In our report last, week, we revealed that trade unions are subsidised by taxpayers to the tune of £113 million. That is made up of an estimated £80 million in paid staff time, plus £33 million in direct payments. This is an increase of £7 million from 2009/10.
One of the beneficiaries of our cash is the Union Learning Fund. This was created by the last government in 1998 with the aim of promoting ‘activity by trade unions in support of the objective of creating a learning society.’
In plain English, this means that instead of unions paying for their training courses out of the subscriptions they receive from their members, taxpayers pick up the tab.
On a day when our bins are not be emptied, many schools across the country are closed, and some operations in our hospitals are being cancelled, we are paying for the staff time to organise the strikes and the courses that teach them how to do it.
Ironically, the TUC is currently advertising for a Media and Public Affairs Officer for unionlearn – the body responsible for administering the Union Learning Fund. This comes with a salary £38,534, and part of this role’s job description is to be responsible for the provision of good news stories and information raising the profile of unionlearn to the national, regional, local, specialist and union media.
This is a non-job as far as taxpayers are concerned. If the TUC wants to employ a media officer to promote its training courses, that is up to them, but it should not be done with our cash.
Grade 7: Salary £38,534 per annum rising incrementally to £39,929 pa including London Weighting
Unionlearn is the education and skills section of the TUC. We administer the government’s union learning fund and promote lifelong learning and skills in the work place. The communications team are responsible for the promotion of unionlearn and its work, for liaising with the media and opinion formers and ensuring that the skills agenda and our work on learning in the workplace remain part of the wider debate on learning and skills.
The post holder will be responsible for the provision of good news stories and information raising the profile of unionlearn to the national, regional, local, specialist and union media.
As well as having experience of writing for publications and/or high quality websites, the successful candidate will also need to demonstrate:
• Qualitative research and analysis including interview techniques
• Participatory research projects, finding stories or data which illustrate issues
• Project management
• Experience of working on public affairs campaigns
• Excellent communication skills including writing press releases, reports and features
• Good computer literacy including handling database programmes and ability to source material from the internet and publish online.
The strike today has been called the “largest coordinated action ever seen in the UK” by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). The unions claim nearly 3 million public sector staff are not at work today, but the paltry number of strikers outside government department buildings in Westminster this morning doesn’t quite give you that impression.
The strike is over pension reform, and the unions are refusing to accept necessary changes to unaffordable deals. Our response this morning is here, including a calculator which allows you to see the public sector salary required to match your total remuneration.
There are plenty of comment pieces out there this morning perpetuating myths about public sector pensions, so it’s important to knock a few of them on the head. Let’s take George Eaton’s piece in The New Statesman first:
“But as the graph below from the government-commissioned Hutton Report shows, public sector pension payments peaked at 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2010-11 and will gradually fall over the next fifty years to 1.4 per cent in 2059-60. The government’s plan to ask employees to work longer and pay more is a political choice, not an economic necessity.”
Here’s the graph Eaton references:
What Eaton’s piece doesn’t tell you is that this graph shows pension accruals and pensions-in-payment growing with CPI, rather than RPI, which is one of the measures the unions are so angry about. The projections shown in that chart are also the result of assumptions about public sector workforce and economic growth that may prove optimistic. The article also doesn’t tell you that the PCS, one of the unions on strike today, are looking to index their own pension scheme against CPI because their current scheme is unaffordable. They also want members to pay more more in contributions, according to reports. They’re striking against something they’re doing themselves.
Let’s take a look at another. Dave Prentis, the General Secretary of Unison, wrote on the Huffington Post this morning:
“Under the proposals, the low paid will receive only just enough to keep them above the threshold for means tested benefits when they do retire. The average pension in local government is £3,800 a year, but for women, it’s less than £2,800 – just £56 a week. More than half of women pensioners in the NHS receive a pension of less than £3,500 a year.”
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.
Mr Prentis also says:
“Both the health and local government schemes are in good shape, with billions more coming in than has to be paid out in pensions every year.”
Let’s take them in turn, the NHS pension scheme first. There was a cash surplus of around £2 billion last year. That includes huge employer contributions, which are taxpayer contributions of course. But anyway, this is not an indication of sustainability; the NHS surplus is a result of having a growing workforce. Those paying contributions to create the surplus are also building up pensions that will need to be paid in the future. Further, the surplus is returned to the Treasury, it’s not like this is a pension fund where they can realise increases in the value of that £2 billion to pay for future pensions. It just goes back to the Treasury’s general fund to spend on wasteful projects like High Speed Rail.
Additionally, this is the kind of warning sign our research note last week signalled – the NHS pension scheme has a lot more active members relative to ‘pensioners in payment’ than other schemes, but that will be changing rather quickly over the years. Overall the Treasury already had to top up unfunded schemes as a whole by a huge £4 billion last year, and that number is only getting bigger. Thinking the NHS pension scheme is fine now, so therefore it doesn’t need reform, is the kind thinking that got us to where we are now. It’s simply kicking the can down the road, and it’s disingenuous to pick the only unfunded scheme with so many more active members than pensioners to paint a picture of health for the wider public sector.
Now local government. Yes, it’s a funded scheme, with invested assets, and more coming in than paid out at present. Again, this includes massive employer contributions, which is taxpayers’ money to start with. Also, the argument that this scheme is “healthy” just defers any responsibility for paying off massive liabilities to future generations. Our paper on local government pension scheme deficits highlights how big this problem is, with over £50 billion more liabilities than assets in 2010. And it will get worse. Funded public sector schemes in countries like The Netherlands are not allowed to hold assets of less than 80 per cent of liabilities, but a quick glance at our paper shows that many local government schemes are nowhere near this. In fact, some have asset to liability ratios of less than 50 per cent. That’s not sustainable and will have to be paid off at some stage.
When you walk past a striker today, ask them if it’s fair that a worker on the minimum wage pays for generous public sector pensions, while being unable to even nearly afford a deal like that for himself. As I mentioned earlier, the unions’ own pension schemes are in trouble. You’d be forgiven for thinking that peddling misinformation and coordinating strikes is designed to boost their own membership and increase employee contributions, to fix their own broken schemes.
Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis has responded to our report showing the unions getting a £113 million backdoor subsidy. He claims that the facility time reduces industrial strife, and leads to fewer strikes. If that was the case, then surely the public sector – where staff take three times as much in facility time – would see fewer strikes? After all, public sector workers are also better paid and get better pensions. It doesn’t work out that way:
The data on the relative number of strike days lost per worker are from our research last year. You can see the same thing with the ridiculous claim that having hundreds of staff working for the union, instead of the public service, improves public service productivity:
The data on productivity compares the market sector and the major public services. It is taken from the Economic and Labour Market review produced by the Office for National Statistics.
Either something else is going catastrophically wrong in the public sector, and things would be even worse without huge amounts spent on facility time, or union staff paid for at taxpayers’ expense aren’t associated with an efficient workplace. We shouldn’t fear ‘pay up, or we’ll strike’ threats from the union bosses. And our past experience with Dave Prentis shows that he isn’t above misleading the media and the public:
Today we announced our Pin-up and Pinhead of the Month. The pinhead was Cllr Jason Kitcat, a Green Party councillor from Brighton and Hove, and the portfolio holder for Finance and Central Services. His council is not going to take up the government’s offer of extra cash in return for not increasing council tax in 2012/13. Unfortunately, Cllr Kitcat is not the only pinhead in our town halls across the country.
According to a BBC report, an amazing 20% of councils may increase council tax from next spring. This is despite the government setting aside £805 million from efficiency savings to give to councils to ease our council tax burden.
One of the main reasons cited in the Local Government Chronicle is that councils fear a sharp rise in council tax in 2013/14, when no government assistance will be available. Hardly the most convincing argument I’ve ever heard. Why should there be a sharp rise? What would cause it? As councils find efficiency savings, they are not going to suddenly spend more from 2013.
Over the last decade we have not seen the quality of council services double, but the same cannot be said of our council tax bills. We have highlighted in many TPA reports ways councils can reduce spending.
Not accepting the government’s offer is wrong, and will unnecessarily increase the burden on families when they can least afford it. To threaten sharp rises for the following year is scaremongering, which is the last thing any of us need at this moment in time.
Lewes District Council is looking to employ an Equalities Officer whilst the existing officer is on maternity leave. According to the job advert “this post co-ordinates the development of our Equalities work, Impact Assessments and equalities policies. It identifies and introduces practical steps and monitors our success so we make continuous progress with our equality duties.”
It is – and has been for many years – illegal to discriminate on the grounds of religion, gender, disability, race, sexual orientation, etc. Why does Lewes Council need to employ someone to monitor its success in order to make continuous progress with its equality duties? Legislation does change, but not to the extent that you need a full-time officer monitoring those changes.
Lambeth Borough Council is searching for an Energy Strategy Officer on £32532 – £35055. Perhaps if it installed smart meters in all council premises it would see consumption fall and benefit from lower bills? Not that the installation of smart meters is as easy as you would think. Well, maybe to you and I it is, but not for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
It is looking for a Stakeholder Engagement Manager – Smart Meters Programme, paying £46,975 – £56,597 per annum. Here’s part of the job description:
As our Stakeholder Engagement Manager, you will be responsible for planning and overseeing the programme’s engagement with the organisations outside the smart meters programme who need to be involved in the successful delivery of the programme and its benefits. These include energy suppliers and other industry players together with consumer representatives. You will need to work closely with colleagues across the programme who are dealing with these groups day-to-day through a range of working groups and bi-laterals Your challenge is to ensure that we have the right arrangements in place to capture and share feedback and to ensure consistent messages are being conveyed by the programme.
In addition, there is a need to maintain communications with a much wider group of stakeholders including MPs and Local Government, community groups and special interest groups who all need to be kept aware of developments and can help promote consumer awareness. You will also play a key role in driving forward the communications strategy for the programme, working with the energy industry to develop key messages and communication approaches and providing the main interface from the programme into DECC’s press office. You will be part of the Consumer Engagement, Roll-out and Benefits team within the programme which is headed by the Deputy Programme Director and you will be expected to be flexible and able to contribute to current priorities within the wider team.
Smart meters are an excellent way to help us reduce our bills. As I’ve said before, you can watch in real time which appliances use the most electricity. It’s not complicated, but the DECC seems to have set-up a mini-department to promote something energy companies could do every time they send us a bill!
Finally, when it comes to waste, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) certainly does it in style. They spent nearly £70 million making nearly 1800 people redundant. I don’t know how generous those payments were, however I do know there are times when you have to take a short term hit for a long term gain. Defra says it can recoup this money in a year. So far, so good then, but it was also revealed whilst making 1800 people redundant, at the same time it was recruiting another 500 staff. You would have thought common sense would prevail and the department would assess its needs before it let staff go. Many of those who received redundancy payments could have moved to those new jobs, thus saving taxpayers money.
Please remember we pay some senior civil servants and council officers six-figure salaries because (we are told) we need the best, and if we didn’t pay them as handsomely, they would quit public service and move to the private sector. This rarely happens, and it is examples like this that prove why.
Today has seen the publication of the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life into political party finance. You can read the full 116-page report here, but to cut to the quick, the proposal which will alarm taxpayers up and down the country is for political parties to get a subsidy from the taxpayer to the tune of around £23 million per year.
Here’s how the report summarises its plan:
“Existing public support to the political parties should be supplemented by the addition of a new form of public support paid to every party with two or more representatives in the Westminster Parliament or the devolved legislatures. The public funding should depend on the number of votes secured in the previous election, at the rate of around £3.00 a vote in Westminster elections and £1.50 a vote in devolved and European elections. Income tax relief, analogous to Gift Aid, should also be available on donations of up to £1,000 and on membership fees to political parties”
Quite simply, when the Government and local councils are making cuts to their budgets, the idea that some of those savings should be channelled into the coffers of political parties is monstrous.
The scheme as envisaged by the Kelly Committee would have seen the following amounts thrown at the parties after last year’s general election, based on the idea of a £3 subsidy per vote:
That amounts to a handout of nearly £92 million. And it would mean you pay a fortune to support political parties you don’t support. Labour voters funding the Conservatives and Conservative voters funding Labour, whether they like it or not.
But of course that’s not all; you then have to factor in the grants that would be given after elections to the European Parliament, which would have amounted to the following if the £1.50-per-vote scheme had been in operation after the 2009 elections:
That comes to more than £20 million. And that’s before you factor in the figures to be given after devolved elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
As the report notes, millions of pounds are already given to political parties: opposition parties in the Commons and Lords get financial support to assist them in their parliamentary activities, in recognition that they don’t have the civil service back-up enjoyed by Government ministers. That funding should be cut, not supplemented.
But taxpayers will be aghast at the sums Kelly is now proposing be diverted to parties. The report’s spin is that his plan amounts to “only about 50p a year for each UK elector”. But just the £92 million in core funding is the equivalent of the entire annual pay of well over 4,000 people on average earnings. If Kelly thinks voters are so keen to see their hard-earned cash go to political parties, they should be given the free choice as to whether they make such donations of their own free will out of their own paypackets.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance takes a robust view on this: not a single penny more of taxpayers’ money should be handed to political parties.
Today the Guardian reports that, while the MoD cuts the number of front-line troops, £564m has been spent on consultants in just two years. Spending has increased from £6m in 2006 to £267m in 2011 – a 4,350 per cent rise.
The huge increase has been blamed on the Framework Agreement for Technical Support (FATS), bought in by the Labour government in 2009, which allowed defence officials to hire specialist, short-term help without requiring a minister’s consent.
An MoD internal audit report claims there were “significant weaknesses” in the submission of business cases; that there were “weaknesses in the robustness of scrutiny” by budget controllers; and that three quarters of contracts were awarded without any notion of competition. Despite the laxity of the guidelines the report concludes that there was “no assurance” they were even being followed.
All options must be considered to ensure that services can be delivered at the lowest cost to taxpayers. There may be occasional situations where it is more cost-effective to hire consultants on specific projects than to have them employed full-time. In these circumstances we would expect robust guidelines to be in place; that they be rigorously followed and compliance monitored; and that appropriate sanctions would be deployed against individuals who broke them.
In the context of budget reductions of around eight per cent over the next four years, and the loss of 42,000 posts, we would expect the MoD to be doing everything possible to maximise the value taxpayers’ get for their money, rather than relying on union reps to highlight gaping holes in their financial procedures.
It is disingenuous for the MoD to be claiming to be cutting costs by reducing staff if external consultants are then bought in to do their job instead at a higher cost. They should be taking a more holistic approach to the costs of their projects which are already, in many cases, heavily over-budget.
Our Chief Executive, Matthew Elliot, had this to say:
“It’s appalling that the MoD has been managing its budget so catastrophically badly. This level of spending on consultants is disgraceful and worse still is the face that correct procedures were allowed to be so consistently ignored. Some larger or more technical projects may require consultants to be brought in for their specialist expertise, but this should be in moderation and should certainly be within the department’s own guidelines. Transparency and value for taxpayers’ money should to be at the heart of all Whitehall spending decisions, rather than the poorly planned, wasteful overspend that is plaguing huge swathes of the public sector. “
When questioned by the BBC the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, claimed claimed that tighter controls and a new framework now in place will ensure these costs are properly scrutinised in future. He compared reforming the MoD to manoeuvring an oil tanker and suggests that the “legacy of mismanagement is deep and will take some time to turn around.”
Without fixing problems like this that ship will soon be heading into a storm.
A non-job of the week with a twist today. Barnet Council do not like criticism, and it seems the council will go to any lengths to make sure it silences its critics.
A local blogger, writing under the pseudonym Mr Mustard, criticised Barnet Council for hiring a Change and Innovation Manager in 2010 on a salary of £47,550 -£50,913. It sounds very much like the sort of non-job I highlight on here every week. He quoted from the job description, which has to be said is written in perfect gobbledegook, and also quoted from the personal website of the man who got the job – Jonathan Tunde-Wright.
Although I have joked in the past about receiving a letter from Oxford City Council’s solicitor for harassment after all the non-jobs I have highlighted in the past, I have of course never received one. Nor should I. Freedom of speech is something we hold dear in this country, unless you are from Barnet Borough Council.
The council went to the extraordinary lengths of contacting the Information Commissioner claiming Mr Mustard had committed a criminal offence under the Data Protection Act by not registering as a data controller because he had made critical comments about whether some of its officials have real jobs! The commissioner rightly disagreed, but that didn’t stop the council. It then came up with what can only be described as the most ludicrous description of what he could write about. The One Barnet blog has the full details of the correspondence between the ICO and the Council.
The council said all that bloggers (and that includes us on this website) can write about is their own personal data, their own family defined as people related by blood or marriage and their own household, which is anyone living in their house or flat. Barnet Council claims everything else requires registration and can be subject to a legal challenge.
The Information Commissioner disagreed again, saying this would have a hugely disproportionate impact on freedom of expression.
Because Mr Mustard (real name Derek Dishman) regularly holds his council to account on his blog, and sends in freedom of information requests to find out how our money is spent, he is regarded as an inconvenience. This may be so, but as he is not writing anything defamatory, he is within his rights to write about anything he likes – inconvenient or not.
So not only do we have a job with a more than dubious title offering £50K a year, we also have the council employing its staff to actively prevent anyone of us criticising them. If Barnet Council had its way, none of us would be able to speak out against waste and hold councils to account.
Hat-tip: David Hencke
Last week it was revealed that Ron Dobson, Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, retired to get his £133,000 annual pension allowance only to jump straight back into his old job. The Daily Mirror claims that he may have even received a £700,000 pay-off if, as entitled, he converted a quarter of his pension to a lump sum.
At a time when taxpayers are tightening their belts and public sector organisations look for necessary savings, it is obscene for the Fire Brigade’s Commissioner to quietly make a few tiny contractual adjustments to feather his own nest. I can only imagine that many of Mr Dobson’s colleagues will be livid at his smash and grab raid.
Paul Embery, a regional official for the Fire Brigades Union, also attacked the pay-out, calling it “deeply unethical”.
A spokesman for the London Fire Brigade claimed the move is actually a “cost saving” measure. However, it has been reported that his new salary, combined with his pension, actually totals a similar amount to what he was on before this charade started.
Unfortunately this isn’t the first case of questionable pension activity and so-called “double dipping” in Britain’s fire brigades. In August, Andrew Allison wrote about Humberside Fire and Rescue Service, where one officer received a promotion and after only eight weeks into the job he saw his pension lump sum increase to £29,000 – for just two months’ work!
Earlier this year, Strathclyde Fire Service chief Brian Sweeney pulled a similar trick to gain a £500,000 pay-off before returning to work. He said at the time: “people need to understand it’s not taxpayers’ money – it’s my private pension.” It is the arrogance of the likes of Sweeney and Dobson which needs to be challenged – taxpayers are paying for these lavish pensions. Around a third of all private-sector workers have an employer-sponsored scheme – most do not. And it is those people that are being asked to carry on paying for increasingly expensive public sector pensions. Until we see genuine reform, the least public sector executives can do is not to take advantage of the system.
The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) – according to its website – is the professional voice of the UK fire and rescue service. Reading that, you would think it was a professional organisation for senior fire officers, paid for by them. You would be wrong. This is an organisation paid for by us to lobby on behalf of senior fire officers, and it is an organisation that has grown over the years, once again thanks to our money.
When looking at spending above £500 on Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service’s (CFRS) website, I noticed to payments to the CFOA of £6175 in April this year. I sent a freedom of information request to find out why. It turned out that one of those payments was made in error, however Cambridgeshire taxpayers pay for a corporate membership of the CFOA of £6175 a year. But that’s not all. CFRS also pay the personal subscriptions for the senior management team – eight subscriptions in total. As these subscriptions are below £500, they are not published, and I do not know what the total figure is. What I can say is the figure paid by CFRS to the CFOA is higher than the published £6175.
That example gives you a snapshot of the national picture. I don’t have the time to check the spending of all fire and rescue services in the country, but I can’t imagine the figures quoted will be much different from Cambridgeshire.
Considering taxpayers fund the CFOA, finding out how it spends its money is not easy. The general public can access parts of the website, but much of it is for members only. What we do know is the CFOA is a registered charity that also has created other companies such as CFOA National Resilience Ltd and CFOA Publications Ltd. We also know it intends to expand. If you take a look at Des Prichard’s blog (the Chief Fire Officer of East Sussex) he says he was part of an interview panel for a commercial business and marketing position with the Chief Fire Officers Association.
One of our supporters sent a freedom of information request to East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service asking how much time off from his Chief Fire Officer (CFO) duties he received to carry out work as the CFOA’s Director of People and Organisational Development, but the response was the service didn’t keep a record. Mr Prichard is one of many serving chief fire officers who spend time away from the jobs we pay them for, to act on behalf of the CFOA.
The Presidential Team is made up of the following: Lee Howell, CFO, Devon and Somerset, is the president. The Vice President is Vij Randeniya, CFO, West Midlands, and the Vice President Elect is Paul Fuller, CFO, Bedfordshire and Luton.
This is another example of an organisation funded by taxpayers that’s job is to lobby ministers, but not only are we paying for that, we are also paying to fund business and commercial enterprises to give it more money to lobby and campaign on behalf of those at the top of the fire service. Instead of heading operations in their own areas, many CFOs are leaving those duties behind to work for the CFOA completely at our expense. If the example of Cambridgeshire is the norm throughout they country, they don’t even have to pay their own subscriptions.
It is in everyone’s interests that we have a first class fire and rescue service throughout the country, and there will be times when senior fire officers will be required to meet ministers to discuss possible changes in legislation. This is to be expected. Questions must be raised though as to why taxpayers have to fund an organisation like the CFOA, not only directly, but also indirectly with time off from their normal duties.
CFOA FoI Response:
The Transport Select Committee report on proposals for a new high speed rail line this morning is supportive of the case for the new line on balance but, as Benedict Brogan wrote this morning “its backing is so lukewarm it is almost as bad as a condemnation.” There are a whole series of issues that the Committee argues need to be dealt with before a decision is made, and a whole lot of problems they haven’t dealt with properly that also need to be addressed. The final picture is clear: a project of this scale can’t go ahead without a proper review that answers these questions, and offers a complete idea of the costs and benefits so taxpayers can decide if the scheme offers proper value.
There would be a number of areas a review would need to address. The Committee call for better analysis of “the policy context, the assessment of alternatives, the financial and economic case, the environmental impacts, connections to Heathrow and the justification for the particular route being proposed.”
The new line needs to be properly assessed against realistic alternatives like the plan set out by Chris Stokes for the local authority group 51M. The Committee accept that would meet forecast demand. They call for the economic case is updated on the basis of reduced crowding and a lower value for time savings. That update also needs to apply to alternative proposals.
What they don’t address seriously is all the ways that this project might lead to fresh demands for taxpayers’ money. They note that the London Underground won’t be able to cope with so many more passengers being routed into London Euston, but don’t properly reflect on the huge amounts that could add to the cost. They argue that new services on the current network could compensate for the reduction in services that places like Coventry and Stoke will face under the existing plans. But don’t ask what the bill will be to subsidise those trains (it will take a substantial subsidy to maintain a regular service when most passengers to Birmingham and beyond travel on the new high speed line) and how that can be reconciled with the existing budget including billions in cuts to existing services.
We looked at the potential additional costs in a research note. It is only possible to get a rough estimate without the resources available to the Government investigating this sort of decision. But we produced a research note with reasonable estimates. Meeting Ministers’ promises that towns and cities currently set to lose out won’t, and stopping rises in fares expected under current plans will increase the cost to taxpayers. So will burying parts of the line to address environmental concerns, and building new capacity to cope with the huge number of additional journeys being routed into Euston. Rail expert Chris Stokes estimates that would increase the cost to taxpayers alone from £17.1 billion to £45.5 billion.
And that’s leaving aside the potential problems with the demand forecast. The Committee cite how “some major transport schemes have proved to have had greater economic impacts than their pre-implementation appraisals predicted” but not how passenger forecasts are overestimated for nine out of ten rail projects. In most cases these lines don’t live up to their billing.
If Parliament doesn’t insist that Ministers either come clean about the true cost of HS2, or the many people who may get a worse service, MPs will have completely let down taxpayers. We can’t let this huge project go ahead without proper scrutiny. Politicians should be extremely careful about taxing the poor to pay for a rich man’s train.
Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, has splurged £4,000 on a back-slapping dinner for a new member of staff, Lib Dem councillors have claimed. According to Cllr Paul Shannon, Sir Richard issued 270 invitations to wine and dine Manchester’s ‘cultural elite’, with ‘supper amongst Ford Madox Brown’s Great Hall Murals’ to toast the appointment of a new head of the Council’s art gallery. Diners included former MP Lord Bradley, City councillors, the Lord Mayor and his wife, and council chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein. Taxpayers will be shocked that town halls still feel able to indulge in extravagant dinners at a time of supposed budget restraint.
For those familiar with the TPA’s research into council spending on award ceremonies, Sir Richard’s justification was typically self-congratulatory. This dinner on the taxpayer was ‘to celebrate the beginning of the innovative new partnership’ between the City and the University of Manchester. Sir Richard had negotiated a money-saving deal for both institutions’ art galleries to share a director, a practical response to the need to cut costs. But local government savings don’t need to be toasted with champagne.
This dinner is even more astonishing given Manchester is cutting £109 million from the budget this year. Sir Richard Leese has called the cuts ‘unpalatable’ and entirely blames the Government for the ‘financial position in which we have been placed’. Sir Richard has shirked responsibility for taking appropriate and necessary action to cut spending while wasting Manchester taxpayers’ money on an unnecessary dinner. He said he had no option but to cut 2,000 council jobs, but ending taxpayer-funded dinners would be a start.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Sir Richard Leese is out of touch. When asked whether his chief executive, Sir Howard Bernstein, would take a pay-cut (his 2009-10 remuneration was £232,326), he called it a ‘red herring’, a distraction. By his reckoning, it would hurt morale to cut pay for the council’s top brass, even while 2,000 council workers are being made redundant. Perhaps this was his rationale for putting on a lavish reception for Manchester’s cultural elite – he didn’t want to hurt their morale.
Sir Richard has been hoisted by his own petard. According to Lib Dem councillors he has demonstrated that he is free to spend without restraint. This kind of spending, like that in our award ceremonies paper, shows that councils do have some easy choices to make when it comes to making spending cuts. Councils can prioritise the services residents value most if they are willing to sacrifice elsewhere. Not everything can be blamed on the Government.