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)

Dec 2007 02

Flashy new buildings fail to improve school

In the news this week:

£25m Blair "super-school" heading for closure- "A pioneering £25million "super-school", opened by ex-PM Tony Blair, has been put into special measures by school inspectors. Bishops Park College, built five years ago to mop up a predicted boom in demand for school places, was hailed as an innovative new venture. But now the state-of-the-art facility in Clacton, Essex, which has 900 places but only 560 pupils, is threatened with closure. The report is the latest blow for the beleaguered school in which inspectors said standards in maths and English were "exceptionally low". Teachers were also judged to have "too low" expectations of what the children could achieve academically." (Telegraph 1.12.07)

£150,000 on unneeded Whitehall survey- "They say you shouldn’t ask a question unless you’re ready for the answer. Perhaps that’s something Whitehall officials should have borne in mind when they spent £150,000 on a survey into public attitudes to migration. They had hoped to produce reassuring data to comfort ministers wrestling with the shambles of Labour’s asylum and immigration policy. Instead, an overwhelming majority of the population said there were too many immigrants in Britain and strict quotas should be imposed on the numbers entering." (Mail 1.12.07)

£200,000 for left-wing propaganda- "A glossy ‘voter’s guide’ for teenagers backed by the Commons Speaker Michael Martin has been accused of political bias. The pamphlets, called Voting Times, and sent to 600,000 households a year to remind young people to register to vote when they turn 18, cost more than £200,000 to produce. But they were at the centre of a row last night after critics complained they offered a list of "Left-leaning causes" under the title "Identify the issues that matter". Produced in the style of a glossy magazine complete with a picture casebook telling the story of one politically motivated young man, the pamphlet reads: "Identify the issues that matter. Your unique experiences in life mean that you have a unique view of the world. "Global poverty, the environment, healthcare, education, training and jobs are just a few of the issues facing Britain." (Mail on Sunday 2.12.07)

£83 grand expenses for another high-rolling cop- "The police chief tipped as the next Scotland Yard Commissioner is facing scrutiny after running up expenses of more than £83,000 over the past three years. Sir Hugh Orde, the £130,000-a-year head of the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI), has spent the cash on flights and hotels in the UK and the US since 2004. The figure is higher than any other UK Chief Constable – but Sir Hugh, 48, has denied using taxpayers’ cash to meet his long-term mistress Denise Weston." (Mail on Sunday 2.12.07)

Total for week- £25,433,000

Nov 2007 30

Worcestershire County Council have been criticised today for running up a bill of over £1million for “self indulgent” refurbishments to the County Halls.

Councillor Wells, who has sparked the controversy is quoted in the Worcester News:

"At a time when the council is making savage cuts across key areas of services, it’s indefensible to be allocating £1 million to the council chamber. I would argue that it’s unacceptable and self-indulgent."_1524748_worcestershire300

Indeed this is a council that is trying to make £25million in cuts, so this does seem like an obscure move, especially considering all the added extras that the £1million includes – such as a £103,000 audiovisual system which will project the faces of speakers onto a big screen. A novelty for councillors perhaps, but not of much use to taxpayers.

Once the elected members have tired of seeing their magnified heads projected for the benefit of the chamber, they are still left with lots of money to find.   

Too often councils are seen to be indulging in trimmings and superficialities, all designed to give the impression of a slick operation when actually they function as something of a disguise.

If, as Councillor Wells states, key areas of service are facing “savage cuts”, presumably effecting quality, then pouring money into meeting rooms and flashy technology all to make councillors’ lives more easy is truly unforgivable.

Councillors are public servants and should act accordingly, and that means serving the needs of their public before they tend to their own.

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