The Audit Commission’s new ‘Positively Charged’ report raises some interesting issues today. For the first time it puts a figure on the massive amounts raised by councils through extra charges – on car parking, waste disposal and numerous other services – as a whopping £10.8 billion. To put that in context, it’s half as much as they raise in council tax, which demonstrates why this really ought to be a huge issue. The reason it hasn’t been so far is that there hasn’t been a comprehensive overview of the national picture on charging – until now.
The name of the report, and its pun-tastic Shiny Battery logo (see right) demonstrates that the Audit Commission are big fans of charges. As well as totting up the vast amount raised through charging, the report is peppered with comments about the "benefits" of charges and understanding the "contribution" they make.
The reality is very different.
There is a certain amount to be said for the principle behind the idea that if you use it you should pay for it, replacing a burden on the general taxpayer with a specifically targeted charge to those involved in incurring the cost. The problem is, that is not what is happening on the ground.
Nowhere are charges being used to replace taxes, lighten the load or make taxation fairer. When have you ever heard a council say that they are introducing a bin tax and cutting council tax in return? Never.
Similarly, the bluff can be called by offering to carry out a service yourself instead of paying the charge. South Cambridgeshire Council recently introduced a charge for people who needed new wheelie bins, claiming the £60 fee was for "delivery". They then refused to let people collect the bins themselves for free, exposing the scam for what it was – an extra tax. It will come as no surprise to readers to learn that the money supposedly saved by the introduction of the charge has not been reimbursed in tax cuts for the wider population.
This clearly isn’t about reorganising the distribution of weight in the tax system, it is about increasing the overall burden – adding extra charges on top of existing (and constantly growing) taxes. Many councils are increasing council tax by a certain amount and slapping selective charges on top. There is no corresponding reduction offered to the wider taxpayer on the basic rate of council tax.
Worse, some councils are trying to add universal charges on top of council tax – i.e. simply abusing the concept to dress extra council tax up as charges. This is a stealth tax in the full meaning of the word.
Especially now the Government is beginning to realise the damage that can be done to them electorally by public anger about council tax, we can expect to see this cynical approach used more and more. When councils who have been squeezing embarassing sums out of people find their tax capped to limit the rise, they will increasingly turn to charges as a way of continuing to raise tax whilst disguising the fact. It is no coincidence that South Cambridgeshire are one of those councils who have found themselves capped, and are no wheeling and dealing in the field of innovative charges.
The report even quotes an anonymous Finance Director as saying
Without charging there’d be a black hole in our budget
and he’s right – but that’s the problem, not a justification for the use of stealth taxation. If councils weren’t using this route to disguise extra taxation, the true severity of the problem of council tax would be revealed. Politicians would have to face up to the truly unsustainable levels of council tax, as being more than £34bn rather than the £24bn commonly cited. As it is, this cloak and dagger approach is allowing them to pretend the problem isn’t as bad as it is.
That is why we are not hailing these charges as the "positive contribution" that the Audit Commission claim. These charges are being abused as a way of hiding extra council tax, and if the AC want charges to be used properly and productively they should have highlighted that abuse and warned against it.
"A spokesman for the Department for International Development said: “We don’t fund the Palestinian Authority directly and therefore don’t fund textbooks."
How strange, on the 11th of July last year they put out a press release titled:
"UK leads the way in resuming direct aid for Palestinian Authority"
The release continued:
"The UK has underlined its support for the Palestinian Authority with a contribution of £3 million to allow it to begin paying off its private sector debts, Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for International Development, announced today.
A month after Hamas’ takeover of Gaza and the establishment of a new Government by President Mahmoud Abbas, today’s announcement makes the UK one of the first countries to resume direct financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority." [emphasis added]
Beyond that, the problem isn't just direct contributions, as the Express notes: "the TaxPayers’ Alliance said that, by funding worthwhile activities, Britain was freeing up funds which could be spent in more sinister areas."
Our report raises serious issues about how the UK contributes to the long-term prospects for an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It makes positive recommendations, modelled on longstanding practice in Northern Ireland, for how our aid money can encourage an end to radicalisation and hate education. The DFID should look at those recommendations instead of issuing nonsensical rebuttals.
Within our grassroots campaigns, it’s my aim to have every activist involved at every stage of our campaigns. From letter writing to leafleting and radio-phone-ins, every bit is as important as the next and yesterday was perhaps the best day of grassroots activism and co-ordination I’ve seen at the TPA.
Here’s how our activists in Norfolk, particularly Tony Flynn, Barbara Lockwood and Tony Callaghan made the difference to a story that will affect the lives of at least 500 taxpayers in North Norfolk:
10am – Barbara Lockwood calls the office informing me about a BBC story detailing how North Norfolk District Council are dispatching the bailiffs to at least 500 taxpayers who can’t (or won’t) pay their Council Tax.
11am – The blog goes up on the TPA website about the story
12am – Emails go out to our Norfolk Activists asking them to lobby their local radio and press about the issue and to get public debates going.
1 – 4pm – Tony Flynn and Tony Callaghan contact numerous radio stations about the issue
5.10pm – BBC Radio Norfolk host a debate on the issue where TPA members discuss how wrong it is for Council’s to send out bailiffs to collect council tax before they tighten their belts and stop wasteful spending.
So in one day, what could probably have been an issue concealed deep in the BBC website achieved widespread coverage across Norfolk. Now it’s up to us to keep the campaign going. I’ve written this morning to the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press and I encourage you to do the same.
How can it be fair for the council to force their way into taxpayers’ homes and take taxpayers’ possessions when:
Please make this point to the local papers by sending letters to:
Please feel free to send your letters into any other Norfolk Newspaper. It’s injustices like these when real people feel the weight of the council come crashing down on them that we have to stand up to. Government, both local and national, is meant to be a public service, in the service of the taxpayer not a high-and-mighty power to bully us into filling their pockets.
A major role of the TaxPayers’ Alliance is scrutinising the Government and the public sector to make sure taxpayers’ money is spent properly and is not being abused and wasted. We regularly write to Ministers and public officials to enquire about different programmes and activities. One particularly brazen example of the abuse of public money has come to our attention – and we have written today to Sir Gus O’Donell, the Cabinet Secretary, and Sir Leigh Lewis, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Work and Pensions, to complain.
A press release [enclosed in full at the foot of this page] emerged from the Department of Work and Pensions yesterday that promises more grief for beleaguered Work and Pensions Minister Peter Hain, who has already been branded "incompetent" by the Prime Minister. Special Advisers in his department have been caught red-handed breaking the rules on ethics and propriety and abusing their position to use civil service resources for the purposes of partisan political campaigning.
At 10.21am on Tuesday 15th January a Special Adviser in the DWP used their departmental email address to issue a press release entitled "TORIES AIM TO DESTROY FINAL SALARY PENSION SCHEMES", a diatribe accusing the Opposition of setting out to "destroy the best pension schemes in Britain" and telling the electorate:
"if you are in a final salary pension scheme, don’t ever vote Tory or they would destroy it."
Setting aside the unwise commitment of the Government to unsustainable final salary pensions, this is a shocking email.
SpAds are expressly forbidden by the Code of Conduct from using their position for party political campaigning:
6. Special advisers should not use official resources for party political activity. They are employed to serve the objectives of the Government and the Department in which they work. It is this which justifies their being paid from public funds and being able to use public resources, and explains why their participation in party politics is carefully limited. They should act in a way which upholds the political impartiality of civil servants and does not conflict with the Civil Service Code. They should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes.
And if that wasn’t clear enough it is restated later:
10. Special advisers are able to represent Ministers’ views on Government policy to the media with a degree of political commitment that would not be possible for the permanent Civil Service. Briefing on purely party political matters must be handled by the Party machine.
This press release is clearly not "representing Ministers’ views on Government policy" – its topic is a Minister’s view on Conservative policy laid out in a speech by David Cameron. The whole document focuses on attacking the policies of the Opposition, even mentioning the Opposition 10 times in 13 sentences.
If the DWP’s Ministers want to campaign against Tory policies and instruct voters how to vote at the next general election, they have to use Labour Party resources to do it. Taxpayers do not want to pay for political parties’ election campaigning – and yet this press release makes no attempt to hide that it does just that. It is a barefaced abuse of taxpayers’ money to persuade people how to vote in an election based on criticising Opposition policy – not something SpAds, Civil Servants or anyone else on the public payroll should be doing.
DWP PRESS RELEASE
From: Special-Advisers DWP [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: 15 January 2008 10:21
To: MOS-PR DWP
Subject: RE: FOR IMMEDIATE USE: Tories aim to destroy final salary pension schemes
FOR IMMEDIATE USE
TORIES AIM TO DESTROY FINAL SALARY PENSION SCHEMES
Commenting on yesterday’s proposals by David Cameron to close public service final salary pension schemes – not just the scheme for MPs – Pensions Minister Mike O’Brien QC MP said:
"The Conservative Party plans to get rid of public sector
final salary pensions, thereby destroying the best pension schemes in Britain.
"This would send a signal to the employers of hundreds of thousands of workers who remain in final salary pension schemes that the Conservatives don’t care about them and are prepared to reduce their income in retirement.
"This should serve as a warning: if you are in a final salary pension scheme, don’t ever vote Tory or they would destroy it.
"Although the numbers in final salary schemes have declined from 8 million in the 1960s to around 3 million now, many workers in the private sector remain in final salary schemes.
"In the 1980s, the Tories allowed employers pension contribution holidays and there were mis-selling scandals, and these resulted in deficits. Many employers left the schemes to avoid those deficits.
"In the new Pensions Bill, Labour has just introduced deregulatory measures to encourage employers to remain in these gold-standard schemes. Only a few weeks ago, the Tories claimed to welcome these, and wanted us to go further to keep defined benefit schemes.
"Mr Cameron’s announcement that they plan to end final salary schemes for public sector workers sends the wrong signal. It shows they have learnt nothing from the mistakes of the last Tory government.
"The Tories have understood nothing and learnt nothing about pensions."
For further information, please call DWP Special Advisers on 020 3267 XXXX
TPA Activist Barbara Lockwood contacted me this morning about a council tax story she’d heard on local Norfolk radio. After a little investigation, we found this disgraceful example of tyrannical government:
“Bailiffs are to crack down on at least 500 people who failed to pay council tax and business rates. North Norfolk District Council said bailiffs were prepared to take possession of goods and property unless debtors arranged to pay what they owed. "Those being targeted have had at least four chances to pay," a spokesman said.
"They will have goods or property seized and sold at auction to collect a total of £616,000 unpaid council tax or business rates," he said.”
You can read the rest of the story here.
Compare these figures for a moment: North Norfolk District Council spent £600,000 on its publicity in 2007, an increase of 22% in the last ten years. Council Tax has gone up by 100% in the last ten years. And councils still want more.
North Norfolk District Council is abusing its power to invade YOUR property, to take YOUR possessions all in order to pay off £600,000 of council tax it claims is owed. It’s first duty is to ensure services are delivered at as little cost to the taxpayer as possible. It’s response should be to cut spending on publicity and council perks, not sending in bully boys to threaten and frighten pensioners.
So if you are in North Norfolk and are making a stand against the Council, who by this one example of publicity spending are squandering too much of your money, contact me so we can rally TPA supports and activists to join you in protest. It’s time we told government to buck their ideas up and back off!
In the first of a series of papers analysing the effectiveness of expenditure on overseas aid, the TaxPayers Alliance has published a paper looking at the effects of British aid spending in the Palestinian territories. Funding Hate Education reveals disturbing evidence showing how British taxpayers’ money has been spent helping to fund hate education and promote violence in the Middle East. The full report can be read here (PDF, 6MB)
Matthew Sinclair, the author of the report and a policy analyst at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said:
“With moves towards a peace settlement at Annapolis and an American Presidential visit to Israel, there is real hope that a peace deal can be reached. In order for a deal to stick over the long term, however, it is essential that the Palestinian population fully accepts it. This is why it is particularly concerning that British aid is supporting the radicalisation of the Palestinian population, particularly the children.”
Funding Hate Education shows that part of the £47.5 million of British aid to Palestine is supporting:
Matthew Sinclair continued:
“The future of the peace process in Israel and Palestine depends at least as much on positive attitudes among young Palestinians as it does on success at the negotiating table. British taxpayers’ money is supporting the radicalisation of Palestinian youth and hurting our objectives in the region. This needs to, and can, change.”
David Lidington MP, Shadow Foreign Office Minister, said:
“I was disturbed to read the findings within the Taxpayers’ Alliance report, ‘Funding Hate’. It is imperative that future generations, wherever they are, are taught a message of reconciliation and mutual understanding. I have contacted both the Palestinian representative in London and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to discuss the issues the Taxpayers Alliance has raised.”
Patrick Mercer OBE MP said:
“It worries me deeply that British taxpayers’ money is being used, quite improperly, for destructive purpose. Whilst aid needs to be directed to the needy, its abuse for terrorist purposes is grotesque.”
MEP Hannu Takkula, Vice-Chairman Committee on Culture and Education at the European Parliament, said:
“The right to education is one of children’s fundamental rights. I should emphasize that this includes right to a hate-free educational system. Since the European Union is financially supporting the Palestinian administration including the educational system, it has to ensure that the values taught to these kids correspond to the fundamental values of Europe itself. We, MEPs and European citizens, must ask for more accountability on one hand and for less incitement on the other hand.”
This morning a group of dedicated low-tax campaigners descended on Barnet County Courthouse to support TPA activist Rick Stratton in his bid to get justice over his council tax bills. Rick’s case revolves around Hertsmere Council demanding council tax on a property they declared as “unfit for human habitation”, a sum running into the thousands of pounds Rick just can’t afford. I doubt that even our over-paid council bureaucrats could afford a lump sum payment were they issued it, despite how overpaid they are. But, in the current system, it’s one rule for them and one rule for the taxpayer. The Council declared the property unfit for human habitation and yet still want thousands of pounds in tax from Rick.
Our morning began in a rather sinister fashion. Literally as soon as we left the station, we were met by a couple of police officers (see left). Apparently they got a tip off from someone about the protest and it ‘necessitated’ a continuous police presence throughout. What rubbish! The police surely have better things to do than marshal a dozen activists politely protesting against the injustices handed out by the greedy state. Needless to say, passers by were less than amused that we were being monitored by the police, which brought us even more attention and support.
In another shocking twist, Rick told us after his case was heard that the court had switched judges at the last moment, apparently aware of the protest outside. As they gave no reason why, we can only assume the first judge would have seen sense and rectified the huge bill imposed by Hertsmere Council. Moreover, the court authorities barred a journalist from the Hendon Times from sitting in on the proceedings. So first they had the police on permanent surveillance of our protest, next they conducted the proceedings in secret. Some democracy…
Rick here explains the result, and it isn’t pleasant:
So, pay your council tax, year on year – no matter how much it goes up – or the council take your house!! It’s that simple and ruthless.
On a brighter note, all throughout the morning passers-by came to join our protest, one gentleman demanding to hold a placard in support of lower taxes. An elderly couple joined us for around an hour, boosting our numbers and showing that although a TPA protest may start off as a humble event, it will end with more people participating, taking notice and spreading the word for lower taxes.
By the end of the morning we had distributed well over 250 TPA leaflets, as well as attracting enough car ‘honks’ to show overwhelming support for lower taxes. The politicos in Westminster may think tax cuts aren’t popular. But they should do what I did today and go and meet the people and get their views. The people are saying with one loud, clear voice that they are overtaxed and are becoming increasingly impatient as our politicians fail to act.
But it is one thing knowing the virtue of our arguments; we still could have had more people out in support. Never forget the value our action has to our other activists. Yes we are always promoting the low-tax cause. But we are also standing with people the state is trying to bleed dry. There’s a human element to our action that reinforces our campaigns. Put simply: tax cuts ease the burden the state imposes on ordinary people who just want the government to back off and let them live their lives.
Here Rick tells us why you should get involved in our campaign. If you want to organise a protest or leaflet action day in your borough, contact me today so we can prepare and invite people to come along. So until the next time we take to the streets to build the majority for lower taxes, I shall leave you with Rick’s wise words…
What a great start to the New Year the TaxPayers’ Alliance is having. Over the Christmas and New Year period, when we publicised our Christmas Tax and Non-Job reports, we managed to recruit 35 new activists. Activists differ from supporters because they are committed to recruiting, campaigning and promoting the TPA and lower taxes, voluntarily giving their time and energy to the cause. Our activists are the seeds of our future grassroots growth, so thank you to all those who have signed up as TPA activists. If you wish to sign up as a TPA Activist you can register here, contribute or contact me directly to get involved.
One activist in particular became our 500th TPA Activist. His name is Kevin Taylor from Omagh and is busy recruiting to form a branch in County Tyrone. Congratulations to Kevin on helping us reach this milestone in our grassroots development. Now it’s up to our TPA activists to get recruiting so that we can congratulate our 1000th activist in the not too distant future. Just think, if every activist recruited only one activist, we could reach 1000 activists in no time at all!
The Christmas season also didn’t stop our activists recruiting in our 10 Friends Challenge. Evelyn Brazier, who, when she joined, recruited 25 of her friends and neighbours, signed up another 10 taxpayers to the TPA. Jessica Blossom recruited 10 more supporters in Sussex and London and Ivy Newman has helped us build our membership in North London.
Keep up the excellent work, everyone. We have a big task ahead of us to secure those essential tax cuts, but with the public behind us we have every chance of success. Also keep an eye out on the website tomorrow with the announcement of the first TaxPayers’ Alliance protest for lower taxes. 2008 promises to be a big year for the TaxPayers’ Alliance grassroots campaign!
Back in November, when we launched the 2007 Public Sector Rich List, Mr Carter came in at Number 32 with a stonking remuneration package of almost £400,000. Having come under fire, he defended himself in the Sunday Times by claiming “I am on the TaxPayers’ Alliance hitlist".
The Carter paranoia complex can only have been further fuelled, then, by the fact that we have been prominent today in criticising his £137,000 salary as Gordon’s latest spin doctor. I would like to take this opportunity to reassure Mr Carter that it’s not a personal vendetta against him per se, and there is a sure fire way of making sure we never have to criticise him again: stop costing the taxpayer so much money.
It’s that time of year again, when we hear of our council tax and other local taxes going up and up. Yet we’re seeing more and more elected representatives standing up for the taxpayer and committing themselves to fighting against tax increases. First we reported how Hammersmith and Fulham council are cutting council tax for the second year running. Now TPA activist Cllr Neil Martin of Wembury Parish Council explains here why he will be voting against his local Parish Precept increase at tonight’s Parish Council meeting:
“Currently, I serve as a member of a fairly well off parish council in Devon. Last year, I promised to vote against any rise in our precept and to produce an alternative budget. Although we’ve got few real responsibilities and are at the bottom of the council tax food chain – with the district and county councils, police and fire service all getting in on the act – the only way to demonstrate that services can be provided for a lower cost is to start at the very bottom where people can see things, especially as parish councils are the only tier of local government that is funded wholly by local taxpayers.
However, this isn’t just about high falutin’ principles that I can discard until the next election: it’s a question of efficiency and good budget management. In common with other parish councils, we’ve got pretty hefty reserves, and we don’t have any major projects planned. If we were a larger council, questions would be asked – if we were a private company, we’d be giving money back to the shareholders. We’re in a position to levy a precept of getting on for zero and still have the money to run things for a year: even including an increase in staff costs.
Staffing costs are another issue altogether: here in Devon national pay scales increase costs way beyond comparable jobs locally. This is at a very local level admittedly – I’m not pretending this is a major part of the council tax – but it’s something that will resonate with people in rural areas who wonder why they pay loads and don’t seem to get very much. In a way, we’re lucky that it can even be considered- people in urban areas don’t come close to this kind of relationship with how their money is spent.
So, with families facing rising costs everywhere, and with money in the bank, I will be voting against any precept rise and in favour of a cut.
Cllr. Neil Martin
Wembury Parish Council”
Cllr Martin raises some very good points TPA activists should be asking their district, town and parish councils. How hefty are their reserves? Where can savings be made, leading to cuts in the future? These questions need to be answered so we can hold to account any council that increases taxes.
If you’re an elected councillor, of any party, and you’re making a bold stand against tax hikes, then do get in touch with me so we can publicise your fight for taxpayers and show the depth of support for tax cuts in the country.
Orwellian comparisons are always popular in political debate, but whilst surveillance cameras, biometric ID cards and politically correct "thought-crime" laws are certainly of some concern, it is in the field of language that Winston Smith would find the Britain of 2007 most recognisable. Newspeak is undoubtedly the policy area of IngSoc that is most developed.
The excellent Plain English Campaign has for years been emphasising the importance of clear use of language. It’s perfectly simple – explaining things clearly is the best way to get ideas across. Confusing jargon and mangled English lead to misunderstandings, which waste money and make services inaccessible. As a tactic for deceit and obscuring the truth, it undermines accountability and restricts public scrutiny of politicians and the public sector.
My colleague Mike Denham reported recently on an unmanned police station which, residents have been told, will be closed unless they pretend it is manned and open:
Cricklade residents (aka the customers) are angry because their local police station is closed- ie if you go there you find nobody manning the front desk, and even if you shout, nobody comes. But rather than putting it right, North Wiltshire’s top cop advises them to pretend the station’s functioning properly as it is. Otherwise, he says, it will be perceived the residents perceive it’s closed, and it will be closed. Even though in real world terms, it’s closed already.
Confusing, isn’t it?
Sadly, this example is far from unique. The case of Cricklade police station is apparently one of a police force talking nonsense in order to wriggle off the hook and obscure the issue. Plenty of other agencies similarly use the practice for deceit, whilst others just don’t seem to engage their brain before opening their mouth or tapping the keyboard.
For example, a TPA researcher has just received another classic gobbet of gibberish, this time by email from Welwyn Hatfield Council, whose Customer Services Advisor’s email sign-off describes the Council as providing
access to your services and information 24 hours day, 7 days a week.
It then goes on to explain that
The Contact Centre and Offices are open
Monday to Thursday from 8.45am to 5.15pm
and Fridays 8.45am to 4.45pm
That’s right – in Welwyn, "24 hours a day, 7 days a week" actually means "eight and a half or sometimes eight hours a day, five days a week". That might well be a perfectly adequate service for people, but why is it necessary to describe it as something it simply isn’t?
The EU is another arena in which Newspeak reigns supreme. Famously, after the French voted "Non" to the EU Constitution, Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister who was EU President at the time, announced
"The French and Dutch did not really vote ‘No’ to the European constitution"
Except of course that they, erm, did. Immediately after the referenda went the "wrong" way, the EU establishment set about preparing the ground for forcing the constitution on the people irrespective of their wishes. It is testament to the power of language that their first step was a barefaced attempt to redefine the result as one that was actually favourable to the Constitution.
This deceit not only wastes money and confuses people, it conceals a multitude of sins. By not only denying failures but actually redefining them as successes, disgraceful disasters are allowed to continue, and popular opinion is ignored or manipulated.
The EU Constitution rumbles on despite its outright rejection at the ballot box by two founder nations of the EU, Cricklade’s residents have to pretend to talk to police officers who aren’t there whilst continuing to live without adequate police cover, children and pensioners live in fear of "care" as a word which is actually synonymous with "abuse", Welwyn residents get 24/7 information from a 8.5/5 service and confusion reigns supreme. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.
The mangling of the English language hobbles our democracy, obscures scrutiny, wastes money and cheats the needy of access to services. We cannot win purely by getting the sums right and the numbers to add up, we will also have to win a cultural victory by demanding clarity from the people who spend our money and run our government.
Just a thought – after a week which has seen sell-out and apparently legendary concerts by the reformed Led Zeppelin and The Verve, the O2 (as the Dome has been renamed) is now being described as the world’s best entertainment venue.
All this success only makes it more amazing that the Dome was a synonym for failure, over-budget profligacy and right-on irrelevance. It’s telling that the only real difference between 2000 and 2007 is that the public sector is no longer in charge of the place…