First-class expenses at Plymouth University
Oct 2014 15

While students are forced to take part-time jobs to help pay their way through university, some of the top staff at Plymouth University are enjoying the high-life at the expense of the taxpayer – including first class rail travel, designer chairs and a trip to Miami.

Over the past three years, Plymouth University’s vice chancellor has spent almost £15,000 on first class train travel. That’s been calculated to work out at an average of one first class journey every eight days. These include a trip on the Eurostar to Paris at £311.50 and numerous return journeys between London and Plymouth, each costing £242.00.

“While we understand that from time to time there will be a need to travel by train,” says a regional University and College Union spokesperson, “first-class journeys every eight days for three years does seem excessive, particularly at a time when the university was making staff redundant because of the need to make savings.”

But this is not the only cost to the taxpayer of vice chancellor Wendy Purcell, who is currently suspended from her top post, on full pay of £288,000, while being investigated over her recent conduct. A boardroom row involving a previous chairman and the vice chancellor has seen legal costs skyrocket to over £150,000 for seven months’ work. At one point, the university was footing the bill for £27,000 of legal advice for Purcell.

Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, news emerged that the scandal-hit Plymouth University has spent £150,000 on seven chairs, designed by top craftsman John Makepeace, for its graduation ceremonies, while a further £24,000 has been spent on sending six members of staff to Miami for a conference. All this against a background of threatened job cuts at the university.

“Ultimately, this is not about ‘chairs’ but a collection of contemporary design pieces by one of the world’s leading furniture designers,” says Plymouth’s deputy vice chancellor. “Even before launching the project publicly, the works have attracted the attention of one major museum which is interested in adding to its contemporary design collection.”

“No student has ever chosen a university because of its chairs,” says the baffled local Union rep. Students and low-paid college workers will need a sit down.

Tim Newark is the South-West Coordinator of the TaxPayers’ Alliance

Road repairs drive taxpayers up the wall
Aug 2014 06

South West TPA supporter Malcolm Leaver has been doggedly pursuing his local council for information on the cost to the taxpayer of street repairs in his neighbourhood—but has been given the run around by a South Gloucestershire Council (SGC) reluctant to cough up the details.

Replacing a footpath and kerb on a small stretch of a road near him cost a whopping £44,202, but he only found out the daily rate by mistake. ‘They sent me the time sheets in error,’ says Leaver. “They show rates of £850 a day for nine hours but these were not always worked as full days. Some of these days were not worked at all and some only part and casual. Some times I even noticed them shopping in the morning or sleeping in their lorry in the afternoon.”

“As you can probably appreciate,” came a response from SGC, “there is no system that can ensure that a workforce is fully engaged in productive work for 100% of the time on site and there will invariably be lost time or non productive time as there would be [in] any organization whether operational or office based.”

A nearby road surface was replaced, but within a year several parts of it had new cracks and these sections were replaced under a separate budget of £10,765. “SGC are of the opinion that their direct labour gangs are non-profit making,” says Leaver, “and even with the poor standard of work and costly repairs they infer the cost is cheaper than using an “outside contractor”. This road now has several “crazed/sunken” areas.”

Are local taxpayers getting value for money with these road repairs? From his research, Leaver doubts it. “If the cost is close to the budget, no one seems to worry.”

On another occasion, work was carried out on a nearby pedestrian crossing. ‘The work started with one man using a pneumatic tool to break up the pavement on the east side of the road,’ noted Leaver, ‘whilst the private haulier was parked on the grass verge on the opposite side of the road. One questions how much one man is going to break up to substantiate the use of a large tipper lorry privately hired? After that initial start, no work was carried out the next day or so.’

Again and again, Leaver has asked to see documents referring to the cost of these repair projects, but the council has not provided them or dragged their feet over several months. Following an official complaint to the council about this, their Head of Legal and Democratic Services acknowledged that SGC had raised expectations over the public inspection of documents that they did not meet. The council officer advised a payment of £100 in compensation to Leaver ‘in recognition of the frustration and inconvenience he has experienced in this matter.’

As for the lack of value for taxpayers’ money, the officer responded by saying “contractors and machinery are hired on a day rate (a 9 hour minimum period)” and that “such contractors would have to work around the progress of the scheme and would not be continuously working through the period… There are therefore times when there appears to be inactivity but this is a necessary requirement of completing a scheme.” Does that include sleeping in a lorry in the afternoon?

Peter Bazalgette, the Arts Council and their awesome responsibility to spend taxpayers’ money wisely
Jun 2014 19

Sir Peter Bazalgette, the chair of the Arts Council England, yesterday told a Centre for Policy Studies conference that the Government should continue give taxpayers’ cash to his organisation because the money is necessary to spend on ‘risky’ art projects. In other words, there are projects that profit-seeking companies and arts charities funded by charges and donations would see as a waste of their scarce resources. But this poor value for money isn’t a concern if it’s only taxpayers who will have to pay.

Bazalgette isn’t a poor man. For his chairmanship of the Arts Council, the annual report showed that he received £40,000 in 2012-13. He’s also a non-executive director of ITV plc, for which he received another £35,000 in 2013. As non-executive director of YouGov plc, he received another £32,917 in the year ending 31 July 2013. In addition, he enjoys several other interests and has had a successful career in television, most notably at Endemol, creating Big Brother.

So why does he insist that these projects must be paid for by people who don’t necessarily want to pay for them, most of whom earn much, much less than he does? Shouldn’t they instead be funded by people like him who think they’re a good idea? When people on modest incomes struggle to make ends meet thanks to crushing tax burdens are still having to pay tax and when the Government is running up an enormous deficit, the case for wasting other people’s money on ‘risky’ projects becomes even weaker.

When people want to spend taxpayers’ money, there is an awesome responsibility to ensure that it isn’t wasted. There are good reasons to spend taxpayers’ money on a variety of causes. But something being ‘risky’ isn’t one of them. If people want something ‘risky’ funded, they should offer their own money, not someone else’s.

Manston Airport’s closure is sad, but we can’t subsidise it
Jun 2014 19

Thanet District Council in Kent has come under pressure to issue a compulsory purchase order (CPO) for local Manston Airport, which closed on 15th May, with the loss of 144 jobs. This marks a low point in the airport’s recent turbulent history, which had seen it host a James Bond movie and target 6 million passengers a year.

Manston Airport’s closure has proved contentious. A petition launched by Roger Gale MP has already attracted attention, and even Nigel Farage has waded in, describing the closure as “economic vandalism”.  This support for the reopening of Manston Airport has culminated in the council’s consideration of a CPO.

That Manston Airport has closed is disappointing, not least for those who worked there. But it isn’t surprising. The airport has seen a series of owners, and none succeeded in making it viable. It is reported that Manston Airport had been losing £10,000 a day before its closure. Thanet taxpayers would therefore face a bill for £3.65 million a year if it were to reopen – and that’s before factoring in its price tag and necessary investment.

It would not be the first public body to purchase an airport with taxpayers’ money. Prestwick and Cardiff airports were bought by the Scottish and Welsh Governments respectively. Both have gone on to eat up millions of pounds. These examples should serve as a warning to Thanet District Council – a local authority not known for its aviation expertise – to focus on essential services.

If that’s not enough, then it should remember its other bad investments. Dreamland, a derelict theme park, was subject to a CPO in 2011. £6.8 million of taxpayers’ money has since been ploughed into the site without generating a single penny in return. The port at Ramsgate, meanwhile, has seen its revenue plummet under council ownership – yet still consumes millions of pounds in investment.

Central Government learnt the hard way in the 1970s that ‘picking winners’ becomes a game of subsidising losers. Thanet District Council, unfortunately, is yet to accept this. Losing Manston Airport would be sad, but throwing millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money at a white elephant would be tragic.

Big expenses at big NHS quango
May 2014 14

Another day, another example of wasteful spending in the NHS – this time with the NHS England board the guilty party. During the first year of the organisation’s existence, top-level officials managed to run up an expenses bill of almost £200,000 on travel, hotels and restaurants. All of that, of course, is charged to the taxpayer.

The biggest spender is Sir Tim Kelsey, National Director for Patients and Information, who claimed for an £46,000 on top of his £185,000 salary, including almost £7,000 on flying to conferences in the US.

Other members of the executive board were equally busy. Jane.Cummings, Chief Nursing Officer, has total expenses of £27,000, while Bill McCarthy’s £23,000 tab includes £491 for one night in a hotel following a £313 train journey. Together the three make up over a quarter of the total bill with the remaining balance shared between the 12 remaining executive and non-executive directors.

Andy Silvester, our Campaign Manager, gave the following comment:

These NHS expenses will be enough to give taxpayers a heart attack. The public expect their cash to be spent on doctors and nurses, not on train tickets and flights to Los Angeles. At a time when the health service is having to make much-needed savings, hard-pressed taxpayers will be wondering how bosses have managed to run up such a massive bill. We need a war on waste right across the NHS to make sure that the public are getting value for money from their health service.

With the NHS England board making such eyebrow-raising claims, eliminating waste in the rest of the system really doesn’t appear to be a priority.

£370,000 for the NHS chief who never left
Jan 2014 30

With the NHS no longer being handed inflation busting budget increases, you might expect a certain amount of belt tightening. Yet the world’s fifth largest employer continues to squander cash with another eye watering pay off for a former Deputy Chief Executive who never actually left.

The scandalous pay off was exposed in the Times as part of a revised list of 36 health chiefs paid a total of £10.2 million when 161 organisations were abolished under last year’s NHS reforms.

Rob Cooper of the Yorkshire and the Humber Strategic Health Authority was given a golden goodbye of £370,000 when the body was abolished. However, by then he had already found a new directorial role in a London NHS trust on another undoubtedly generous pay packet. NHS terms and conditions of service oblige staff to wait just four weeks before taking up new roles in the NHS if they are to be eligible for redundancy payments.

It is also in direct contrast with the words of NHS boss David Nicholson who has pleaded with managers to hold off for at least six months. But it doesn’t look like anyone’s listening. This certainly isn’t the first time such huge payoffs have been made either. Other former Chief Executives have received amounts of £290,000 and £340,000 under similar circumstances.

The list also exposes the underestimation of at least seven payments costing taxpayers a further £1 million.

George Osborne made a mistake in ring-fencing the NHS budget. Now he should heed the advice of the likes of Liam Fox and tear the fence down.

This is not the first time we’ve written about the public sector merry-go-round. It remains in full flow in at central and local government levels and it’s high time politicians declare war on this continual, inexcusable waste of taxpayers’ money.

A sour note for taxpayers as NHS spends £5,000 on jazz seminar
Jan 2014 06
NHS managers have splashed out £5,000 on an afternoon of jazz at taxpayers’ expense. The London Leading Health Partnership, which runs courses for NHS staff members, hired a pianist to present the 4 hour ‘Jazz Thinking for Transformational Leadership in the NHS’ course to managers, doctors and nurses.
Participants took part in a jam session, followed by a presentation, designed to help with “improvisation and communication”. The course applies jazz techniques to “enhance the art of transformational leadership”.
NHS staff members were advised to follow the example of Miles Davis who once said “there is no such thing as a wrong note”. That might be wonderful advice for saxophone improvisation, but taxpayers will wonder how relevant it is for managers, doctors and nurses in the NHS. Coming so recently after the Mid Staffordshire scandal, cover-ups and the revelation of 13,000 “excess” deaths last year, you would think that NHS bureaucrats would focus on improving patient care while showing proper regard for the taxpayers who actually pay for the service.
NHS managers have lost touch with common sense and it’s time they got back to basics and stopped wasting our money on ludicrous schemes like this.
West Yorkshire councils dip into budgets to fund the Tour de France
Sep 2013 27

It was revealed earlier this week on BBC Radio Leeds that Yorkshire councils will be dipping into various budgets to pay for the ‘Grand Depart’ of the Tour de France next year. The famous cycle race starts in Leeds next year on 5 July. Wakefield Council plans to spend £100,000 from its public health budget even though none of the race will take place in Wakefield. Kirklees Council is taking £672,000 from its jobs & growth fund, Bradford is dipping into its reserves to the tune of £731,000, and Leeds Council is taking £360,000 from its capital programmes. A total of around £6 million will be taken from various budgets by councils in West Yorkshire, and all of this money is on top the cash already spent to win the right to start the race in Yorkshire.

Councils will argue that the ‘Grand Depart’ will be a money spinner for Yorkshire and will showcase the county to the world. I don’t disagree with that assessment, however at a time when councils are reducing spending, why don’t they think of alternatives to constantly dipping into taxpayers’ money? How is taking £672,000 from the jobs & growth fund in Kirklees going to help jobs & growth there? This is what the leader of Kirklees Council, Mehboob Khan, had to say:

The return on our investment through the spending of the visitors expected in the region will be many times what we are paying. It is the biggest sporting event in the world and one billion TV viewers will see the Tour in Kirklees, in addition to all those who come here.

This still doesn’t explain how hundreds or thousands of new jobs are going to be created. I watch some of the stages of the Tour de France on television. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you where most of the stages take place. The cyclists race by at such a speed, you don’t have time to appreciate the surroundings. I can’t imagine many people around the world watching the race immediately thinking of taking a holiday in Huddersfield.

When asked what Bradford Council was getting for its £731,000, city councillor, Andrew Thornton, mentioned some of the money would be spent getting the roads up to standard, something the council should be doing anyway. (A recording of his interview and my response is at the bottom of this post)

The main benefit to those parts of Yorkshire staging the event will be cycling enthusiasts wanting to watch the race live. No doubt local hotels will be fully booked at the time, and bars and restaurants will have a roaring trade – at least for a couple of days. Then everything will go back to normal again. Some taxpayers’ money will inevitably be spent, but an additional £6 million out of already stretched council budgets cannot be justified.

Why are councils not thinking about getting commercial sponsorship to mitigate some of the costs? Surely many local, regional and national businesses would like to be associated with the Tour de France and would be willing to put their money where their mouth is? Last year’s Paralympic Games were sponsored by Sainsbury’s. Other cultural events are regularly sponsored by companies in the towns and cities they take place. Why haven’t councils thought of this?

Although it doesn’t make sense to me why the Tour de France is starting somewhere other than France, I am not a killjoy. All I ask is for councils to think of alternatives before collectively committing around £6 million of taxpayers’ money, taken from budgets it was not intended for.

What’s happened to those responsible for the disastrous South Yorkshire Digital Region?
Jul 2013 30

Dominique Lazanksi wrote last week about the disastrous project, ‘South Yorkshire Digital Region’. Thankfully the Government has decided to pull the plug so as not to expose taxpayers to even more losses, but what has happened to those people who were responsible for making the decisions?

In the Yorkshire Post last Saturday, some of those questions were answered. Jim Farmery was Head of Innovation at Yorkshire Forward, the now defunct Regional Development Agency (RDA). In 2009, Mr Farmery said: “I don’t have any sleepless nights over the business plan. I think if you ask people on the street if they could get five times the broadband speed, would they pay an extra £10 or £20 a month, most will say yes.” Clearly Mr Farmery didn’t go out on the streets and ask those questions. When Yorkshire Forward was wound up, he received a £70,000 pay-off and he now works as Director of Business Investment for Creative England.

David Holt was Digital Region’s first chief executive, paid around £100,000 a year. When the project was launched in April 2010 he promised a “very exciting few months”. Just a few weeks later, when the scheme was unravelling, he left his post. He know runs his own management consultancy business, ‘Improved Potential Limited’. On his LinkedIn profile he describes himself as a “proven business leader” who can “deliver high-performance results”. He also says he considers himself as “versatile, and capable of rapidly adapting to different business environments and situations to deliver results.”

The person not mentioned in the Yorkshire Post report was Tom Riordan. He was Chief Executive of Yorkshire Forward from 2006 – 2010, and had been with the RDA since its inception. Since 2010, he has been Chief Executive of Leeds City Council. As the man in charge of Yorkshire Forward at the time, and ultimately accountable for £40 million of taxpayers’ money being pumped into the scheme, why wasn’t he asking more probing questions?

Not that council chief executives were asking probing questions either. The Yorkshire Post describes Phil Coppard, the former Chief Executive of Barnsley Council, as evangelical about the scheme’s transformational impact. In July 2009 he said: “If anyone doubts the value of Regional Development Agencies… then let them look no further for evidence to the contrary than Digital Region.” He can hardly be described as a prophet! Neither can former Chancellor, Alistair Darling, who said the scheme would “stimulate economic activity” in South Yorkshire.

We are constantly told that we need to pay high salaries to these people because they are the best, and we need to retain their services to prevent them from moving to the private sector. With this disaster on your CV, which private company would want to employ you? Instead, the majority of those people connected with this failure will continue their public sector careers as if nothing happened. They will go on to retire on generous taxpayer-funded pensions whilst taxpayers pay the price in reduced services and higher taxes.

Staff suspended on full pay cost taxpayers a fortune
Jul 2013 29

Full-pay suspensions by West Yorkshire police have cost taxpayers more than half a million pounds over the last three years, bringing the total paid to suspended workers by police forces, health trusts and councils in Yorkshire to more than £8 million. The £513,114.58 was paid out to 28 officers and staff by West Yorkshire police since 2010, with one community support officer (PCSO) receiving over £65,000.

Some suspended workers received up to £100,000 each, while investigations carried on for as long as three years.

Chair of West Yorkshire Police Federation Jon Christopher described the payments as “an awful lot of money, especially in the present climate – but in any climate really… We find cases take an inordinate amount of time when really they should be moved on quicker so officers can return to work and be part of West Yorkshire Police again to do their job and help their community.”

The allegations of misconduct include sexual assault, maltreatment of patients and substance abuse.

A spokesman said: “[The] decision isn’t taken lightly, as people can only be suspended on full pay… We understand the concerns about public money, but people must be confident that we will always make the right decision, in the public interest.”

West Yorkshire Police will not disclose the reasons for suspensions or the dates over which they took place, nor the outcomes of any disciplinary proceedings.

We looked at full-pay suspensions for councils in the West Midlands and found similarly expensive problems there. Issues should of course be properly investigated but it’s unfair to taxpayers to leave staff lingering on full pay. Indeed, it’s also unfair to the staff themselves.

£1 million bonus for executives – just to stay in their job
Jul 2013 24

Many employees in the public and private sectors have seen their pay cut or frozen to protect their job. Not so for the top brass at Network Rail: three of the five executive directors at the taxpayer funded monopoly are set to receive £300,000 each next year just to stay in theirs. Despite Network Rail’s past performance Patrick Butcher, Robin Gisby and Simon Kirby will split £900,000 of taxpayers’ money between themselves in a ‘golden handcuff’ scheme – presumably designed as an incentive to stop them jumping ship to, er, any of the other state-run monopoly rail networks in this country.

These retention payments are, of course, in addition to other perks. All five executive directors receive six-figure salaries ranging from £350,000 to £580,000; annual performance bonuses of up to 60 per cent of salary; long-term incentive packages worth 100 per cent of salary (due to be paid out in 2015); plus an assortment of other benefits (including generous pensions) that cost the taxpayer over £1 million every year. Nice work if you can get it.

A Network Rail spokesman attempted to justify the payments by arguing that “our best talent was in real danger of being poached by big international firms,” describing Butcher, Gisby and Kirby as “key… to [seeing] through the delivery of our plans.”

But Maria Eagle, the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, said it best:

”Senior managers should not demand additional retention payments simply to stay in jobs for which they are already well remunerated.”

This is particularly true when the taxpayer-funded organisation missed performance targets last year.

FiReControl centres continue to cost taxpayers dear
Jul 2013 24

Despite being scrapped in 2010, the FiReControl project to establish nine regional fire control centres continues to be a millstone around taxpayers’ necks. The Public Accounts Committee report released yesterday highlights that FiReControl has wasted at least £482 million of taxpayers’ money and still racked by problems. Margaret Hodge MP, the committee’s chair, has described it as “one of the worst cases of project failure we have seen.”

The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee  made clear in the report that the “DCLG (Department for Communities and Local Government) still hasn’t decided what it is going to do with many of the specially designed, high-specification facilities and builds” and that “four out of the nine regional control centres are still empty and look likely to remain so.”

Rushed, not wanted by the fire and rescue services from the start, littered with badly negotiated contracts and rents way over the market rate – FiReControl is the leading example of civil servant and ministerial bungling.

In an attempt to resolve this continuing problem, DCLG has decided to spend another £82 million to change the project into 22 separate, locally-lead projects.

But unfortunately, this looks set to create another set of problems with the project. Ms Hodge warned that “relying on multiple local projects risks value for money.” Echoing the project’s past issues, she states that the committee is “not confident that local teams have the right IT and procurement skills to get good deals from suppliers and to monitor contracts effectively.”

The report points out that even now this new approach is behind schedule, with two local projects delayed by 12 months and seven also running late. The committee has also stated it is sceptical that project savings and benefits will be achieved.

This increased spending, in addition to the £482 million at least already wasted, brings the total cost of FiReControl project since it began in 2004 to at least £564 million. Yet with no end in sight, taxpayers continue to fund this project nine years after it started and three years after it was supposedly scrapped.

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