May 2008 30

Last Friday, Matthew Elliott wrote here about the events of the previous seven days as "The week that taxes took centre stage". Opinion polls, speeches from Cameron and Clegg and then the Crewe by-election, fought squarely on the issue of tax, had put taxation at the top of the political agenda.

The last week has seen that trend continue, with some remarkable developments.

Perhaps most remarkable was Denis MacShane’s article in the Telegraph on Tuesday. The very fact that a Labour MP, and a former Minister at that, penned an article titled "The answer’s obvious: cut taxes and spending" is a notable change. MacShane points out that tax cuts are not only popular they are absolutely achievable, and signs up to the argument that tax has a harmful impact on relatively low income workers who are now paying an unacceptable amount of their earnings to the Treasury.

The article is a signal that the label of taxcutters is one that the main parties are now fighting to have, rather than fighting to avoid as they were a few years ago. MacShane argues that it is a Left wing thing to save money, that it is a Gordon Brown principle to be prudent and that it is Labour who recognise the financial troubles of ordinary people and the power of letting people keep their money to spend as they wish.

Readers will not be surprised to note that this is not simply a pure, ideological debate – after all, MacShane didn’t exactly display this taxcutting fervour when he was a Minister. There is of course a pragmatic motive, demonstrated in today’s YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph. When asked

Taking all forms of taxation into account, do you think you pay too much in taxes, too little or about the right amount?

This was the result:

Too Much:  72%
Too Little: 2%
About right: 19%

That’s a massive majority, which has risen sizeably, and explains why MacShane is touting these ideas publicly.

Anthony King’s analysis in the Telegraph includes a remarkable figure, that 85% of people agree with the phrase

we have reached the limits of acceptable taxation and borrowing. With the rising cost of living, taxpayers can’t take any more

which is taken from Cameron’s speech of last week.

All this means that the message is clear: People want lower taxes and are willing to vote for them. For politicians, if they can tap that enthusiasm they will be well on the way to victory. For taxpayers, it can only be a good thing that the issue is riding so high and that the tide is flowing in the direction of tax cuts. Safe to say, we can expect to hear a lot more about tax cuts in the coming weeks.

May 2008 30

Policewestminster_2This study by Civitas looks excellent:

"The police, in their turn complain of central control and ill thought out government policies. All interviews were characterised by a high level of bitterness and frustration. Bonuses are paid to senior officers based on how they comply with targets. As in the NHS bad targets are coercing otherwise ethical public servants into unethical behaviour. Serious crime is ignored and minor crime elevated to the serious in order to satisfy the measurement regime. One office said: ‘We are bringing more and more people to justice – but they are the wrong people.’ Targets and increased central control are turning what should be an independent police force into what another officer described as, ‘an extension of the government.’ At the same time too much paper work sees officers spend only 14% of their time on patrol. Police numbers may be historically high but they are low compared to other countries while the ratio of crimes to officers is now overwhelming.

Targets miss the point of what the public wants. The Home Office judges each police force by how many crimes they detect and clear up. The public wants something different. They do not want the crimes happening in the first place. The absence of crime and disorder is not a target. As one constable wrote, ‘I remember when it was a matter of pride to come back after a night shift to find no crimes had happened. Now all we are asked is why no one was locked up.’

[...]

Unlike many other police forces, British police were not intended to be servants of the state but of the communities they serve. Their powers are personal, used at their own discretion and derived from the crown. This essential feature of British policing – policing by consent – is now in jeopardy."

Central targets are a dismally poor substitute for accountability to local communities.  The police are working for the politicians in Whitehall, rather than for ordinary people.  The politicians can’t see the day-to-day impact of crime across the country, all they can see are clumsy and often misleading statistics.  Police officers chasing ‘sanction detections’ can easily boost their numbers by chasing trivial crimes at the expense of serious offences and, with a bonus of £10-15,000 at stake, they have a powerful incentive to do so.

The police need to be made accountable to the communities they serve and freed from political management.

May 2008 29

Stethescope "Death rates of patients undergoing major surgery at NHS hospitals are to be published on the internet.

[...]

Death rates are expected to be at a disproportionately high level in hospitals where fewer operations are performed and surgeons have less opportunity to improve.

The government believes publishing the figures will mean badly performing trusts will have to improve standards or halt areas of surgery where they are lagging behind."

This, from a report in the Telegraph, is great news.  If patients can make an informed choice then that should put pressure on the acute trusts to up their standards.  In fact, this is long overdue:

An inquiry into the deaths of children at Bristol Royal Infirmary a decade ago showed how poor practice persisted because mortality rates were not disclosed.

The effect will be limited though as – within the NHS – patients only have a limited amount of choice.  While the trusts could compete with each other to a certain extent they are protected from new entrants to the market, a restriction that will severely limit the ability of patients to take advantage of this new information.

Beyond that, the structure of the NHS will restrict the ability of the trusts to respond to quasi-market pressures introduced by this new source of information.  The NHS is essentially a quango of quangos.  It is made up of a combination of the primary and acute trusts, strategic health authorities and a maze of central quangos.  In our report, Wasting Lives: a statistical analysis of NHS performance in European context since 1981 (PDF), we set out how the central quangos control many of the most important NHS decisions:

"The NHS has a large number of local bodies, the Primary Care Trusts, NHS Trusts and Regional Strategic Health Authorities.  However, these are all both legally non-departmental bodies answering to the Department of Health and effectively part of one organisation.  Most have only a very limited ability to act independently:

  • Their decisions over which drugs to buy are expected to conform to guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.
  • IT expenditure is mostly handled by Connecting for Health which runs the National Programme for IT , the largest single information technology project in the world.
  • Staff pay, the largest item of expenditure,  is determined nationally by the NHS Pay Review Body.
  • Amounts of funding are also set nationally according to a weighted capitation formula.   This became very controversial in 2006 when the Government were accused of manipulating the funding decision for political advantage."

This information will be a valuable resource for NHS patients.  It would be so much more valuable if our healthcare system were liberalised more broadly.

May 2008 29

Nakba The EU diplomatically supports a two state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict based on two democratic entities which have secure borders and are at peace with each other. An honourable objective we should all support. Given this objective it is strange that the EU funds groups diametrically opposed to this vision. NGOs which oppose a two state solution, advocate the abolition of Israel, equate Israeli Liberal Democracy with apartheid South Africa and advocate recognition of and engagement with Hamas receive EU grants. A report by NGO Monitor entitled “Europe’s Hidden Hand, EU Funding for Political NGOs in the Arab-Israeli Conflict" details (in as much depth as the public can access) who we are funding and what the groups advocate. Its findings are pretty shocking.

NGOs active in the Arab-Israeli conflict region receive funding by two main mechanisms. These are the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership for Peace (PfP). NGOs headquartered in the EU were financed under a third mechanism entitled co financing until 2008. As of 2008 these NGOs will be funded under a new program named “Non state actors and local authorities in development” which aims to pursue the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. It is too early to judge the success of this new program and given the change fruitless to assess the success of the previous program. Thus the NGO Monitor report mainly concentrates on assessing EU financing of NGOs active in the Arab- Israeli conflict region.

As one would expect of the EU – a body which has never had its financial accounts approved by auditors – it is difficult to ascertain accurate data on EU funding of NGOs. Finding out who is paid what, why, by whom and for what purpose is not easy to identify. Funding figures are displayed over different time periods making comparisons difficult. Requests to the Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid (the body responsible for distributing grants to projects executed by UN Agencies) for specific information and guidelines were not answered. NGO Monitor also notes “There are no mechanisms for the public (European, Israeli, or Palestinian) to follow or understand the process, applications are not available for the publics review, and no external party has access to the information necessary too challenge the EU’s judgment”.

Questions asked by MEP Paul Van Buitenen in December 2006 revealed what the EC are not prepared to tell us about its funding of NGOs. We are not entitled to a full list of the NGOs the EU funds (some don’t want to publicise their details). However, we are assured that grants are independently assessed. The identity of the ‘independent’ assessors chosen is not revealed. We do know the ‘independent assessors’ are chosen by the “headquarters” of the people they are assessing. An interesting fact this – these bodies choose who assesses them. I think if it was me and I was looking for a fair and impartial assessment of my actions I would choose my mum to do it. I reckon her assessment would be fair and unbiased. But then again under EU rules we would not be able to know the criteria under which she judged my decisions (detailed funding criteria are not revealed) nor would we know what mark she gave me (the results of these independent assessments are not open to public view). Given we are not told who is paid what, against what criteria and how successful they were in achieving their aims the value of this independent assessment is highly suspect.

The EU claims it funds projects in isolation on their merits. Indeed the authorizing officers cannot refuse an application based on a NGOs political stance. The EU does not fund the NGOs that operate these schemes they just fund the schemes. They do not consider the other political activities the NGO is engaged in. However, this distinction is false. Funding of specific projects raises the profile of an organisation. It supports its infrastructure paying for staff, equipment, office space, publicity for the organisation etc. It also frees up resources to spend on other activities. The report notes that organisations such as ICAHD and ARIJ which support boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel do not operate strict separation arrangements when they display the EU flag on many of their publications. Publications not part of the specific EU project funded.  The display of this EU flag essentially means these organisations are choosing to highlight their link with the EU and associate it with the publications that feature it and by implication their own organisation. In some quarters this may add credibility to their organisation.

However, even if the direct EU funding of NGOs was clear and transparent there would still be problems. This is because the report notes “NGOs are able to re-grant a portion of the funds they receive to other civil society organizations, yet NGO candidates are not required to identify the names of potential re-grant recipients when they submit their application”. Therefore, it seems you can make an application and gain funding for the Kids for peace and love campaign to provide starving kids with cookies. This money can then be given to the adults who hate kids program for general destruction.  We do not know the identity of third parties re-granted money by the NGOs we support or the amounts involved because the EC does not publish this information.

The report notes that non partisan organisations do exist which focus on implementing a positive agenda bringing communities together. Some receive EU funding. These include The Arava Institute which funds environmental projects, Bitterlemons.org an internet dialogue forum between Arabs and Israelis and Internews Europe which the report says has worked to increase the “quality, diversity and professionalism of Palestinian local radio”. Each of these organisations promotes the EUs stated aim of “demonstrating the advantages of working together for mutual benefit and tangible results”.

Unfortunately the EU also funds many groups whose activities seem designed to nurture the hatred which sustains this conflict and frustrate the development of a two state solution to which the EU is committed. Christian Aids statements are particularly disgraceful. The collapse of the Palestinian Unity government and the conflict between Hamas and the PA are apparently “the predictable result of prolonged Israeli blockade and political isolation by the International community”. The report notes that “Hamas’ radical ideology…corruption, and terror attacks against Israeli civilians are entirely missing”. Such statements are part of a broader campaign by Christian Aid to encourage “boycott, divestment and sanctions” against Israel. How much of the 850,000 Euro granted by the EU is diverted towards these disgraceful campaigns which hamper genuine efforts to build peace and understanding in the region we do not know.

The report concludes with a series of constructive recommendations to ensure transparency and accountability in EU funding of NGOs. These include a complete list of NGOs funded by the EU by country, region and activity. We should know who applied for funding, who was approved and on what basis they were approved. Any list of the successful applicants should contain relevant details such as the recipient, contact information, amount, project name and a description of that project. This should be obtainable in a standardised format to enable comparisons between different bodies. NGOs applying for funding should have to disclose which other third parties they will fund through re-granting in advance as part of the applications process. This information should be publically available. Professional consistent impact assessments should be done regularly in to each program. These programs should be assessed against whether the activities of the NGO as a whole support achievement of the EUs regional objectives as stated in the relevant EU guidelines. Red Lines need to be drawn to ensure that the EU is not funding any activities by groups which engage in unacceptable behaviour. This behaviour includes calling for the destruction of a state or calling for its delegitimisation. This would bring the EU in line with standards set by private bodies such as the Ford Foundation which ensures its recipients do not “promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state, nor will it make sub-grants to any entity that engages in these activities”.

The system of allocation is clearly a shambles with little accountability or assessment of the value of making these grants. However this crisis also presents us with an opportunity. The European Commission issues “Calls for Proposals” on the web sites of its offices in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. All you need is to found/find an NGO with a base in Israel/Palestine think of a specific project and detail how it will fulfil the objectives of the CfP. Then submit an application. In each cycle of applications the EC receives up to 200 applications I think we can increase this number. The quality of the current winner’s projects standards indicates that standards are not high. It may be worth making an application.

Until the EU reforms its processes for granting, administering and assessing it’s funding to NGOs and makes the information public such funding cannot be viewed as legitimate. These funds will appear to be little more than a slush fund for the EU to play both sides of the conflict. Diplomatic commitments to a two state solution mean little when the EU funds groups engaged in promoting policies which make such a solution much harder to achieve.

May 2008 29

Can anyone tell me why this is anything other than a crime?

Some councils have earned hundreds of thousands of pounds by enforcing unlawful traffic and parking restrictions, the BBC has learned.

Fines are said to have been levied despite incorrect road markings and on parking bays which are too small.

Councils have been levying charges and fines that are simply not legal – and it looks as though the amount could run into the millions. Haringey, Sheffield and Camden alone have unlawfully taken at least £715,000.

You want to know the worst part? London Councils don’t even seem to think there’s anything wrong with that.

Nick Lester from London Councils, which represents authorities in the capital, argued that handing the cash back was not necessarily in the public interest.

He said: "Where there’s only a technical error, a small issue, where no-one was genuinely misled, the council can take the view, is it really a good use of public money to repay the penalty?

"Is that really what they should be doing?"

Mr Lester* should take a swift lesson in the law. It’s not "public money" being used to repay people, it’s a question of giving back the money councils wrongly extorted from them. The distinction about it supposedly being "only a technical error" is also false; the law, especially when it comes to levying fines and road regulations, has to be specific and it has to be followed properly or else it means nothing. Something is either a crime or it’s not – if it’s not a crime then you can’t fine them. Fining the innocent isn’t a technical error, it’s a total injustice.

If it’s true that some councils continued charging fines even after they discovered they had no legal right, heads should roll and criminal investigations should follow.

The article is also very revealing about the flaws in the National Parking Adjudication Service (NPAS). Instead of insisting councils go back through their records to repay every fine they illegally charged, they recommend motorists to appeal their fine if they think it was unjust. It’s amazing that even the Chief Parking Adjudicator recognises that the system is weighted to deter people from appealing:

she said that many motorists would not want to take the risk of taking their case to tribunal because it would mean losing their 50% discount – and that the onus was on local authorities to put things right.

This has lifted the lid on a serious problem. Councils can’t be allowed just to decide what should be a crime and what shouldn’t, and they must not be allowed to just flout the law like this. It’s completely wrong that there is a penalty for appealing, too – especially considering that 60% of appeals succeed, which suggests that wrongly levied fines are endemic.

*You can contact Nick Lester here to put him right, should you wish: [email protected]

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