Jun 2008 16
Araucaria araucana: a clear and present danger

As explained by Thomas Hobbes more than three centuries ago, we have to put up with government so it can keep us safe. That’s the deal.

Which of course is why government arranges for Torquay’s highly dangerous palm trees to be sawn down, why a 150 year old Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) in Swansea faces the chop for having "hypodermic style" needles, and why the scourge of conkers has been forever banished. Yes, when it comes to health and safety, we can all rest easy in the firm knowledge that our ever-vigilant state is protecting us from every danger.

Except that is, for one area – where the government itself is the danger.

Take hospital hygiene. This morning we get news that despite a stream of top-level orders, plus huge expenditure (including £50m+ on that "deep clean"), a quarter of government hospitals remain unsafe:

"The Healthcare Commission reports that no improvement has been made on a year ago. In total, 103 out of 391 trusts admitted they did not achieve the minimum requirements, brought in by the Government to help combat the hospital superbugs, MRSA and Clostridium difficile.

26 per cent of trusts failed to keep facilities clean, did not have adequate infection control or follow guidelines on decontaminating reusable equipment."

Let’s just remind ourselves how many people have officially died from MRSA and C difficile in government hospitals:

MRSA Deaths

C diff deaths

8,000 in 2006. Compared to around 3,000 deaths in road traffic accidents, and precisely none from entanglements with hypodermic style Monkey Puzzle needles.

Or take the latest shocking revelations on those highly dangerous RAF Nimrods:

"Vital safety features were left out of the design specification for Nimrod surveillance aircraft despite being requested by the Royal Air Force, an inquiry has revealed. Fuel tank explosion protection and a ban on carrying fuel in the fuselage were both listed as “air staff requirements” (ASR) by the RAF. But they were among several items not included in the final design blueprint known as the “aircraft specification”. The RAF’s comments about the design criteria were rejected by the Ministry of Defence when it drew up the specifications for the aircraft."

"Experts" at the MOD deny this dangerous cheeseparing cost the lives of those 14 servicemen in Afghanistan. But then, they would, wouldn’t they.

The government routinely accepts safety standards in its own facilities that would not be tolerated in a private sector operation. It is no accident that while NHS hospitals lost those 8000 patients to MRSA and C diff in 2006, in the same year the three main private hospital chains reported not a single confirmed case. And the safety standards applied to its own military aircraft are clearly way short of those it demands for civilian planes.

Jun 2008 13

Ireland_referendum_13608 With only one constituency left to declare, and only nine having voted "yes" (and one of those only doing so by 6 votes) it seems the Irish electorate have voted solidly to reject the EU Constitution Lisbon Treaty. It is imperative, not only for democracy but also for any sense of accountability that politicians in Brussels and in every EU capital city accept the result and listen to the people.

The EU, and the national politicians who are so much more keen on integration than their constituents, have an awful track record for ignoring referendum results.

In 1992, Denmark rejected the Maastricht Treaty, but instead of accepting the No vote and ditching the Treaty, it was put to another vote in 1993. Back in 2001, Ireland voted No to the Nice Treaty, but again another referendum was swiftly scheduled and it passed. Most recently, in 2005 the French and the Dutch voted No to the EU Constitution but instead of killing the document, it was reincarnated as the current Lisbon Treaty and brought straight back, this time without referenda in any country other than Ireland, despite being an almost identical document.

The EU cannot – and must not – continue flouting the law and the express will of the people. This Treaty has been rejected by the only people who have been given the opportunity to vote on it. In its previous guise as the Constitution it was roundly rejected by both France and Holland, both key EU players, and the British Government have chickened out of holding the referendum they promised in their 2005 manifesto because it was clear the British people would vote No. Legally it should die as soon as any one country refuses to ratify. And yet what is happening as a result of the Irish vote?

Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the Commission, has called for other states to continue ratification.

Gordon Brown has phoned President Sarkozy to assure him the UK will press ahead with ratifying the Treaty in Parliament.

The Dutch are continuing with ratification, despite the express wishes of their voters in 2005.

There is a clear divide regarding the European project – the people repeatedly vote No when they are asked about continuing integration, but the political class seem dedicated to forcing it through regardless. This cannot continue. The EU spends billions of pounds of our money, and controls an estimated 80% of our new legislation. The taxpaying and voting public cannot continue to be frozen out of the legislative and public policy arena – it is antidemocratic and offensive to the 450 million people who live in EU member states.

The collective leaders of the EU and its member nations should listen to the message being sent to them by the Irish people today. Judging by their track record, and their early responses, though, they won’t listen and will do their best to ride roughshod over our express wishes. If that happens, taxpayers’ money will continue to be spent inefficiently and unaccountably behind closed doors, screeds of unscrutinised legislation will continue to flow from Brussels into Whitehall, British business will continue to be throttled by red tape and public resentment of the undemocratic way the EU operates will continue to grow. One thing is sure – we cannot go on like this.

Jun 2008 13

Flying in the face of their already questionable claim to “an enviable reputation for forward-thinking and fiscal discipline”, Birmingham City Council have made the front page of today’s Birmingham Post due to the fact that they are currently advertising for seven (yes seven!) ‘Assistant Directors of Finance’.

Whilst trying to comprehend this move you may well fall into the trap of presuming that each of these ‘directors’ will take a division of duty (and you’d be correct), and so naturally they’d each be paid a proportion of the wages that might be paid to one presiding director, or perhaps two senior directors’ salaries might be split between them, or even three.Seven_finance_directors_4

How very wrong you’d be on the latter assumption.

Each of these seven Assistant Directors of Finance will be paid up to £85k, plus relocation package. And Birmingham City Council certainly aren’t shy about any additional perks as more than a wink assures that successful candidates (all seven of them) will be very well looked after, as the advertisement boasts:

“Bring us the qualities we’re after, and in return we’ll reward you significantly. You’ll receive a salary of up to £85,000 per annum, a final salary pension scheme and a range of attractive benefits”.

According to deputy council leader, Paul Tilsley, they’re advertising to take on a whole team, and all of these positions existed beforehand. So even though they’ve been surviving with less than £595,000 per annum’s worth of finance directors up until now, and despite the fact they’re supposedly looking for ways to economise, they still thought they’d blow the lot and replace every last member of staff.

Does losing seven finance directors really mean you have to hire seven in replacement? Do the employers in our council really lack the dynamism to see that this was a perfect opportunity to cut costs and save local taxpayers’ money?

As for how one department could so rapidly morph into the Marie Celeste of local government, and what actually became of the original gang of seven assistant finance directors, well that’s really anyone’s guess. There’s a novel in there somewhere.

Birmingham City Council now has one standard deflection, and though it can take on different guises those familiar with their press statements could recognise it instantly, paraphrased it amounts to “We’re spending money to save money”. And this, of course, is exactly what they said of the IT invoice processing system, and what a wonderfully successful money-saver that proved to be with 30,000 outstanding payments owed to various contractors who had to wait literally months for them to be sorted (presumably manually in many cases).

Set to be part of their own Birmingham City Council ‘business transformation project’ the ethos behind hiring these seven finance directors is completely riddled with contradictions; they say they’re ‘transforming’, but they’re just hiring replacement staff; they’re looking for “suitably qualified private sector high-flyers” and that’s why the salaries are set high, but nevertheless “there will be a number of candidates who are internal”; they want to economise, but they’re flaunting their ability to offer final-salary pensions and "significant benefits", and perhaps worst of all is that they don’t even seem to recognise the irony of the fact that they’re hiring seven finance directors complete with inflated salaries and perks a-plenty “to make sure departments do not over-spend”.

Jun 2008 13

The Freedom of Information (FoI) Act has been one of the greatest innovations in British political history in the way it has opened up Government to the public, allowing us to see a great deal of what is done with our money behind closed doors. It’s not perfect, it’s not comprehensive enough and it’s not backed up by sufficient punishments for those public bodies that flout it, but even the sneak peek behind the scenes that it allows means public servants can no longer operate secure in the knowledge that us poor chumps will never find out what they are doing with our money.

We make great use of FoI requests both in compiling large research papers and in uncovering one-off instances of waste, which in turn attract media attention to the fact that all too often our money is poured down the drain. Increasingly, our activists are sending off their own Freedom of Information requests to uncover waste around the country, so I thought it could be handy to provide a quick anatomy of a successful use of the Act.

May 22nd

We noticed that this company listed the British Council (taxpayer funding = £200m) as a satisfied customer – having apparently commissioned a tailor-made typeface from them, "British Council Sans". In the words of Tony Bains, Head of Design at the British Council,

Commissioning our own font was the best investment we could have made in our identity

This struck us as: a) completely unnecessary, b) probably very expensive. Just about every publicly funded body is subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and a quick look at the British Council’s web site revealed their FoI department’s contact details.

The key thing with writing an FoI request is to get the wording right. It should be clear, functional and unequivocal about what you want to find out – don’t worry about it being boring, repetitive or too pernickety. Whilst many FoI Officers are perfectly happy to release information, some are expert at wriggling through cracks in peoples’ requests and if the information you’re after is particularly sensitive they may well be under a lot of pressure to find an excuse not to tell you. Make the wording precise, though, and they will find it difficult not to. Remember, too, to specify you are demanding the information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000!

In this instance we asked:

I would like to know details of

i) how much money was paid by the British Council to Monotype Imaging for the production and design of British Council Sans, the British Council’s font.
ii) in what financial year this transaction took place.
iii) what font the British Council used in its documents prior to the introduction of British Council Sans.
iv) please send me a copy of the British Council Sans font.

Once you’ve made your request, they have 20 days to reply. Mark it in your diary (in this case June 19th) sit back and wait!

June 11th

Dear Mr Wallace
Apologies for the delay in responding to your request.

The British Council paid £50,000 overall for the production and design of ‘British Council Sans’.  Payment was made after receipt of two invoices: the first payment date for £30,000 was 26/3/2002 and a second final payment of £20,000 on 25/7/2002.  I understand that the old fonts were Century Schoolbook and Univers.

Please find attached a copy of the font.  To my knowledge, no similar requests have been received by the British Council…

Our suspicions were proved right – £50,000 for a typeface is ridiculous to say the least. Here it is, in all its £50,000 glory, the font that cost taxpayers more than a year’s salary for three soldiers:

British_council_sans_cropped

So, we phoned media contacts, sent a press release to the newspapers and kept our fingers crossed for the next day…

June 12th

British_council_mail_story

The Daily Mail and The Sun ran the story – waste has successfully been revealed, and public servants held to account!

Of course, it doesn’t always run so smoothly. Sometimes you’ll find that the waste you may have suspected didn’t occur, or the body you are investigating may try to block your request, in which case you may want to appeal to the Information Commissioner.

We’ll provide tips on how to squirrel out information under those more difficult circumstances another time, but in the meantime, why not try putting in your own Freedom of Information requests? You can look at your local council, Primary Care Trust or Regional Development Agency, a Government Department or any one of 1,162 quangos and other agencies we recently uncovered. This is about throwing open the way the state spends our money, so go to it, and if you uncover taxpayers’ money being wasted, let us know!

Jun 2008 13

In yet another call for lower taxes from a Labour politician, Alan Milburn told a charity conference in London that the Government must shrink the size of the state and called for measures to improve social mobility, including "cutting taxes for the low paid." He said:

"The old top down approach to governance will no longer work. It is not just that the public have reached the limits of what they will pay in taxes, although they have. People in low and middle income families are under pressure and feeling the pinch."

Quite right! It won’t be long before more in the Labour party recognise political reality. A benign "Dutch auction" between the parties on tax at the next election is exactly what hard-pressed taxpayers need.

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