May 2008 20

The Audit Commission’s biennial National Fraud Initiative has made headlines today after uncovering £140m of fraud across England. Cross-referencing records from councils, public sector payrolls, GPs’ surgeries and other bodies allows them to uncover fraud that had so far gone unnoticed, which is of course a welcome programme.

Time and again cases crop up of fraudsters who have conned taxpayers with scams that should have been picked up by the most feckless work experience staffer in the benefits office, but have somehow been allowed to continue for far too long.

For example, in this case Victoria Young was of course wrong to fraudulently claim child benefit for seven fictional children, but surely the authorities should have noticed something was up when she claimed to have had her sixth child only a week after the birth of her fifth? Next time you see a report of a benefits fraudster being sent down, check how much they stole – odds are it is in the thousands, as far too many people are getting away with it for far too long before being detected. If, of course, they are detected at all.

It’s a certainty that some councils and agencies are better at this than others, and that some are really failing the public by their incompetence. The former deserve to be praised, and their successful anti-fraud techniques should be replciated, whilst the latter should be named and shamed to spur the improvement that is so sorely needed.

Why, then, have the Audit Commission refused to publish this information? The total figure alone is interesting, and certainly shocking, but it is of little use to man or beast in terms of solving the problem. By releasing the headline figures, it’s evident that the Commission to recognise that the media and the public are interested in this issue, so they should take it one step further and harness that interest. Public opinion is a powerful tool, and people are annoyed that their money is being stolen from them – releasing a list of poor performers would be a great way to encourage improvement.

May 2008 20

Even though Michael Martin – the Speaker of the House of Commons – has given up the fight to keep MPs expenses secret, he’s found another avenue with which he can waste your money to keep you less involved in the political system.  According to this morning’s Today programme, Martin has intervened to oppose Stuart Wheeler’s court battle to give the British people a say on the Lisbon Treaty (read: European Constitution). 

Is there anything this complete shambles of a man won’t waste taxpayers’ money on?  It was bad enough using your money to prevent you knowing what your representatives are spending your money on in their homes.  But now Michael Martin is using his position – and your money, again – to prevent you having a say on a European Treaty that the government promised us at the last election.  Moreover, Martin is practically defending a Treaty that is self amending, ruling out any future debate and referenda on any amendments or changes to the Treaty-to-end-all-Treaties. 

What we see now is Martin using the power of the state funded by what he sees as the unlimited resources of the government (read: our money) to quash a legitimate protest by a taxpaying individual who seeks the government to honour its promise made to the British people. 

Clearly, with his continuing disregard for taxpayers’ money, it’s time for Mr Speaker to hang up his stockings and go!

May 2008 16

It’s great news that the High Court have thrown out the case brought at the taxpayers’ expense by the House of Commons authorities to try to keep details of MPs’ expenses secret. Having fought the case for years, the Commons authorities decided to try to overturn a ruling of the Information Tribunal, the expert body on Freedom of Information, by going to the High Court. It’s great news that Heather Brooke, Ben Leapman and Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas have won their case. Now we’ll have to hope Michael Martin knows when he’s beaten and releases the information, rather than carrying on this costly struggle.

It’s simple, really – it’s our Parliament, they are our MPs and it’s our money. Taxpayers have a right to know how their representatives are spending taxpayers’ cash. Releasing this information would be a great step not only in terms of accountability and transparency but also for the standing of Parliament in the public’s eyes.

The decision by Mr Martin to drag this out through the Courts was unnecessary, futile, costly for taxpayers who had to foot the lawyers’ bill and ultimately harmful to Parliament’s reputation. Most MPs probably don’t do anything wrong with their expenses, and indeed a lot of MPs are happy for this information to be released, but the Speaker’s blinkered determination to keep the facts secret just makes them look like they’ve got something to hide.

Even if Mr Martin had won his appeal, what would have been the result? The public would be outraged that they were being denied the right to see how their money is spent, whilst the suspicion of Parliamentarians that is currently riding high would be heightened further.

This verdict is a great victory for democracy, transparency and taxpayers. It should never have taken so long and cost so much, but at least the High Court have come out with right decision. Let us hope Mr Martin accepts he was in the wrong, acknowledges the public’s right to know and publishes the information immediately. A further appeal would do even more damage to the people’s faith in Parliament, and would be utterly unjustified – the Speaker should rule it out immediately.

May 2008 15

The headlines in the paper should read: ‘Multimillionaire claims taxpayer money for house renovation’

Snouts_in_troughIt was revealed yesterday that the multimillionare leader of the Liberal Democrats – Nick Clegg, the MP for Sheffield Hallam – claimed just over £7,000 of parliamentary expenses to renovate his Sheffield home, installing new curtains and other upgrades.  This marks the culmination of a strong campaign by the blogger Guido Fawkes and rightly exposes the snouts-in-the-trough mentality of our political class. 

When was the last time you were given £7k for your home improvements?  While the rest of the country works, earns and saves to make their home their castle, Clegg and other politicians fleece you for their own home improvements.  As always it’s one rule for them, one for the rest of us.

So we now do what we do best – hold him to account.  Ask him why he decided to hand us the bill for his home improvements.  Furthermore, if you live in his constituency go and see him.  Here are the contact details for Nick Clegg as well as the contact number for you to book an appointment at his surgery.

Nick Clegg M.P. 85 Nethergreen Road, Sheffield S11 7EH
Tel: 0114 230 9002 Fax: 0114 230 9614
Email: [email protected]
Nick holds regular advice surgeries for constituents. To make an appointment please contact the constituency office on 0114 230 9002

May 2008 15

ClownsOne of the measures announced in the draft Queens Speech by the Prime Minister yesterday should leave taxpayers seething with rage.  The announcement of a ‘Sentencing Commission’ to set “prison sentences…depending on the amount of space in jails” shows the government have lost the plot on crime and cynically move to shift the blame to an unaccountable quango.

To award a sentence based on the lack of prison places risks pathetically lenient sentences for the most heinous criminals.  Because the government failed to build new prisons they can see the storm coming and – if the Sentencing Commission comes into force – they will put their hands up and say “I’m not to blame for lenient sentences, the Sentencing Commission is”. 

Although they give assurances that ‘serious criminals’ won’t receive community orders, I think we can take this with a pinch of salt.  For example:

  • Yassin Nassari, a dangerous extremist convicted of smuggling missile blueprints into the UK was released early from prison in March. 
  • David Tiley, a convicted rapist, was released early from prison and went on to murder his disabled fiancée and her carer in 2007. 
  • Lloyd Edwards, a convicted burgler released from a ‘detention centre’ went on to kill a mother in her home in 2006.

This was all done on the government’s watch.  While the above avoid prison or are released early, Steven Peers, Josephine Rooney and Richard Fitzmaurice were all sent to prison for non-payment of Council Tax.  It’s there that you can see the government’s appalling prison priorities, pensioners and fathers sent to prison for not handing over £1,000-odd to their local Council compared to early release for rapists and terrorists.

To dodge tough sentencing by disgracefully attempting to pass the buck on an issue the public feel passionately about shows an abrogation of responsibility the government owes to us.  The most serious criminals should be locked away for a long time to express the seriousness of their crimes against individuals and society.  The severity of the crime should determine the sentence.  To use any other criteria shows a complete disregard for people’s safety and a lack of respect for the victims of serious crime.  Creating yet another quango won’t solve the problems of the government’s own making.

May 2008 12

PeterwebbtpaTPA Organiser for South West Surrey – Peter Webb – was yet again quoted in the Surrey Advertiser last week, commenting on our 10% Challenge to councils.   He scored another hit with a letter about the NHS, fitting in nicely with our Better Government campaign.

You can read the letter and the article by clicking below on each below.

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May 2008 12

The News of the World ran an expose yesterday on MEPs taking advantage of their allowances. It’s common knowledge that MEPs, faced with even less scrutiny than MPs in Westminster, have a sizeable gravy train at their disposal. What was really shocking about the story, other than the sheer amount of taxpayers’ money sloshing around without proper controls, was the arrogance of one MEP the NOTW interviewed.

Faced with a series of questions about the amount he pays to his wife and formerly to his son, gave this as his answer to the British public, Sir Robert Atkins answered:

"It’s very complicated and I don’t suppose any of your readers would understand it."

Well, if there was a question as to whether he is out of touch or contemptuous of the British public, I think that settles it, don’t you?

Should you wish to put him right about the cognitive capacity of the voting, taxpaying public, his UK Office number and email address are:
01995 602225
[email protected]

May 2008 12

If you take the Sunday Times, you’d have noticed senior TPA Campaigner Steve Peers and his family in the Money section being interviewed on the damage government stealth taxes are doing to families all over the country.

Stevepeers

You can read Steve’s comments in the article here.

This is just one of the ways where, by being a TPA Activist, you can get involved in our national media campaign, putting the point across that big government and high taxes are damaging your and your family.  It’s your money we’re campaigning to save, it’s your campaign.  So what are you waiting for – get involved today!

May 2008 12

The Independent on Sunday had a shocking report yesterday on an internal MoD document revealing the truly awful conditions our Armed Forces are forced to endure. It has emerged that not only are our soldiers housed in disgraceful slum conditions and sent to war with insufficient or unsuitable equipment, now growing numbers are having to borrow money from the Ministry of Defence just to be able to eat.

Army_logo The Ministry of Defence has a large budget – not as large in terms of GDP share as many other countries or even compared to our own country a few years ago, but enough to set right the basic problem of low pay and provisioning for those at the sharp end.

That won’t be set right, though, as long as the MoD’s priorities and practices are so twisted. This is an organisation that spent £2.3 billion on its own office refurbishment, including £1,000-a-pop chairs, at a time when barracks’ ceilings were falling in.

The Ministry’s most monumental failure is in procurement, where time and again projects come in late, over budget and – worst of all – useless. One example is the Bowman digital radio system. Initially commissioned from one company, which proved unable to deliver on the contract, it was shifted to another. The second company found itself taking on a project someone else had agreed and thus asked for even more money and to remove various requirements from the contract. The eventual product was 10 years late, vastly over budget at a cost of £2.4 billion and too heavy for an ordinary soldier to carry. It was also too expensive to fit it in aircraft, despite ground to air communication being more essential than ever in our current engagements.

The problems our soldiers face is that whilst they themselves are extremely efficient, organised, professional and disciplined on the battlefield, the legions of civil servants who are supposed to support them are anything but. That those civil servants are pigging out in their refurbished cafeteria in between bouts of bungling billion pound supply contracts while soldiers literally can’t afford to eat is disgusting.

May 2008 09

As we laid out when revealing the Cost of Crime in London last month, the TPA believes strongly in the principle and the practical benefits of giving people as much information as possible about the (mal)functioning of our public services. Crime mapping, widely used to great effect in the USA, is a particularly good example of that, so it’s encouraging to read that Boris has been offered a chance to put it in place in London.

Crime is undeniably the top concern of Londoners. The Government can harp on all they like about the amount of recorded crime falling (although violent recorded crime has risen), but people know that their experience is contrary to that. Between a growing feeling that there is no point reporting crime to the police and a shameful raft of administrative measures introduced by the police to reduce the number of crimes that are recorded.

Fundamentally, people feel that they are not being listened to, that the authorities do not care about their suffering and that once a crime is reported it all too often disappears beneath a pile of paperwork, never to be seen again.

Texas_crime_mappingCrime mapping is one powerful tool to correct those failings. By publicly mapping reported crimes by type, date, time and location, not only do the victims have solid evidence their crime is on record, but the police are made more accountable to the people they are meant to protect and serve.

If there are particular blackspots for crime, taxpayers will notice them and raise them with the police. Politicians can be put on the spot about any failure to deal with ongoing problems (though that would be even easier if we had directly elected police chiefs, of course). Some cities, such as Austin, Texas, also map arrests, so you can see justice being done, too. The above map shows a current US crime map, where the blue men represent thefts, the masked faces are burglaries, the guns are assaults and the handcuffs are arrests.

It’s all grounded in one fundamental principle: we pay for policing and we rely on policing so we should have the right to see whether it’s working and to demand improvement if it falls short of expectations.

There are naturally worries that police forces might not want to give up the information, but tough – this is not a private commerical data source, it is a record of crucial events in the lives of the individuals and communities whose security is the police’s raison d’etre. We pay the Bill’s bills, and if they don’t do their job properly it is us who suffer, not them, so there can be no room for petty hogging of data.

This is a great opportunity to harness the popularity, ease of use and intuitive design of services like Google Maps and bring it to public service delivery. At the moment the police are too difficult to engage with and bogged down in bureaucracy and political meddling. This technology provides an opportunity to sweep that away and replace it with an accessible way for the public to hold the police accountable and for the police to demonstrate their work to the public.

It’s encouraging to hear, then, that Colin Drane, founder of American crime mapping website Spotcrime.com has offered to do a London crime map for free, which chimes in well, naturally, with our budget-controlling instincts. Whether Boris takes Drane up on his offer or uses another platform, it’s imperative that he grabs Crime mapping with both hands. It would be the first step to a safer city, more effective policing and a happier populace.

May 2008 09

There is a must-read article from Patrick O’Flynn in today’s Daily Express that reinforces our arguments in favour of small government and that there is a point at which government must realise it has to get out of civil society. 

O’Flynn writes that rather than admitting he was wrong over the abolition of the 10p tax band on the lowest paid, biting the bullet and looking at ways he could save £7billion from government to pay for its return, Premier Brown has fallen into the ‘government knows best’ mindset and set about having government compensate [read: intervene in the lives of] those hit hardest.  The killer line from O’Flynn:

“Despite the urgency of the task [of government creating a way out of the debacle], whole phalanxes of Oxbridge Firsts have failed to come up with a workable compensation package”

Zing!  No matter how many of the smartest technocrats and civil servants you hire to plan, government can only do so much, which it often doesn’t do well enough to the satisfaction of the taxpayer.  Our problem in Britain is that politicians and bureaucrats don’t know when to leave alone.  Their own arrogance and hubris compels them to intervene further, either from a paternalistic ‘noblesse oblige’ to the poor or a Socialistic belief in planning and redistribution, no matter whether their acts make matters worse. 

O’Flynn is right, the government should cut £7billion of spending to reinstate the tax band whilst keeping the 2% reduction on the former basic 22% rate.  Then, shock, horror, you have a 2% tax cut that could improve people’s lives and – if only marginally – prevent government doing more because it’s docked its own allowance.

But alas, big government has created a strait-jacketed society – people simply can’t escape blundering politicians making matters worse with our money because they think they know best.  It can be Brown trying to create another costly, bureaucratic scheme to ‘compensate’ the poorest hit by a tax hike or your local Town Hall using anti-terrorist legislation to send armies of bureaucrats to snoop on dog walkers. 

The political ramifications of the 10p tax band, however, give us the best arguments for raising the income tax threshold to remove the poorest from income tax as well as providing greater incentives to work.  In the long run, it should sit as a stark reminder to any government that, when in doubt, leave the people alone. 

May 2008 08

South West Surrey Organiser Peter Webb updates us on the SW Surrey TPA Campaign for April.

Peterwebbtpa_2 2nd: PW letter to MP Jeremy Hunt pointing out lack of answers to 13th Feb 5 questions and challenging his letter of 31st March with its unsubstantiated “clear policies”..This ended up with a time-limited meeting on 19th April with PW and Barry Smith concentrating on County Council shortcomings, unclear MP support for it, and need for better government ideas from Conservatives. Little achieved. Our Mike Hutchinson of Shere reported sightings of Guildford BC white vans with CCTV cameras aboard. Need to get ‘official’ position re privacy issue.

10th:  Barry Smith writes MP Jeremy Hunt, cc David Cameron, re uncollected council tax etc and need for Conservatives to plan for replacement of council tax.

11th:  PW letter published “keep up pressure” for reform and linked to earlier letters from others. 
Published letter from Nevill Shearman protesting at County spending and precept increase. Intends to pay last year plus 2% only.

16th: Response from David Cameron’s office to Barry Smith demolished in annotated return of message shown also to Jeremy Hunt

17th: Jeremy Hunt replies to Barry Smithand, says will forward concern to Hazel Blears.

18th: PW quoted in Surrey Ad news report on residents falling value for money belief, one third from two thirds 2 years ago.  Another hard-hitting published letter from Steve Bowers following County Leader Nick Skellett’s failure to answer calls to explain 5% precept increase.

19th: Meeting with Jeremy Hunt MP (see above)

21st: Submitted statement to Audit Commission carrying out quinquennial corporate assessment of County Council to study whether the council has a clear ambition and priorities, how it delivers and whether objectives achieved. Evidenced summary that Council makes no effort to ‘woo’ resident taxpayers with a shareholder interest, is sluggish and top-heavy.

23rd: Answer received  to FOI question to County Council about costs and failure associated with change of contractor for Suretime bus stop information system. Answer incomplete and evasive.  CCllr (mine) Chris Slyfield has been active re Police precept rise of 9.7%, its cap and appeal. It turns out that nobody attended public meetings (The Surrey Police Authority didn’t visibly tell anybody ). He asked for SW Surrey TPA to be put on Police list of stakeholders for possible input for or against precept. I made direct contact.

30th: TPA 10% challenge: commented at length to Vita of Surrey Advertiser.

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