Oct 2009 02

It looks like politicians have found yet another way that they can use climate change to justify new charges on motorists.  This time it’s a green charge on parking, as Richmond-upon- Thames council becomes the first local authority in the world to set parking charges for drivers based upon their vehicle’s greenhouse gas emissions.

From today tariffs in all car parks and on street pay and display parking bays in Richmond are based on vehicle emissions. The rate will be 25 per cent above the standard rate for vehicles with CO2 emissions of 186 g/km or above and 50 percent below the standard rate for vehicles with CO2 emissions of 120 g/km or less. According to the council the main aim of the policy is to influence the motorist’s choice of vehicle towards ones which are more environmentally friendly and help the local council meet their targets for emissions.

Councillor David Trigg stated “Global warming is one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime and many people simply don’t realise the influence on the planet that their choice of vehicle makes.”

This is a bold statement from the councillor, particularly because the council’s policy will not provide many motorists within Richmond a discounted rate for parking. With the lower tariff applicable to vehicles with CO2 emissions of 120 g/km or less even motorists who own small and relatively fuel efficient cars will not be eligible to pay a lower parking charge.   Many motorists who have thought about the environmental ramifications of driving a vehicle- and purchased a reasonably eco-friendly vehicle- will not be rewarded by such a scheme.

This is exemplified by the 1.2 petrol Nissan Micra, which emits 139 g/km of CO2 emissions and therefore would not qualify for the discounted parking tariff and drivers would still pay the standard parking tariff. In fact, out of all the 10 Micra models only drivers of the 1.5 dci 86 diesel model would be entitled to pay the lower parking rate within Richmond.

The policy will also push additional costs on motorists who already pay higher VED.  This not only includes motorists who drive high end sport cars but also many who just own fairly normal family cars. For example most models of Vauxhall Zafira- a popular vehicle for families- emit higher levels of CO2 than 186 g/km as do most almost all the Volvo V70 models and all the Volvo XC90s.

What Councillor Trigg fails to recognise is that motorists who buy people carriers and family estates do so because they need a vehicle with more space, so they can take care of little things like family holidays and going to the shops.  A family of five for example are going to struggle in an eco-friendly Smart car (or even a Nissan Micra) and may find a Lexus Hybrid 4X4 at £40,000 a bit expensive (incidentally the 400h model is eligible for the premium parking tariff with its CO2 emissions at 192 g/km.) Their choice to buy a vehicle like a Vauxhall Zafira is driven by necessity.

It is simply unfair for Richmond-upon- Thames borough council to place such an onus on motorists’ vehicle choice as being the primary cause of negative effects on the planet. This is another policy that will place a greater burden on motorists, with many owners of fuel efficient cars not receiving the lower parking rate and owners of larger family vehicles facing higher parking charges. Motorists already pay VED, which attempts to encourage people to buy low emission vehicles.  Anyone buying a car that creates a lot of emissions will also have to pay more in Fuel Duty.  TaxPayers’ Alliance research has shown that taxes on motorists are already massively excessive compared to their impact on the environment. There is simply no need for emissions to be factored into parking charges as well. 
   

Sep 2009 30

In the new Euro Health Consumer Index 2009 (PDF), the UK comes a middling 14th despite having a relatively high income.  All of the countries that score below us are significantly poorer.  The best performing country is the Netherlands, which has become the first country to top the list for two years in a row.

The reasons for that Dutch success given (via ConHome) by the authors of the report are revealing:

"The research director, Dr Arne Bjornberg, said, "As the Netherlands is expanding its lead among the best performing countries, the index indicates that the Dutch might have found a successful approach."

She said the secret of its success is that is "combines competition for funding and provision within a regulated framework".

"There are information tools to support active choice among consumers. The Netherlands have started working on patient empowerment early, which now clearly pays off in many areas. And politicians and bureaucrats are comparatively far removed from operative decisions on delivery of Dutch healthcare services."

When we wrote Wasting Lives: A statistical analysis of NHS performance in a European context since 1981 (PDF), we set out the following priorities for reforming British healthcare:

"In order for British healthcare to match the performance seen in other European countries several key differences will need to be addressed:

Centralisation.  Local NHS organisations have very little room for independent decision making.  In other European countries, in particular Switzerland and Spain, healthcare policy is highly decentralised.

Political management.  Healthcare provision in the UK is managed by politicians.  Secretaries of State responsible for healthcare have rarely had management experience and none have had specific subject knowledge in healthcare.  European healthcare systems, in Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands, have genuinely independent providers of hospital care and social health insurance that are not managed by politicians.

Monopolistic.  The NHS is a monopoly.  It not only has unique access to taxpayers’ money but does not allow patients to receive part of their treatment for a certain condition for free while purchasing the rest from the private sector.  In the Netherlands, in particular, insurance companies compete to offer the best value.  In almost all of the European healthcare systems a diversity of hospitals competes to offer value to insurance funds."

Our recommendations for reform of the NHS are pretty strikingly similar to the reasons given by Dr. Bjornberg for the Dutch healthcare system's success.  That isn't some astonishing feat of prescience on our part.  It's just that the basic principles that lead to good healthcare aren't that complicated.  Unfortunately, our politicians are more interested in a competition to see who can spend more of our money than trying to make sure that money is well spent.  Anyone who was really serious about investing in Britain's healthcare, rather than posing at the public's expense, would be interested in creating the kind of NHS that can really deliver value for money and compete with the best in the world, our European peers.

Sep 2009 29

The ONS have released yet more interesting numbers today. Figures for Local Authority maintained schools, academies and City Technology Colleges (CTCs) show that the number of full-time equivalent teachers has crept up by just over 1,000 to 442,700 between January 2008 and January 2009. However, the number of teaching assistants has concomitantly risen in the same period by nearly 20,000, to 183,700. There are now three times as many teaching assistants as there were in 1997.

Further, when academies and CTCs are stripped out, the maintained sector actually sees a 2,000 drop in teacher numbers, while there were 6,000 more teaching assistants in January 2009.

With yesterday’s leaked report by Richard Handover (covered in more detail here) suggesting that 40,000 teaching assistant jobs could go to provide value for money in schools, these figures may not be such welcome news for Children, Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls.

Sep 2009 29

Few things are as complex as the organisational structure of the Ministry of Defence. A true organogram of the department would probably need to use a fourth dimension. But a close rival in complexitiy must be the mechanisms for funding the state schools system. 

The Department for Children, Schools and Families sits on the top of the pile, jealously guarding access to the credit card. Over 150 spatially significant local authorities are then squashed beneath that department, responsible for distributing central funds to the schools in their areas, but entirely neutered in terms of meaningful decision making. Buzzing about this heap are the various 'semi-autonomous' bodies, responsible for everything from rebuilding classrooms and updating ICT, to curriculum content, teaching standards and pay.

Amidst it all schools struggle away with a bizarre mix of spending autonomy and centralised direction. Head teachers are informed that money is available to rebuild the French block, but to access it the school must work as the junior partner in a public-private partnership, dominated by a giant quango, the local authority and a contractor. The inner city school desperate to retain its struggling staff is promised help, but when that comes it's not in terms of extra funding or head-teacher empowerment, but a new (centrally drafted) golden handcuffs contract for new teachers.

It should be of no surprise then that few schools have particular financial expertise. Why should they? Most spending important spending decisions are made elsewhere.

This lack of financial nous was certainly the conclusion of Richard Handover's report for DCSF. Leaked to the BBC, the report concludes in no uncertain terms that civil servants and head teachers have no idea what value for money means: "Financial efficiency… is not seen as a core responsibility of management at any level."

Away from the headline grabbing examples ("£50,000 spent installing three toilets in a primary school" and "£35,000 on a £1,000 photocopier") the thrust of the inquiry was that the department – and schools themselves – are just bad at spending money. Many millions are lost because civil servants and school administrators rarely have to think about the actual cost implications; even if the new French block ends up costing £12 million when it was only supposed to cost £1 million, teachers will still get paid exactly the same, the food served in the canteen will not change and kids will still not have access to sports everyday.

Ed Balls is a very clever man, which made his wilful refusal to accept the need for spending cuts all the more distasteful. Now that he has relented, and begun to talk seriously about what needs to be done, a proper debate can start about how education is funded in this country. Savings will have to be made in the short term; Richard Handover recommends cutting the number of teaching assistants, a growth industry that appears to have had no beneficial impact for children (and even in some cases has been harmful – see here). Ed Balls has suggested cutting back bureaucrats and senior school staff. People are rightly cautious at the notion of reducing the number of school leaders, but Balls has had some considerable success with the 'Federation' programme he initiated – where one 'super-head' is properly empowered to meaningfully manage a number of struggling schools – so it may be a sensible move. Such measures though, while important, are just the first step in what must be much more wholesale reform, which would return power (in this case financial responsibility) back to schools themselves. Financial nous would follow; parents, teachers and children would start to make decisions themselves about their school. 

Sep 2009 25

The Freedom of Information Act is an incredibly useful piece of legislation. As long as questions are framed clearly and concisely, the public has the ability to obtain information that is unavailable elsewhere.

In responding to a request, the public sector organisation has a duty to provide accurate information. Apart from being blatantly obvious, it is also the law. Occasionally, of course, errors will creep into responses. Public sector organisations should do absolutely everything to avoid such errors, but when they occur the organsiations should go above and beyond to rectify their fault.

The TPA makes considerable use of the FOI Act. Data obtained through requests is often published. However there is a worrying trend emerging among public sector organisations, as they try to dodge accountability for having supplied innacurate information to FOI requests. Instead of swiftly admitting culpability for providing inaccurate information and then moving to rectify their error, they have decided instead to smear those who make their errors public.

For instance, Daniel Smith – Communications Officer at Cardiff Vale NHS Trust – recently e-mailed us the following:

"This has come my way and I'm afraid the figures cited for Cardiff and Vale are wrong; this Trust's MRI scans came in at 15,499, not the 1500 or so figure quoted in here.  I think this was a typo error by one of our staff to apologies for this, but it's disappointing that no-one your end challenged this unusually low figure."

It is a shame that an incorrect figure was published. But the source of the incorrect figure was the NHS Trust, not the TPA. Moreover, the figure this NHS Trust provided was not actually the lowest number of MRI scans per machine month, and certainly wasn't outside of the range of plausible figures.  Public sector organisations cannot expect requesters to check up on every figure they receive back. The duty to reply accurately lies with the public sector organsiation.

The Northern Echo quotes South Tees NHS Trust making complaints about our numbers:

"A spokeswoman for the South Tees trust said: “Our latest figures show we have carried out 36,114 fractions (treatments), or 9,028 per machine, in 2008-9. We also have an expansion plan which will increase capacity.

“We only have four, not five machines.”

Here (DOC) is the response to our FOI from South Tees.  It states quite clearly that there were 5 Linacs on site and they produced 31,570 scans in 2008.  Quoting a different period in an attempt to undermine our numbers (which the Trust provided) as innacurate is not simply misleading, it is dishonest.

Finally, Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust put out the following quote to the Hull Daily Mail:

"Radiotherapy manager Kay Duxbury said the figures are not relative because not all machines were always in working order at the same time.

She said: "The information provided by the TPA is flawed.

"A total of seven linear accelerators (linacs) were on site in 2008. However, at no point were all seven linacs operational at the same time.

"In 2008 the Radiotherapy Service transferred from The Princess Royal Hospital to Castle Hill Hospital. "Three linacs were installed at The Princess Royal Hospital and in operation until August 2008.

"Four linacs were installed at the Castle Hill Hospital site and became operational on August 26.

"A total of 29,125 fractions were delivered in 2008. The equivalent of 3.3 linacs were in operation which equates to 8,826 fractions per month, which exceeds national guidelines."

Again, here (PDF) is the response we received to our FOI.  It states quite clearly that there were 7 machines on site in 2008 and that one was decommissioned in September 2008.  No others are listed as having been "bought, replaced or disposed of during 2008", as we asked clearly in our request.  We were careful to include a question about machines that were acquired or disposed of during the year to avoid precisely this issue.  There was nothing in the Hull trust's response to suggest they hadn't understood the issue.

We will correct our report as soon as possible, but these failures on the part of NHS Trusts hint at a much deeper problem if public sector bodies don't understand that they are responsible for the information they provide in FOI responses.

Sep 2009 25

What distinguishes an 'arms length' non-departmental public body – funded mostly by the taxpayer – from a Government created charity funded almost entirely by the taxpayer?

There are, of course, any number of constitutional and financial differences between a public body and a charity. Only a registered charity is entitled to claim gift-aid back on donations for instance. NDPBs are potentially subject to the scrutiny of Parliament, while charities are left to the Charity Commission. Well, that's almost true; some NDPBs happen to also be charities – i.e. the School Food Trust – so Parliament has the right, strictly speaking, to scrutinise some charities too. 

But accounting and governance subtleties aside, it's often very hard to tell the difference between a Government charity and a Government body. Does that matter when the object is something few disagree with?  Perhaps not, but nomenclature does matter when an organisation avoids the proper public scrutiny and admonishment it deserves because of its 'independent' charity credentials.

V – or the Russell Commission Implementation Body to use its more sexy name – is just such a organisation. Much like many public bodies, V is the result of a Government inquiry. The Russell Commission was looking into the state of youth volunteering, and V embodies one of its key recommendations.

On the surface of it, the decision to set V up as a charity (in May 2006) makes some sense; people are naturally more hostile to 'Government body' than they are to 'independent charity', and when you're trying to get people to give money it follows that you don't want to put people off from the start. So it is likely to have been a calculated decision to constitute V as a charity rather than an NDPB. Calculated to fool.

If that means more people get involved in youth volunteering though, does this slight of hand really matter? Surely those who worry about such things should just get a grip?

Well, no. V is almost entirely funded by the taxpayer – 96% of its 2007-08 income came directly from the Cabinet Office, totalling £46.7 million (for full details, see here). So if you care about how the Government spends your money, then you care about how V spends it.

In May V chose to spend a little of your money on some polling. Aiming to dispel the 'negative stereotypes' of today's youth as 'violent, disrespectful or apathetic', 1,000 16-25 year olds from around the country were asked (online) a series of questions about their behaviour and attitudes.

Terry Ryall, CEO of V (or as the polling press release calls it, The National Young Volunteers Service) believes the results confirm how wrong "adults" are about Britain's young people. She was on the air waves earlier this week, promising to use the results in V's various campaigns (for more public money one might assume), and in her conversations with Government.

One could take issue with many parts of this story, but let's start quite simply with the poll itself.

While the good people of V are no doubt right that 'youth' often gets unfairly misrepresented by the press and politicians, most intelligent people know that the negative stereotypes are just that; negative stereotypes. Outside of some rough estates no one really believes all young people are carrying knives and a criminal intent. And for those few people who have reason to believe that all young people are the negative stereotype, neither this poll (which they probably won't hear about) nor any amount of campaigning will convince them other wise. The 'youth' they encounter is the negative stereotype.

Still, surely there's some good to be had from getting a 'youth' perspective? Perhaps, but if the results of this poll are that snapshot, then "adults" (as Ms Ryall glibly generalised in her interviews) are right to be worried. Let's remember that the sample (1000 16-25 year olds from around the country, half boys and half girls) are not likely to be the apathetic, disrespectful youth that V is interested in. These are young people who – by the simple fact of their involvement in the poll – are likely to be at least a little more plugged in than the average. Not, by and large, the 'anti-the-system' hoody.

What of the actual poll results? V has spun them as proof that Britain's 'youth' are misrepresented, but if anything the results confirm people's worst fears: 

(1) "85% of young people said that they or their friends don't carry knives". But 11% of respondents admitted to either carrying a knife, or knowing someone who did. Quite apart from the fact that Home Office and Police statistics put that number higher in certain problem areas, of V's small sample at least 100 people confirmed the general public's fears. (The actual poll question was "Have you or any of your friends carried a knife for protection or with the intention of harming someone?)

(2) "86% of respondents had never shoplifted goods worth more than a fiver". Which is great, but 14% freely admitted to having lifted items worth more than a fiver. Much more importantly, is the logic of this question that it's ok to steal small, relatively inexpensive items? Corner shops don't have "only two children at a time" signs up in their windows because kids steal stock from out the back; they steal Mars bars and a Red Bull off the shelves. Such petty theft is a massive problem, and it is this low level crime that fosters the negative stereotypes of youth. (The actual poll question was "Have you ever shoplifted goods worth more than a fiver?")

(3) "61% believed it was irresponsible to be a teenage mum". 36% of respondents thought otherwise. Not that those 36% are necessarily wrong – there are plenty of very responsible teenage mothers – but it does suggest, however crudely, that there is a significant minority that doesn't consider being in school to be that important. Which again confirms many peoples stereotype of youth. (The actual poll question asked was "Is it irresponsible to be a teenage mum?")

(To see the full polling results, click here).

Nine other questions were asked, most with similarly mixed results. What's really interesting from the other questions though is what V decided to ignore when writing their press release: 19% admitted to having had an eating disorder; 22% replied that they were not happy with their relationship with their family; 23% would have plastic surgery if money wasn't an issue; 48% consider it fine to 'binge drink'.

All in all it's a quite a depressing picture, not the myth busting expose which V has sold it as. But V is an odd fish, and so such behaviour perhaps isn't surprising. As a charity entirely dependent on taxpayers money, it has to constantly prove to its paymasters (the Office of the Third Sector in the Cabinet Office) that it is active, busy, worth the investment. This need to impress explains the press releases which claim that V is responsible for creating hundreds of thousands of volunteering places, when really all it has done is channel taxpayers' money to volunteering groups. V's a sort of middle man then, arguably a vital one, but not in itself the volunteering catalyst it makes claim to.

Importantly, all of this has nothing to do with volunteering itself. Getting more young people into volunteering is unquestionably a good thing and V arguably goes about this task in the best way possible. Some would have you believe that questioning V's legitimacy is tantamount to questioning volunteering. It is not. The issue with V is with that
taxpayers don't know tha
t they are funding this organisation. It's a public body in all but name, but most people listening or watching Ms Ryall (V's CEO) believe they are hearing the boss of an independent charity. They don't know that they are paying her salary, and paying for the poll which she then uses to tell them that they're wrong and unkind about today's youth.

Moreover, few people mind if groups and charities work to influence the Government's agenda, or the public's views – that's what you get living in a pluralist country – but when that influencing work is being funded by the taxpayer, people are right to question its legitimacy.

And at the same time, they are right to question whether it is it really legitimate to call an organisation a charity when it gets over 90% of its income from the state? Ends do not justify the means, and whether one agrees with state sponsored volunteering (which is something of a contridication in terms) or not, how the state goes about doing that supporting matters.

Sep 2009 25

A new report from the TaxPayers' Alliance (TPA) provides evidence that many NHS Trusts are not adequately utilising expensive treatment and diagnostic equipment. With a crisis in the public finances and patients still forced to wait for important diagnostic and treatment procedures, the fact that many Trusts are under-utilising expensive and important facilities is of serious concern. Whilst NHS Trusts of course vary by population density, strikingly some of the most poorly performing Trusts are in large population centres where there is high demand, such as Hull, Coventry, Cardiff and London. The report demonstrates that there is great potential to increase the efficiency of many NHS Trusts to improve service to patients and value for taxpayers.
 
To read the full report, click here (PDF).
 
Key Findings
 
Using Freedom of Information requests to every one of the 200 Acute NHS Trusts, the report investigates how many times a year each Trust uses each of five different classes of medical equipment:

•  Linear accelerators (Linacs) play a critical role in cancer care as part of radiotherapy treatment. Each patient receives several treatment sessions, known as "fractions":

- The average usage of each Linac machine in 2008 in the NHS was 7,191 fractions per year. That is significantly below the recommendation from the National Radiotherapy Advisory Group of 8,000 fractions per machine per year – a rate which was only achieved by 11 Trusts nationally.

- There is also considerable variation between trusts, with two Trusts (Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals Trust and University College London Hospitals Trust) providing fewer than 5,000 fractions per machine.

- If all trusts below the national average brought their usage rate up to the average, an additional 128,758 fractions could be provided – equivalent to 18 additional Linac machines.
 
• Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanners are extremely useful in effectively diagnosing cancer and then planning appropriate treatment.

- The average usage of each PET scanner identified was 956 scans per year. That is significantly below the Department of Health target of 2,000-2,500 scans per year. Only one Trust, University College London Hospitals NHS Trust, achieved that Department of Health target.

- There was considerable variation between Trusts, and three Trusts produced fewer than 500 scans per machine while one met the Department of Health target.

- If all trusts below the national average brought their usage rate up to the average, an additional 2,492 scans could be provided – equivalent to three additional PET scanners.
 
• Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners are a safe means of producing detailed internal scans useful in diagnosis and treatment of a wide variety of conditions. 

- The average use of MRI scanners in 2008 was 4,941 scans per machine.

- There is considerable variation between trusts; eight trusts used each machine less than 2,000 times while nine trusts used each machine more than 8,000 times in 12 months

- If all trusts below the national average brought their usage rate up to the average, an additional 265,732 scans could be provided, equivalent to 54 additional scanners running at the average annual usage.
 
• Computerised Tomography (CT) scanners provide a detailed view of different tissue types not available with traditional x-rays.

- The average usage of CT scanners in 2008 was 7,424 scans per machine.

- There is considerable variation between trusts, with six Trusts using their CT scanners over 15,000 times, while seven had an average
usage lower than 2,000.

- If all trusts below the national average brought their usage rate up to the average, an additional 656,647 scans could be provided, equivalent to 88 additional scanners running at the average annual usage.

• Lithotripters use ultrasound shock waves to break up kidney stones.

- The average usage of lithotripters in 2008 was 457 uses per machine.

- There is considerable variation between Trusts, with three Trusts getting more than 1,000 uses per lithotripter and another just 18 uses per lithotripter.

- If all trusts below the national average brought their usage rate up to the average, an additional

8,528 uses could be provided, equivalent to 19 additional lithotripters running at the average annual usage.

The report also urges Trusts to maximise the efficient use of such important NHS resources, and highlights existing recommendations such as that of the National Radiotherapy Advisory Group that capable linear accelerators should work six rather than five days a week, and be in operation for more hours each day.
 
To read the full report, which includes full data regarding each type of machine for every NHS Acute Trust, click here (PDF).
 
Katherine Andrew, a Research Associate at the TaxPayers' Alliance, said:

"These pieces of equipment are not only expensive, they are crucial to the treatment of people who suffer from a wide variety of conditions. It is simply not good enough that so many Trusts are failing to make the best use of their resources, and in doing so letting down patients and taxpayers. If those Trusts that are lagging behind caught up just with the NHS average, it would make hundreds of thousands of extra treatment and diagnosis procedures available."

UPDATE

Cardiff and Vale NHS Trust have alerted us that there was an error in their response to our FOI.  They gave the number of scans by MRI machines at the Trust at around 1,500, whereas the actual value was over 15,000.  We have now updated the press release above and the linked report to reflect the new value.  This was not an error on the part of the TaxPayers' Alliance.

Sep 2009 21

It seems that ministers are now reaching for the law to promote “greener” modes of transport and hassle motorists. Government advisors are suggesting changing civil law to make motorists automatically responsible for compensation and insurance to injured parties in road collisions.

The radical measure is driven by the desire to increase the number of cyclists on the roads, as cycling is considered to be a more environmentally friendly mode of transport. The chief executive of Cycling England, an agency funded by Department for Transport (DfT) stated there needed to be a number of policy changes. The most controversial change being to place “the legal onus on motorists when there are accidents.”

Many motorists argue- and rightly so- they are already victimised by predatory traffic wardens and the increasing number of speed cameras popping up throughout the UK. Both of which generate huge amounts of revenue. However the utilization of the law to punish drivers for all road collisions involving cars goes from being a money spinning scheme to something that is much more disturbing.   

Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? The notion- upon which our legal system is supposedly built- that all evidence will be taken into account and a fair decision will be reached. Well not if the law is changed- in that case the driver is always guilty.

The proposals do not even mention the fact that sometimes dangerous cycling can be the cause of road accidents. There are a minority of cyclists who jump red lights or otherwise cycle recklessly and sometimes they are responsible for road crashes.  If the legal onus falls on motorists for all collusions involving cars, cyclists have a huge legal advantage. Such advantage could feasibly encourage more reckless cycling. 

It would appear that policy-makers are so blinkered by the desire to get people out of cars and onto to bikes that they are no longer trying to deliver fair and balanced policy. There can be environmental and health benefits to cycling. But, that does not give ministers the right to unbalance the law and risk punishing innocent motorists while letting cyclists responsible for accidents off the hook. These proposals reinforce motorists' claims that they are treated unfairly by transport policy. 

The government needs to recognise that some people need to drive.  Others should be free to decide whether they want to drive or prefer cycling. Employing civil law, and putting drivers at a disadvantage in the courts, to try and influence a personal decision is grossly unfair.

Sep 2009 17

As the primary purpose of "How to save £50 billion" was to stimulate debate, the report has been an unqualified success. Informed and considered conversations are now going on about what works and what doesn't, what's vital and what's non-priority.

The debate about Sure Start - which we proposed should be brought to an end - falls right into the first category. Does the programme work?

Tom Clark yesterday provided a considered critique (which can be found here) of our Sure Start proposal. He makes some solid points, but I would argue that while Mr Clark rightly observes that there is paucity of data with which to make definite conclusions about whether Sure Start works, I don't believe he makes a convincing case for keeping the programme.

Mr Clark's principal criticism (if I understand it correctly) is that as programmes such as Sure Start have such considerable bed-in times, and depend on lengthy cohort progression (the first fully 'assessable' Sure Start year will only turn 11 around 2015 I calculate from Mr Clark's statements) no-one at the moment is in a position to judge whether Sure Start does or doesn't work.

In this we are in complete agreement. In an ideal world we would have reams of data, the results of detailed studies that could help us conclude such a question one way or the other. All we have at the moment are various Government evaluations, alongside Birkbeck's independent study, all of which relentlessly stress that it is too early to make any conclusions. Indeed, the Birkbeck study states clearly that observed improvements in 3 year old cognitive ability could easily depend on changes in the study's methodology since the last run of tests.

So we are left with two options; continue to committ billions of pounds to the programme untl 2016 - when hopefully we will be able to judge its impact - or, alternatively; rely on the considerable evidence (some of it anecdotal) which argues that Sure Start is not the best way to address this critical problem.

We maintain that the first option is just not feasible. If nothing else, Sure Start morphs so often that the system operational in 2016 is unlikely to resemble the one in operation in 2005. For whatever reasons - the highly centralised control of education and children policy in the UK being the main one - Sure Start will change slightly every year, whether in focus or delivery, and the Sure Start defenders of the future will then argue that no-one can condemn the Sure Start of 2016 because it has changed so much since its outset. This is has already happend over the past 10 years with Sure Start, as it has with Regional Development Agencies and the NHS Trust structure.

So we are left with option two. When attempting to draw up our list of possible expenditure cuts, we spoke to employees involved in Sure Start schemes. Many, as one would expect, thought the approach was the right one, but that it was being applied badly. Some were bold enough to say that the whole experience had left them disillusioned with the idea that Government could affect positive change among the target group. While opinions varied considerably, what united them was the feeling that Sure Start as a programme was not doing the job. The commentators on Mr Clark's Guardian piece (see here) re-affirm this, and many of those commentating are again people with first hand experience of Sure Start on the ground, whether as a parent or employee.    

As this debate develops, everyone has to be wary of those people who wish to equate a wish to end Sure Start with a desire to abondon disadvantaged children. Any such assertion is not just misleading, it is outright dishonest. There are not, I admit, fully worked out and costed alternatives sitting on the shelf. Those commentators who have made this point are right; alternatives may well still cost money. But at the moment a policy designed to help the children of the most disadvantaged appears to benifiting the relatively well-off the most. It doesn't – on all the available evidence – appear to be having the impact it was meant to (which must matter). The bar of success can be constantly moved down, but why not consider different approaches, some of which might actually do more to help disadvantaged children. Throwing resources (taxpayers' money) at these children does not mean one is committed to helping them. It means one is committed to throwing money at them. That is the easy bit. It might be proof of a much greater commitment to the poor if the Government actually stopped using money as a proxy for commitment, and actually considered the best ways – however unpalatable they may be - to improve the chances of those least likely to born with them.

Sep 2009 15

It would appear that taxpayers are footing the bill for yet more benefits for public sectors workers. This time it's free gifts, paid lunches and afternoons off work for traffic wardens who obtain the most revenue from parking penalties.

The bonus system came to light after a briefing was leaked by Bristol City Council. The “performance-based” scheme finds a loophole from parking regulations, which stipulates that councils are prohibited from handing out cash bonuses to traffic wardens. Instead teams of traffic wardens who issue the most parking tickets and generate the most money from penalties are rewarded with buffet lunches and afternoons off work. Also the individual within the team who successfully makes the most money from issuing parking tickets is given a gift pen.

This naturally raises questions over the very premise of such a scheme – it potentially incentivises traffic wardens to be overzealous in issuing parking tickets in order to get a free lunch and then go home for the afternoon.  Bristol City Council argues that this is not the case, stating the system is designed to reward good service and not increase the number of parking tickets. A spokeswoman said:


“The scheme is aimed at improving the quality of the service. The team is rewarded for compliments, courtesy and punctuality.

“The finger buffet lunch – £50 for the entire group – held at our operational base, is a working lunch where issues such as team morale and service improvements are discussed.”

However the statements contain a complete contradiction, with Bristol City Council arguing that the scheme rewards traffic wardens who generate the most revenue and also aids the council in improving parking services.  What is more worrying is that the scheme goes against the basis on which parking enforcement was granted to local authorities. The Road Traffic Act of 1991 permitted local authorities to apply for legal powers to take over parking enforcement and retain the revenue generated from parking tickets.

However it was promised that with local authorities obtaining this extra revenue, council tax would decrease.  Of course, council tax has continued to rise and it would appear that surplus from parking penalties is going towards showering traffic wardens with benefits.  Once again the taxpayer is the loser, with high council taxes and an increased likelihood of being slapped with a parking penalty from predatory traffic wardens.

Sep 2009 09

There have been a number of interesting responses to our report on the Prevent strategy, released yesterday.  This is exactly the kind of debate that we were hoping to start by revealing how Prevent money has been spent - hopefully experts will continue to look into the groups and we can build up a really detailed picture of how the scheme has performed.

Ed Husain, author of The Islamist and co-director of the Quilliam Foundation, wrote for the Guardian's Comment is Free website that:

"The Taxpayers' Alliance's new report on the government's Prevent programmes sheds much-needed light on the cost and effectiveness of the government's counter-terrorism strategy. At first reading of the report, it seems that many Muslim groups are receiving money merely for not being extreme, rather than for actively doing or saying anything to challenge and roll back extremism. This is clearly wrong.

Most importantly, however, the report also reveals that many groups that have received handsome grants of taxpayers' funds are groups whose leading members include supporters of hardcore Islamist ideologies. Such organisations include the Islamic Society of Britain (with some exceptions), the UK Islamic Mission, the Islamic Foundation, the London Muslim Centre and Da'watul Islam."

He disagrees with the idea of scrapping the scheme but does believe that it needs significant reform:

"I disagree, however, with Matthew Sinclair's suggestion that we should abolish the Prevent strand altogether. For me, this is the most important part of the government's counter-terrorism strategy: ending the ready supply of extremists who can be convinced to commit future terrorist outrages. Yes, Prevent has gone terribly wrong in many parts, but reforming it, even renaming it, giving it a sharper focus to win the battle of ideas, is the best way forward."

We remain of the opinion that the strategy of giving grants through councils, when even central government has failed to find reliable partner community groups, is unrealistic.  However, there is no doubt that a reformed Prevent scheme would be an improvement on the current situation.  Hopefully, reform and the kind of transparency and scrutiny that we have provided with our report will mean less money supports the wrong groups.

Alexander Hitchens writes, for the Standpoint blog and Harry's Place, that:

"The Tax Payer’s Alliance (TPA) has released figures (pdf) today on every local authority that has received Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) funding and what organisations have benefitted from it.  The PVE fund has so far given out £12 million in tax payer money to projects aimed at preventing radicalisation.

One organisation, the Muslim Welfare House (MWH), has received just under £50,000 in PVE funds over the last two years.  The MWH is a member of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe (FIOE), which represents the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Europe."

The Engage website is more critical of some aspects of our analysis, but does note the importance of the report in scrutinising Prevent:

"The [TPA] extensively documents organisations and projects that have been recipients of these public funds. The detailed list will raise further questions over the delivery of Prevent and the widespread criticism of funds being channelled into projects without due diligence, oversight or assessment.

The fact that information gathering was itself an arduous process, with [TPA] making several FOI requests nationally and locally, is a further indictment of the poor oversight mechanisms in place."

Some of their criticisms of our analysis are a bit suspect.  First, they assert that:

"The MCB didn’t attend HMD this past year in protest of the war in Gaza and not for reasons of a boycott."

Let's take a look at the Dictionary.com definition of the word "boycott":

"To abstain from or act together in abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with as an expression of protest or disfavor or as a means of coercion."

So they have abstained from going to Holocaust Memorial day as an expression of protest, about the war in Gaza.  If that isn't a boycott, it's hard to know what is.

Next, they argue that:

"What funds certain MCB affiliates receive under Prevent is a matter for those affiliates, it’s hardly cause for Sinclair to malign the reputation of the MCB."

The MCB can't be a representative body when they're claiming credibility to speak for a wide range of community groups and then disavow all knowledge of their affiliates when it suits them.  Their "About MCB" page is quite clear on the matter, its very first sentence says:

"The Muslim Council of Britain is a national representative Muslim umbrella body with over 500 affiliated national, regional and local organisations, mosques, charities and schools."

We would welcome greater clarity over, for example, whether the MCB's affiliates agree with the policy of boycotting Holocaust Memorial Day.

Finally, they say:

"It [is] odd that the Taxpayer's Alliance seems to have singled out Muslim organisations for receiving these funds."

We aren't the ones singling out Muslim organisations, the Government is; that's the point of Prevent.  In the words of the Communities and Local Government department, Prevent is "a new action plan to step-up work with Muslim communities to isolate, prevent and defeat violent extremism".

Hopefully, we will see more organisations following up on this report in the days to come.

Sep 2009 08

The Town Hall Rich List has always generated a lot of media attention. Boomerang bosses and scandalous rewards for failure are often the headline, but the principal purpose has always been to allow people to find out – if they want to – just how much their council executives really earn.

Public anger at what were considered to be excessive and – critically – unjustified pay packets was ignored for some time by local and national politicians. To their credit, national politicians slowly begun to react, and last year all parties committed themselves to much greater transparency in local government spending, and in particular over council remuneration.

To their great discredit, councils did not then take the initiative and publish all the remuneration details of their senior staff. It would have been a bold but sensible move, pre-empting the inevitable. Now, as the Government plans to amend the Local Government accounting regulations to make remuneration details public, Councils look as if they had to be forced into line.

From December – if Communities and Local Government plans are not derailed – all local authorities will have to publish the remuneration details (including salary, bonuses, pay-offs, expenses, etc) of all senior staff earning over £50,000. To see the draft amendment in full, click here.

I have written more extensively on this issue over on the Local Government page of ConHome. To read the piece there, follow this link. But suffice to say, DCLG have written a really good piece of legislation, which deserves support. If the final plans put forward in December do not deliver the transparency voters deserve – and which is one the table at the moment – the culprits will be easy to identify. 

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