Response to Polly Toynbee

February 10, 2009 11:49 AM

Polly Toynbee's article in today's Guardian starts out with a lot of rhetoric about "rottweilers" and "insidious poison".  She writes as if we're Britain's only political campaign.  In reality, there are a multitude of groups campaigning on every issue under the sun.  While we are proud of our work, the reason our campaign is so politically salient is probably that it strikes a chord with the public.  I've set out why in an article for the Guardian's Comment is Free website this morning.

After that, Toynbee accuses us of being a Tory front.  Really?  Ask George Osborne or Derek Conway.  If only we could put the writers at the Guardian in touch with some of the commenters on ConservativeHome who accuse us of being out to bash the Conservative Party unreasonably when we criticise Conservative councils and policy announcements we disagree with.  We frequently criticise the Conservatives when we think they're getting something wrong, for example we criticised (PDF) the Quality of Life Policy Group's report in very strong terms.

Toynbee then accuses us of distorting the statistics, with this gem:
"Except it's not true. The facts are accurate, but..."

Her first example is public sector wages.  The numbers that we quote on this aren't our own estimates but come from the Office for National Statistics' Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings.  The relevant file can be found here (XLS).  Toynbee argues that:
"The private sector now has most of the unskilled work: most cleaners, carers, caterers, security guards, dinner ladies, porters and labourers. They once worked in the public sector, but are now outsourced - and so there are now five times more "elementary" jobs in the private sector. Those remaining as public employees are heavily weighted towards the most highly skilled and super-qualified."

Basically, she is arguing that the average public sector worker is a lot smarter and better qualified than the average private sector worker, so comparing average compensation isn't fair.  Her evidence that public sector workers are, in fact, modestly compensated is a comparison (not linked even in the online version of her article, unfortunately) of the wages of "[m]anagers, professionals and skilled trades".  The problem is that those definitions are far from robust.  We can test Toynbee's theory by looking at the distribution of earnings for staff in the public and private sectors, though:

If Toynbee's view that the average is distorted by a large number of extremely low paid, low skilled workers in the private sector were correct then you would expect the gradient of the Private sector line to be steeper than that of the public sector.  By comparison, you would expect the public sector line to be flatter as the lower deciles would not include the same rump of low skilled workers that similarly (or better) paid workers in the private sector average out.  That isn't the case.  To the contrary, the public and private sectors have a remarkably similar distribution of earnings apart from the private sector catching up among the very highest ten per cent of earners.  In every decile public sector staff earn more except at the very highest where compensation is roughly the same.

Toynbee then goes on to argue that the pensions apartheid is overstated.  She doesn't provide much of a case to rebut.  If you want more on the scale of the divide you can read our report (PDF) on public sector pensions or the Institute of Directors' recent report (PDF).  As our report (PDF) makes clear, the Government's actions so far have undermined, not beefed up, private pensions.  The only empirical argument is that we somehow distort the figures by citing a percentage of council tax, not council spending.  That misses the point.  The TPA's work is focussed on how it might be possible to reduce council tax if certain items of expenditure were reduced.  As such, the amount of council tax is exactly the right comparison to the amount spent on council pensions, even if councils do also pay for council pensions in other ways.

Finally, Toynbee attacks our non-job report for including Moray Council's Street Football Co-ordinator, quoting from a story in the Sunday Herald.
"The Sunday Herald investigated and hit back. The paper discovered that the real salary was half that, as it was part-time - and the council only paid £3,000 of it, with the police, fire brigade and local businesses paying the rest."

Of course, whether taxpayers fund the job through the council, police or fire budgets is really neither here nor there - it's all taxpayers' money.  The police are certainly capable of spending taxpayers' money on some very dodgy ideas.  I'd expect the contribution from business is relatively small, although even if it was large that wouldn't be evidence that the scheme offers good value for taxpayers' money.
"Over 70 young people attend the games, with "a marked reduction in instances of antisocial behaviour, vandalism, teenage alcohol abuse and graffiti"."

We don't have any evidence for that assertion.  £10,000 a year to take just seventy youngsters off the street for just a couple of hours twice a week hardly sounds like good value unless their criminal productivity is truly astonishing.  In the end, this is the kind of job that has always been done by volunteers, and still is up and down the country.  While endless regulation may have made that more difficult, paying someone half of the average British private sector worker's earnings to organise a few games of football a week isn't the way to address that problem.

If that's the best Polly Toynbee can do, from the hundreds of press comments and dozens of reports we put out each year, then it looks like we don't have too much to worry about.

There is huge inefficiency in the public sector.  I set out some of the evidence in my article this morning but our website contains innumerable other examples, as I said:
"The first step in trying to deliver more efficient public services is greater transparency – so that the public knows how its money is being spent – and proper criticism of those who waste taxpayers' money. The only people who don't have an interest in that happening are those who have made a tidy living, with little accountability, in public sector organisations and those who place their ideological commitments to old-fashioned ways of delivering public services above getting good value for taxpayers' money."
Polly Toynbee's article in today's Guardian starts out with a lot of rhetoric about "rottweilers" and "insidious poison".  She writes as if we're Britain's only political campaign.  In reality, there are a multitude of groups campaigning on every issue under the sun.  While we are proud of our work, the reason our campaign is so politically salient is probably that it strikes a chord with the public.  I've set out why in an article for the Guardian's Comment is Free website this morning.

After that, Toynbee accuses us of being a Tory front.  Really?  Ask George Osborne or Derek Conway.  If only we could put the writers at the Guardian in touch with some of the commenters on ConservativeHome who accuse us of being out to bash the Conservative Party unreasonably when we criticise Conservative councils and policy announcements we disagree with.  We frequently criticise the Conservatives when we think they're getting something wrong, for example we criticised (PDF) the Quality of Life Policy Group's report in very strong terms.

Toynbee then accuses us of distorting the statistics, with this gem:
"Except it's not true. The facts are accurate, but..."

Her first example is public sector wages.  The numbers that we quote on this aren't our own estimates but come from the Office for National Statistics' Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings.  The relevant file can be found here (XLS).  Toynbee argues that:
"The private sector now has most of the unskilled work: most cleaners, carers, caterers, security guards, dinner ladies, porters and labourers. They once worked in the public sector, but are now outsourced - and so there are now five times more "elementary" jobs in the private sector. Those remaining as public employees are heavily weighted towards the most highly skilled and super-qualified."

Basically, she is arguing that the average public sector worker is a lot smarter and better qualified than the average private sector worker, so comparing average compensation isn't fair.  Her evidence that public sector workers are, in fact, modestly compensated is a comparison (not linked even in the online version of her article, unfortunately) of the wages of "[m]anagers, professionals and skilled trades".  The problem is that those definitions are far from robust.  We can test Toynbee's theory by looking at the distribution of earnings for staff in the public and private sectors, though:

If Toynbee's view that the average is distorted by a large number of extremely low paid, low skilled workers in the private sector were correct then you would expect the gradient of the Private sector line to be steeper than that of the public sector.  By comparison, you would expect the public sector line to be flatter as the lower deciles would not include the same rump of low skilled workers that similarly (or better) paid workers in the private sector average out.  That isn't the case.  To the contrary, the public and private sectors have a remarkably similar distribution of earnings apart from the private sector catching up among the very highest ten per cent of earners.  In every decile public sector staff earn more except at the very highest where compensation is roughly the same.

Toynbee then goes on to argue that the pensions apartheid is overstated.  She doesn't provide much of a case to rebut.  If you want more on the scale of the divide you can read our report (PDF) on public sector pensions or the Institute of Directors' recent report (PDF).  As our report (PDF) makes clear, the Government's actions so far have undermined, not beefed up, private pensions.  The only empirical argument is that we somehow distort the figures by citing a percentage of council tax, not council spending.  That misses the point.  The TPA's work is focussed on how it might be possible to reduce council tax if certain items of expenditure were reduced.  As such, the amount of council tax is exactly the right comparison to the amount spent on council pensions, even if councils do also pay for council pensions in other ways.

Finally, Toynbee attacks our non-job report for including Moray Council's Street Football Co-ordinator, quoting from a story in the Sunday Herald.
"The Sunday Herald investigated and hit back. The paper discovered that the real salary was half that, as it was part-time - and the council only paid £3,000 of it, with the police, fire brigade and local businesses paying the rest."

Of course, whether taxpayers fund the job through the council, police or fire budgets is really neither here nor there - it's all taxpayers' money.  The police are certainly capable of spending taxpayers' money on some very dodgy ideas.  I'd expect the contribution from business is relatively small, although even if it was large that wouldn't be evidence that the scheme offers good value for taxpayers' money.
"Over 70 young people attend the games, with "a marked reduction in instances of antisocial behaviour, vandalism, teenage alcohol abuse and graffiti"."

We don't have any evidence for that assertion.  £10,000 a year to take just seventy youngsters off the street for just a couple of hours twice a week hardly sounds like good value unless their criminal productivity is truly astonishing.  In the end, this is the kind of job that has always been done by volunteers, and still is up and down the country.  While endless regulation may have made that more difficult, paying someone half of the average British private sector worker's earnings to organise a few games of football a week isn't the way to address that problem.

If that's the best Polly Toynbee can do, from the hundreds of press comments and dozens of reports we put out each year, then it looks like we don't have too much to worry about.

There is huge inefficiency in the public sector.  I set out some of the evidence in my article this morning but our website contains innumerable other examples, as I said:
"The first step in trying to deliver more efficient public services is greater transparency – so that the public knows how its money is being spent – and proper criticism of those who waste taxpayers' money. The only people who don't have an interest in that happening are those who have made a tidy living, with little accountability, in public sector organisations and those who place their ideological commitments to old-fashioned ways of delivering public services above getting good value for taxpayers' money."

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