Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Obese Nanny Falls Down On Job

As usual, my good friend Doc Crippen has a refreshingly clear line. Go to him with a weight problem and he'll provide some counsel:

"There are ways of doing this.“Look, you fat slag, if you don’t diet you are going to die” is one approach, although not one I favour.

But sometimes you just have to say, “Look, I am sorry. You are seriously overweight. You are overweight because you eat too much. If you don’t do something about it you are going to damage your health. Please, please let us help.”

If only Nanny had such a straightforward approach. Sadly, she has taken responsibility on herself to sort out our weight problems for us, and in the process has turned the whole thing into another bloated ineffective public sector industry.

Take today's NAO Report on Tackling Child Obesity. It is a high profile issue, so the government naturally wants to be involved. As usual their response is to set a target, a so-called Public Service Agreement (PSA):

"To halt, by 2010, the year-on-year increase in obesity among children under 11 in the context of a broader strategy to tackle obesity in the population as a whole."

And as with all PSAs, somebody's got to "own" it. Clear accountability, right?

Wrong. "Ownership" of the obesity PSA is split three ways: the Department of Health (DH), the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). "A jointly-funded cross-departmental Obesity PSA Programme Manager has been appointed to support a Programme Board... Progress...is being monitored at Cabinet level by the Deputy Prime Minister."

So in some nebulous way- with responsibility already split three ways- the obesity programme is reporting to hi-fat hi-cal supersize Prezza, a man composed entirely of lard.

It gets worse.

"The natural lead rests with the DH. Many of the programmes supporting the PSA target are led, however, by the DfES, the DCMS, local authorities, schools and sports bodies, over which the DH has no direct control. Coordination has been made more difficult because the various organisational tiers of health, education and sport have not been aligned. PCTs are not always coterminous (sharing geographical boundaries) with local authorities. The education and sport sectors have no direct equivalent to the 28 SHAs that share responsibility."

Overall, there are five government departments, dozens of quangos, and hundreds of local bodies, all with a finger in the obesity pie. The whole spaghetti mess is charted in the excellent Times graphic reproduced above.

Unsurprising that after nearly two years, all we have is a working definition of obesity- and even that took 31 experts 18 months to produce (again, see the Doc for his bracing views on the DH's "interim obesity care pathway").

If you're saying "I smell costs", you'd be right: £235m on school meals initiatives, £459m on the "School Sport Strategy", £155m on the "Child Play Strategy", and £17m on the "Healthy Schools Programme"- getting on for £1bn up to now, with more in the pipeline.

Will it at least work?

Seems highly unlikely. Although of course, there's every reason to believe those 31 experts could revisit their definitions to exclude children who are BMI-disadvantaged by reason of being big-boned.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Why Can't Mrs T Be More Like Mrs M?

I keep telling Mrs T she should be more like Mrs Mills. I've lost count of the many opportunities to make ourselves millions we've let slip by, simply because she won't "maintain, where possible, a certain degree of privacy about the transactions".

In my view the little ladies shouldn't be bothering their pretty heads with the mundanities of international finance- particularly when said finance involves the murky exigencies of "tax management", and that tiresome trail of transactions through multiple offshore accounts in Switzerland, the Caribbean and Gibraltar. It's just not their forte.

Take Major Frobisher's excellent scheme for leveraged tax reclaim enhancement contracts, arranged by renowned fiscal advisor Dr Leontief, whom God preserve, of the Netherlands Antilles. We just needed Mrs T to sign the second mortgage deed so we could line up the back-to-back Zloty facility with the First National Bank of East Curacao. All perfectly straightforward, as I assured Mrs T.

But would she do it? I tried. The Major tried. Even the good Doctor tried (obviously he could only try by phone because of that ridiculous misunderstanding with the Inland Revenue). In the end I had to let it pass. Infuriating.

So you can imagine how I envy Mr Mills. When he asked Mrs M to sign up on a new mortgage in the interests of tax efficient hedge fund repatriation, she did it without question. Without question, Mrs T. And when asked if Mrs M had been financially involved, he said “If I say to her that I am borrowing money for the short term, which it was, she trusts me enough to know I am doing what I say I am doing.”

Now that's the way marriage should work. No questions; no "but where's this offshore money actually coming from , and shouldn't you declare it to the tax paople, and what happens if our home gets repossessed?" No, none of that. Just simple trust.

Mrs T, take note.

Recent Bonfires- 5

In the news this week:

£600m pa wasted in magistrates' courts- "More than one in three magistrates' court cases fail to proceed on any given day because of needless adjournments... magistrates, who deal with most legal cases, are paralysed by delays and inefficiency. In one telling example, a judge at Manchester city magistrates finally lost patience after adjourning a case for the 10th time: "This is not in the interests of justice. The public are paying for this, it is costing a fortune and it is wrong." The annual cost to the taxpayer - based on the National Audit Office's costing for an ineffective hearing - would be £600 million." ( Sunday Telegraph 26.02.06)

£18m pa on yet more consultants- "HM Revenue & Customs is hiring £1,000-a-day management consultants to carry out tasks performed by its own staff for just £120 a day. Between 70 and 80 consultants are being hired to work as business analysts...An insider has revealed that the practice was being blamed on the Gershon Review: "Under Gershon's manpower cuts we are not allowed to hire staff but the work's still there and it's got to be done. So it gets done by consultants who get paid between £700 and £1,000 a day. The Revenue staffers they sit next to get paid [typically] £120 a day." ( Sunday Telegraph 26.02.06)

New £996m NHS IT system "breaks down"- "The child health information system, introduced last summer as part of the government's £7 billion NHS IT programme, has derailed the country's entire vaccination programme, leaving health staff resorting to slips of paper to work out who needs immunising. Several women whose babies were stillborn have received letters asking them to take their babies for their first vaccinations. Childhood vaccine expert Professor Brent Taylor said last night that the situation was 'unbelievable...We are talking here about children in some of the most deprived communities who have not received the jabs they need to protect them from life-threatening illness. This situation...has the makings of the biggest NHS computer scandal ever.' (Observer 26.02.06)

Total for the week: £1,614 millions

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Costs Of Failing Schools

Following our blog on headteachers, I've been taking a further look at the NAO report Improving poorly performing schools in England.

You will recall this shocking finding:

"As at July 2005, there were 1,557 poorly performing schools in England, which represented around 4 per cent of primary schools and 23 per cent of secondary schools. These 1,557 schools educate around 980,000 pupils, or 13 per cent of the school population."

Clearly it is an outrage that so many of our children will never achieve their full potential simply because failing state schools deny them a proper education. But setting that on one side, what is this failure costing us taxpayers?

To start with, there's the basic cost of the failing schools themselves. In 2004-05, English schools received £25bn, so 13% is £3.25bn.

Then there's the cost of all the special measures directed at these schools in an attempt to stop them failing. According to the NAO, in 2004-05 that amounted to another £837m.

Then there's the government's academy programme, which replaces failing schools with flashy new Norman Foster corporate HQ style...er, academies. In 2004-05, that cost another £160m in development costs alone.

So the costs highlighted by the NAO total £4.25bn. In one year alone.

Bad enough you might think, but it doesn't stop there. For one thing, it seems those costly "special measures" often don't work. The NAO report notes: "40 per cent of schools that recovered [from special measures] in the mid‑1990s have since closed, and about 5 per cent of more recently recovered schools closed soon after recovery." And even those flashy academies look shaky: "it is too early to be clear on whether the programme will be good value for money. There have been difficulties at some academies (in particular, the Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough is in Special Measures)." The Unity Academy only opened in 2002.

Then there's the cost of trying to rectify the damage once these failed kids have left their failing schools. Many studies have shown that perhaps a quarter of the population have very poor literacy and numeracy that, among other things, limits their employability.

Which is increasingly cited by the government as the principle reason for spending another £9bn pa for further education colleges to teach "skills". As we've blogged before, these are often not "skills" in the sense of learning plumbing or hairdressing They're much more basic skills, like the 3Rs, that should have been taught at school years before. Cost of this rectification work (which often fails because it is too late)? Let's be conservative and say it's only half the "Skills" budget. Equals £4.5bn pa.

So we've now reached a running total of £8.75bn. Annually.

And frankly, we haven't really even started. What about the loss of future tax revenue flowing from the inability of these millions of failed pupils to earn to their full potential? What about the additional costs of welfare provision?

Once again, top-down state provision is both costing us a fortune AND failing the vulnerable group it's meant to help.

As a matter of urgency the government should abandon its costly schools patch-up programme. Instead it should encourage more private provision by offering parents with children at failing schools a voucher to move to a school of their choice. Just like they're doing so successfully in Milwaukee and elsewhere.

Neither we taxpayers nor the failed kids can afford to go on like this.

Order Of The Day: All Defeatists And Cowards Will Be Shot

NHS management training course

Anyone who has read Anthony Beevor's excellent Stalingrad will know how today's NHS works. There must be no surrender! There will be no surrender! Panic mongers, defeatists, and cowards will be shot!

No surprise then at Order Of The Day No. 427, issued by Field Marshal Comrade Sir Nigel Crisp, acting under special authority from CPO Commissar Hewitt herself. In a last-ditch death or glory bid to control those ballooning NHS deficits (see here and here), he has told heads of 28 strategic health authorities that he holds them personally responsible for halting all discretionary NHS spending. The Order calls for "drastic action by noon on Monday", and reads:

"The position has further deteriorated and Sir Nigel requires immediate action by each and every NHS organisation to redress this. There can be no exceptions. We need you to secure from every PCT and NHS trust a plan to materially improve the position for month 11 and 12 [February and March], signed off by the organisation's chief executive."

The memo, signed by Duncan Selby, director of programmes and performance, called on all trusts expecting a financial balance to achieve a surplus to help make good the deficits in other parts of the service. He called for "a forensic, immediate grip on avoiding all discretionary spend by everyone".

What counts as "discretionary spending" is of course a moot point. We know the Hospital Trust covering the Commissar's own constituency thought that paying council rates might be discretionary- that is, until the bailiffs smashed down their front-door to put them right (we presume the Chief Exec of that trust is now reflecting on his position in the Lubyanka). Other trusts are almost certainly considering the postponement of wage payments, particularly since at least one has already been forced to run up credit card debt to cover them.

But with the prospect of getting shot to concentrate the mind, it's patient care that is the most discretionary expendable item. Which is why all over the country, heart ops and other such fripperies are being canned. Don't on any account get sick before 6 April.

So how big are these deficits? 'A department spokesman refused to disclose the scale of the deficit forecast by trusts at the end of January. NHS sources suggested, however, that overspending had increased since Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, told MPs in December that the service was heading for a net deficit of £623m in 2004-05.' Most independent estimates reckon it's a billion or more. Both figures are way over the £200m Sir Nigel last year said would be "acceptable".

We've blogged before about how on earth it can be possible for all those extra NHS billions to produce a scary life-threatening shambles like this. Quite simply it reflects the grotesque failure of top-down central planning, and responsibility lies with the those at the top. Labour and the NHS bureaucrats have talked the language of devolved authority, choice and markets, but as always, they've failed to enact the means.

In many repects their "planned markets" approach has produced the worst of both worlds. For example, as the FT reports today, "the Department of Health has had to withdraw a price list that was to be used from April to pay hospitals for the treatments they undertake" because they have found "underlying errors". That's very serious indeed, since the tariff is the cornerstone of the NHS healthcare market- if say, the the prices hospitals get paid to carry out heart ops are too low, well, guess what, they won't be able to afford to do them. Which is exactly what happened at the John Radcliffe, and doubtless many other hospitals (as always, see the excellent Doc Crippen for more such lunacies).

After the German army had reached the suburbs of Moscow, Stalin eventually realised he had to devolve more authority to his field commanders. Sadly, we're still some way from that with the NHS.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Unintended Consequences- School Choice

We've blogged before about the Law of Unintended Consequences. That's where government enacts measures to "fix" one problem without regard for the knock-on consequences elsewhere.

The housing market is rife with such knock-ons: overly restrictive planning rules that limit supply and drive up prices, thereby pricing out "key workers"; punitive rates of Stamp Duty that discourage house moves, thereby progressively hobbling labour mobility; and the one that's in the news again this morning- school places "non-selectively" allocated by catchment area, with good schools then driving up local house prices, thereby excluding the poorer kids the allocation rule was supposed to help.

According to today's YouGov survey "parents are prepared to pay up to £43,000 extra for a house in the catchment area of a good state school. Parents in London and Scotland are willing to pay the most, while high earners are more likely to regard moving to a good catchment area as a worthwhile investment."

This confirms the results of previous studies. Last year Hometrack analysed "property price changes in the catchment areas of the ten most improved schools in England since 2001" and found "average property prices in the ten catchment areas have soared by 76 per cent since 2001, while in the surrounding areas, prices have only risen by 39 per cent. The most marked difference was seen at Sir John Cass Foundation and Redcoat Church of England Secondary School in Stepney Way, London, where property prices inside the catchment area soared by £77,718 compared to only £23,300 outside the area - a mammoth £54,418 difference."

As Tony blathers on yet again about "doing the right thing for the country" over school choice, you really have to wonder if any of this has percolated through to him. Of course, it will be tough for him to comprehend- with his £3.5m house Up West, a few measly quid to get your kids into Sir John Cass probably seems trivial. But down on Stepney Way, 54 grand is real money.

Government insistence on "non-selective" admissions policy means that Sir John Cass, and other improving state schools like it, are increasingly admitting children on the basis of parental means rather than ability. Just like those flagship comprehensives, with their affluent middle-class catchments, have always done. And those able kids whose parents cannot afford to buy in will increasingly pay the price.

Now, is that what we want? Cos that's what we're getting.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Buying Votes

Fraser Nelson has an excellent article in today's Spectator on state dependency:

"The secret to everlasting left-wing government was discovered in Sweden decades ago. First raise tax and employ as much of the electorate as possible. Next, offer generous welfare and bribe the middle classes with childcare. Soon, a critical mass of voters becomes part of the government project, and votes for its expansion. Higher private sector earners may squeal at the tax rates, but are easily outnumbered. Eventually the right-wing opposition grows tired of losing elections, and starts pledging to outspend the government, if elected. Then victory is complete."

He's crunched the numbers to show just how far vote buying has come:
  • 52% of the electorate now state beneficiaries: "state employees (15 per cent of the electorate), the out-of-work and on welfare (11 per cent), benefit-dependent pensioners (18 per cent) and pensioners with independent means (8 per cent)".
  • One in four employed people now works for the government: "The official count of 5.8 million state workers leaves out the likes of university staff, GPs and anyone who is subcontracted. Include them, and the true figure is 6.8 million people — a staggering 784,000 more than there were in 1997".
  • 4.51 million out of work and on benefits: "At 5.1 per cent of the workforce — 870,000 people — Britain’s official claimant count is about half French and German levels. But this is just a tiny part of a far larger story. Among those not included in the unemployment figures are the 2.7 million on incapacity benefit, some 790,000 on lone parent benefit, and other schemes like the carers’ allowance".
  • Pensioners on benefit: "The Department for Work and Pensions calculates that more than two thirds are now dependent on benefits for half their income".

With our escalating tax bill, this is clearly unsustainable. But for obvious electoral reasons, Nelson is gloomy about the prospect of the Tories gripping the problem. While it's true that just seven of the 200 most welfare dependent constituencies are Tory, the party has to win outside the heartlands. No wonder Nelson concludes: "Thatcher declared that New Labour was her greatest legacy and the Prime Minister can step down knowing his victory has been just as profound: to have Cameron abandon the quest for small government and join him in pushing forward the frontiers of the state".

Which means there's really no alternative. Break out those pitchforks and scythes- we peasants are marching to the Palace to make our voices heard.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Jobs From Hell: State School Headteacher

The National Audit Office recently published a report entitled Improving poorly performing schools in England. It makes grim reading:

"As at July 2005, there were 1,557 poorly performing schools in England, which represented around 4 per cent of primary schools and 23 per cent of secondary schools. These 1,557 schools educate around 980,000 pupils, or 13 per cent of the school population."

Much of the state education establishment predictably responded by telling us to "celebrate" that 87% of pupils aren't in underperforming schools. But after nearly a decade of "Education, Education, Education", and all that money, this is an outright scandal.

What's to be done? The NAO has no doubt about the number one requirement in turning around a failing school: "Improving school leadership – Around two-thirds of schools that recover from Ofsted categories change their headteacher...the headteacher is key to sustaining performance and improvement in any school...a challenging and vital role."

An observation that accords with most professional opinion, as well as common sense. However, in its usual measured way, the NAO also identifies a serious problem:

"The numbers of appropriately experienced people applying for headteacher posts are generally falling, despite salary increases and the introduction of the National Professional Qualification for Headship, and there are concerns that it could be difficult to replace the large numbers of headteachers approaching retirement over the next five to ten years. In 2004-05, 28 per cent of primary and 20 per cent of secondary schools had headteacher vacancies."

Prof John Howson, Britain's leading authority on teacher recruitment, sees a growing crisis. He produces an annual report on senior staff appointments, including his "re-advertisement ratio"- the extent to which schools are forced to re-advertise headships because they are unable to attract suitable candidates in the first place. Ten years ago the re-advertisement ratio for secondary headships was 15%: by last year it had more than doubled, to 36%. He says:

"The school year 2004/05 has proved to one where re-advertisement ratios reached record levels for almost all types of schools and in many parts of the country. The levels recorded represent a labour market that is in some state of crisis."

Now, why might this be happening? Best ask the Heads themselves:

‘The initiatives that have crossed heads’ desks over the past 12 months...Primary and secondary strategies on literacy and numeracy, healthy school meals, personalised learning, workload reform, restructuring of teachers’ management allowances, enterprise education – the list goes on and on. 'It’s just one damned thing after another,’ says one head. ‘My staff see me trying to cope with all this rubbish on a daily basis, who can blame them if they decide to stay in the classroom.’

Or to put it another way, our "educational expert" politicans have interfered and micro-managed to such an extent that headships are now jobs from Hell: classic meat-in-the-sandwich middle management dogsbody box-ticking lick-spittle mixed metaphor political footballs.

Who in their right mind would want to do that?

No, there is only one way forward. The only way of attracting and retaining sufficient top quality headteachers is to give them authority over their own schools. Politicians should take themselves out of the loop, and the choice of schools should be left to parents and pupils (see eg Reform).

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

BUMQAs- Disability Rights Commission

Over at The Outside Story there's a new BUMQA nominee- the £15m pa Disability Rights Commission. Mark's moving citation focuses on their new ad campaign (above):

"DRC is an "independent" government body, placing an ad which is clearly designed to lobby government. In fact the DRC claims that one of its jobs is to campaign "to strengthen the law". This is not about raising awareness amongst employers (which might in itself constitute pushing an agenda), this is outright lobbying of voters in favour the government's point of view. £15m quid for government to lobby itself. Surely there are better uses of taxpayers money than this."

Mark, there surely are.

Local Government: Follow The Money

Local government minister and Labour leadership second favourite (now 7/1) David Miliband has been twittering about narrowing "society's power gap":

"He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We need to address the feeling that people want more control over their lives. I call this the power gap." He pressed for "double devolution" - moving power not only from the state to local government but also from local councils to neighbourhoods, using the voluntary sector."

This of course is Grade A Crapspeak, underlined by the fact that the appalling Milburn has been opining on the same subject:

"Empowering citizens is the modern route to social justice. Subsidiarity - having power located at the lowest possible level - should be the guiding principle."

To start with, it's laughably obvious that they're only saying it to counter one of Dave Cameron's Big Ideas.

Second, this subsidiarity stuff only works if you also devolve the money. No less than 75% of local authority funding now comes from the Treasury, and as we all know, he who pays the piper always calls the tune. The only way of securing real localism is to return real fiscal authority to local government.

And there are a number of practical ways this could be done. One of the easiest would be a Local Sales Tax (LST), as proposed by Direct Democracy last summer:

"LST would visibly replace an existing levy. By happy coincidence, the amount of money raised for the Treasury by VAT (£64 billion) happens to be almost identical to the grant given by Whitehall to town halls (£66 billion). LST would therefore not simply be an additional impost; it would allow for the scrapping of a complex and unpopular tax. It would encourage tax competition. Local authorities would have an incentive to lower their rates so as to attract custom and thus boost their revenues."

Did M and M mention anything about that? Did they hell.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Living The Future

Government e-Champions

Fellow e-citizens! As you all know, today is 51 pe.

Such a lot has happened since the Beloved Leader's Special Information Age Cabinet six years ago. Who can forget the moment when- flanked by CPO Commissar Hewitt and E-Government Minister Ian "Brains" McCartney- he ascended the People's dot. com Pulpit to inspire us with his breathtaking vision:

"I want the UK to be the world's leading Internet economy...so I am bringing forward our target for getting all Government services online to 2005...people and businesses will be able to access Government services 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Then of course, e-government was just an distant dream. Today we are living the glorious reality. 51 days since e-day, when all our dreams came true!

S0 shame then on those moaning minnies and mischief makers who will do anything to find fault.

People like Raw Carrot, who is pursuing the issue with an informed zeal that frankly has no place in e-government. For example, he reckons the E-Citizen National Project website is an expensive flop: "each visitor to the site costs more than £7, each post to the forum costs in excess of £1,000, and for £900,000 they learned that professional targeted marketing is the best way to professionally target marketing." He reckons it gets fewer hits than his own blog, which only cost him 35p.

That's clearly ludicrous- it would mean that a cornerstone e-government site designed to...er, get us using other e-government sites, is an expensive flop. Put together by incompetents- a patently laughable notion.

Of course, we do accept another of Carrot's points, that actually only 97% of government has been e-enabled. The Deputy Prime Minister told us that, so it must be true. But we find it very difficult to believe that the remaining 3% comprises all the hard stuff, and that the 97% is only a list of phone numbers telling you who to call for more info. We think Carrot is trying to make mischief.

And what about another moaner- drawn to my attention by Guido- one Sam Smith. For some reason Sam and his mates decided to test the government's bespoke DirectGov information search engine against their own DirectionlessGov which just uses Google:

"In a direct comparison early in 2005, 75% of users, when shown results of search queries side by side, selected a result from Google (limited to .gov.uk domains) over the specialised £4.4m portal direct.gov.uk"

So Google's better than direct.gov- I ask you, what's that supposed to prove? Smith's comparing the tried and tested technology of the world's very best internet search engine with something lashed together in conditions of utmost secrecy by government e-Champions under the direction of "Brains" McCartney. Hardly a fair comparison I suggest.

I rest my case.

Reality Check: e-government as implemented in the UK is little more than another hugely expensive PR stunt. A recent report from the Adam Smith Institute concludes the "strategy is fragmented and producer driven, will never deliver its full potential benefits to the public", and compares very poorly with the approach followed in other countries, such as Estonia.

So what's it cost us? As always, government figures are scarce. However, one estimate in 2004 from Kable, a research company which tracks public sector ICT spending, put the cost at £7.4 billion up to 2006. "Since 2001, the e-government gusher has been spouting at an average rate of £1.5bn a year. Central government's share of the total will be some £4.4bn, local government £3bn." But the Kable figures don't include education, health and defence.

A more recent siting shot comes from Society of IT Management’s annual IT Trends survey published in December. "Months before the local e-Government programme in England draws to a close in April 2006, the survey report says that local councils have spent in excess of £13bn on ICT over the past five years, an increase in resources of £2bn after taking account of inflation. Spending in 2005/6 has risen by 23% to £3.3 billion pa."

Which suggests the Kable figure needs updating. Overall it seems unlikely we taxpayers got much change out of £10bn. And that's just for a few simple departmental and local authority informational websites that nobody actually needs. Once you start to go after interactivity in areas that people really do need- ie real government- you start getting into the sort of horror we're facing with the £50bn NPfIT programme for the NHS.

Please. Let's just stop now. We can't afford any more future.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Recent Bonfires- 4

In the news this week:

£57m pa lost on drop-out nurses- "A quarter of trainee nurses quit their courses before completion, costing the taxpayer £57 million a year. Information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act indicates a much higher drop-out rate than figures quoted by the Government. In some courses, leaving rates were as high as 50 per cent. The average attrition across diploma and degree courses was 24.8 per cent, compared with a Government figure of 16 per cent. Training is estimated to cost £11,479 a year per nurse, including their bursary." (Daily Telegraph 15.02.06)

£90m wasted on new BBC buildings- "The Public Accounts Committee accuses the BBC of giving "excessive returns" to a private property consortium for three new buildings, a broadcast centre, media centre and an energy centre - using waste energy to heat the entire complex. The BBC paid out an extra £31m to accept the £210m Land Securities tender over the nearest shortlisted bidder, then spent another £60.9m fitting out the building with state-of-the-art technology and furniture. But the buildings were commissioned before the BBC decided to cut staff... A year after the buildings were completed, 22.5% of the offices were empty...the energy centre has been left as a shell. Plans for the green combined heat and power scheme have still not been commissioned... The corporation is also accused of letting some space at subsidised rents to a commercial subsidiary, BBC Broadcast Ltd, which breaks the rules of the BBC charter." (Guardian 14.02.06)

£55m pa wasted on court failures- "More than £55 million a year is being wasted by police and prosecutors because hearings in magistrates' courts do not go ahead as planned, the National Audit Office says. The fault is shared equally between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. Insufficient evidence is the most common cause of delay for which the CPS is responsible, accounting for four cases in every 10 that fail to go ahead as scheduled. For example, a defendant charged with throwing a missile during a football match was said by police to have been recorded on CCTV. It took a year to establish that the recording did not exist. Three delays out of 10 were caused by prosecutors' failure to take action. The audit office quotes a case in which the CPS failed to establish that the police had lost contact with a complainant and allowed the case to proceed for another three months until the trial date, when the proceedings were finally dismissed after 10 hearings." (Daily Telegraph 15.02.06)

£412m pa squandered on "April Fool" arts projects- "Among dozens of projects the Arts Council has chosen to fund with public money... a project about the "Israeli occupation of Palestine"- it gave the artist Catherine Yass £24,442 to film a journey along the Israeli/Palestinian border. Taxi-onomy, which apparently explores the black cab's capacity for "metro processing and spatial understanding", received £5,000. One would-be writer was given £4,600 so he could spend nine months in Buenos Aires "trying to get under the skin of the city". Another artist was given £1,750 to spend seven weeks in Paraguay studying lace, while a disabled artist from Bamako in Mali was given £4,995 to travel to Britain to teach "young offenders" and children how "to dye cloth using river mud". (Sunday Telegraph 19.02.06)

Total for the week- £614 millions

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Another £770m On Grandstanding Fascisti

"This is not really about sport. When the iron curtain fell I never thought that Britain, of all nations, would take up the mantle of the East Germans, Czechs and Romanians by nationalising its Olympic team for the sake of political prestige. I never thought that the home of "play up, play up and play the game" would adopt the sporting chauvinism of Ceausescu and Honecker, including the proto-fascist talk of "national heroes" and multimillion-pound elite training camps.

An obsession with sporting excellence (as with military prowess) is a feature of authoritarian regimes. Public money is blown so the leader can bask for a couple of weeks in a handsome stadium and thrill as burnished bodies, muscles rippling, bring to his feet literally piles of gold. He and they shower each other with honours. The standard rises slowly up the pole and the stadium echoes to the national anthem. Is it to this that Blairism has been reduced?"

Apart from omitting the obvious prototype, this time Sir Simon has hit the nail on the head.

And now that their secret plans have been leaked, we can all read exactly what SS-Totenkopf Standarte “UKSport” intend. They want to spend- sorry, invest- £110,457,000 of taxpayers' money every year for seven years on developing an elite cadre of Olympic super-heroes. Why £110,457,000 rather than say £110,458,000? Ah, that's because:

"UK Sport has developed a sophisticated investment model to determine the level of additional funding required...it is logical, measurable, and scalable."

Of course! The appliance of science. Why didn't we think of that before? We now know that £110,457,000 will put us into fourth medal place, compared to tenth in the last five Olympics, and our best showing since 1924. Simple as that.

I know what you're thinking: if we now understand how all this works, why stop at fourth? Why not first? After all, if £110,457,000 can lift us from tenth to fourth, then...let me see...simple scaling- assuredly well within the capability of a sophisticated model- tells us we could rise another four places at an additional cost of only £73,638,000. Brilliant!

Who was that bloke that used to go on about "the lights of perverted science"?

PS Our primer on prospective 2012 Olympics costs is here.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Law Of Unintended Consequences

One of the reasons government wastes so much of our money is that so many of its actions have inintended consequences. Chronically poor planning and execution are partly to blame, but more fundamentally, governments are driven too much by what makes a good headline, rather than by what is realistically achievable.

The Gershon Efficiency Programme is a classic case in point. It was initiated by Mr Brown as yet another attempt to convince us those extra billions of taxes are being used productively- whatever the evidence of our own eyes. And although it will doubtless be made to deliver its headline targets, as today's stinging critique from the National Audit Office demonstrates, it will do so only because of massive data manipulation and at the cost of some serious unintended consequences (for more on the NAO report, see here).

To start with, it's pretty clear that most of the "gains" will actually come not from improved efficiency but from a diminution of service levels. As the NAO says "there were still significant risks that efficiencies were not being measured accurately and in many cases departments could not be sure that service quality had not deteriorated as a result of efficiency-related reforms". So for example, it's easy to see how the NHS efficiency programme "to increase the proportion of elective surgery conducted as day surgery" almost certainly represents a cut in service levels to patients (wonder what the Doc thinks) .

None of which would have been intended by Mr Brown, but it's happening anyway.

Also happening are the extraordinary contortions of individual departments as they struggle to make their targeted "gains". So for example, the Department for Work and Pensions boasts of reducing manpower by 14,215- roughly halfway to it's 30,000 target. Very good. Except that we now learn the target only applies to permanent staff. Which has presumably produced the unintended consequence of another substantial increase in the numbers of temporary staff (we don't actually know because the figures for temps apparently aren't included in the DWP's returns).

This is a particularly galling consequence since the employment of expensive agency temps has long been a source of huge government waste. Poor planning, poor management, and the need to operate within arbitrary staff budgeting rules like Gershon's, all produce high staff turnover, with temps hired on a virtually continuous basis to fill the gaps.

A stunning measure of how bad things are is that whereas government employs around 20% of Britain's workforce, it accounts for 50% of the temporary labour market. At an overall cost to taxpayers of £12bn pa!

How do we know this? Why, the Gershon Review told us, and what's more, it promised to do something about it!

As always, the only long-term solution to such idiocies is to cut the size of government. Drastically.

NAO: Brown's Bogus Efficiency Gains

We've blogged before (eg here and here) about the dodgy arithmetic behind Gordo's bogus claim to be well advanced with those Gershon efficiency savings. It now transpires the National Audit Office agrees with us 110%:

"The Government's reported efficiency gains totalling £4.7 billion... should be regarded as provisional and subject to further verification, given the degree of risk that efficiencies may not be measured accurately."

Well, as we all know, anything this government tells us always needs "verification" from somebody else. Whether it's the Comptroller and Auditor General, the United Nations Weapons Inspector, or Lord Archer, any source will be more reliable than the government.

And behind its diplomatic language, this two volume NAO report is a stinging critique of the whole Gershon process:
  • Baselines- "There is not always a justification for the baselines selected by projects...there have been difficulties in establishing baselines...58 per cent of efficiency projects...did not include information on the baselines against which changes in inputs and outputs would be measured."
  • Costs- "There is inconsistency over whether planned efficiency gains are net or gross of upfront capital investment costs and ongoing expenditure such as maintenance... departments can report efficiency gains gross... most efficiency projects do not currently take account of additional costs."
  • Outputs- "...inconsistencies in how effectively projects are measuring quality of output. If no quality measures are in place, the reported efficiency might otherwise be simply a cut to services...efficiencies from improving the quality of services without a proportional rise in inputs (accounting for one-third of all targeted "gains")...need to measure quality of output before and after".
  • Double-counting gains and cost shifting-"...measurement systems currently in place are not sufficiently detailed to guarantee that the risk of double counting is being mitigated."
  • Data quality- "Departments need to improve the robustness of data quality assurance...well known and long-standing limitations in departments’ data systems and the robustness of their management information systems...mean that their ability to measure changes in output quantity and quality as well as inputs still lags behind."
  • Dependence on IT- "The public sector has yet to demonstrate that it can consistently deliver successful IT programmes. Nevertheless, at least £3.2 billion (15 per cent) of the efficiency gains target is dependent on projects needing new or upgraded ICT systems."
  • Staff numbers- "Of the staff reductions so far, 56 per cent are attributable to the Department for Work and Pensions...but... agency staff and contractors employed by the Department are not accounted for within the Department’s staff figures."
  • Programme leadership- "There was a difficult transition from the Gershon Review to the Efficiency Programme...high turnover among key staff...support has taken longer to materialise".

So to summarise, here we have another ill-planned government wheeze- designed primarily to grab headlines- with no defined startpoint, no defined route, no signposts, and no leadership.

In other words, more of the same.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

£9bn Further Education Waste Continues

Britain's Further Education system is a disgrace. Under the aegis of the Learning and Skills Council we taxpayers shell out £9bn pa on the flimsy premise that our FE colleges will "close our skills gap"- training the manpower to staff the businesses to compete in the global economy.

But as we blogged previously, the reality is that most businesses prefer to arrange their own training even though it costs them £20bn pa of their own money. That's because "publicly funded training lacks relevance and flexibility to companies’ training needs", is costly for what it is, and college staff are seen as "academics rather than business-focused trainers".

Now the Public Accounts Committee has probed the overall FE management stucture and found a bureaucratic nightmare. Main points:
  • 500 (yes 500) separate organisations involved in strategy and delivery: "some 400 colleges, 47 local Learning and Skills Councils, nine Regional Development Agencies, nine Regional Skills Partnerships and 25 Sector Skill Councils."
  • At least 7,000 governors, council-members and other assorted chiefs.
  • Multiplicity of separate inspection regimes: "Adult Learning Inspectorate...Ofsted... the Learning and Skills Council’s assurance team...a separate review and compliance examination...plus an annual external audit."

No wonder the PAC reckons 29% of colleges have "unsatisfactory self-assessment schemes"- ie they've completely lost track of what they're supposed to be doing- and 35 colleges are so bad they need to be closed down forthwith.

The entire sector is a shambles and the conclusion remains the same: privatisation. Skills training should be left to the market, both ensuring the right business focus and saving us taxpayers £9bn pa.

Pic: Hogarth The Idle Apprentice

More Lies Over Identity Cards

As the government bulldozes us into identity cards, let us set aside the civil liberties issue: this scheme is also shaping up to be a major public expenditure scandal.

The government's own cost figures were reiterated by Charles Clarke in the Commons this week:

"Our estimate of the average annual operating costs of issuing passports and ID cards...is £584 million. Those costs will be met in the main by fees rather than by a call on public funds. I think the figure will end up being less than £584 million, although I think that is a firm and strong estimate."

In thinking this ludicrously precise number a "firm and strong estimate", Mr Clarke and his colleagues are virtually alone. By far the most rigorous external estimate was produced by the LSE, "a six month study guided by a steering group of 14 professors and involving extensive consultations with nearly 100 industry representatives, experts and researchers from the UK and around the world". It concluded that the true cost range is £10.6 to £19.3 billion, reflecting substantial uncertainties both in technology and operation.

Why the huge difference? One factor is that the government's estimate is just the annual operating cost, rather than the total cost. Expressing costs in that way is peculiar, and contrary to accepted practice in project decision-making. Moreover, while you could compound the annual figures to produce an overall capitalised cost, the Home Office's "operating costs" appear to exclude large chunks of initial set-up expense. They also exclude knock-on costs for other government departments, which again will be big.

Neither do we know what contingencies have been costed in. The government's record in delivering major IT projects is appalling: over half fail altogether, and "since 2001, four major projects in four Departments have gone seriously wrong; their collective budget was about £9 billion and they overran by £33.9 billion—nearly £34 billion" (HOC 13 February).

What's more, in the case of ID cards, many outside experts question the suitability of the technology itself. Respected cryptography and privacy specialist Professor Stefan Brands says many experts are "astonished" at the government's approach, while Jerry Fishenden, Microsoft's national technology officer for the UK, reckons the proposed national database would be a highly attractive target for hackers, leading to "massive identity fraud on a scale beyond anything we have seen before." No wonder the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers magazine has branded the whole project a "loser".

We hardly need to be techies to understand that loser technology is expensive technology. We've seen that time and time again with crackpot government projects. They have to be fixed and modified as they go along, and while they generally never work as originally hoped, the cost sky-rockets.

So what's the government allowing here?

We have absolutely no idea. We have no idea about how the government has reached its figure because it refuses to tell us. Instead they mumble about "commercial confidentiality" and refer us to their Regulatory Impact Assessment. But all that says is that cost "is estimated at £584m...at 2005/06 prices and including allowances for contingency, optimism bias and non-recoverable VAT".

Incredibly, outrageously, that's all we get. Along with an unsettling open-ended statement that "some set-up costs will be incurred after the first ID cards/biometric passports are issued." Well, quite- but is that millions or billions? As mere taxpayers, we're not to be told.

Thus the LSE's estimates- spelled out in an impressively detailed 300 page report- are our only true guide. And they gain added credibility from the reaction of ministers: rather than engaging with the argument, they responded to the LSE's report by launching a series of gutter attacks on its authors: 'mad', 'technically incompetent', 'absurd', 'fabrication', and 'highly partisan', is just a sample of the bile.

Naturally, the academics were stunned at being the target of such bare-knuckle politics, and have issued another report to refute the charges. But we taxpayers can draw the proper conclusion.

We should be very angry about the ID cards project. Not only are the government's claims of likely benefits grossly overstated (see previous post), but there has been a systematic attempt to conceal from us the full extent of its prospective costs.

So let us take a moment to remember the figure: £584m pa to "be met in the main by fees rather than by a call on public funds."

This is the benchmark against which we will calibrate the government's deceit.

Cartoon: Steve Bell

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Still Stuck In The Cones

When Labour came to power, they had a great idea for cutting Britain's chronic traffic congestion without actually building any more roads. In 1997 Two-Jags Prezza famously promised to get us all to switch onto public transport: "I will have failed in this if in five years’ time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it”. And he accompanied his promise with a total moratorium on road building, since obviously new roads were no longer needed.

Unfortunately, his "plan" turned out to be yet another warm gobful of New Labour Piffle, and the Fatuous Liar later denied ever having promised it at all. No surprise that once Prez was eventually moved out the way, his successor was forced to execute a spectacular U-turn on road building with a new £7bn-plus programme.

None of which stopped the subsequent stream of similarly vacuous "initiatives" and general blurtings, all supposedly to reduce traffic congestion without building more roads. Which brings us to the latest plan just announced by Alistair Darling- a plan so formless that even the Department for Transport admits 'that the Government would be able to claim that it had beaten the target even if congestion worsened'.

The fact is that since Prezza's Promise to cut it, road traffic is up by another 11% and congestion is even worse. And despite spending almost £2bn pa of our money the Highways Agency seems incapable of improving the situation.

The HA is yet another of government's particularly hopeless bits. You will be well aware of its activities in coning off large sections of motorway during busy periods. But you may be unaware of its star appearances in numerous damning audit reports. Here are a few snippets from last year's Public Accounts Committee Report:

"...too risk averse in testing out and adopting measures used abroad to tackle congestion, falling behind... Greater leadership and innovation required... managed trials poorly, contributing to inconclusive results....unable to prove individual business cases for many of the traffic management measures...failed to give motorists the information they need... has given insufficient attention to changing driver behaviour. Message signs not up-to-date...technology strategy not well integrated...not targeted... failing to install appropriate technology...needs to improve its intelligence about planned events.."

Advice to travellors remains the same: pack a blanket, Thermos and sandwiches, and if at all possible use a private toll road.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Recent Bonfires- 3

In the news this week:

£5bn pensions payout- "The government may have to pay more than £5 billion in compensation after a 15-month investigation by the parliamentary ombudsman into the plight of workers who have lost their pensions. A report by Ann Abraham, delivered to the government last month, is understood to accuse ministers and officials of a catalogue of mistakes and of misleading the public and parliament. The report found the government “guilty of maladministration”. The...bill for compensation could be the biggest so far, exceeding the £4 billion paid out over BSE." ( Sunday Times 12.02.06)

£600m pa Arts Council waste- Even Culture Minister David Lammy now agrees: 'It's got to slim down...The record sums of public investment we have made in the arts have not led to a higher profile for the arts in the public's mind'. The body must be 'more than a passive cash machine, doling out money'. The Council blew £581m in 2004/05. ( Observer 12.02.06)

£11m on failed young offenders scheme- "a government study...found no evidence of long-term improvements in the behaviour, literary and numeracy of the young people, or of a reduction in their offending in the year after completing mentoring programmes. Although the chief advantage of the scheme was supposed to be low cost, each one cost between £7,000 and £26,000". ( Times 6.02.06)

Total for the week- £5.6 billions.

PS All three of these areas are notorious for government waste, and we will be returning to them soon.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Curse Of Investors In People

Investors in People is a strong contender for the inaugural BUMQAs.

IIP employs just 41 yet costs us £6m pa, reflecting its extraordinarily heavy spend on self-promotion. Of course, that £6m will be a gross understatement of total costs because it leaves out of account knock-on costs for the 40,000 UK organisations already operating under IIP "accreditation", and the thousands of others now working towards it. What's more, many of those organisations are in the public sector- even down to individual schools- so much of this additional cost falls directly on taxpayers.

IIP describes its "vision" as being "to increase the productivity of the UK economy by improving the way in which organisations manage and develop their people, leading to business improvement and better public services".

Needless to say, there is absolutely no evidence to show they are achieving that. The "Research & Statistics" section of their website just says: "We will be updating this section of the website shortly. Apologies for any inconvenience caused."


OK, how about the specific organisations IIP claims have improved? Let's take a look at the "case studies" it trumpets in its glossy Annual Report:
  • HMV- IIP brags: "The Investors in People Standard helped to accelerate the effectiveness of the company". The reality is that HMV has been very poorly managed and is in big trouble: over-expansion, disastrous Christmas sales, resignation of the CEO, and now a certain take-over target. Wonder what the new profit-driven owners will make of IIP's esteemed "business improvement" programme?
  • Co-operative Group- IIP brags: "The IIP Standard has helped by focusing on strategic planning and good communication". The reality is that the Co-op has just been voted by customers as one of Britain's three worst companies.

Or what about the many public sector organisations it claims to have helped? Take the Department For Work and Pensions. It's had full IIP accreditation for years and says it "will continue to implement the principles of IiP and of the Excellence Model, to support delivery of today’s business performance". You wonder what planet they're on: the shameful reality is that DWP is a notorious shambles, where a recent staff survey revealed only 6% of the staff have confidence in senior management.

Or take one of the many local authorities to have "won" accreditation. Take Liverpool City Council, accredited in 2003, yet two years later rated by the Audit Commission as being among the bottom 2% of councils in Britain.

If these are the best IIP has to offer, I think we can take it that the benefits are approximately nil. Unsurprising then that an IOD survey found 85% of companies do not think it improves profitability. It may even be worse that, since the more you investigate IIP's members, the more you see a pattern of decline and destruction. I'm wondering if it's another of those curses, like In Search of Excellence.

IIP is a nonsense: a classic bureaucratic box-ticking exercise with no useful impact on member organisations other than the logo on their letterhead. Nothing more.

In the heroically restrained words of Dan Lewis' BUMQA nomination: "It would be better to scrap it altogether".

Yes Dan, it would.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Britain's Most Useless Quango Awards

Outreach Advisory Panel with Award

Following last week's post on National Chip Week, our Sustainable Inclusion Strategy Group has been working on preliminary consultation plans for the Britain's Most Useless Quango Awards. And in conformity with the revised EU Nomenclature Directive (EC06/234/4788i), the awards will henceforth be known as the BUMQAs.

The BUMQAs will be for the many not the few. Open to all publicly funded non-governmental bodies- entirely irrespective of size or logo design- the only requirement is that all entrants should be truly, deeply, irretrievably useless. And in the interests of fairness- fairness for all- even those very many quangos causing positive harm to their "clients" will be considered. (Although we should point out that a perceptible act of causing harm may itself indicate a degree of activity incommensurate with the looked-for state of ineffectual uselessness.)

The aim of the BUMQAs is simple: to recognise and salute Excellence. We will find Britain's Beacon Quangos, so that overperforming quangos may learn from them.

We are currently in discussion with the Big Lottery Fund and other public sector partners to provide sponsorship for these prestigious awards. Meanwhile, we will be reviewing some of the early contenders, starting with selections from the nine nominations in Dan Lewis's excellent Essential Guide To British Quangos:
  • British Potato Council (responsible for Chip Week)
  • Milk Development Council
  • Energy Saving Trust
  • Agricultural Wages Committees
  • Wine Standards Board
  • Westminster Foundation For Democracy
  • Football Licensing Authority
  • Investors in People
  • Economic & Social Research Council

If anyone wishes to add to this initial list, please do so. Our Participation Outreach Advisory Panel will consider all nominations in due course.

CSA: More Pie In The Sky

Yesterday we blogged the government's so-called reform package for the dire Child Support Agency. We've now got some more detail, and we can see just what hopeless pie in the sky it actually is.

First, although John Hutton told us he would be using private debt collection agencies to recoup some of that £3.3bn outstanding debt, it seems nobody bothered to ask- or even speak to- the agencies thenmselves. And guess what- they're not at all keen on the idea:

'Kurt Obermaier, executive director of the Credit Services Association, which represents debt collectors, said that the proposal was “like being handed a poisoned chalice. We are concerned that the Government wants to rid of its problems by passing them on to someone else — us."

So er...sounds like they'll want a great deal more than the £30m Hutton has set aside to pay them. That is, if they actually agree to do it at all.

And second, the "expert" Hutton has appointed to draw up his "clean sheet of paper" reform plan has until now presided over one of Britain's worst performing local councils. Sir David Henshaw is the former chief executive of Liverpool City Council, an organisation whose waste and incompetence was legendary even before the Ayatollah of Waste arrived. Here's how the Audit Commission currently places Liverpool in the local authority quality rankings:
  • Star rating: bottom 32%
  • Direction of Travel (ie getting better or worse): bottom 30%
  • Value For Money: bottom 2%!!!

So faced with a massive problem of waste and inefficiency, the government is seeking advice from someone whose own organisation is among the country's very worst for waste and inefficiency.

Hutton yesterday accused his critics of being "intellectually bankrupt". Such a term does not even begin to describe the government's own outrageous vacuity.

Pic: Fafblog!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

CSA: Hutton Counting Off The Days

Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton will today announce yet another review of the disastrous Child Support Agency. Evidently the current "root and branch" review under new CSA head Stephen Geraghty- in post only since last year- has come up with the wrong answer: to wit, still more government funding is needed. An ambitious minister like Hutton will need no reminding that the public coffers have been scraped clean after eight years of Labour, so the best thing for him is to kick the CSA back into the stinging nettles.

Although he's only been Secretary of State for 3 months, he'll be well aware that the average tenure in the hellhole that is DWP is only 17 months (indeed, his immediate predecessors only did 8 and 6 months respectively). And he can hardly be criticised for adding just one more review to the flood of reviews, enquiries, White Papers, Green Papers, Old Rules, New Rules, etc etc. we've already had since 1997. If he can just keep the balls in the air for another year or so, it will be Peter Hain's turn. As David Laws says, "it's almost beyond parody".

The facts are that the CSA employs about 10,000, and costs us some £0.3bn pa. And ever since its inception in 1993 it has been a case-study in public sector inefficiency: from its fearsomely complex rules, to its lack of proper implementation and follow-through (currently a case backlog of 330,000 and £3.3 billion arrears), to its failed mega IT development (£0.45bn and still not working properly), to its rock-bottom staff morale and rocketing staff turn-over (over 20% pa). It costs us 54 pence for every £1 it collects.

Many, including the government, want to believe it's a managerial problem. And indeed, it does seem to have been an organisational mistake to make the CSA responsible for doing everything itself. Thus the ippr argues we should copy the Australian system where "the CSA operates more like a hub, working with other agencies so that each plays to its strengths. For example, the taxation office collects payments."

Nice idea, but as we've blogged before, HM Customs and Revenue are already wrestling with quite enough "challenges" of their own.

Anyway, the real problem is actually much more fundamental: what the CSA shambles clearly demonstrates is the real world limit on government capacity to solve everyone's problems.

When the CSA was established, although it was spun as a weapon against child poverty, it was actually always intended to reduce public expenditure by making "errant" fathers pay for their "abandoned" children, rather than leaving it to the state. That's a problem as old as welfare, as described in James Bartholomew's excellent book. But what it meant here was that the CSA was always trying to combine its child welfare objectives with the need to claw back state support: hence the thicket of rules to ensure that for every pound paid by the father, the state would pay less.

Now, as taxpayers we applaud the general principle. However, in the real world, if a father- "errant" or otherwise- knows that most of his payment will go to the state rather than getting through to his children, he has little natural incentive to pay at all. And faced with a hugely complicated system operated by an agency in permanent crisis, many have chosen not to.

The government reckons it can sort the problem by means of all those gimmicks like electronic tagging and direct access to credit cards. But what it hasn't recognised is that its own drive to "eradicate" child poverty is actually making the CSA problem worse.

You don't need to go all the way with Melanie, but we must all face up to the uncomfortable truth behind the CSA crisis: as the state provides more, individuals provide less for themselves. And no amount of tinkering with complex claw-back scales and means testing will sort that.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Oh For Feck's Sake, Mrs Doyle

What do Mrs Doyle, Hector the Inspector, and Adam Hart-Davis all have in common?

Yes, that's right- they've all been paid to appear in failed government advertising campaigns. In this case HM Revenue and Customs' serial failed campaigns to get more people to file their tax returns on time.

It's another snippet from yesterday's PAC report. HMRC first spent £25m on Hector, only to withdraw him because with his bowler and pedantry "he was stereotypical" and not at all representative of the hip new HMRC. Then they spent £6m on Mrs Doyle, only to withdraw her because, we presume, they didn't like her tea. Now they've spent £15m on Adam H-D. So far.

So that's another £46m of our money. And the percentage of taxpayers filing on time has actually gone down!

All part of the escalating bill for government advertising and PR- £334m pa when last sighted.

Latest On NHS Financial Shambles

Bailiffs were sent in to University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust after it shambolically failed to respond both to a reminder, and then a summons from the city council to pay business rates. A spokeswoman for the trust said: "An administration error meant that our payment to the council was late. When we realised the mistake (ie when the bailiffs smashed the door down) we paid the bill and apologised to the council. Since then we have tightened our procedures to make sure that this never happens again."

Hmm. Wonder what CPO Commissar Hewitt- MP for Leicester East- makes of that. Presumably she's made a note not to get ill while in her constituency.

Meanwhile, much closer to Chez Tyler, Surrey and Sussex Strategic Health Authority continues its financial melt-down. Now it's having to borrow £97m just to pay the wages. The Commissar has sent in one of her dreaded NKVD hit squads to “bring back the basics of sound financial discipline” after it “significantly overspent [its] budget”. A spokesman said that a minority of NHS organisations “are failing to manage within the resources available despite receiving significant increases in funding”.

By great good fortune, we're rich enough to afford private medical care. But I fear for the SSSHA's more needy customers.

A disgraceful failure of top-down public services.

PS David Cameron, having mistakenly ruled out real NHS reform, is now thrashing around looking for some...well, you'd have to say, some middle way. He now says "Successive governments have sought to achieve their aims by changing the structures and process that govern the NHS. The effect has been creeping centralisation with ministers trying to micro-manage more and more of the NHS. With each bad headline ministers have sought greater control."

Wow, Dave, mate- are you feeling OK? We can all agree with that. And the solution? 'In the same way that the Chancellor sets the inflation target but leaves it to the Bank of England to control inflation, Mr Cameron envisages a system where ministers would set only the legal and financial framework of the NHS.'

Doh! You see Dave, inflation's easy: it's a single unambiguous target that the Bank's technicians have to hit. The trouble with health is that it's horrible complicated, with all kinds of judgements and trade-offs being required, and not just over means but also ends. Should you spend more on cancer drugs, hip ops, mental health, or what? Politicians couldn't and wouldn't walk away from it, particularly while they still held all the purse-strings.

Start again.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Revenue Admits Losing £2.8bn pa

Tyler has always been extraordinary honest in completing tax returns. Not for any high ethical reasons you understand, but simply because of fear. I imagined the Revenue would surely have access to all my financial details anyway, so a few simple cross-checks would swiftly uncover any deception. Unlimited fines and a certain end to future employability would follow.

I now realise I've been far too pernickety. According to today's Public Accounts Committee report on income tax self-filing, 32% of such returns contain errors, most of which go uncorrected. On their own estimate- almost certainly understated on the Rummie "known unknowns" basis- they lose us £2.8bn pa. Wish I'd known that before.

As usual, the PAC report is a bit of a jaw-dropper:

"In July 2005 around 1.1 million returns were overdue, some 240,000 taxpayers had two or more tax returns outstanding, and 10,000 had six returns outstanding."

Six years of returns unfiled, so er...why aren't they in jail?

"...staff often lack the knowledge to deal with enquiries. Callers have also experienced difficulties in getting through to the Department’s help lines... e-filing service did not operate properly... errors in processing nearly 500,000 returns, leading to £65 million of undercharges and £30 million overcharges... two million Pay As You Earn coding errors with an accuracy rate of 73%... wrongfully imposed automatic penalties for late filing on 30,000 taxpayers... Department does not know how much compensation it has paid to those affected by its errors and cannot provide any estimate of this figure..."

Now if that all sounds grimly familiar, that's because it is. First, almost identical criticisms apply to virtually all government departments- see for example the PAC's report on the DWP shambles, or the National Audit Office's report on the Home Office fiasco.

And second, the PAC have made many of these very same criticisms of the Revenue before. When they last looked at self-assessment in 2002, they "recommended improvements in the way the Department uses, and assesses the effectiveness of, its sanctions to encourage filing on time". Yet now, four years later, "the Department accepts that it still needs better information to assess the effectiveness of penalties in changing taxpayer behaviour"

In 2004 PAC went even further, when "they recommended that the Department should make maximum use of other departments’ records to find taxpayers it cannot trace and seek a legal power to require taxpayers to provide up to date contact details". Pretty much what I imagined they'd been doing all along...yet still not implemented.

It's amazing any member of the PAC still has a full head of hair: they are constantly recommending improvements to departments, that the departments then steadfastly ignore.

Anyway, it's all given me a few ideas for my next tax return.

Pic: the brunchma cartoon shows this is not just a UK problem: complex tax systems make for expense, error and fraud: simple as.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Temporary Amnesia...Or Total Breakdown?

The employment of expensive agency temps has long been a source of huge waste in the public sector. It is a reflection of poor planning, poor management, and the need to operate within arbitrary staff budgeting rules. The inevitable result is high staff turnover, with temps hired to fill the gaps.

A stunning measure of how bad things are is that whereas government employs around 20% of Britain's workforce, according to the Office for Government Commerce, it accounts for 50% of the temporary labour market. The Gershon Review put the overall cost at £12bn pa, and promised to do something about it.

One of the worst offenders was the DTI, the £5bn pa department that has the temerity to lecture British business on how it should make itself more efficient. In April 2004 the then Secretary of State Patricia Hewitt told us:

"On average we have approximately 450 temporary staff per annum, which represents 9 per cent. of our current workforce. The cost of employing these agency staff over the last three financial years was 2001–02 £4,865K, 2002–03 £6,654K and 2003–04 £5,223K."

Clearly far too high, and scheduled for Gershon cuts. So what's happened? The Sunday Telegraph has an update:

"The DTI last year (2004-05) tripled its spending on office temps to £24.1 million" (or £24,100K in DTI/Hewittspeak).

How can that be? Could they have somehow forgotten? Or maybe they've just axed too many permanent staff chasing after their Gershon target. Er...no. Of their targeted 1,280 Gershon cut, they've managed just 33.

The only plausible explanation is that onerous DTI publishing schedule: 10,000 new publications since 1997.

Ars longa, vita brevis, as someone once rather nicely put it.

TaxPayers' Alliance Spendometer

The TaxPayers' Alliance site contains many useful and fascinating items, but the best is their Spendometer factory (go to para 4 and click on link). You can actually watch as our money is gobbled up by Big Government. Horribly compulsive. Check it out.

Doc Nails A Lie

The ever dependable Doc Crippen explains exactly why CPO Commissar Hewitt is lying when she claims the government's waiting list targets are being met.

According to him the targets are being met only in the sense that "waiting" has been redefined to exclude most forms of actual waiting. So for example, queuing to get onto the waiting list doesn't count as waiting.

Remember- when Pat or Tony or anyone else next appears on telly claiming the targets have been met, scrutinise their pants very carefully for scorch marks.

PS I keep urging the Doc to stay safe. Can't imagine the Commissar's thought police are best pleased about his excellent and shocking blog.

Four £12,385 Lunches To Fix Stupidity

You may have picked up the media coverage of a report entitled The Stupid Company. According to its authors:

'Every year, 800,000 people make complaints to trading standards about 'stupid companies'. Theses [sic] companies use robotic call centres, complex systems, hard-sell marketing and often cannot get the most basic things right — including after-sales service! The stupid company is undermining UK competitiveness and damaging our economy. Our report shows how businesses can profit if they are willing to think differently, take the risk of standing out from the crowd, and put the consumer at the heart of their business.'

The report has had a lot of coverage, with the BBC particularly enthusiastic- as you might expect.

So who are these experts who can help our stupid companies improve themselves and boost profits? The Board of Tesco perhaps? Richard Branson? Bill Gates?

Er, no.

They are the National Consumer Council, a tax-funded quango that costs us £5m pa. It employs 75, and its 12 directors draw total fees of £200,000 pa. And its purpose? Its 2005 annual financial report lists its fully quantified output targets: "4 major research reports (of which presumably "Stupid Companies" is one), 7 other policy reports, 4 seminar reports, 3 new and 4 updated policy guides, 12 feature articles/key broadcast features...4 Chairman's lunches".

So. Another paper mountain. Except for the Chairman (2005 emoluments £49,540) whose objective is to eat 4 lunches (ie £12,385 per lunch).

This really is stupid, and all that pseudo-scientific quantification merely serves to cruelly highlight just how crass it is. Can you imagine any private sector entity operating like this?

Nobody's saying the NCC don't mean well- their Annual Review is full of pious platitudes about what a lot of bad stuff happens in the world. But what on earth makes them think they know how to fix any of it?

We don't need another endless supply of reports, press launches or even Chairman's lunches.

We do need to have that £5m pa back so we can decide how to spend it ourselves. And we will encourage those "stupid" companies to improve by not spending any of it with them.


PS Following comments on our Chips post, we're working on a "Britains' Most Useless Quango" award. Hopefully it will soon establish itself as the Oscar of Quangocracy. We'll keep you posted.