The coalition parties should fund the post out of their own coffers.
Cutting unnecessary spending, eradicating waste and wiping out the deficit should be the priorities of the Coalition Government. This move contradicts that necessary agenda and Downing Street should be prepared to practice what it preaches.
A list of all the RDA-owned freehold land and property assets has been released by the Government. Laura Sandys MP submitted a Parliamentary Question to the House last Thursday and the list is now available online. Immediate eye-brow raisers are the Dog and Partridge pub in Dudley, as well as another boozer and a fish and chip shop in Scarborough. Another blog has also spotted a greyhound stadium in Portsmouth and an ice rink in Durham.
There are 379 properties in total. Have a look through the list and see what property your RDA owns. Would the property be put to better use in private hands? Does RDA ownership of any properties hinder other businesses from developing or growing? Who gets these properties when the RDAs wind down? If any strike you as particularly odd then write to your local councillor or MP here and let them know. Selling these assets would raise a lot of money and would stop these local leviathans calling the shots in England's regions.
When Eric Pickles announced he was to scrap the Audit Commission earlier this year it certainly didn’t signal the end of stories of waste by the quango. The Daily Mail carries a story today about some of their spending over the last few years – revealing just a few of the reasons behind his decision to axe the body.
The Daily Mail reports that over £4.8 million was squandered on lavish parties and highly questionable workshops for their staff. The £4.8 million included spend on things such as a gay rights workshop, £8,000 spent on events at Newmarket races, and £20,000 on a senior stakeholder briefing held at the new Connaught Rooms. In figures released to MPs over £730,000 was also spent on hospitality in its own offices, with a further undisclosed amount on landscaping the grounds surrounding their offices.
One of the organisations who arranged workshops, Steps, explain what the £15,025 paid to them was spent on:
“Steps Drama is helping the Audit Commission to embed a culture of respect amongst its 2,100 employees by co-delivering a training workshop which aims to raise awareness of diversity and encourage individuals to challenge discriminatory behaviour. Called Managing Change for Diversity & Equality, the workshop combines presentations from senior managers at the Audit Commission with drama scenarios, delivered and facilitated by Steps that bring the issues to life. It has been delivered 32 times, in off-site locations throughout England, with around 30 Audit Commission staff attending each session. Three actor-facilitators from Steps run an initial drama scenario, portraying employees in a parallel workplace who have narrow views and negative attitudes to issues such as work-life-balance, sexual orientation and disability. The delegates, as a group, question each character and give advice on how they might change their behaviour in the future.”
For a body that was supposed to audit accounts, this a huge waste of time and money. In our paper on unnecessary jobs we explained that public bodies often have statutory requirements to fulfil, as they do with diversity and equality. But this example shows how above and beyond some organisations went to promote this policy agenda. The result is always spending more taxpayers’ money.
We would welcome the spending of all quangos revealed to this extent. Waste like this has slipped under the radar for years but with transparency we have accountability. And that is something taxpayers’ find so infuriating about quangos – they’ve been too distant for too long. They must be called before their relevant Select Committee annually so that elected politicians can scrutinise previous budgets and approve future spending plans.
Back in the summer the cut to the road safety budget catapulted speed cameras to the forefront of the road safety debate. Many councils – Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, some areas in Northamptonshire and Somerset – axed speed cameras, deciding that they were not a top priority in a shrinking road safety budget.
The TPA and the Drivers’ Alliance released a report around this time that studied speed cameras and their impact on casualty rates. The report’s analysis shows that since the implementation of speed cameras in 1992 – coupled with a one-dimensional focus on speed as the centre of road safety policy – road casualty rates have declined more slowly than in prior decades.
A statistical test confirmed that there is a statistically significant difference between the period before the introduction of speed cameras (1978 -1990) and the period after (1991-2007). Indeed if the 1978-1990 trend had continued to 2007 we would expect there to be over 1 million fewer casualties than actually occurred. While progress would have had to slow eventually, there was no sign of that happening before the early nineties. The graph above shows how sharply the rate of improvement slowed.
In the summer it seemed that local authorities were reforming road safety policy, so that it was not so heavily focussed on enforcing speed limits. However news broke yesterday that Oxfordshire has decided to switch their speed cameras back on after the police force put up the bulk of the cash needed for the cameras to be reactivated after the council cut £600,000 of funding back in the summer.
Quite unsurprisingly supporters of speed cameras in Oxfordshire are still clinging to the old myth that without speed cameras safety will be seriously compromised on the roads. Woodstock town councillor and former mayor Peter Jay said: “I’m delighted that it appears that common sense has prevailed. Cameras are the only mechanism of effectively controlling speed.”
Interestingly the councillor did not say “Cameras are the only mechanism of effectively controlling the number of accidents on the roads”. Cameras can and do slow drivers down in their immediate vicinity but is it the most effective mechanism to bring down the number of road accidents? Statistical analysis – including ours – seriously brings this into doubt.
It has been reported that a month after the switch-off, radar speed surveys showed drivers committed up to four times more speed offences at some of the camera sites. But what about the number of accidents, have they risen? It would appear not.
The development of speed cameras has not stopped as a new 3D speed camera that can catch drivers committing five offences at the same time could soon be introduced on Britain’s roads. The Assets cameras have been developed through a £7.1 million European Commission project and cost a whopping £50,000 each.
If the camera is rolled out across Britain thousands of taxpayers’ money will be spent on duplicating roles, which are supposed to be fulfilled by public bodies. The camera can read number plates and link into police databases to check for lapsed insurance – but the DVLA is already meant to fulfill this function. The company behind the camera also hopes it will be able to identify poor road surfaces and over-loaded lorries. Does that mean that human inspections will cease and cameras – which often have a high error rate – will be used instead?
Just when drivers thought they would not longer be hunted for fines a local authority is already reactivating cameras, without any evidence that the roads are less safe. There may even be an even more intrusive camera heading onto the roads.
We knew that health and international development would be protected in the build up to the Spending Review. Ring-fencing health was always more popular than ring-fencing aid, but because it has the second biggest budget behind welfare that decision inevitably places huge pressure on other departments. Not only that, the healthcare budget has soared in real terms in the last ten years although studies show that this been met with a decline in quality and productivity.
John Appleby, chief economist at the King’s Fund, thinks that there is likely to be a clash over pay in the NHS at the end of the Spending Review period. After a two-year freeze, staff will be looking at pay-rises again and with a 0.4 per cent annual funding increase this may prove quite difficult.
At a Select Committee session yesterday he came up with some illuminating statistics. He said that there has been a 90 per cent real terms increase in the NHS budget since 1997. But crucially, he also said that 80 per cent to 90 per cent of that had been ‘siphoned off for pay rises for some particular people’.
Has this improved productivity?
"GPs and consultants in this country are some of the best-paid doctors in the world…I think the NHS itself would admit that they have not got as much out of these contracts with GPs and consultants – and possibly the workforce in general – in terms of productivity improvements that they should have."
Sounds like a nice way of saying no.
An explosion in expensive middle-management over that time in relation to staff such as nurses won’t have helped matters.
But the key to relieving the pressure of potential pay disputes is to put an end to the madness that is centralised pay bargaining. As I blogged back in July, the NHS White Paper has this on pay:
"Pay decisions should be led by healthcare employers rather than imposed by the Government. In future, all individual employers will have the right, as foundation trusts have now, to determine pay for their own staff. However, it is likely that many providers will want to continue to use national contracts as a basis for their local terms and conditions."
If the idea is to have a more decentralised system led by healthcare employers this simply can’t happen if centralised pay bargaining is retained. Local healthcare organisations would have no control over their biggest item of expenditure. Ring-fencing inputs – even when combined with nice ideas of patient-led local healthcare – won’t improve things until big obstacles like this are removed. Budgets aside, it also leads to poorer healthcare.
Over the past week commentators have been analysing how the Spending Review will impact upon public services. The Department for Communities and Local Government was hit harder than most. It is facing an overall reduction in its budget of 51 percent in real terms by 2014-15. Some commentators have stirred up fear that this will result in some sort of decimation of frontline services. The LGA claim “these front loaded cuts will be very difficult for millions of people who use the services councils provide; from keeping children safe to ensuring that streets are clean. They will lead to cuts at the front line.” This needn’t be the case.
The department has guaranteed to provide funds that enables a council tax freeze for 2011-12. Council taxpayers who have had to put up with council tax nearly doubling over the last decade will welcome a freeze with their budgets tighter. Of course, it is possible to do better – some local authorities have managed significant cuts in recent years through tackling high spending properly, and it’s not ideal that this fund is needed at all. But it is good news that central government will work with councils that want to make the cuts needed to freeze council tax. The responsibility is now with councils to increase efficiencies and cut waste within their vast bureaucracies.
Councils have a responsibility to provide its residents with vital services. Emptying bins, cleaning streets, maintaining public spaces; these are the things that the public expects of their council. Yet our recent report highlighted 4 specific jobs found in most councils nationwide which are unnecessary. If efficiencies are needed then councils have to ask themselves if these jobs are affordable. Can the member of staff be re-deployed elsewhere? What can we do to ensure that we meet burdensome central targets but don’t create a layer of bureaucracy that exceeds Whitehall requirements? Councils should be targeting their staff’s efforts at their key priorities.
Senior staff could also set an example by cutting their own pay. Our town hall rich lists have highlighted just how well remunerated some executives are.
Eric Pickles believes that the CSR provides councils with a choice: they can either resort to reckless cuts in services; or they can “create a more flexible and innovative council.” While Councils are receiving cuts in their budgets they are also receiving increased freedom and a greater say in how they spend their money. The CSR removed ring-fencing around all council grants except simplified school grants and a public health grant, with the number of separate core grants reduced from over 90 to less than 10. They have a chance to use their local knowledge and expertise to make sure every penny is properly prioritised.
Councils can also open up the books to help drive efficiency. All councils will have to publish spending over £500 by January anyway but there’s nothing stopping councils taking the initiative and doing it themselves. There’s a list of which councils have done that here and if your council isn’t on the list ask them why here.There are other schemes to get people involved, such as Redbridge’s interactive savings service.
Good councils with talented staff and committed politicians can come out of this period with more efficient services, targeted at the people who need them the most. That’s the real challenge for the next five years.
We’re finally starting to see how the new Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) will operate. The first 24 of these bodies were unveiled yesterday, with more to follow. The bodies themselves will not receive any central government funding; instead councils and local businesses will be pooling resources to form replacements to the RDAs, which were thankfully shown the door in the emergency budget. But the LEPs will now bid for a slice OF the £1.5 billion Regional Growth Fund. Sound familiar? Replacements indeed.
At the TPA we’ve seen first-hand evidence of a local authority writing to local businesses asking them to get involved with a LEP bid. There was no mention of promoting real economic growth for the area through cooperation, and all the other good stuff we hear about in government press releases. What we saw instead, unsurprisingly, was an invitation to get involved in the hunt for grants – read taxpayers' money. Something along the lines of “if we don’t work together, you’ll miss out on free money”. Really, the plea was that bare-faced.
Secretary of State for Business Vince Cable went before the select committee the other day finally outlining how LEPs will be funded. Committee chairman Adrian Bailey said:
"The most disadvantaged regions are those with the most public sector employment – and they often lack the business capacity to submit funding bids to the regional development fund. The fact that there appears to be no funding in central government for it means there is no funding system to develop the expertise and develop the bids. Local government is not at the moment going to be funding extra obligations."
So let me see if I’ve got this right. Essentially LEPs need central government money to develop the expertise to bid for more central government money? Hmm. RDAs have been abolished, but the grant-chasing culture they engendered lives on in policy makers. It’s a shame because some of the proposals in the local growth white paper released yesterday seem sensible. But this mind-set must be eradicated once for all for good business policy to be formulated.
But how can we get the private sector going without giving them a kick-start with taxpayers’ money? Here’s a thought: let local areas be tax competitive. If the North East or South West rely so much on the public sector for jobs and money, let councils set and keep their own tax rates. You can bet that a competitive rate would spark an influx of private businesses, creating jobs and wealth for the area. The prospects for economic growth with fiscal decentralisation – for regions and the UK as a whole – are enormous. Our tax system is one of the most highly centralised in the world and I’ll let former city and Treasury economist Mike Denham explain the benefits of reforming this system here.
The Fire Brigade Union (FBU) has announced a 47 hour strike action in London starting on bonfire night. The union hopes to quash the plans to change shift patterns of 5,500 fire fighters by causing maximum impact on the public by withdrawing labour during such a key time.
The change would end the two 9-hour day-shifts followed by two 15-hour night-shifts that firefighters currently follow. And instead firefighters would work two 12-hour day-shifts followed by two 12-hour night-shifts, with four days off, to allow more time for daytime community fire prevention work.
Matt Wrack, General secretary of the FBU, said: “We do not want to take this action but we have no choice. The alternative is to allow London’s firefighters to become doormats for their employers to walk on.”
But the FBU have purposely made a drastic choice to strike on the day when the public are at the greatest risk from fire related incidents. And over what? Shift patterns. It’s a gross overreaction. As MP Nadhim Zahawi, a member of Parliament’s All Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group, said: “They are endangering the lives of people for the sake of a change to their shift patterns.”
Striking to cause maximum impact by blatantly disregarding public safety – the public that fund the firemen to provide a service – does little to further the union’s grievances over reform. If anything it strengthens the case for banning strike action in services where public safety is put at risk if it’s not delivered, as is the case with police forces.
Of course there needs to be workplace representation to ensure that employees are not exploited. But strike action was never meant to be taken so that people’s lives are put in danger over minor changes to working practices.
As the coalition Government embarks on a programme of essential public sector cuts their greatest opponents remain the trade unions. Trade unions are threatening strikes and, if successful, they pose the greatest threat to frontline services, not spending cuts.
It is absurd that a Bill in the Commons tomorrow proposes reducing regulations on trade union balloting and notice requirements so that is it easier for trade unions to strike. If the bill is successful employers will now have to prove that the unions have “substantially” failed to comply with ballot and notice requirements for the strike to be illegal and “accidental” failures to comply will not be deemed unlawful.
This amendment would open the system to a huge number of potential abuses. Trade unions could “accidentally” not send strike ballots to members not likely to vote in favour of a strike or “accidentally” mail ballots to ex-members who will vote in their favour.
Furthermore it is unfair for employers to be denied the right to stop unions from forcing workers to strike when they have not voted to strike, even if the unions had made a mistake about who they are.
Industrial laws on balloting are presently slanted in favour of unions rather than employers because there is no minimum percentage turnout required for those balloted. Industrial action can take place even if only 1 per cent of those balloted actually vote, as long as a majority votes in favour.
With union membership heavily concentrated in the public sector, and the public sector already striking fifteen times more than the private sector, these amendments will make it easier for public sector unions to strike over the Government’s deficit reduction plans and threaten frontline services as a result.
That is unacceptable. Use this tool and write to your MP urging them to vote against this bill. The debate is tomorrow so send an e-mail as soon as possible if you want to avoid handing more power to the unions to threaten the delivery of frontline services and the delivery of essential spending cuts.
Last week, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) took a step towards reducing restrictions and burdensome constraints on councils. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles added to his already heaving pile of reforms by announcing his plans to scrap Local Area Agreements (LAAs). These agreements require local councils to regularly report back to central government outlining their progress on meeting a set of pre-agreed targets which are worked towards over a fixed number of years.
The DCLG reports that removing these restrictions will strip out 4,700 Whitehall-set targets from councils’ daily workloads, meaning they can instead focus on local priorities and delivering key services. It will also help give residents some power back as their local authority will be more accountable to them and not to central government.
The Local Government Association (LGA) have shown how much getting rid of things like LAAs will help, calculating that 74,000 pages of rules and instructions have “rained down on local government from Westminster in the past decade.” They claim that between April and August this year, councils have been given 1,355 pages of material to wade through.
Pickles’ announcement on Wednesday will surely be welcomed by the LGA and local councils across Britain. Baroness Eaton, Chair of the LGA, put it succinctly:
“There is no justification for the sheer quantity of form-filling, data returns, reviews and micromanagement being foisted on local government. Red tape of this kind wastes valuable time and resources which councils need to spend delivering essential front-line services.”
Concerns from councils and the LGA – and indeed local residents – are not falling on deaf ears. As we highlighted in our latest report on 'unnecessary jobs' in councils, much council waste is as a result of top-down, centrally imposed legislation. But there is still a lot more that can be done. We have one of the most centralised tax systems in the world and this hinders genuine localism. As well as the obvious benefits to local accountability, decentralising our tax system would benefit the country economically, as revealed by TPA Research Fellow Mike Denham in this paper.
Some quick updates on how local authorities are approaching transparency and reducing spending:
• 75 Councils in the UK are now publishing their spending over £500 online. Of the 433 Councils in the UK, this is obviously only a small proportion; however it is a promising start. The Department for Communities and Local Government now have an online tool so residents can check if their council is on the list. They’ll have to do it by January anyway so it’s good to be able to monitor if councils are willing to make the change before they have to.
• Further to this, Redbridge council has included on its website something called the ‘Redbridge Conversation’ tool which allows residents to see where £25 million in savings could be made. Although far from perfect – the tool seems to imply that savings cannot be made without cutting frontline services – at least there is an effort by the council to involve residents.
• Meanwhile, Mid-Lothian and East Lothian councils are taking action to reduce spending by discussing the possibility of merging education and social services and other backroom functions. More example of this are here.
If your council hasn’t signed up to publish spending online, ask your councillor why here.
We blogged earlier about the Cabinet Office’s quango document. Included in the abolished bodies list is the Union Modernisation Fund Supervisory Board, which oversees the administration of the Union Modernisation Fund (UMF) – something that we called to scrap in our recent ‘Taxpayer Funding of the Trade Unions’ paper.
The supervisory board was made up of former and current union executives. Scrapping the board means that vested interests will no longer determine how taxpayers’ money is divvied up among the unions. Even better news is that there will be no more rounds of the UMF itself, meaning taxpayers’ money will no longer be spent on things that any other independent organisation would be expected to pay for themselves.
In 2009-10 £1.1 million was given to numerous trade unions (including Unison, Unite and PCS) through the UMF. Union projects funded were, in the main, geared towards expanding union membership. For example, in 2009 the UMF awarded money to a GMB ‘engaging communities and building social capital’ project. According to the BIS website:
“The project seeks to reach out beyond the union’s usual boundaries into vulnerable communities, breaking down barriers to employment rights knowledge, developing relationships with community leaders and providing training to build capacity and leadership amongst vulnerable workers”
Most independent organisations would expect to pay for expanding membership and business development themselves. Trade unions aren’t short of money – they receive significant membership subscription fees yet they still received considerable direct funding from Government to help them achieve this.
However unions also receive significantly more taxpayer funding through the Union Learning Fund (ULF). Funding from the ULF was £13.7 million in 2009-10 and again went to the largest unions in the country including the RMT who have plagued the Underground with strikes recently.
The ULF also operates under the guise of workplace improvements and according to the ULF website “It enables unions to develop their capacity in learning to benefit members and the union team at work.”
Funding for training should be spent where it is most effective, not through a special fund for trade unions that will push their own agenda. Unlike the UMF the ULF is not administered through a supervisory board but rather administered through UnionLearn, an organisation run by the TUC. So it did not appear in the today’s round of quango cuts.
The coalition government can still cut the ULF however so keep a look out for it in the Comprehensive Spending Review next week.