Dec 2007 07

Southwark Council have had a nightmare couple of weeks. Last week they admitted that almost every single one of their departments had gone over budget and predicted above-inflation council tax rises for the foreseeable future. After that bad news, this week the TPA’s first Council Spending Uncovered paper revealed that they spend £5million a year on publicity.

Whilst the Council obviously has serious problems in its policies and management, it is encouraging that they resisted the temptation to deny the publicity figure, or to claim the spending was justified (unlike some other councils, but more on those disgraceful examples in later posts). Today’s South London Press reports that:

Councillor Toby Eckersley, executive member for finance, said he was calling for a review on the publicity spending.

He said: "In light of this, all areas of discretionary expenditure need to be looked at very closely."

If a review is being launched, and they genuinely have taken on board the urgent need to cut out their unnecessary expenditure, this is good news. TPA doesn’t just exist to complain; we raise these concerns about waste because we want things to be put right. I hope that Cllr Eckersley’s review goes ahead and finds savings for the hard-pressed taxpayers of Southwark. I’m sure they will thank him for it.

It’s an encouraging sign that TPA’s research is not just reaching and informing the public, but is helping politicians realise that things must change. The figure for Southwark’s publicity spend, which almost equals the amount spent by the GLA, is a shocking one – Cllr Eckersley is to be congratulated for admitting that and, hopefully, deciding to do something about it.

Dec 2007 07

A telling fact came out in answer to a parliamentary question from John Leech MP the other day. He asked Caroline Flint, Minister for Employment, how many Job Centre Plus staff had been sacked for not turning up to work in the last year.

Whilst it would have been safe to assume there would be at least a few – every organisation gets bad apples once in a while – I don’t think anyone could have predicted the real answer: 497.

Jobcentre_2That is a lot. If you consider that these people’s profession was to advise people on how to both get and keep jobs, it is quite worrying. If you then take into account that in the public sector it is more difficult to get the sack than in the private sector, it appears that JobCentre Plus have a serious problem on their hands.

Not only is it worrying for JCP, it is also less than satisfactory for jobseekers and the taxpayer.

If there are so many job advisers who can’t even turn up to work enough to keep their own job, how on earth are the unemployed people they are supposed to assist meant to manage it? That is damaging to the prospects of jobseekers, damaging to their dependents and damaging to wider society. The individual and social harm done by long-term benefit dependency is well-documented, so it is in all our interests for this service to be as effective as possible.

Not only does the taxpayer foot the bill for those who remain on unemployment benefit, this shocking figure also represent an added recruitment bill. In 2006-07, JBC recruited 2,770 people. That means that 18% of all new recruits to JobCentres were replacements for the ineffective staff who had been fired – recruits with all the attendant costs of advertising and training.

Yet again, it seems the mismanagement of our services is letting down the taxpayer and those the services are meant to help.

Dec 2007 06

Sany0071_2Only mere days after our report highlighted massive overspend in council publicity, Coventry City Council have pledged to lower their publicity spending next year

What a breakthrough, especially on a day where Hammersmith and Fulham council announce yet another council tax cut!  It shows how our activism, combined with top notch research, is putting the pressure on local politicians and council officers to lower their wasteful spending.  Quite rightly people are asking why any council should use taxpayers’ money for self-congratulatory propaganda and they’re catching the councils out.  This should certainly be a wake up call to taxpayers to get involved, because we can make the changes in our government that we want!

So please get involved and hold your council to account.  Pressure them into admitting the sum of our money used to pat themselves on the back is just too high.  Let us know how you get on by emailing your campaign news to us so we can publicise further taxpayer victories.  Keep up the fight.

Dec 2007 06

The Times reports that the government is to overhaul the primary school curriculum after progress in English, Maths and Science stalled.  Earlier this week the PISA reported that we are falling down international rankings and poor performance is starting to show up even in the Government’s own tests; debased by teaching to the test and relaxed standards.

"The review, the first big overhaul of primary teaching and learning since 2000, comes as this year’s Key Stage 2 test results show that nearly three in ten 11-year-olds failed to meet expected standards for their age in English, maths and science by the time they left for secondary school this summer."

That means three in ten students are going to secondary school already behind.  Without the basic literacy and numeracy skills they should already be equipped with when they leave primary school they’ll struggle to keep up with the secondary school curriculum.  The secondary schools themselves are rarely good enough to enable pupils who have fallen behind to catch-up.

This failure will translate into low-skilled adults, Britain has (PDF) the second highest proportion of low-skilled workers in the OECD – roughly twice that in Germany or the US, who will be left behind in an increasingly skills dependent economy.  As well as letting down the individuals concerned we also undermine the future competitiveness of our economy.  Real reform of education cannot wait.

Dec 2007 06

Congratulations to Hammersmith and Fulham Council, who have announced today that they are delivering another 3% cut in council tax.

Across the country, council tax has doubled in the last ten years and yet councils claim they still don’t have enough money. Taxes, they claim, must be raised further. Services, they say, must also be cut.

H&F’s example gives the lie to all this blather and blarney.

Instead of squeezing taxpayers further and starving services of investment, they have now cut taxes for two years in a row and improved their performance rating to the 4-star top ranking.

The conclusion must be that the other councils have got their policies wrong – their simplistic link between money in from taxes and performance out through services is a misrepresentation. Somewhere along the line there are clearly other sinks that money is falling into; otherwise the doubling in council tax would have had a much bigger impact on services.

It is to identify some of the inefficiencies and costly irrelevancies that have swallowed all that extra tax revenue that the TaxPayers’ Alliance has launched the Council Spending Uncovered Series, the first paper of which was published this week. That paper revealed that, far from divert money into crumbling services, Britain’s councils have increased spending on publicity by 130% in the last ten years. The problem is, at least in part, one of priorities – glossy newsletters, costly advertising and PR appear to be valued in many Town Halls above meals on wheels, policing, refuse collection and the other things which actually improve quality of life for ordinary people.

The Council Spending Uncovered Series aims to shine the spotlight on areas where money is spent unnecessarily, or which are wrongly prioritised at the expense of more important activities.

Hammersmith and Fulham have done a superb job of diagnosing many of these illnesses themselves. They have correctly identified the two things that should be their priorities – reducing the tax burden on hard-pressed taxpayers and delivering front line services. Everything else in between, be it surplus office space or self-congratulatory pamphlets that no-one reads, is just so much fluff. By rightly downgrading spending on irrelevant or illusory projects, they are improving the quality of services, allowing taxpayers to keep more of their own money and materially making life better for the people they were elected to serve.

That is what local Government should be about.

Even if other councils cannot find it in themselves to follow H&F’s example out of a genuine wish to do the best for people, they should pay heed to the approval ratings that come with performance like this. It is so simple that politicians sometimes seem to overlook the basic fact that actually doing a good job, actually making people happy, is the best way to convince them to vote for you – and it’s a great deal cheaper than trying to buy approval with spin.

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