Politicians blow thousands of pounds posing for commemorative portraits
Aug 2012 24

Politicians in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have spent an astonishing £230,000 of taxpayers’ money on a selection of paintings and busts to adorn their offices, the Sun has revealed. Former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett posed for a painting in Parliament costing taxpayers £12,000 and 19th Century PM William Gladstone has a £23,000 bust in his honour. But not all MPs indulged, Labour’s Deputy Leader Harriet Harman was also in line for a £12,000 portrait but snubbed the offer at the last minute.

In total MPs billed taxpayers for £55,000 worth of art but peers were responsible for the lion’s share, clocking up £175,000. With the country mired in recession it is incredible that politicians remain so out of touch with hard-pressed families. The Parliamentary authorities need to clamp down on this to ensure that taxpayers aren’t forced to pick up yet another bill for these lavish projects.

Scotland’s Information Commissioner spent thousands of pounds on leaving bash
Aug 2012 24

Scotland’s outgoing Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, has reportedly spent thousands of pounds on a reception to mark the end of his tenure. According to information released under the same Freedom of Information laws that he championed, his office spent almost £3,000 on a parliamentary reception to mark his departure from office. The requests show that over 130 politicians and civil servants gorged and guzzled their way through £1,361 worth of canapes and £665 worth of wine. Guests were invited via designer invitations which cost £150 while the same amount was spent on commemorative photographs of the reception.

Kevin Dunion’s role was to uphold information rights in the public interest and promote a culture of openness and transparency in public bodies. Freedom of information laws should make public sector bodies more accountable, creating a level playing field where the idea that those in power know best no longer applies. The irony of such profligate spending by the very person whose duty it was to uphold standards in information access will anger taxpayers  across Scotland.

Scottish Government squanders £8 million on record number of luxury and short-haul flights
Aug 2012 23

Since May 2007, the Scottish Government has spent more than £8 million on a record numbers of flights – an average of 25 flights for every working day since taking office. Earlier this year, nearly £50,000 was spent on a 4-day trip to Los Angeles and San Francisco where Alex Salmond attended the US premiere of the animated fantasy film Brave, which is set in the Highlands of Scotland.

In the last five years, Ministers and officials have travelled on more than 32,000 flights, over 4,000 of them on business and first class journeys, to destinations all over the world.

One ticket to the US cost £7,000, while more than £20,000 was frittered away on five luxury business class tickets for staff to travel to locations like Doha and Abu Dhabi.

The figures, obtained by a Freedom of Information request, also reveal that several Scottish ministers have spent thousands of pounds on short flights between London and Edinburgh, despite pledging to cut costs and carbon emissions from flights.

Our previous research shows that it is not just Scottish politicians and bureaucrats who like the jet-set lifestyle. Just last week we revealed that  nearly £500,000 was spent on flights by councils in the North East over the last three years. TPA activists in Hampshire also uncovered £135,000 worth of flights spending over two years. We also found that councils in the Midlands (excluding Birmingham) spent £275,000 on flights over the same period.

All of those flights can be viewed on this interactive map.

With modern communications and technology, many long distance journeys are now increasingly unnecessary. Public sector bodies are having to make savings so they should be working a lot harder to cut their travel costs.

Cambridgeshire County Council pays temporary staff up to £690 a day
Aug 2012 21

Cambridgeshire County Council spent over £1.6 million last year on temporary staff. Freedom of Information requests revealed that seven social care staff were employed by the council on a temporary basis in 2010/11, with the cheapest of them costing an eye-watering £450 a day. Five of the staff had a daily rate of more than £600 and the most expensive was paid £690 for every shift worked. These startling levels of pay meant that temporary staff were earning well over £100,000 a year whilst the council attempted to find permanent replacements. 

The most shocking example was a member of staff that cost taxpayers £348,000 over two years, almost as much as the salary of the council’s Chief Executive over the same period.

Interim staff should ideally be in place for short spells while the Council looks for permanent replacements. But in this case, the group of consultants were in post for over a year, each earning more from their daily rate of pay than many council staff are paid in a week.

The council’s cabinet member for resources, Cllr Steve Count, described the use of the agencies as ‘cost-effective’ but taxpayers are likely to take a very different view.

South Tyneside flouts freedom of information obligations
Aug 2012 20

Last week we produced new research revealing how much North East councils spent on flights to destinations around the world.

Most councils responded fully to our request for information in full and on time. But there was one noticeable omission among the 12 local authorities in the region: South Tyneside.

Our request for information was sent in February and therefore a was due in March, under the rules of the Freedom of Information Act.  So they’ve had more than enough time to respond and plenty of opportunities after repeated prompting by TPA activists. But only on Monday, just a few hours after we had briefed journalists on our findings, did a full response magically appear in our inbox.

South Tyneside revealed that since 2009 they spent over £2,000 on flights to Paris for twinning visits and over £1,100 to the French Capital for a project called “Tyne2Seine”. But perhaps the most astonishing revelation is the £3,250 of taxpayers’ money the council made disappear by paying for guests to attend their International Magic Convention with flights from Gothenburg, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

It’s unacceptable that South Tyneside council has failed to honour their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. Not only is the council legally required to reply within 20 working days but they also have a duty to justify how they spend every penny of taxpayers’ money. It isn’t hard to understand why the council would want this embarrassing information to remain behind closed doors but it simply isn’t good enough.

Councils are pleading poverty and frontline services are being threatened but it’s clear that there is plenty of unacceptable waste that should be cut to save taxpayers’ hard-earned money. Full transparency on spending is one of the best ways for local residents to identify waste and improve services and value for money. Councils like South Tyneside shouldn’t wait for media enquiries before coming clean about how they spend taxpayers’ money.

Non-job of the week
Aug 2012 15

HS2 is recruiting again. Advertising on the Guardian’s jobs website, we will shortly be paying for a Senior Press Officer, two Policy Advisers, a Parliamentary Bill Assistant Manager, and a Parliamentary Bill Evidence Manager. Expect more of the same in the coming weeks and months as the HS2 spin machine goes into overdrive.

This next non-job is only available to employees of Cardiff Council including Cardiffworks and Agency Workers currently engaged with the Council. Why this is, I don’t know, however it would seem that only those currently working for the council in some capacity have the qualifications to become the next Appetite for Life Coordinator. Here’s part of the job description:

A unique opportunity has arisen for the post of Appetite for Life Coordinator, on a 12 month secondment, to work with Cardiff Catering, the Council’s in-house Education Catering service.

The successful applicant will be required to coordinate the implementation of the Appetite for Life Food and Drink Standards in schools across Cardiff and to develop initiatives to encourage the uptake of school meals through links with schools, parents, children and local health groups. The post holder will represent Cardiff on various related groups and promote partnership working.

You will need to have a sound catering and/or nutrition background with relevant skills, qualifications and experience of working within schools. You will report to the Catering Services Manager and work within a team of professionals in this forward thinking and award winning service group.

So once again children and parents will be told by the council what can and cannot be consumed in the school dining hall. If parents choose to send their children to school with a packed lunch, they will have the Appetite for Life Coordinator contacting them telling them how to feed their children. They will also speak to the children either during lessons or in the school assembly hall, and make sure schools have enough literature to hand to children and to parents.

Don’t think this is far fetched. How else will the Appetite for Life Coordinator encourage the uptake of school meals through links with schools, parents, children and local health groups?

If school meals are so bad in Cardiff, I am sure parents and children will complain. This is what happened in Argyll and Bute, when a nine-year-old girl, Martha Payne, took photographs and blogged about her experiences. Despite the council trying to ban her, she eventually won the day. If children prefer a packed lunch, what’s wrong with that? Any responsible parent will ensure their child has nutritious food, and some treats. They are kids after all. Which child doesn’t enjoy fizzy drinks, chocolate and crisps? It’s all about the right balance, and parents are responsible for that balance, not someone from the council.

 

Leicester’s Curve theatre debacle
Aug 2012 13

Last week, Leicester’s elected Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, launched a scathing attack on his predecessors at the City Council over their hapless management of a theatre project. The Curve theatre cost more than twice what was originally budgeted and was labelled as “the most disastrously overspent project in the city’s history” by Sir Peter. It is all too reminiscent of a similar waste of taxpayers’ cash over in the West Midlands – the now infamous The Public, in West Bromwich.

Of the initial £26million budget for the Curve, the council’s contribution was supposed to total £4.4million. However, changing designs, increasing costs and insufficient sponsorship led to the project running more than £35m over budget with the council’s final input clocking in at £36.8million – an increase of more than 700 per cent.

When Sir Peter’s comments were put to Councillor Ross Willmott, who led the council when the project began, he dismissed them as “absurd” before adding that “It does no good talking down a project that has proved a success.” But his remarks completely miss the point if important lessons can be heeded from these costly mistakes.

Meanwhile, Haymarket Theatre (the Curve’s predecessor), lies empty in the city centre. A buyer is yet to be found for the site on which the council has a lease until 2073 and has set an asking price of £500,000. The disused site is costing Leicester’s taxpayers £120,000 a year in maintenance costs and empty property rates.

Residents of Leicester can only hope that Connecting Leicester, the mayor’s new plans to improve parts of Leicester city centre, do not turn into another taxpayer-funded farce.

Government savings infographic in perspective
Aug 2012 10

Matthew Elliott recently congratulated the Government for saving £5.5 billion during 2011-12 in the Daily Mail, as announced by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude. But he also pointed out that many departments such as the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) are still hiring even more staff, undoing the good work of those other departments which are making savings.

To illustrate from where the savings have come, the Cabinet Office have produced an intriguing infographic:

While it is useful and interesting, it doesn’t illustrate how much progress towards closing the deficit and, therefore, lacks perspective. Fortunately, we have created another infographic to illustrate just that point:

As you can see, the small light green box represents the savings made during 2011-12 but it is dwarfed by the deficit and total government spending. The red square represents how much the Government has increased spending by even after the savings. While welcome, the announced savings are small in comparison to the scale of the problem. The deficit accounts for 18 per cent of total spending but the savings mean that spending increased by ‘only’ 0.8 per cent instead of 1.6 per cent.

Trendy departments like DECC must learn from their more successful peers to be more prudent. High Government spending is choking off economic growth and Britain simply can’t afford it. Every department, council and quango must be careful when spending taxpayers’ hard-earned cash so that total spending can come back down to a level taxpayers can afford.

Non-job of the week
Aug 2012 08

Greenwich Borough Council is looking for a Carbon Reduction Officer, paying between £33,510 – £36,306. Here’s part of the gobbledegook job description:

As part of its ongoing commitment to sustainability and carbon reduction the Royal Borough of Greenwich is seeking to recruit to its well established Sustainability and Renewal service to help drive the improvements required to ensure the Royal Borough continues to be at the forefront of innovation and good practice.

In this post you will play a key part in ensuring compliance with the requirements of the CRC Energy Efficiency scheme, shaping and implementing the Borough’s sustainability and carbon reduction strategies and supporting the development of other policies linked to this agenda. Keeping fully abreast of the latest developments from government and best practice, you will provide expert advice to elected members and senior officers as well as implementing and monitoring programmes designed to ensure that the Royal Borough meets its sustainability and carbon reduction commitments.


If the job a Carbon Reduction Officer pays up to £36K, it makes you wonder how much the Sustainability and Renewal Service costs. How large is this department? What exactly does it do?

The next offering is from North West Leicestershire District Council who wishes to employ an Equality and Diversity Coordinator. There seems to be some confusion in the job advert as to whether this is a full-time or part-time position, therefore I took a look at the full job description on the council’s website. The post is indeed part-time, for 18.125 hours a week – or 18 hours 7.5 minutes to be precise!

Reading the information pack I discovered this little gem:

In accordance with current legislation and codes of practice we aim to ensure that no councillor, employee or prospective employee will be treated unfavourably on the grounds of marital status, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, race, nationality, ethnic or national origins, trade union membership or activity, political or religious belief and unrelated criminal conviction.

I know has to be included in every job application pack, but it rather sums up why there doesn’t need to be an Equality and Diversity Coordinator. Many councils don’t feel the need for them, and nor should North West Leicestershire.

Home Office spent £600,000 on luxury hotels for staff in just six months
Aug 2012 06

The Home Office spent around £600,000 putting up staff in some of the world’s most luxury hotels, the Sun has revealed. Information uncovered by Shadow Treasury Secretary, Rachel Reeves, shows that Home Office staff have enjoyed stays in exclusive hotels across the Caribbean, the Middle East, North Africa and the USA, all at taxpayers’ expense.

The findings included £2,300 spent at the four-star Hyatt Regency in Trinidad in February and £650 spent at the four-star Accra Beach Hotel and Spa in Barbados, one of the island’s most popular hotels. Home Office civil servants also enjoyed stays in the four-star Villa Mandarine in Rabat, Morocco at a cost of £1,900, the four-star Qamardeen in Dubai at a cost of £825 and the four-star Royal Sonesta in Boston, USA at a cost of £860.
Responding to the findings, the Home Office insist that “all expenses are closely scrutinised“. But the evidence suggests they should look a bit harder for savings. Clearly the Home Office could have stayed in more affordable accommodation. The Home Office need to ensure the best value for taxpayers’ money by tightening the controls on expenses claims.
Hyndburn Council flushes £100K down the pan
Aug 2012 03

How much does it cost to spend a penny? For council taxpayers in Hyndburn, Lancashire, the figure comes in at £18.38, after bungling bureaucrats entered the council into a long term contract with the makers of the Universal SuperLoo.

The self-cleaning convenience in Accrington town centre has only been used 1,520 times in the last year. At 20p a go, the council received £304 in income. The annual rent is £28,245. To make matters worse, the council is tied into a contract until 2023.

Now councillors have had enough, and have decided to terminate the contract, as at this rate council taxpayers would be out of pocket to the tune of over £300K. The costs for giving 12 months notice, paying an early termination fee, and having the toilet removed will be around £100K.

One person commenting on the Lancashire Telegraph’s website has done the maths the council should have done before it entered into such a ridiculous contract. For the council to break even, the toilet would have to be used 386 times a day. That’s an average use of once every 3.7 minutes!

Leader of the Opposition, Peter Britcliffe said: “There’s been some awful bad management of this issue. The contract shouldn’t be so expensive to get out of and now tax payers have to pick up the tab – not to spend a penny.”

Hyndburn is a council serving a population of just over 80,000. £100K can easily mean the difference between having and not having a Council Tax rise. Whilst Cllr Britcliffe is obviously correct in his comments, will any heads roll for such a blunder? I doubt it. Perhaps a promotion will be put on hold for a while, or someone leaves the authority with a large pay-out, but that will be all. Until decisions made by officers are truly accountable, expect similar stories like this one in the future.

£25,000 a day spent by the Scottish Government hiring Pall Mall gentleman’s club
Aug 2012 03

According to the Daily Telegraph the Scottish Government is spending £25,000 every single day during the Olympics on hiring out an exclusive gentleman’s club to entertain businessmen and dignitaries.

The First Minister officially opened the Army and Navy Club on London’s Pall Mall, which he has renamed Scotland House for the duration of the Olympics, before the Opening Ceremony last week.

The Scottish Government says the arrangement is aimed at showcasing Scotland and attracting foreign investment as well as for hosting formal events and receptions. The cost of hiring the venue, which will total £400,000, is being split between the Scottish Government and five of its quangos.

This astonishing sum of money is being spent despite the fact that the Scotland Office’s Dover House – a building which overlooks the Horse Guard’s Parade and beach volleyball – is available to Scottish Ministers to use free of charge and is only half a mile away on Whitehall.

After years of complaining about the cost of the Olympic Games and the damage it is doing to the Scottish budget, it’s absurd that nearly half a million pounds is being wasted on a vanity project for which there is clearly a cheaper alternative.

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