Dec 2007 05

040922a_nimrod_1375x300The replacement for the Nimrod spy plane, the Nimrod MRA4, was ordered in 1996.  Since then we have had five defence secretaries.  Michael Portillo, Des Browne, John Reid, Geoff Hoon and George Robertson.  They’ve been in post for less than three years each.  During that time the project to replace the Nimrod has suffered repeated delays.  The plane should have been in service by April 2003.  It is now forecast to arrive in September 2010 despite increases in its budget – there are even suggestions it could take till 2012.  All this we already knew thanks to the National Audit Office MoD Major Projects Report (PDF).

Now we find out that the MoD has not just failed to keep the project on track but has also failed to effectively maintain the existing fleet of Nimrod MR2 planes.  The Telegraph reports that:

"The Board investigation identified what Mr Browne admitted were key "failings":

Fuel may have leaked because ageing rubber seals cracked and withered. Despite advice from the manufacturers, the MoD had not been routinely removing and inspecting seals, because engineers were worried about having to replace them. BAe, the plane’s manufacturer advised as long ago as 1985 that such inflight over-flows were possible, but no action was taken.

Another cause of the fuel leak could have been an overflow from the plane’s fuel tanks.

After a heat-pipe malfunction on another Nimrod in 2004 melted fuel seals, the MoD rejected an RAF request to fit a warning system to the plane. And only after the inquiry into XV230 identified the cooling system as a possible problem were the cooling units of all Nimrods turned off.

The BOI found a "fire suppressant" could have given the XV230 crew a chance of surviving. In 2004, the MoD rejected advice from the plane’s manufacturer to install such a system."

All of these maintenance failures, and the lack of a replacement that we have to hope will fix these problems, have their roots in the short-termism of political management by generalist ministers only in post for a few short years each.  Each defence secretary, knowing that they will likely have moved on before the effects of today’s maintenance become clear, will focus on more immediate – but often less vital – concerns.  Their priorities will necessarily dictate the priorities of the rest of the MoD’s staff.

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Many of the mistakes that created the current crisis were probably made by earlier defence secretaries, and not Des Browne, but none of them have stuck around long enough to take responsibility.  Who would go to John Reid or Geoff Hoon now and take them to task for the steady falling to pieces of the Nimrod?

It would be wrong to confine our judgement to particular individuals, whether politicians, civil servants or contractors.  They all worked with the confines and pressures of the job presented to them.  The confusion and myopia of our system of government is the real cause of the failure to provide a reliable spy plane.  Fourteen servicemen and their families have paid a terrible price for that failure.

Dec 2007 05

Results not quite as promised in the original plans

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has just produced its latest batch of results. They show the UK crashing down the international rankings of educational attainment (see rankings here). Once again, it seems, the government has done the eezy peezy bit – spending the money – but failed to deliver any actual results.

Specifically, in a survey of attainment among 15 year olds across 57 leading economies, the UK slumped in all three areas examined:

  • Reading- down from 7th in 2000 to 17th in 2006, in line with the OECD average but behind for example Estonia and Liechtenstein
  • Maths- down from 8th to 24th
  • Science- England down from 4th to 14th

Overall, it’s a grim picture, especially remembering Labour’s huge increase in education expenditure. We’re currently spending £41bn pa on state schools in England alone, and according to the government that’s £5290 per pupil, up 87% in real terms over the last decade (see table 8.5 here).

The PISA surveys are based on a consistent set of student tests applied consistently across all 57 participating countries. And the results underline once again how our dumbed down exam system gives us a totally misleading view of what’s really happening to the quality of education in British schools.

And there’s another interesting aspect to this. When the first PISA study was done in 2000, there was considerable scepticism about the UK’s relatively high ranking. There was talk of nobbling, and carefully screening of participating pupils to make sure a lot of good ones were entered.

The suspicions were heightened when we failed to appear at all in the results tables of the 2003 PISA study because our "sample size was too small".

Now on the third attempt, it seems there’s nowhere left to run. Short of withdrawing from the study altogether, the commissars have had to grit their teeth and make the best of a bad job- hence the attempt to big up the Science results, where we’re still (just) above average.

PS: Prof Alan Smithers has an interesting article on this here.

Dec 2007 04

Does anyone really believe this stuff?

So the ex-head of HMRC who resigned just a fortnight ago over the data discs disaster, is still in Whitehall, working now at the Cabinet Office. And Paul Gray is still on his £200k pa salary.

Even better, he’s now leading a project on "developing civil servant skills". The man who presided over such jaw-dropping sloppiness among his own staff that they routinely post everyone’s bank details on Facebook, is now developing the same skills right across Whitehall.

It is inconceivable this would happen in the private sector: can anyone imagine Tesco sacking its Finance Director for losing all its Club Card customer data, and then getting him back to train staff?

And it’s not even the first time we’ve seen this at HMRC. Paul Gray’s predecessor, Sir David Varney, "resigned" abruptly in July 2006 (see this blog). We never did get to the bottom of that, but he too simply moved to another Whitehall job, advising on "transformational government" at the Treasury.

It’s exactly the same right across Whitehall. Failure in a senior post is no bar to advancement.

There’s the notorious case of Sir John Gieve (see many previous blogs, eg here and here), who "led" the Home Office into total dysfunction, got "moved" from there, only to pop up as Deputy Governor of the Bank of England- where he has since presided over the Northern Crock fiasco.

Taxpayers will also recall the case of Sir Nigel Crisp, ex CEO of the NHS, who… er, "retired" suddenly at the height of the NHS funding crisis in March 2006, and re-emerged one month later as Baron Crisp. He continues to rule over us from the red benches.

The NHS is notorious for re-employing senior managers who’ve only just been expensively paid off. For example, in October it was reported that:

"Derek Smith, the chief executive of Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust is understood to have received a payout worth more than £300,000 when he was made redundant in June. Just two months later it was announced he would take over as interim chief executive at University Hospitals of Leicester with a £100,000 salary."

What on earth is going on?

Well, some of it is no more than the gibbering incompetence we have to expect from government. But more fundamentally, it reflects the fact that these Big Government operations are impossible to manage. They are beyond control, and in reality, everyone now knows it.

Whatever they may say about reform and "transformational government", surely none of Brown’s battered demoralised cabinet still believe it can be delivered. Not really. And none of the old-time mandarins ever believed it.

Tescos starts with the huge advantage of having customers. Their management is forced to do the right thing because the customers are the ones with the money. Simple as that.

But as we know, the public sector isn’t set up on such a rational, results driven basis. To get its money, it must serve not real world customers, but dunderhead flip-flopping grandstanding politicos. Hence those huge centralised departments reporting to here today gone tomorrow luminaries like Alan Johnson and Peter Hain.

Nobody can manage a set-up like that. It’s designed for failure, and nobody’s really surprised when it comes about.

Paul Gray wasn’t really responsible for HMRC’s missing data discs, any more than his predecessor was responsible for the fraud and error now endemic in our tax system. Or any more than Baron Crisp was reponsible for our crisis-ridden NHS. Or Johnston McNeill was responsible for the fiasco at the Rural Payments Agency.

Of course, they must be fired when they fail. But it’s not really their fault they can’t manage the unmanageable. Without the customer imperative driving him in the right direction, it’s unlikely Tesco Terry himself would do a whole lot better (see this blog for the ludicrous attempts to manage HMRC better).

The real problem is Big Government. It’s beyond control.

And the only real solution is massive downsizing, decentralisation, and privatisation.

Dec 2007 04

Mark Wallace, TaxPayers’ Alliance Campaign Director, gives a brief introduction to the new report:

Dec 2007 03

With council tax bills having doubled over the last ten years, the TaxPayers’ Alliance has launched a new series to review expenditure by local authorities in all corners of the UK and highlight areas of spending that could and should be reduced.

Thczcover0712 The Council Spending Uncovered series challenges the claim that Town Halls are short of money by publishing figures that will allow council taxpayers to decide for themselves whether their local authority is spending their money wisely.  These figures have never previously been compiled in one place because the TPA is the first non-government body to have collected the accounts for all 450-plus councils.

The first paper in the Council Spending Uncovered series examines the increase in town hall spending on publicity over the last decade, which is itemised in the annual accounts of all councils. 

Key findings

  • The average local authority spends almost £1 million (£985,000) on publicity.
  • The average local authority is spending double the amount on publicity than it did in 1996-97:

- Without taking account of inflation the average local authority spent £430,000 on publicity ten years ago.  The average spend today is a 130 per cent increase on that 1996-97 figure. 

- In today’s prices the average local authority spent £550,000 on publicity in 1996-97.  The average spend today is an 80 per cent increase in real terms on a decade ago.

  • The total local authority publicity bill is £450 million.
  • There is one local authority, Birmingham City Council, that spends more than £10 million on publicity.
  • There are 8 local authorities spending more than £5 million on publicity.
  • There are 73 local authorities spending more than £2 million on publicity.
  • There are 141 local authorities spending more than £1 million on publicity.
  • The total spend on publicity is not broken down in a uniform way in the various local authority accounts.  It is possible, however, to identify 44 councils that spend at least £1 million and 4 councils spending at least £2 million on staff recruitment advertising – despite the increased use of websites.  If all local authority accounts provided a full breakdown of publicity spending, the number of councils spending at least £1 million on staff advertising would almost certainly increase.
  • The doubling of average publicity spending per local authority in the last decade is extremelyNottingham_logo_gallery_470x470  disappointing.  There are, however, a number of councils that are actually spending less on publicity than ten years ago. For example:

- Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council spent £669,000 on publicity in 2006-07, down 11 per cent from the £751,000 spent in 1996-97. 

- In 2005-06, however, the council spent £1,030,000 on publicity, meaning that the 1-year fall in spending was 35 per cent. 

- If Hammersmith and Fulham can reduce publicity spending by 35 per cent in one year (in part by allowing advertising by local businesses in council publications) make other efficiency savings and reduce council tax by 3 per cent, then it must be possible for other councils to follow suit. 

Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said:

“It’s important for council taxpayers to see just how their hard-earned money is being spent by town halls.  With council tax doubling in the past decade, it’s extremely disappointing that councils have chosen to double their publicity budgets over the same period.  With the internet cutting the cost of communication, it shouldn’t be difficult for local authorities to find savings in this area and bring council tax down.”

Click for full report:

Download Council Spending Uncovered, No. 1: Publicity (PDF)

Click for regional tables, to be read in conjunction with the full report above:

Download East Midlands Regional Table (PDF)

Download East of England Regional Table (PDF)

Download London Regional Table (PDF)

Download North East Regional Table (PDF)

Download North West Regional Table (PDF)

Download Northern Ireland Regional Table (PDF)

Download Scotland Regional Table (PDF)

Download South East Regional Table (PDF)

Download South West Regional Table (PDF)

Download Wales Regional Table (PDF)

Download West Midlands Regional Table (PDF)

Download Yorkshire and the Humber Regional Table (PDF)

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