Oct 2009 08

Troubles within the Royal Mail roll on, with a national postal strike likely in the near future. This adds to the disruption still being felt after recent industrial action, which has lead to serious delivery problems across the country; millions of items of mail have yet to be delivered.

Unions are unhappy about the Royal Mail’s modernisation plans. Redundancies have already taken place, and plans for greater mechanisation of sorting – for instance – will likely lead to more, but more than anything they feel Royal Mail management has handled the process badly. Royal Mail’s bosses retort that these are the only way the post office can remain a sustainable business, in light of the falling volumes of post.

What is to be gained from initiating a national strike? The Union’s view it as a means to begin resolving the dispute over pay, pensions and working practices. But a strike carries the risk that major Royal Mail customers will begin to seek alternative delivery methods; newspapers report today that Amazon has already begun looking for alternative methods of sending items over 500g, a contract apparently worth over £25 million. Union members should be weighing up whether striking is the best course of action, not only as the run up to the busy Christmas period begins, but also because it could continue to drive away the custom from small businesses and larger companies that keeps postmen in work.

Postmen’s minds though, appear to be made up. Even before formal union action has been agreed, some Royal Mail postmen have decided to save themselves the hassle of carrying parcels on their delivery routes, deciding instead that recipients make the journey to the post office themselves. The Telegraph reported yesterday that some postmen have taken to delivering ‘sorry, you were out’ cards instead of the parcel itself. Intended recipients, needless to say, were very much at home. No doubt this low-level protest by postmen reflects their concerns over new plans to extend the daily delivery times, up to 3 hours for the average on-foot postman, but it's still pretty appalling – and self-defeating – behaviour. The public pay to send post, and they expect it to be delivered (or at least attempted to be delivered).  If the postmen are looking for public support, this isn’t the way to go about it.

But then postman probably aren’t looking for public support at this point. They're locked in a battle with their management, and the public are just collateral damage. Would such dysfunction happen if Royal Mail were a well run company? Probably not. Would it happen if Royal Mail wasn't still dominated by a fairly militant union? Probably not. Elsewhere, where countries have gone through the pain of privatising their post offices (which EU rules effectively demand), such behaviour by postmen would be stamped down on hard. Their systems rely on delivering excellent service, and a greater number of checks and restraints – to both motivate and regulate workers – are in place. Royal Mail remains caught in a limbo between nationalisation and privatisation, a situation that is leading to ill management, staff disgruntlement and an increasingly deplorable service for customers.

The government must, at some point soon, take the plans off the shelf and carry privatisation through. Mail might actually get to its destination then.

Oct 2009 07

Yesterday at the Conservative party conference, Shadow Transport Secretary Theresa Villiers heavily criticised the use of speed cameras as a means to increase road safety. In fact the very premise that speed cameras were the optimum way to increase road safety was questioned, and Villiers pledged that a future Conservative government would not fund any new fixed speed cameras.

Commentators have already speculated that the policy is to score political points and win over motorists, a key constituency within the electorate for the next general election.  But the news will no doubt be welcomed by those motorists who dislike the relentless use of speed cameras, which have trebled over the last decade within Britain. It will also appeal to those motorists who view speed cameras as a source of revenue for the government, rather than a key mechanism to reduce speed and road accidents.

Politics aside, the policy is a step in the right direction, as the debate about the most effective means to increase road safety is finally being addressed. Theresa Villiers stated

“Labour’s army of speed cameras is not the best way to make our roads safer. We will switch to alternative, better, ways to improve road safety.” 

The alternatives suggested are improving driver education and the use of vehicle activated signs, which have proven effectiveness in reducing road traffic accidents. The ability to install new speed cameras will be made tougher, with local authorities having to prove that it is the best option from the alternatives. If new cameras are installed it will be funded entirely by local government, receiving no funds from central government’s road safety grant.

Another welcome measure is the scrapping of the speed quangos, otherwise known as Safety Camera Partnerships. Local authorities and police will return to a more “slimline” cooperation, removing bureaucracy from the process. This means that police can return to monitoring speeding through patrols. In the years preceding the use of speed cameras, police patrols were a key variable in the constant reduction in traffic accidents. After the introduction of speed cameras as the main method of increasing road safety, this reduction levelled off.

Also addressed was the problem of congestion, which incidentally also has a major impact on road safety, not to mention its impact on the environment and harm to the economy. Suggestions to tackle congestion included taking a tough line over road works; shortening the time it takes to re-open motorways after accidents occur; ensuring traffic lights do not stay on red for longer than necessary.

These are all welcome policy proposals, however the shadow transport minister could have been bolder and committed a future Conservative government to investing in improved road infrastructure. Studies indicate improved road standards would cut fatal and serious accidents by 20 per cent, as well as providing a platform for Britain to return to economic growth.

Oct 2009 06

Mending Britain’s public finances will be the most important issue in the run up to the general election. In fact, it will be the most important issue for years to come. “Tough choices”, “difficult decisions”, however one phrases it the enormous public debt will have to be tackled.

We've heard plenty about cutting out 'unnecessary' spending, which always begs the question "why was money unnecessarily spent in the first place?" But now we are beginning to hear the parties and politicians set out the real steps – albeit tentative ones – which they think will best tackle the debt. We have heard Vince Cable’s take on how to cut spending (although the Lib Dems were non-committal to the plans), and the Tories have announced that they will raise the retirement age in order to save money. Last night Alistair Darling took the unusual and controversial step of announcing a policy – and a particularly high-profile one at that – during another party’s Conference. He has proposed to freeze the pay of 40,000 top public sector workers, and to limit increases to 1 per cent for 700,000 others. Political gaming aside, this is the right kind of idea; pity it is such a half measure, for it will not save remotely enough money to make a significant dent in the debt.

Last month the TPA, along with the Institute of Directors, set out a menu of cuts that would save £50bn. As well as setting out real proposals, a genuine achievement of the paper is that it stimulated debate on concrete ideas for cuts from others, and importantly from politicians. Before this, we heard lots of rhetoric with little substance. One of our key suggestions was an across-the-board public sector pay freeze for at least a year to help scale back the deficit. The only people exempt from our proposal were serving members of the armed forces; with the public wage bill constituting a quarter of Government spending, it is a painful but vital step. Mr Darling’s suggestion just does not go far enough.

The size of the problem necessitates immediate and signifanct cuts to public expenditure. No-one should pretend there are easy pickings, and no-one should pretend they are not going to hurt. Efficiency savings and longer-term reforms are both essential and welcome, but they must be combined with an impetus to reduce spending now. The UK's credit rating is on probabtion, and public services are literally working on borrowed time. As unpopular as it may be, a public sector pay freeze – as part of a wider strategy for tackling the deficit – is unavoidable. During the downturn private companies have had to make redundancies and cut wages. The next Government, which ever one it may be, will have to do the same with the workforce that the taxpayer pays for.

Update: Since posting, George Osborne has just announced a serious public sector pay freeze in 2011; only frontline soldiers and people on less than £18,000 a year will be exempt. The debate on cuts continues…

Oct 2009 05

In 1999 New York began an educational experiment. New schools, not run by the city but still funded by taxpayers, opened across the five boroughs. Set up in the main by groups of parents, charities or not-for-profit educational outfits (although a few were set up by for-profit organisations) some of these new schools replaced pre-existing public schools. Most though, offered totally new provision. This alone was welcome – New York's public schools system is notoriously overstretched. What really distinguished these new schools however, was their independence, their freedom to operate and teach in the ways they themselves considered best. In return, these new 'charter' schools agreed to deliver a certain level of educational improvement. Children would do better at these new schools, or the school would lose its charter. 

For the 78 charter schools now operating in New York – and the 26 others set to open this autumn – those 'charters' look secure. The independent 'New York City Charter Schools Evaluation Project' – an academic research project to monitor the work and results of the charter schools – reported last week, and their findings were overwhelmingly positive:

  • Compared to their counterparts in the traditional public school system, a student who attends a charter high school has examination scores that are about 3 points higher for each year they spent in the charter school before taking the test. For instance a student who took the English comprehensive exam after three years in charter school would score about 9 points higher.  
  • On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades of kindergarten through eight, would close about 86 per cent of the standard New York "achievement gap" in maths, and 66 per cent in English.  
  • A student who attends a charter high school is about 7 percent more likely to earn a 'Regents' diploma (a qualification which demands a pass in all key subjects) for each year that they spent in that school.

Academically, New York's charter schools have been an indisputable success. Children simply do better at 'charter' (for which one can read 'independent') state schools, than the traditional 'dependent' kind. Their life chances are significantly improved.

"Ahhh", some will say, "but of course the Charter schools in New York do better than the real, traditional public schools. Being 'independent' must mean they they only take the best kids that apply."

Fortunately not. Admissions in fact, are as unselective as they could possibly be: any student who lives in one of the five boroughs can apply to any of its charter schools. Typical application asks simply for 'name', 'date of birth', parent or guardian's contact details, and the grade to which they are applying. No school asks for a school transcript, for an applicant to sit a test, write an essay or in anyway demonstrate academic performance.  

"That means nothing", the standard riposte will go, "because middle class parents simply game the system, getting applications in at one minute past midnight on the first day. Poor people are shoved to the side."

Again, not the case. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong in itself with committed parents doing everything they can to get their children into the best schools, New York's charters simply avoid the issue by running 'pure lotteries'. If the number of applicants exceeds the number of school places by one pupil, the whole entrance is selected randomly. As charter schools are some of the best in New York, applications consistently run above available places, and therefore 94 per cent of charter students have been chosen out of a lottery.

Who applies to charter schools? They're much more likely to be poor. They're also much more likely to be black. In part this will be because traditional state schools in white or Asian areas of the city are not beleaguered by some of the problems schools in predominately poor black areas suffer under. But it also goes to show that parents, whatever their economic status, will leap at opportunities to get their children the best education possible. Choice has not been monopolised by those with the means. It's been seized upon by those for which it was intended; the people who need an excellent state education system the most.

So what is it about charter schools that sets them apart and above the traditional state/city school? The independent evaluation is keen to stress that no direct causal variables have been identified that link the schools approach to their superior achievement, but the following policies are common to all charter schools:

  • a long school year; on average a charter school pupil attends school for two and half weeks longer than their non-charter counterpart. The day is also longer, by an average of 90 min;
  • A greater number of minutes devoted to English each day;
  • a small rewards/small penalties disciplinary policy;
  • teacher pay based somewhat on performance or duties, as opposed to a traditional pay scale based strictly on seniority and credentials;
  • a mission statement that emphasises academic performance.

If common sense directed thinking on education, none of these would seem in any way controversial. Focus on work, reward success, punish misbehaviour, put in the hours and pay for class-room skill, not on-paper experience. It's a mark though of the schools debate, in both America and the UK, that such 'values' embodied by charter schools, are deemed to be 'radical'. It took years to get New York's charter schools off the ground, as parents' efforts were consistently frustrated by teachers unions.

The clear success of charter schools has not only vindicated parents efforts, it has once again revealed that teachers, quite understandably, are not always putting children or education first. Many still object to the fact that teachers get paid on performance in charter schools. They feel it lures the best away from the state system, leaving pupils with less able teachers. In this they are right. But the solution is not to ban performance pay, but instead to make all pay performance based. Not only will it stop the exodus to charter schools (for teachers – voting with their feet – are keen to join Charter schools, enjoying as they do not only better pay, but the freedom to actually teach), it will also reinvigorate teaching, enticing people towards the profession who till now thought otherwise.

What has any of this got to do with the UK? Everything and nothing really. Experiments in America and Sweden cannot show us exactly how similiar arrangements will work in the UK. At best they can inform our decisions. But state education in the UK is at a critical point, where it can embrace the lessons from abroad – such as those coming from New York – or it can ignore them and continue to wilt. School independence does not have to mean selection and exclusion. It can mean just the opposite. Most importantly though, state schools that are independent to set their own course, their own hours, their own pay, are also those that give children some of the best education. That is surely what we all want our state education system to provide.    

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.

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