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.

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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.

May 2008 06

ClownsThe front page of the Metro newspaper today reveals that police guidance instructs rank and file police not to register car vandalism as a crime.  In sharp contrast, Gwynneth Lester is fleeing the country because she faces arrest over £1,200 of unpaid Council Tax.  According to local newspapers, the 59-year-old disabled war widow was due to be arrested last Monday but the police failed to turn up, giving her enough time to escape.

This wouldn’t be the first time Mrs Lester had been persecuted by the authorities.  She spent 28 days in jail last year for not paying the tax.  She made the stand after being burgled eight times in two years. 

What sort of country is it where the government and police crack down harder on a disabled pensioner than those who commit vandalism?  Are the government’s priorities that skewed that crimes against the state are more ‘serious’ than crimes against the person or property?  What a nation…

Apr 2008 30

Further to my comments on the Fabian Society’s attempts to "defend inheritance tax" and launch an anti-taxpayers alliance, Nick Cowen over at Civitas has written up an account of the Fabians’ debate on the topic, held last night.

It’s an amusing account, and lays out several crucial arguments against both inheritance tax and the tinpot alternative that the Fabians’ pamphlet proposed. I wish I could have attended myself and given you an account straight from the horses’ mouth, but I’m not sure how well a speech from the TaxPayers’ Alliance would have gone down! Nick’s analysis of the meeting is well worth a read.

Apr 2008 30

On Monday we launched the Ten Percent Challenge – throwing down the gauntlet to councils by identifying savings from non-essential and over-inflated budgets that could be used to reduce council tax by 3.5% across England and Scotland.

As you might expect, the reactions of people around the country has been enthusiastic. Council tax has doubled in the last ten years, and has reached simply unsustainable levels. We’ve had a lot of people get in touch with us and sign up to support the TPA.

The reaction from councils has been rather more mixed. This was to be expected – many of them have after all been telling their local electorate that there isn’t any slack in their budgets and council tax has got to rise even further while services are cut yet again. The revelation that even a small reduction in only three budgets could produce savings of £660 million rather exposes their previous claims as a sham.

Whilst we expected some attempts at cogent (though erroneous) argument against our proposal, I was slightly surprised at the tone and level of some of the responses.

The Gazette in Essex reported the Challenge with reaction from the leaders of Essex County Council and Basildon District Council. They were, shall we say, less than edifying.Lordhanningfield_2

Lord Hanningfield, the leader of Essex County Council said:

"We wouldn’t spend £4.3million on publicity. I think the total for last year was something more like £2million. They don’t have a clue how we operate."

Unfortunately for Lord H, they very much would spend £4.3 million on publicity – judging from the fact that they did so. Here’s a shot of their own 2006-07 accounts saying so:

Essex_cc_publicity

So in fact, not only would they spend £4.3 million on publicity, in the year before the spent over £5 million. In fact, Lord H seems to make a habit of spending quite a bit more than £2 million on publicity. As Lord Hanningfield has been the leader of Essex County Council for some years, it is rather unfortunate that it appears even he "doesnt have a clue how [they] operate"!

The reference to how much he spent last year is interesting, as if he is referring to 2007-08′s spending, the accounts haven’t actually been published yet – though if he’s got a copy he’d like to send to us we’d be very interested to have a look…

CllrmalcolmbuckleyNext up in the queue came Cllr Malcolm Buckley, leader of Basildon Council with some aspersions of his own to cast:

"We are the fourth-biggest district council in the country so we would expect to spend more in those areas than the other Essex districts. I don’t think the TaxPayers’ Alliance do their research properly and come up with misleading ideas."

This is a barefaced piece of misinformation. The size of the council doesn’t make hide nor hair of difference, because we are talking about how much could be saved from the average council tax bill, something that is always going to be spread across the population however large it is. There’s no reason at all that Basildon District Council shouldn’t be directly comparable to any other District.

As it happens, Basildon are the highest spenders on publicity, management and employer pension contributions of any District Council in Essex. I can’t help but think Cllr Buckley would have been better off explaining his sky-high expenditure on non-essential budgets rather than mud slinging.

Stephen_greenhalgh A welcome contrast can be seen in the reaction of Hammersmith and Fulham council leader Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh, though. He "backed" the Challenge, saying:

“Hammersmith & Fulham Council has managed to slash council tax by three per cent for the second year running by applying business nous to the way we run the council. The H&F story proves that it is possible to cut council tax and improve council services."

“We have successfully focussed our energy on delivering high quality public services and cutting red tape and inefficiency. We are the only council in the country to spend less on communications that we did ten years ago and we have recouped printing costs by allowing advertising by local businesses in our publications.

“H&F has been given the highest rating of four stars by the Audit Commission for the quality of our services and that’s why resident satisfaction is up for the second year in a row. This shows once and for all that local authorities can reduce the tax burden on residents while improving the way the services are run.

“We have done things differently here and that’s why we have been able to cut council tax by more than any other local authority in the country.”

Which shows that Hammersmith and Fulham are succeeding where Essex and Basildon are failing miserably for one fundamental reason – H&F acknowledge that "local authorities can reduce the tax burden on residents while improving the way the services are run". Until councils accept that the problem lies in their behaviour not in council tax not being high enough, things won’t get better.

Here’s one last bit of food for thought. Given part of the issue is publicity and communications spending, how do the different councils perform? I phoned Essex County Council’s press office on Monday to correct the untrue comments made by Lord Hanningfield. They haven’t returned my calls. His taxpayer-funded blog ("my attempt to connect directly with the people of Essex") has been written on only five times this year so far.

I emailed Cllr Malcolm Buckley on Monday pointing out his errors and asking his views on the level of council tax. He hasn’t replied.

By contrast, Hammersmith and Fulham got in touch with me to pass on their leader’s statement and thank us for the report. What a revealing difference.

Apr 2008 24

Norfolk TPA campaigners met with senior members of Norfolk County and South Norfolk District Councils yesterday to discuss how the County and District can achieve tax cuts for hard-working families across Norfolk next year. 

Our senior campaigners Tony Flynn, Barbara Lockwood and Tony Callaghan met with Cllr Daniel Cox (Leader of Norfolk County Council) and both Beverley Spratt and Cllr Martin Wilby, the Deputy Leader of South Norfolk District Council.  Tony Flynn gives his report of the meeting here:

TonyflynnAfter introductions and some small talk, we established the purpose of the meeting. It was agreed that taxation at its present high level was now creating enormous problems for the majority of the people of Norfolk, the average income for most people being well below the average income for London and the South East of England.

All present put the case for lower taxes, showing examples of other councils having cut their Council Taxes and that we need to work together for lower taxes.  We know lower taxes work and that the people support them.  Part of the reason we turned up was to show the strength of feeling for lower taxes. 

After some discussion, we know we have to keep up the pressure and inform the council as to how we can help them cut taxes.  Then moving on, it was decided that we form an agenda along these lines and meet again at South Norfolk House on Wednesday May the 21st at 11am. This meeting will be to agree the agenda and then to agree a date and time for a Public Meeting for lower taxes, also at South Norfolk House to include all eight MPs representing Norfolk. As the instigator of this approach to Politics and Local Democracy, I take it upon myself to encourage all Members of Parliament to attend.

Apr 2008 24

Two words guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of any good believer in small, efficient government!

Tewkesbury_floodsFurther to our recent work with the Cut the VAT coalition on the amount of money the Treasury made from the 2007 floods, the excellent EUReferendum blog has waded in (apologies for the pun) to criticise us for not mentioning the EU, which of course has control of VAT.

I could reassure Helen and Richard by pointing to my rather solid eurorealist credentials, but rather than talk shop, I’ll make it clear.

Yes, I’m well aware (and the Cut the VAT coalition is, too) that the EU controls VAT rates, and that it is a difficult job wrangling a VAT reduction from the other member states. As it happens, I personally think it is wrong that our democratically elected Parliament does not have control over the taxes levied in this country.

That does not change the fact that reducing VAT would be a good thing, and there is a strong case for doing so – as well as a strong feeling in the relevant industries that it would be beneficial. Ideally I would like to cut it to 0%, but the EU forbids that – something I resent, but not something we can get around on this issue.

In terms of whether we are "blaming the wrong government", I think it is obvious that if you want a reduction in this application of VAT, the first people you need to get to agree are the British Government. It may be difficult to get permission from the EU to do it, but it is absolutely impossible without the British Government on side. That means they must be persuaded before we can get anywhere.

There are carrots to offer them – a VAT cut will help the housing stock, encourage energy saving measures and increase VAT revenues – but you also need a stick, and that stick involves embarassing them as the VAT collecting agents. Using VAT, the Treasury raked in huge amounts of money from the floods and levies taxes on disabled people for essential alterations to their homes – both disgraceful activities that they should be ashamed of.

As it happens, I think the case is so strong – for economic, housing and green reasons as well as those of political embarassment – that there is a decent chance of success on this one. The EU has already dipped its toe in the water by trialling a reduction on the Isle of Man, which resulted in an increase in the amount of money raise in VAT revenues, so they’ve shown some interest in the idea already.

And from Richard and Helen’s eurorealist point of view, what is the worst case scenario? A strong case is built up, good media coverage rallies public support for a VAT cut and a wide coalition from industry is on side. I would like to see that result in lower VAT, but if it doesn’t and the campaign is rebuffed by a Government unable to control its own taxation as a result of the ceding of powers to the EU, then it will make even clearer the sorry state of sovereignty in this country to an influential collection of organisations. The Government and Treasury officials come under pressure to do something popular and beneficial and are frustrated by the fact that they can’t grab those popularity points because they’ve given the power to do so unilaterally away.

I want to see this tax reduced, and I think this is the best way of going about it. If the bare worst that can happen is that the campaign highlights the fact that our democratically elected Government has been emasculated and no longer has control of important tax rates then surely that is a helpful thing to the eurosceptic cause, too. I hope Richard and Helen will be signing up at www.cutthevat.co.uk

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