Dec 2007 12

There is little doubt that the staging of a nativity play is a stressful experience, and that the prospect of directing tens of small children to present one of the oldest stories of all time is a daunting one. Well, for the teachers at one school in Shropshire the annual experience has been made all the more traumatic, thanks to the meddling of their local council. Nativity

The Shropshire Star reports that Buildwas Primary School’s nativity play was stalled by red-tape, meaning that children at the school would be barred from performing without applying for a temporary event licence from Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council.

  The school was loathe to disappoint their young pupils and consequently got the local paper involved, pointing out the lunacy of a rule that prevents children innocently performing a Christmas nativity to their local community in the usual tradition.

Lo-and-behold, with the eyes of the media on them the council are forced to admit a blunder and reveal that there isn’t, nor has there ever been, the need for schools to obtain a licence to perform a play at their local village hall.

The headteacher, Helen Whittaker, said of the whole farce, “You wouldn’t believe how much time has been wasted. I’m fed up with bureaucracy. My job as headteacher is difficult enough as it is.”

Just another case of bungling bureaucrats wasting time and effort, not to mention causing unnecessary stress for teachers, whilst local residents pay their salaries…

But then too many bureaucrats and too much confusing regulation is likely to cause such unnecessary mishaps, and for the taxpayers’ who support Shrewsbury & Atcham Council, the cost of this is about to go up.

A 3% rise in council tax has been agreed and now just needs the rubber stamp, with a 4.22% rise in the town itself, and although those within the council may argue that this is inline with inflation and is necessary to cover costs, when stories of incompetence like this surface the we can only assume that this is the tip of the iceberg and is indicative of further waste within the authority.

Council’s like Shrewsbury & Atcham should be giving local taxpayers a break by cutting down on such unnecessary bureaucracy and giving residents the tax cut they want and deserve.

Dec 2007 12
There are going to be a few changes…

No wonder they don’t want him to retire. This morning President Putin has even found time to help us beleaguered British taxpayers. He’s ordered the closure of no fewer than 15 offices of the totally useless quango the British Council.

BOM readers will be familiar with the Council (see here for summary). It employs over 7,500 people in 110 countries all around the world. It costs £0.5bn pa, of which £0.2bn is a straight subsidy from the taxpayer, with much of the rest comes from "selling" services to other bits of the public sector (see here for latest annual report).

Chaired by my Lord Kinnock, it employs his son- as Head of the St Petersburg branch- and his Lordship’s longtime favourite "Axeman", Billy Bragg, has been on the Advisory Council. It costs each and every British family £20 pa, yet nobody can explain how we benefit. At all.

Indeed it’s so bad, there is an excellent blog dedicated to its misdeeds- David Blackie’s The Language Business.

Last year David blogged the Lords Foreign Affairs Committee which called for two urgent probes into the BC- one by the FCO and one by the National Audit Office- although nothing has happened. As David pointed out:

"The organisation enjoys public funding, charitable status at home, diplomatic status abroad, early retirement, index-linked civil service pensions, enthusiastically embraced contracts with government departments, and the very agreeable freedom to enter into any commercial arrangement it pleases without any public accountability, ombudsman, non-executive director or external moderation or control."

So hurrah for Putin! At last, someone’s taken action. In March he finishes in Russia. Surely his English must be as good as Capello’s, so maybe we could put him in charge of liquidating useless British quangos.

Dec 2007 12

PolicewestminsterIf this were simply another case of public sector workers complaining about a poor deal from the Government because they weren’t going to get another inflation-busting pay increase the TaxPayers’ Alliance wouldn’t be particularly sympathetic.  Public sector workers have had a pretty good deal over the last decade and most have very little to complain about.  Taxpayers have to foot the bill and are hard pressed as it is.

However, the debate currently going on over the police deal isn’t really about the money.  The police themselves will tell you – if you push them on the subject – that they’re pretty reasonably paid.  Their deal is tough but in the harder economic conditions we’re facing at the moment a lot of people are having to tighten their belt.  This dispute isn’t about pay restraint but about the way the Government went about securing pay restraint.

Essentially, the police pay deal is negotiated each year but often isn’t negotiated in time.  When that happens the pay is backdated so that the torturously slow process doesn’t leave officers out of pocket.  This year was particularly difficult and, in the end, went to arbitration.  That means an external body taking over and, after both sides have made their case, deciding on what the final deal will be.  The body in question is ACAS and their decision is binding upon the police – they have to accept it – but not legally binding on the government.  The arbitration is not legally binding on the government but is clearly, in some sense, morally binding if the arbitration is not completely meaningless.  The arbitration did not go the Government’s way and they’ve responded by refusing to pay the backdated pay which means that the police will only get their rise for nine instead of twelve months this year.  They understandably see this as a huge breach of confidence.

The way to avoid disputes like this isn’t to throw ever higher salaries at public sector workers.  A deal that was financially identical but reached in a less dubious manner would not have gotten the police nearly so wound up.  Instead we need to address the real problem which is that ministers without the management experience to run an organisation on the scale of the police service – Jacqui Smith was a teacher – made a complete mess of the negotiating process.

The police are quite reasonably paid but they see other public workers striking, the government backing down and those workers getting more generous deals.  The classic example was the Warwick Agreement where they backed down on essential reforms to public sector pensions.  At the same time their morale is sapped by targets that prevent them getting on with their job.  Just today it was discovered that the police now spend barely one hour in seven on the beat deterring crime – "incident-related paperwork" is keeping them busy.  The present crisis is a result of these problems and the mishandling of the negotiations.  It is right that the Government should try to control public sector pay but it will take good management, which centralised politics cannot provide, to do this without compromising services.

Dec 2007 12

The world of quangos’ is one ripe for ridicule. Unfortunately, the jokes are often expensive ones. Much has already been written on the excesses of some quangos, the massive public expenditure that supports them (nearly £120 billion) and the bizarreness of some of their remits. What is not always considered is the considerable amount of overlap and replication that exists between quangos housed in different departments.

A case in point is the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation (WNDC). West Northamptonshire of course deserves funds for regeneration as much as any other worthy region, but does it really deserve its own dedicated quango, funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government to the tune of £15 million?

Taken alone, the WNDC may seem reasonable. But consider that the region already receives considerable financial attention from the regeneration orientated English Partnership Quango (also part of the Dept. of Communities and Local Government), the East Midlands Development Agency (a quango under the Dept. of Trade and Industry) and Culture East Midlands (a quango located in the Dept. of Culture,
Media and Sport), not to mention through the development programmes of local authorities, and the case for a dedicated WNDC seems slim.

That case goes from slim to ridiculous when it emerges that Micheal Hayes, the WNDC’s cheif executive, enjoys a salary of £115,000, and two other directors take salaries in excess of £70,000. Quango websites are always a good gauge for whether the quango has a real substantive raison d’etre:

WNDC is developing a framework that will set out how the regeneration of West Northamptonshire will be achieved. In an era of profound and lasting change, West Northamptonshire will only prosper if it embraces its position within the global economy…’

The WNDC apparently exists to identify ‘the drivers of change that provide the context for action’ and to ‘locate the priorities for action… to ensure West Northamptonshire makes the most of the opportunities and challenges arising from change’.

In amongst such management-speak there is a link to the WNDC’s ‘Task’. Revealingly, it leads to page with nothing on it but the words ‘coming soon’.   

Dec 2007 11

Despite having made headlines in The Sentinel for spending £23,000 on publicity, Stoke-On-Trent City Council have now recruited a new head of public relations and communications on a £75,000 salary.

The current head of news at ITV Central will be taking the position which has caused many readers and residents of the city to retaliate on the newspaper’s website in disgust.Stokecclogo

When asked the question, ‘Do you think the £23,000 monthly cost of the city council’s PR team is good use of taxpayer money?  A massive 84.7% of online readers voted ‘NO’.  This new appointment has just added fuel to the fire.

How much longer can Stoke Council continue to ignore the wishes of their electorate in wasting money in this way?

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