Non-job of the week update
Apr 2012 19

Thankfully there are fewer non-jobs these days than there were, although there are still some corkers around. Two weeks ago I highlighted Horsham District Council’s search for a Healthy Weight Coordinator, a Physical Activity Coordinator, and a Workplace Health Coordinator. Applicants had until 10 April to submit their applications, with interviews taking place this week, but it appears as if the council is having difficulties finding suitable people to fill two of those roles. 

Yesterday the council re-advertised for a Healthy Weight Coordinator and a Physical Activity Coordinator. The adverts are almost identical to the previous two, but this time interviews are taking place w/c 28 May.

Just in case the council didn’t get the message from us and our supporters, I will repeat what I said two weeks ago:

No-one is saying we shouldn’t lead healthy lives, but most of us have our vices. We know smoking is not good for our health. We know drinking too much alcohol is bad for us too. We know if we are overweight we could be storing up health problems for the future. We don’t need the government or councils to chase us, and ram this message down our throats.

If you live in the Horsham area, perhaps you could write to your councillor and send them the same message? With budgets tight and every penny needing to be accounted for, non-jobs like these are taking resources away from essential front-line services.

Misleading Unison response to our report on council pension deficits
Apr 2012 13

Unison make three points in response to our report this morning on the black hole in council pensions.  They pretend that there is something wrong with us “comparing liabilities to assets”; try to play down the cost to taxpayers; and cite the same misleading ‘average’ public sector pensions figure they always cite when the high cost of generous public sector pension provision is scrutinised.

There is nothing wrong or even unusual about us comparing the estimates of local government pension fund liabilities and assets that are given in their accounts.  That is the best way of working out the extent to which the fund has enough money set aside to cover its commitments.  Similar comparisons have led the OECD to conclude that local government pensions in Britain are “severely underfunded” and Anthony Mayer, Chair of the London Pensions Fund Authority, has argued that local authority pension funds should have defined asset to liability ratio targets of around 80 per cent to ensure that any future pension commitments can be honoured. If the funding ratio fell below that level, then the fund would have to submit recovery plans to restore their funding over a defined period.

These deficits are real, equivalent to around £2,000 for every family in Britain, and, while improvements in the value of the assets might close the gap to some extent, taxpayers are on the hook.

Then their claim that we are wrong to state that employer (i.e. taxpayer) contributions to council pensions are equivalent to £1 for every £5 raised in Council Tax.  Again that is a simple and entirely legitimate sum.  Employer contributions were just over £5 billion in 2010-11 and Council Tax raised £25.7 billion that year.  That means employer contributions were equivalent to £1 for every £5 raised in Council Tax.  Of course, that isn’t the only money councils get.  They are also funded by grants from central government and other taxes and charges.  Unison therefore prefer to quote the, still substantial, 5 per cent of councils’ total budgets.

But most people don’t know what their share of their council’s budget is.  So Unison’s preferred figure doesn’t help them understand the scale of council pension costs.  They do know how much they pay in Council Tax.  So that figure is a better way of helping them understand how important these costs are.

At the same time, quoting a share of Council Tax gives a better idea of what could be possible if these costs were cut.  For example, you can easily see that a 10 per cent cut in pension costs would, without any other savings, save enough money to allow a 2 per cent cut in Council Tax.

John O’Connell has written for the TaxPayers’ Alliance about the ridiculous union statistics on the “average” pension before.  As he pointed out then, they are absurdly misleading:

If you worked in the public sector for a short amount of time, your total pension pot would be understandably small. But to add these pensions into an ‘average’ calculation is misleading. Look at the online calculators for the schemes themselves to get more informative results based on a career of work. A local government middle manager who retires on £60,000 a year can expect a pension of £30,000 a year. And the lower paid? A more junior worker at a council who retires on £25,000 a year can expect a pension of £12,500 a year. These are based on 30 year careers, too. You can add more to these figures if someone spends their entire working life in the public sector.

What about the NHS? A worker in the NHS who retires on £40,000 a year could expect a pension of £15,000 a year and a lump sum of £45,000, again based on a career of 30 years.

Unison’s team can’t really be aggressively stupid enough that they can’t understand those figures don’t fairly represent the generosity of a public sector pension.  It would be like quoting the “average” lifetime cost of cycling to work including someone who used a Boris bike one sunny day.  They must know that this is misleading the public.

Non-job of the week
Apr 2012 04

Lambeth Borough Council is looking for a Customer Experience Improvement Officer in Parking Services. According to the job advert, the successful applicant

“will maximise customer engagement; undertake all aspects of quality assurance to ensure our services meet the needs of our customers; proactively engage with all service users and stakeholders to critically assess the service; and resolve complaints and service issues ensuring effective outcomes are achieved. In addition you will work with our Service Development Managers to identify development opportunities across the business to improve the overall customer experience.”

If they are looking for a complaints officer, why don’t they just say that? Otherwise isn’t parking all about people finding somewhere safe to leave their cars, paying a fee either before or after they have used the space, and getting on with the rest of the day? 

Test Valley Borough Council wants to recruit a Recycling Development Officer for a fixed term of 12 months. Here is part of the job advert:

The successful candidate will be part of a team to promote recycling and waste minimisation within households, including the use of bring bank sites, through educational activities via schools, parish Councils and Community events. A knowledge of waste or cleansing services and of the Test Valley area would be an advantage but not essential.

It seems notwithstanding the fact councils already provide residents with information on what can and cannot be recycled (at least my council does) taxpayers have to also pay for someone to visit our children at school, speak at parish council and community events to tell us again how to recycle and minimise our waste.

The winner this week though is a trio of jobs from Horsham District Council. The council’s wellbeing service  is ‘part of a county-wide programme in West Sussex to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent ill-health in our local communities. The Horsham District ‘Wellbeing Hub’ provides information, advice and signposts local people to ‘wellbeing services for help and support.’

Therefore the council is looking for a Healthy Weight Coordinator, a Physical Activity Coordinator, and a Workplace Health Coordinator. All are on fixed-term contracts until 31 March 2013.

It seems that we need to be told what a healthy weight is, and if necessary the Healthy Weight Coordinator will design and develop a family and adult weight management programme. If you shun that offer, then there is always the Physical Activity Coordinator whose purpose is to reduce the number of sedentary adults by ‘identifying and signposting them to wellbeing activities across the District.’ Big Brother really is watching you!

If you think you can avoid the council by going to work, you’re wrong, as the Workplace Health Coordinator wants to meet your boss to encourage them ‘to deliver and increase access to healthy lifestyle programmes to their staff e.g., NHS health checks, smoking cessation, healthy eating, physical exercise etc.’

No-one is saying we shouldn’t lead healthy lives, but most of us have our vices. We know smoking is not good for our health. We know drinking too much alcohol is bad for us too. We know if we are overweight we could be storing up health problems for the future. We don’t need the government or councils to chase us, and ram this message down our throats.

Whitehall fails to turn over a new leaf when it comes to waste
Apr 2012 04

Spring has sprung, and that means big bills for fresh flowers in Whitehall. The Times reported(£) Tuesday that in the past year, thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been spent by Government departments on plants and flowers. The Ministry of Justice topped the list of offenders, spending £14,000 on greenery in the past year alone – a “very minimal” amount, according to Secretary of State Kenneth Clarke. Others include:

  • Between May 2010 and March 2011, the Department of Health spent £12,383.80 on plants and trees
  • The Department for Culture, Media and Sport spent £4,527.26 on flowers since May 2010
  • Last year, the Northern Ireland Office spent £2,994 on cut flowers alone, and an additional £1,960 on pot plants

Flowers may be a nice touch but this level of spending is excessive, particularly as these departments should be focused on finding savings and delivering value for money.

Unfortunately, the waste does not stop there. Another area of incredibly high unnecessary expenditure is on taxis and hospitality. These issues are nothing new – we published a paper on the misuse of taxis in 2009. The Ministry of Justice is again near the top of the list, spending £460.29 on taxi fares for ministers in the past 6 months alone. A few more examples:

  • Jeremy Hunt’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport has spent £51,295 on refreshments
  • £219,700 of taxpayers’ money was spent on hospitality in the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
  • The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spent £1,132 on taxis for ministers in the past four months, and an additional £28,858 on taxis for officials
  • Addison Lee and Raffles enjoys a £151,990.60 contract with the Foreign Office
  • The Home Office spent £165,927.73 on taxi fares for its officials.

The Government continues to disappoint the taxpayers that voted them into office. Despite promises to make “reductions in discretionary spending, including travel, expenses, advertising, consultancy and office supplies.” this latest report shows that this has not been the case. In fact, only about 25 per cent of planned cuts have taken place so far, according to Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary. This is an exasperatingly low figure; one would think that two years should be ample time to make significant savings.

Taxpayers shouldn’t be footing such an egregious bill for taxis, trees and tulips.  Ministers are always talking about a new era in Whitehall, it is about time they started to practice what they preach. Whitehall still needs to make some serious savings, and fresh flowers simply are not essential.  They need to stop wasting taxpayers’ money on cut flowers, and try their hand at cutting costs.

Non-job of the week
Mar 2012 28

In January last year, it was reported in The Guardian that Camden Council, along with others like Lambeth, were displaying posters in bus shelters informing residents that cuts to services were a result of cuts in government grants. In a propaganda war, using taxpayers money, those councils were trying to convince us there wasn’t any fat to trim.

If you look at Camden Council’s accounts for 2010/11 (pages 143-148) you will see the number of officers earning in excess of £50K increased from 229 to 236. There were four officers with a remuneration (excluding pension contributions) in excess of £150K, and a further 14 receiving more than £100K. These include the chief executive, directors, assistant directors, and some departmental heads. Beneath that you have assistant heads and a vast array of other managers. The levels of bureaucracy inside our town halls is not only staggering, it is very expensive. 

With all these well paid officers in Camden, you would think they would be able to transform and improve services without taking on additional staff. Of course not, and Camden is looking for a new Head of Project and Programme Management with salary of £61,364 – £70,000. Here is part of the job description:

The main objectives of the role are to:

  • Lead the co-ordination of major programmes and projects across the Council to ensure alignment to strategic priorities and effective and efficient delivery through a “one council” approach
  • Build capacity as the head of profession to ensure the Council and its staff have the relevant tools, skills and capacity to deliver programmes and projects
  • Provide professional advice and support on the governance and delivery of major programmes and projects – with a particular focus on the key corporate priorities.

Compare this approach to that of North Lincolnshire Council. Councillors there have saved hundreds of thousands of pounds slashing the number of directors and assistant directors. They have taken political control of the council and have actively looked for savings that have helped protect essential front-line services. They have certainly not found the need to employ extra staff to ensure ‘effective and efficient delivery through a “one council” approach’. They have adopted a business approach to running the council and have done what anyone who runs a successful business does.

There are many councils throughout the country who quietly get on with cutting waste and improving the services they provide for residents. Naturally, they do not make the headlines, but their good practice ideas should be spread widely for other councils to draw on. Good councils are constantly looking at ways to deliver first-rate services at the best price. I only wish there were more of them.

 

Blackpool’s Comedy Carpet
Mar 2012 27

Some readers may remember Alan Bradley, a Coronation Street character who met a sticky end in front of a Blackpool tram. It seems Blackpool Council is concerned something similar could, erm, happen again.

Blackpool’s Comedy Carpet was unveiled by Ken Dodd last year, and was constructed at a cost of £2.6 million. Now just five months on, part of the granite and concrete carpet has been destroyed by council contractors because it was too close to the tram lines. You would have thought this would have been obvious to council officials before the carpet was installed. Apparently not, and this week’s award for stating the obvious goes to Alan Cavill, assistant chief executive at Blackpool Council.

“After observing how visitors interact with the carpet, many are seen to look down while reading the phrases and frequently step back to look at the comments.

“Regretfully if a visitor to the carpet was to step back off the very end of the carpet into the line of an oncoming tram then this could potentially be very dangerous.”

Indeed it could be very dangerous, although I don’t think we needed Mr Cavill to tell us that. Leaving aside whether or not laying the carpet was a good use of public money, you would have thought the council would have attempted to remove the area that was destroyed, and place it elsewhere? According to the council, the Comedy Carpet Company quoted the council £50,000 for the work, however this has since been revealed as not true. The company quoted somewhere between £3,000 – £3,600 in an email to the council last year.

Questions need to be asked of planning officials. Surely they should have realised what was going to happen placing the carpet so close to tram tracks? It seems once again the joke is on taxpayers who have to pay for the council’s incompetence.

Away-days at BIS cost taxpayers over £100,000
Mar 2012 27

It has been revealed that taxpayers have paid £137,000 for staff members at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to take 64 away-days in the past year. There’s a real need to find savings and cut unnecessary spending, but BIS has spent an exorbitant amount on corporate away-days. A shocking £25,000 was spent on a single event, held at the QE2 conference centre in London.

For readers living outside London, the QE2 Conference Centre is across the road from the Department’s huge head offices. Surely they have ample room in their own building to hold events, without having to pay handsomely to go across the road?

A statement from BIS claims that,

“a change of environment can help teams to focus on the objectives of the day, to ensure they are successful. Officials at all levels of the department make every effort to ensure that all such spending is clearly value for money for the taxpayer.”

It seems unlikely that there is true value for money in spending so much to send staff members to Kew Gardens and the National Archives, or even to a hotel next-door to BIS, which is where 23 of the 64 away-days since May 2010 were held.

If BIS really cared about giving taxpayers value for money, they would find more cost-effective ways to help their teams “focus on the objectives of the day.” In fact, if finding savings was one of those objectives, maybe they wouldn’t waste £100,000 of taxpayers’ money on corporate picnics.

Taxpayers foot the bill for Olympics chopper opera
Mar 2012 19

Another report emerged last week that the Olympics budget will vastly exceed initial estimates. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) recently came out with a report which claimed that the Olympics will cost over £11billion. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), of course, claims that costs will remain under the current budget of £9.3billion. This estimate, however, does not include many additional costs – the cost of land is £766million alone!

There have been hiccups in the plan for months now. Just before Christmas, it was revealed that the cost of security has soared. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) originally estimated that it would need 10,000 staff members, but now finds that it will need 20,000. This puts the price tag for security at well over £1billion, over twice the original budget.

The £9.3billion budget also does not include “legacy costs,” which are estimated to be an additional £826million. This additional cost includes the many cultural events that will be happening under the Olympics banner up and down the UK, including an opera being staged in Birmingham.

Birmingham Opera Company announced that it will be putting on an opera in August as part of the Cultural Olympiad. This is no “Don Giovanni,” however – the Daily Mail reports that Stockhausen’s “Mittwoch Aust Licht” will last for five hours, require 150 performers and will include four helicopters. The opera will be performed four times for a total of 2,400 guests. It will cost £1million, and it will largely be funded by taxpayers.
It will be the first time that this opera has ever been performed in its entirety, and it’s not too difficult to see why, considering the huge expense. The four helicopters will be used for a string quartet, with one member of the quartet in each helicopter. They will play in sync for 40 minutes, with the sound of the whirring helicopters as a backdrop for the piece.

Emma Boon, our Campaign Director gave her reaction to the piece:

“It is incredible that huge sums of taxpayers’ money are being spent on this absurd opera at a time when the public finances are in such a mess. Details like the four helicopters will all make for a hugely expensive and over-the-top spectacle that many hard-pressed taxpayers will view as a self-indulgent and grotesque use of their money. If opera fans want this and it is going to be such a success then the creators should have no problem finding financial backers for it. Looking at the details it’s no surprise that the only mugs who’d pay to put on something like this are those who are spending taxpayers’ money, not their own.”

Non-job of the week
Mar 2012 14

Surrey County Council was one of those councils who recently increased council tax. We have commented many times on how Surrey wastes taxpayers’ cash, so perhaps it was not unexpected the council increased the tax burden on its residents.

Now the council is looking for a Development Manager as, to quote the job advertisement, “It’s all change at Surrey County Council right now.” It also goes on to say it is aiming to become an even more efficient and effective council.

With a 72% rise in council tax over the last 10 years, efficient isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Readers may also remember this is the same council that spent over £15,000 on this pointless video.

This is also the same council that has been hard at work creating a mini change department, including a Senior Performance and Research Manager (Intelligence), Performance Manager, Performance Officer, Intelligence Officer, Change Officer, and Senior Change Manager; they are the ones we know about.

I don’t know if this is an admission of failure on behalf of the council, an admission that its existing senior managers don’t have a clue. If it is, then surely a clear out at the top should be the top priority? There has to be a reason for inflation-busting council tax rises over the last decade. Is this it?

Just in case the council didn’t get the message we sent them last month, here are some areas of spending that if reduced would provide some change to the council tax bills Surrey residents are forced to pay:

  • The Chief Executive at Surrey County Council received total remuneration of £253,133 in 2010/2011. There were at least 19 staff who received more than £100,000 at the authority in 2009/10. Some change there?
  • Councillors’ allowances at Surrey County Council cost taxpayers £1,582,000 in 2010-11. More change there?
  • The estimated cost of union officials at Surrey Council is £284,743, these are staff paid for by taxpayers but work for the trade unions. This does not include the cost of other support provided such as office space or the administration of union fees. Even more change there?

Just three examples of many changes that could happen. Instead to talking about change and employing more people in an attempt to deliver change, it’s about time Surrey County Council really changed and delivered better value for money for council tax payers across the county.

Council openly advertising union jobs
Mar 2012 12

Reading Borough Council’s Directorate of Corporate Resources is looking for a new Administrative Assistant. Not interesting on a first glance, but when you read the advertisement you realise it is not council taxpayers in Reading who are benefiting.

We are seeking an organised and reliable person to provide administrative and clerical support at our UNISON Branch Office, initially for a 6 month period.As well as having previous administrative experience, you will be self-motivated and capable of using your own initiative, with the ability to plan, prioritise and organise your own workload. As the first point of contact for people accessing the service, you will have the ability to communicate effectively at all levels.

On a day-to-day basis your duties will include: 
• providing clerical support to the Branch Officers, taking messages and diary management
• maintaining records, files and memberships
• assisting in the producing and distribution of minutes and reports.You will need to be conversant with Microsoft Office packages and be familiar with using a range of information technology databases.

Once again, another trade union is subsidised by taxpayers. UNISON in Reading Council already benefits from one full-time equivalent officer, costing over £28K. Now it is getting secretarial help paid for by taxpayers, on top of having other perks such as offices, access to e-mail, and telephones.

At a time when every penny counts, it is time the political leadership of the council did the right thing, and ended this practice. Staff have a right to union membership. No-one can take that away from them, but jobs like this should not be paid for by taxpayers already struggling to pay their council tax bills.

If you agree, why not write to the leader of the council, Cllr Jo Lovelock. I’m sure she would welcome your views!

Tell the Government to stop aid to Argentina
Mar 2012 01

Over the weekend, the Sun on Sunday reported on the huge amounts of aid money going to Argentina, while their government threatens the right of people in the Falkland Islands to remain British.  Partly through the World Bank and partly through the European Union.  I looked at some of the financial details last year.  The United States is voting against fresh loans because of how poorly the country treats its creditors, despite having substantial reserves.

Nancy Soderberg, formerly a senior US diplomat and now co-chair of the American Task Force Argentina, wrote for the Telegraph that “the ease with which Argentina has flouted its obligations encourages its government to think it is able to behave however it chooses. But if Britain were to take action and stand up to Argentina financially – by, for example, joining the Obama administration in voting against World Bank loans for the country – it would send a strong message that its G20 partners are no longer willing to overlook irresponsible behaviour.”

Taxpayers money shouldn’t be spent paying for projects in Argentina, when that country is threatening the people of the Falkland Islands and refusing to accept their clear right to remain British.  If the Americans want to get tough with Buenos Aires for once, our government should support them and vote against new loans.

This is a chance to save some money that could be better spent and make it clear that no country which questions Britain’s sovereignty should be supported by the international institutions we fund.  If the Government want people to trust that the foreign aid budget is well spent, it is vital that they take action on funding for Argentina.

There is mounting pressure for the Government to do something about this, if you want to help, please write to your MP.  It can really make a difference.

Non-job of the week
Feb 2012 29

Two weeks ago, one of my non-jobs was a Senior Travel Awareness Officer in Enfield. This week Darlington Borough Council is searching for a Local Motion Travel Advisor.

According to the job description the successful applicant ‘will provide information and advice on walking, cycling and using buses and trains. Much of this work will involve calling at houses within an area, engaging in a conversation about how people currently travel and identifying where there are opportunities to make changes to help people get fitter, save money or reduce their carbon footprint.’

But where does the funding for this non-job come from? Officers paid for by Darlington council taxpayers spend their time looking for grants to chase. By this example, it doesn’t seem to make any difference which grants they chase. The money for this role comes from the Department for Transport’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund.

A total of £560 million is being made available over a four year period, and according to the DfT, the purpose of the fund is to enable the delivery by local transport authorities of sustainable transport solutions that support economic growth while reducing carbon.

In 2004 Darlington was chosen as one of the Sustainable Travel Demonstration Towns. The initial funding was £3.24 million over a five year period to deliver ‘Smarter Choices.’ This involved encouraging residents to make just one journey a week on foot, by bike, or by bus.

Last year the council was awarded an additional £4 million. This money covers a period up to 2015.

Anyone who drives will know there is nothing worse than being sat in a traffic jam. If you are anything like me, you will spend much of it tapping the top of the steering wheel in frustration, looking at the clock, and wondering what time you will reach your destination. I don’t to this for fun. If there is a public transport option that fits in with my time scale, I take it. If I have the time to make a short journey on foot, I do. If I have a meeting in a city centre with a railway station nearby, I go by train. I make these decisions without the government pouring millions of pounds of our money into a local scheme. I don’t need anyone to knock on my door and run through the options available to me.

According to Darlington Council, the ‘Local Motion’ scheme has caused a 9% reduction in car journeys. Of course, they can’t prove this. All of this could have happened naturally as frustrated drivers opt for quicker and easier ways of getting to work.

Councillors in Darlington are meeting tomorrow to decide whether or not to raise council tax by 3.5%. Not spending money chasing grants and not employing a Climate Change Officer are perhaps more ways the council could save money and not increase the financial burden on local people?

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