It was announced last week that North Lincolnshire Council is going to end the taxpayer funding of trade unions. The council currently has one employee who works full-time for his union, and this costs council taxpayers £50,000 a year. This is what council leader, Cllr Liz Redfearn had to say:
By removing taxpayers’ money from funding trade union posts, we will be able to create 10 new apprenticeship posts. I know many residents struggle to reconcile that taxpayers’ money is spent on payments to trade unions, especially when they supply millions of pounds to fund some political parties.
Unions clearly pay an important role in representing their members. However, given that we have historically only subsidised two out of the 10 unions, there is also an issue of fairness. We of course remain committed to working with the unions in the interests of their members.
This is, of course, very welcome news, and something we have been arguing for a long time. When this story was debated on ‘The Peter Levy Show’, which is broadcast simultaneously on BBC Radio Humberside and BBC Radio Lincolnshire, listeners were shocked this practice took place. Somewhere between 80-90% of listeners who contacted the show said this practice should stop. The debate continued on BBC Look North on Wednesday evening and ran into a second day on the radio. Last Thursday, I went up against Cllr Chris Shaw, leader of North East Lincolnshire Council, on ‘The Peter Levy Show’.
North East Lincolnshire Council currently has three members of staff who work for unions, at a cost of £98,000. I argued that if unions want full-time representatives, they should pay for it themselves out of their members’ subscriptions. Cllr Shaw replied by saying this would mean an increase in union dues, and staff would want a pay rise to cover this.
He then went on to claim paying full-time union officials out of council taxpayers’ cash was giving value for money. He informed us there were 78 shop stewards in North East Lincolnshire Council, and if they were to apply for facility time, he would be forced to employ agency staff. He also argued that facility time must be granted in all circumstances. This is simply not true.
In a briefing published last month, we looked at the practice of paying for full-time union officials. Here is an extract from it:
The practice of permitting trade union officials to work full time on union business is one that appears to have arisen in ad hoc arrangements between employees (and especially public sector organisations) and trade unions. It is not required – or even mentioned – in the legislation or in the ACAS Code, although the latter does advise about the desirability of agreements between employers and trade unions concerning practical arrangements for time-off and related requests.
One of the biggest drawbacks of employing full-time officials is that employers do not exercise their legal right to refuse permission to officers to perform certain tasks. By making unions apply for facility time, the amount of time taken off would reduce, as many full-time officials perform functions that are clearly outside the legal framework. Last year I wrote about Dave Mathieson, UNITE convenor at Hull City Council, who addressed a rally of striking public sector workers even though his union was not on strike that day. The law clearly states that if he had requested facility time to do this, it would have been refused, but as Hull City Council allows Mr Mathieson to work full-time for his union at our expense, taxpayers had to pick-up the bill for his speech calling for more industrial action.
If taxpayers are expected to pay for just about all union activities in the public sector, what is the money raised in subscriptions used for? We know the answer to that question. It goes on political campaigning and funding political parties, particularly candidates during elections. As unions appear to have millions of pounds to fund their political campaigns, they should also have enough money to pay for officials who wish to take time off work to carry out their union duties.
It is unions who should be paying – not taxpayers.
David Cameron has been at the United Nations in New York this week, reaffirming his pledge that 0.7 per cent of national income should be spent on overseas aid by 2013.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance has long argued against increasing the budget of the Department for International Development (DfID). It should not be immune from having to find ways of delivering more for less like all other government departments (except Health), especially when serious concerns remain about whether value for money is being delivered out of its existing budget.
Earlier this month, Andrew Gilligan at the Sunday Telegraph exposed how £500 million of the DfID budget goes to consultants, some of whom are earning six-figure salaries.
Taxpayers expect that whatever of their cash ends up at DfID will go to the world’s poorest, not line the pockets of Western ‘aid barons’.
And just the other week Lord Ashcroft persuasively set out one reason why the arbitrary target of 0.7 per cent of national income is so ludicrous:
Quite rightly, the government has attacked targets for distorting priorities. Unfortunately, it is so focused on the anachronistic and random target of giving away 0.7% of Britain’s income that it ignores the obvious failings of its policies. So even declared successes melt away under scrutiny.
To give one example, ministers like to brag how many millions of impoverished children go to school thanks to British aid. Yet when the Independent Commission for Aid Impact investigated the spending of more than £1bn in three east African countries, it found it was failing to improve basic literacy and maths skills. It was all about hitting targets and creating headlines rather than examining whether children were learning or teachers bothering to turn up. No wonder Giles Bolton, Dfid’s former man in Rwanda, called aid ‘the least effective major public service funded by Western taxpayers.’
At present, DfID trumpets the fact that 0.56 per cent of British national income is going on overseas aid.
Yet as a Spectator (£) editorial pointed out last week, this is already far more than countries like France or the USA. In fact, the UK Government is already giving a greater proportion of national income in aid than any other G8 nation.
But here’s the most pertinent point in that Spectator editorial: the Government figures completely ignore the money donated to charities providing aid and development assistance overseas which comes from private individuals in the UK – people digging into their own pockets, independently of government, to help those less fortunate than themselves. Someone once called it the Big Society.
Indeed, figures from the NCVO/CAF’s Overview of Charitable Giving for 2010/11 estimate that Britons are donating to charity to the annual tune of £11 billion, of which 10 per cent goes overseas.
Adding £1.1 billion of privately-given aid to the state’s £8.6 billion for last year and you end up with a total of £9.7 billion – which equates to 0.64 per cent of national income.
And the Spectator rightly explained the danger of the Government hiking DfID spending yet further:
As taxes rise to fund DfID’s expansion, private donations may well fall. BY spending in defiance of public opinion, Cameron risks giving aid a bad name and inhibiting donations to British charities which have been doing extraordinary work for decades.
This afternoon MPs will debate the price of petrol and diesel in Parliament. If you haven’t already, now is a great time to write to your MP and tell them that Fuel Duty should at least be frozen. It doesn’t take long and it can make a real difference. Motorists are massively overtaxed, tax makes up a staggering sixty per cent of the price at the pump, but further big increases are planned for early next year which we need to stop.
A large part of the debate will be about competition in the sector, and whether there are any problems in the market contributing to high prices. The Office for Fair Trading are looking into the issue and politicians are right to look to ensure consumers aren’t being ripped off. But with sixty percent of the price having nothing to do with the cost of the fuel itself, but just tax, it is something of a sideshow. As I argued in City AM recently: “If motorists want lower fuel prices, there is only one serious game in town: lower tax.”
Imagine that tomorrow I was elected as MP for Mid Mid-West St. Appleby-on-the-Hill. Now let’s imagine that, after being sworn in, I decide that this politician lark and the commute to and from the Home Counties each week isn’t really for me so I decide to jet off to Cuba to spend the next five years on the beach. What are my constituents going to do about it? Fire me? Stop me from claiming my generous salary and expenses? Have me booted out of the party?
The truth is they would be helpless to do anything. The residents of the leafy metropolis I was elected to serve are instead going to have to wait five years to get a new Member of Parliament while I enjoy the mojitos at their expense. There is no process to remove a sitting MP who is clearly failing their electorate unless either they go bankrupt, they are imprisoned for more than a year or they are sectioned for more than six months (and there are moves to axe this rule).
This may sound extreme but it highlights an important point: voters cannot do anything about their MP in-between General Elections, no matter how they behave. There have been some extreme examples of MPs deserting their posts. And what if I just stopped holding local surgeries, got some poor staffer to do all my work, was caught taking advantage of my expenses or even got into a brawl and got myself a police record?
None of these actions would allow the voters of Mid Mid-West St. Appleby-on-the-Hill to kick me to the curb until the next General Election. While most MPs are hard-working souls looking out for the interests of their constituents, we need a mechanism to recall those who let them down. They shouldn’t have to wait without proper representation for years.
Before the last election all three major parties recognised that the public wanted recall and pledged to introduce it in their 2010 Manifestos. Yet now that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have taken over the reins of power they are back-tracking.
The Coalition has put forward recall proposals but they are a Westminster stitch-up that hands power to a parliamentary committee, not the electorate, meaning that the Government’s proposals are actually worse than no recall at all.
They would require 10 per cent of voters to sign a petition but only after the Standards and Privileges committee has found an MP guilty of serious wrongdoing. Not only would this undermine the democratic principle of recall by taking power away from voters, it would simply hand more power to the Government whips who would be able threaten rebellious MPs with a trip to the committee and the distinct possibility of an immediate by-election. Our political system is already far too heavily dominated by “loyalty to the party”.
Luckily there are some backbench MPs who are campaigning for proper recall and not this fudge.
Zac Goldsmith MP makes an impassioned and powerful case for a proper recall mechanism. He has tabled a bill that would make good on our leaders’ earlier rhetoric and deliver a proper recall referendum should 20 per cent of voters in a constituency sign a petition calling for one. The 20 per cent figure seems about right. It allows voters the chance to boot out an MP while providing a high enough threshold to prevent an easy vote motivated by simple party politics.
One often overlooked benefit of the recall system is that it would also mean an end to the notion of a safe seat for life. A successful recall ballot would allow residents to dump an MP without a change in the party political control of a seat. This, combined with open primaries, would make our representatives more responsive to public, even in constituencies where majorities are weighed, not counted. Primaries for sitting MPs would complete the job.
The cynics among you might think turkeys don’t vote for Christmas but, if politicians want to show they have moved on from the behaviour which led to scandals in the last Parliament, they must vote for a proper recall system and not the lousy stitch-up that the Government is proposing.
One of the positive things to come out of the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009 was that all our politicians’ future expense claims would have to be backed up by receipts and then published online so that they could be subject to public scrutiny.
For the second year running, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has just published the annual figures showing what each MP spent in each of the various categories on accommodation, travel, staffing etc.
So if you want to see the figures for yourself, visit this page on the IPSA website, select the year 2011-12 and then click “Download all MPs’ annual expenditure data for 2011-2012″.
Constituents need to judge their representative on their record, not just on how much or how little they have spent in allowances. After all, they could be spending little yet delivering very little, which would not amount to good value for money. The main thing is that this kind of transparency puts more power in the hands of voters to hold their MPs to account.
The Welsh Government has faced demands for a review of taxpayer-funded trade union activity, after it came to light that over the last two years, 91 Welsh Government employees have been undertaking full or part-time trade union duties costing taxpayers £1.25m. Last year, we discovered that trade unions across the UK received at least £113 million in subsidies from taxpayers through facility time and direct grants.
Welsh Assembly Member Mohammed Asghar criticised the Welsh Government for squandering so much taxpayers’ money on union activities, but his concerns have been dismissed, with officials saying that facility time time “plays a vital role in representing members’ interests”. Whilst we appreciate the rights of workers to take part in union activities in their own time, the Welsh Government’s defence completely misses the point: that unions continue to abuse this very generous subsidy despite collecting membership fees from their own members. If trade unions want this practice to continue then they should be funded from their own coffers, not taxpayers’ pockets.
Local taxpayers in South Lanarkshire have been lumbered with a bill for half a million pounds after the council’s finance chief walked away from her position with a lucrative, golden goodbye.
Linda Hardie was forced out of her Finance Director job into early retirement at 50 after her department was swindled out of £100,000 in an unsophisticated scam, shortly before a £38m budget error emerged.
Hardie, who was earning £127,000 a year, was placed on full-salary gardening leave for six months after the “arithmetical errors” surfaced before receiving severance payments of £106,000, and a £427,000 pension contribution from the hard-up council.
Perhaps more alarmingly, it has also been revealed that the bumper deal was approved not by elected councillors, but by her fellow officials. This practice is contrary to Audit Scotland’s guidelines and raises questions as to who is actually in charge of the council.
MSPs have expressed outrage and demanded a full investigation into the council’s early retirement procedures, as well as a radical review of voluntary severance payments. It is unacceptable that taxpayers have been left to pick up the bill for these costly mistakes while the director in charge has escaped full accountability. The fact that she has been handed such an obscene pay-off only rubs salt in South Lanarkshire taxpayers’ painful and costly wound.
Coventry University Hospital has quietly abolished its cap on parking fees paid by visitors and patients who use the hospital’s car park. This has unsurprisingly angered residents and patients alike, especially as the health bosses did not announce the change. The cap meant that regular users of the car park would not be faced with unlimited charges, paying no more than a £150 in a year. Anyone racking up more than that in charges could claim the money back. It costs £7.70 to use the car park for 24 hours.
This move is a disgraceful tax on the sick and their visitors. It targets the most vulnerable and those who are often already under increased financial pressure that illness can bring. While the council was unwilling to try and justify its decision on camera, ITV Central invited me on to discuss the issue. You can watch the interview above.
The Patients Association have been quick to point out how particularly vulnerable patients are affected the most by parking charges. Their Chief Executive Katherine Murphy said :
Charges hit patients hard – particularly elderly people or those who are vulnerable and unable to use public transport. Also affected will be those with chronic conditions that mean they go to hospital regularly. It’s the last thing patients, relatives and carers need.
We have long opposed hospital parking charges; taxpayers have already paid for the construction of the hospital and the car park. Why must they pay twice when they are unfortunate enough to have to make use of the facilities? What is particularly galling about this decision though is that it is increasing pressure on those who either require regular medical treatment or the relatives and friends of those who do. Talk about kicking someone when they’re down. The exemption eased some of the brunt of car park charges on those who really needed it.
Hospitals must not view car parking charges as a revenue raiser. Health chiefs must focus on spending the huge NHS budget more efficiently by cutting out bureaucracy and focusing on patient care. The NHS has to make tough spending decisions but it shouldn’t resort to dipping into the pockets of patients instead of finding ways to save money.
The BBC reports that Gary Willetts, a Conwy Council taxpayer, has lodged a total of nineteen objections to his council’s 2009-10 and 2010-11 accounts with the auditors.
Taxpayers have the legal right to inspect and query their council’s accounts before they are signed off by an independent auditor. They have a right to question or challenge accounts and raise concerns when there are irregularities or where it is clear that there is waste and inefficiency.
From his scrutiny of Conwy’s accounts, Willetts reckoned that the local authority had overspent by almost £1 million on a project to rebuild Maesdo Bridge in Llandudno. The council had also paid a bill of £10,000 twice for moving a cable. Some of Mr Willetts’s other queries involved small sums of money such as spending on office furniture and council credit cards but as Mr Willetts put it – ‘it wasn’t one big hole that sank the Titanic, it was loads of small ones’.
His findings have cost £30,000 in legal fees and investigations, a sum which has been criticised by members of Conwy’s Audit Committee. It’s a lot of money of course, but considering some of Mr Willets’ discoveries, the council should be ashamed and more apologetic it didn’t do more initially to stop the wasteful spending
Conwy Council can avoid expensive investigations in the future by proactively publishing all spending information, but more importantly by taking much more care with taxpayers’ money in the first place.
Following a flurry of U-turns after March’s shambolic budget, it’s business as usual at the Treasury. Recent figures revealed that civil servants in the Chancellor’s department received a total £970,064 in bonuses despite assurances they would only reward success.
When Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced earlier this year that bonuses would only be paid for “genuine excellence”, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would usher in a new era in Whitehall where bonuses aren’t a matter of routine. But this is not the case.
The total bill is slightly less than the £1,032,239 paid out the previous year. But considering the disastrous budget in March with so many proposals already being reversed, including the pasty tax and the caravan tax, it’s hard to think of anything the Treasury should be celebrating.
But they’re not the only department; the Daily Mirror revealed that civil servants in the Department of Energy and Climate Change trousered annual bonuses worth almost £1 million. And at DECC the bill increased by £130,000 on the previous year. It’s astonishing that while household utility bills continue to soar that the department charged with controlling the costs of these bills is so out of touch.
Taxpayers will be astonished that these departments in charge of this year’s bungled budget ans rising household bills are so detached from economic reality and continue to pay huge bonuses. If bonuses are a reward for success, then I’d hate to see their definition of failure.
It is vital that councils look at their own spending before cutting back on services that are of importance to taxpayers. This advice could be no more apt than at Brent Council which has recently placed an advert for an artist to create ‘outdoor sculptural pieces’ for the local Chalkhill Park. The sculpture will cost taxpayers £20,000 as part of the Brent Culture, Sport and Learning Forum.
But this isn’t the first time that taxpayers’ money has been squandered at the Council. Plans to give every councillor an iPad costing £46,000 were recently announced and the Council has continued to spend £100,000 a year on a magazine that loses £1,000 every month. With expensive hotel suppers for councillors and officials, it is clear that Brent Council has got its priorities wrong.
This will be a bitter pill to swallow for local taxpayers. Those who protested against the closure some of its libraries last year should also be concerned about priorities. Councils can’t plead poverty when there is plenty of fat left to trim.
Last Friday we named Cllr David Parsons, the Conservative leader of Leicestershire County Council, as May’s Pinhead of the Month. He had been censured for keeping hold of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money paid to him for trips to Europe which should have been reimbursed to the council, and also wasted tens of thousands of pounds by using a chauffeur-driven council car to take him to hundreds of meetings in London when the train would have been far cheaper.
Let’s hope whoever succeeds him is more prudent when it comes to deciding how – or whether – to spend taxpayers’ money.