Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Climate Change: This Year's Iraq Dossier

I've been perusing the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, trying to pin down the basis of those scary Great Crash projections.

And I've now seen how it works.

First you take the existing mainstream studies of prospective climate change and economic impact. Projected over 200 years (yes... 200 years), they look like this:

So that's a cumulative 5.3% reduction in world GDP over 200 years. Or... umm... can this be right? My calculator says that's only equivalent to a rounding error "loss" of 0.03% pa - rather less than the 1% pa sacrifice we're being asked to make for all those new eco taxes.

Oh dear oh dear. That's not going to make many headlines.

Sir Stern obviously needed some serious sexing up. So he chucked in a few other items... like, what if the mainstream forecasts of climate change are all wrong? What if we cranked up the climate change numbers A LOT? And maybe chucked in some extra for unanticipated climatic "disasters". And then we could add in some numbers - BIG ONES - for non-market "health effects". And some more BIG ONES for non-market "environmental effects" (note for non-economists- "non-market" means it does not actually form part of measured GDP at all). And then we could increase the weighting given to losses incurred by poor countries (note- most of the real losses are actually suffered by them, not developed economies like Britain, which seem to come out quite well).

So how does it look now?

Now that's much better. In 200 years time, there's at least some possibility we'll be 20-30% worse off. Good enough.

Blair, Brown, Millie, the BBC... everyone should be happy with that.

The peerage is in the bag.

Does anyone actually believe this stuff?

The Conspiracy Of Optimism

Inspirational leadership- the 2005 Defra team

Yesterday I attended another spit-roast. This time it was Helen Ghosh, Permanent Sec at Defra, hauled before the Public Accounts Committee to explain the fiasco at the Rural Payments Agency (see this blog).

As she squirmed and wriggled over the flames, she confessed to many of the old sins: spending zillions on a system that doesn't work, missing her Gershon cuts targets, incurring a huge fine from the EU, and wreaking financial havoc on thousands of civilian bystanders (in this case farmers). Bad enough. But she also blurted out the sin of the day: The Conspiracy of Optimism.

It works like this. She claims the central reason for this whole cock-up was that RPA management were far too optimistic about their ability to deliver, and as problems mounted failed to recognise the light in the tunnel as an oncoming train. What's more, to save time, they'd "de-scoped" their new IT system to remove its management information functions, so they were driving blind.

Now given that this was a quango attempting to develop and implement a brand new IT-intensive farm payments system at the same time as Gershon cutting 45% (!) of its staff, you might have expected that Defra mandarins would have kept a pretty close eye on things. Because surely everybody knows by now that your typical quango can't even tie its own shoelaces, let alone implement the most wildly difficult new agricultural support system in the history of the world (the "dynamic hybrid" system).

But no. Instead of challenging the RPA's own upbeat progress reports, senior Defra management were only too happy to go along with the idea and relay the good news to ministers. The Conspiracy of Optimism.

But surely, I hear you exclaim, surely ministers would have asked the right questions.

Ah, ministers. Poor innocent lambs. As Labour member Sadiq Khan was at pains to highlight, ministers were badly let down by fumbling bumbling hopeless civil servants. And not one has even been sacked (the RPA's ex-CEO was apparently summarily removed "for administrative reasons").

But he was only repeating the line already put out by the ministers themselves. Last week, chopped Defra minister Lord Bach said:

"My view is that the top management of the RPA was not up to the task. On March the 9th I was given advice that the bulk of payments would be made by the first few days of April. Five days later I was told there was no chance at all of such a thing happening.

I don't think that was satisfactory from senior civil servants whose job is to tell ministers the truth. I don't think they were deliberately trying to mislead me but there was a slight conspiracy of optimism."

So he and that dreadful horse woman are entirely innocent. The only difference being that she sacked him, while she herself went on to represent us all on the global stage.

This government will surely go down as one of the most incompetent in British history, and it's no surprise that the politicos are for ever trying to blame their civil servants. But it simply won't do.

That idea that ministers make policy and civil servants implement it totally fails to address real world situations like this. For it was ministers - not civil servants- who decided to adopt the most complex of the various new farm payment schemes offered by the EU (a path followed by only one other EU country), and it was ministers - not civil servants - who decided to impose those arbitrary Gershon cuts at the same time.

The real Conspiracy Of Optimism is among our Big Government politicos. As we can see so clearly in this case, it is they who still believe - despite all the evidence- that they can reorder Britain with their wildly ambitious top-down wishful thinking.

As we've blogged many times before, Britain doesn't need politicos dreaming up yet more pie in the sky "policy" ideas and then walking away from the impossibility of implementation.

Tesco government remains the only viable model.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Stern Measures

Surely something to celebrate

I warn you not to own a gas guzzler, or go on cheap holiday flights, or leave your TV on standby. Because you guys are about to be taxed to buggery and back (obviously subject to certain important exceptions such as my own 5.5 litre Mercedes S Class- provided under the government's Motobility scheme on account of my extreme sensitivity to noise and bumpy car rides).

And the rest of us will be cheering all the way. For as we all know, you're single-handedly responsible for DESTROYING THE ENTIRE PLANET!!

Even worse, it now turns out your carbon habit threatens another economic collapse like the Great Crash: all weekend the BBC has been pushing a definitive report by the world's foremost economist which tells us the costs of ignoring climate change amount to £3.68 trillion!

Not £3.66 trn, or even £3.67 trn, but £3.68!!!! And this is not just more eco-wibble about floods somewhere we've never heard of- this is cold hard cash.

The BBC has been spreading the news all weekend. THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE. There is total political consensus that crushing tax rises are essential to ward off a substantial cut in living standards. How deliciously ironic- all those evil capitalists must now take climate change seriously or they will get poorer!

Slightly surprising then, that the great man himself -Nick Stern, ex-Chief Economist at the World Bank- should back-pedal so furiously when given an open platform on R4 Today this morning. Instead of elaborating on his dire cost forecasts, he mainly wanted to talk about how respected eco-profs were predicting dire consequences for the weather.

Er, yes.... let's think...
  • Only selected lib journos have so far seen the report... for the rest of us, this is all pre-publicity, sight unseen
  • All economic forecasts are pretty shakey... fifty year forecasts are virtually useless
  • Stern seems to have taken the most extreme climate change predictions, and multiplied by 2 or 3
  • The linkages between climate change and economic growth are virtually unknown- but it's easy to see how some climate change could help us, particularly in the UK (have you tried Nyetimber?)

I think we're going to need the outsized salt shovel for this one. Oh, and privatise the BBC.

PS Here's some health advice: as you stump up for those new eco-taxes, try to avoid a seizure by imagining you really are saving the planet. You aren't of course. Britain generates only 2% of world carbon emissions, and China's growth adds that much in approximately.... ohh, I don't know.... let's say 6 minutes. But at least you'll be giving our politicos more to spend on Big Government.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Recent Bonfires- 37

We are not alone... sadly

In the news this week:

PFI hospitals cost £45bn more- "A finance scheme to build new schools and hospitals... will cost taxpayers an extra £45bn over the next three decades.... the eventual repayments for 83 hospital building projects worth £8bn would total £53bn under the private finance initiative (PFI). Under PFI, hospitals have been locked into "mortgage" payments over 30 or 40 years, at a time when the government was talking about moving much of healthcare out of hospitals. "It is perverse that, with hospitals around the country now suffering cutbacks and closures, over 80 NHS organisations are locked into long-term contracts for the building of large hospitals that we have no idea whether the NHS will actually need. The extra cost of £45bn is complete lunacy in the context of an NHS under intolerable financial pressure." (Guardian 27.10.06)

£2bn blown on Millenium duds- "IN Glasgow the revolving tower is stuck fast, Portsmouth’s waterfront landmark opened five years late, and near Doncaster a showcase for eco-friendly living is to be bulldozed to make way for a housing estate. The troubled schemes were all funded with millions of pounds from the national lottery by the millennium commission to provide a lasting statement about Britain in the year 2000. As the commission prepares to wind up at the end of the year, however, an audit of projects has shown that much of the commission’s £2 billion was “squandered”. More than half the projects have either closed, opened late or encountered serious problems... Chris Smith, Labour’s first culture secretary, said in 1997 that millennium projects would “reflect the aspiration and achievements of the British people as we cross the threshold of the year 2000”. (Sunday Times 28.10.06)

£10 grand on daytrips for convicted paedophile- "A CONVICTED paedophile strolls yards from a little boy at a top tourist spot - and astonishingly the pervert was on a trip paid for by YOU. Vile David Keating, 64, has has been freed to visit several historical sites in the past 18 months - at a cost of £10,000. The pot-bellied predator has Home Office permission to leave Chadwick Lodge secure unit in Milton Keynes, Bucks, for up to 10 hours at a time. Amazingly, he is often escorted by just one lone female member of staff. So far his travels have been restricted to the UK but we can reveal he has recently applied for - and received - a passport. As well as Kenilworth, Keating has enjoyed trips to family attractions such as Warwick Castle, Shakespeare's birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon and the university town of Oxford. Next on his agenda are Leeds Castle in Kent and Nottingham Castle. A Chadwick Lodge source said last night: "It's outrageous we are wasting taxpayers' money taking people like this on day trips to wherever they fancy." (People 29.10.06)

Total for week- £47,000,010,000

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Law And Disorder

Fame is no protection

We've blogged the crime wave in star-studded Primrose Hill before (see Down These Mean Streets), and there's fresh evidence today.

Actor Jude Law tells us that the Primrose Hill home of his ex-wife and kids was scarily broken into this week while they were actually asleep upstairs. As he says: "I was particularly worried because the kids were in the house, and I think that is a very different type of burglar to one that breaks into empty offices and takes computers at night".

He shouldn't have been surprised: as we pointed out before, Primrose Hill has the fifth highest ward crime figures in London, and policing is virtually non-existent.

The real shock is that a multi-millionaire Hollywood star like Law apparently isn't paying for private security like many of the other residents.

And why not? Well, meet the bleeding heart:

“I would like to think that I’m big enough to forgive. But I also know myself as a bit of a reactionary. Each situation is different. I’m a wishy-washy middle-class Londoner. I don’t quite know where I stand.”

Sounds just like the soppy editor of Wallpaper* we met last time.

Right, Jude, mate, I know you're an actor, but let me tell you where to stand. These bad guys don't give a stuff about you and yours, and are quite prepared to use extreme violence (see previous blog). In the short-term, hire some proper protection for you family. In the longer term, people listen to you, and you should use every platform you get to campaign for real policing and much harsher sentences.

Oh, and locally elected sheriffs.

Think Clint.

PS I have to say my first thought was that this might have been a cheap publicity stunt for his new film, Breaking and Entering. But the police were called and a theft reported, so I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Friday, October 27, 2006


I'll take 200 of them

Our rulers have always spent horrific amounts of our money on fancy furniture for themselves.

Two furniture stories this week from the People's Republic:

Item 1: that notorious £88 grand reception desk at the Scottish Parliament isn't actually fit for purpose:

"Consultants (!!!!) called in by the parliament to review visitor services in the building found there was "confusion" at the reception desk when people arrived for events. And although a temporary desk could be set up to process conference delegates, it had no computer facilities. Their report recommended a dedicated reception desk should be introduced. They also found that although staff were meant to be based permanently at the reception desk, there was not enough storage and too much noise, so extra desks had to be found in the "back office" area. The parliament has also had to improve lighting levels for staff working at the reception desk."

Item 2: the City of Edinburgh Council is to spend £100 grand on new desks and chairs for the Council Chamber:

"The chairs will cost £37,000, or £500 each, and the desks £63,000, around £1000 each, with a total cost of £100,000... Ikea offers a smart budget desk for only £35.90, although its basic design may be too much of a step down from the council's leather-bound choice of furnishings. Internet firm home-office-design.co.uk offers a stylish office desk with a beechwood finish for £110, although it doesn't have any drawers or compartments to put essentials, such as sandwiches."

Nuff said.

Government By U-Turn

The politico's favourite

No surprise that Alan Johnson has U-turned on admissions policy for single faith schools - although as has been pointed out, this is the fastest U-turn in the history of British politics.

This incompetent government has made the U-turn routine, and we taxpayers have to pick up the pieces. Take the ludicrous 101 "semi-emergency" call number (you know, that scheme for relieving the pressure on the 999 service by giving people a 10p per call alternative for 'when it's less urgent than 999').

Even as the government were proudly pledging in their 2005 election manifesto to "roll it out across the country", plenty of people said it was a daft idea. No matter, the politicos ploughed on.

And what's happened? In Hampshire, one of six areas to trial the hotline, police said it was being jammed up with questions such as: "Can you tell me the times of trains to Brighton?" "I'd like someone to test my smoke alarm." and "Do you know when the next bus leaves for Southampton?" Well, if you're going to charge a premium price, what do you expect?

So guess what- the politicos have decided to abandon the whole thing. Just like that, manifesto pledge or not.

Now clearly that's the right call, but what's it all cost us in the meantime?

Obviously we haven't been told directly, but we do know that Hampshire had to employ 18 more telephonists at a direct cost of £450,000. Times that by 6, factor up for the inevitable overhead costs, and you come to a figure north of £5m. Not to mention the waste of police time etc.

And that of course is just the straight cost to the public purse. What about the woman who phoned the 101 number when she should have phoned 999 because her house really was burning down?

At least this U-turn has come relatively quickly. Some take much longer, allowing costs to rack up catastrophically. Like the U-turn to reintroduce O Levels for brighter kids. That's twenty years too late - an entire generation who've been put through an increasingly useless exam system, all in the name of social engineering.

Yes of course national politicians should correct their mistakes. And the quicker they do it the better. But how much better if they recognised they have no more clue what to do than the rest of us, and didn't get involved in the first place. Almost always, and almost everywhere, customer choice and localism is a far better bet.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Expensive Politicos

Overseas fact-finding expenses

MPs' expenses have just been published, showing yet another increase to £85m last year, or £122,677 each. It's just one more symptom of a political system that is out of our control.

As we know, the cost of our dysfunctional democracy has soared in recent years: the last time the sums were done, it totalled £1.3bn pa, up by 80% since Tony took over. And that just covered the annual costs of practising politicos - it didn't include the costs of their comfy billets such as the £431m Scottish Parliament and the £200m Portcullis House, nor other incidentals such as all those Special Advisors (£6m pa).

Yet public disillusionment with politicos has never been higher since we first got universal suffrage. 40% can't even bring themselves to vote in General Elections.

So what exactly is going on?

Naturally, with an economics background, I go back to supply and demand. In almost any market you can think of, falling demand for a product means either the price or the quantity supplied also has to fall. Common sense.

Yet falling demand for the services of politicos has somehow resulted in both their price and number increasing.

It simply doesn't compute. Not unless... no, that can't be... surely our rulers can't just ignore the message from their customers.

Can they?

PS Further insight into MPs' expenses is given by the academics at the LSE who've crunched the numbers on MPs cost per Commons vote. The average is £556, but some are much more expensive. Setting aside government ministers- who skip loads of votes- the most expensive is Gorgeous George Galloway, who's clearly far too busy on Big Brother etc to attend the Commons. Still at least that way he can't do so much damage.

Update: Useful further briefing here : the cost of the Commons is running at £469m pa, and the Lords at £106m - nearly £600m the pair.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

At Last The 1947 Show

Let me explain your taxes

Like all post-War Labour administrations, the Attlee government was guilty of manifold crimes against taxpayers. They convinced themselves they were building the New Jerusalem, whereas in reality they were stifling the living daylights out of our war ravaged economy and burdening it with grandiose spending commitments we simply could not afford (see The Lost Victory).

So I was riveted to stumble across an extraordinary Mr Cholmondley-Warner propaganda film from the time, which seeks to explain to the dumb taxpayers of Britain why- fully two years after the War- they were still facing crippling taxes with nothing much to show for them.

And the answer - put forward with remarkable frankness - was that the government wanted to remain a major world power. A third of all taxes went to pay for "keeping the peace" (aka East of Suez etc), and a further third went on paying for the two Wars. Which meant only a third left over for everything else.

Taxpayer value? It's amazing Clem's hopeless dreamers weren't hoofed out at the first opportunity.

PS The 1947 Commissars' chosen film spokesman was a Scots ham actor bizarrely dressed as a Park Attendant. With the action all taking place behind some bushes in a municipal park, I kept expecting Benny Hill to race across chasing some semi-clad nurses. Alas, no such luck.

Denounce All Bourgeois Imperialists!

The Beloved Leader and Commissar Da Vinci call on all people to denounce the bourgeois imperialist lackeys and running dogs!
I did wonder if this was a spoof, but it's in the Times so it must be true:

"Doctors, senior police officers and head teachers would be summoned before local select committees to be grilled about local services under the proposals to be announced in a White Paper tomorrow. The committees would then have to publish reports with recommendations, which would be sent to the public body concerned for consideration and possible action."

The idea seems to be to set up "overview and scrutiny" committees of councillors and other interested parties to conduct street trials of failing central government employees, reporting any ideological backsliding up the line to the Central Committee in Beijing.

Apparently, it's all part of a new devolution agenda, meant to re-engage the populace with government, and to get them feeling - despite all the evidence - that they do have some control over what goes on.

Now to the extent this is not just more headline-grabbing wibble, it promises to be a nightmare for any government employee caught in the middle. Among other things, it would make it even harder to recruit headteachers: just like the Cultural Revolution, it could nix a generation.

But the key point is that it highlights how Big Government misses the whole point of localism. It's no good just having another name and shame complaints mechanism reporting back to the Commissars. What we need is to devolve real power. And that means devolving the power to raise the money and spend it according to what local people want.

It's called fiscal decentralisation. And as the following World Bank chart shows, the UK has the lowest proportion of locally financed local government spending of any major OECD country bar Ireland:

The result is an almost total disconnect between the provision and cost of services at the local level. No wonder local electors feel disengaged, and out of the loop.

That's the issue that needs tackling. But of course, asking the Commissars to let go the purse strings is a very BIG ASK indeed. Maybe we need a revolution.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

False Accounting

If only they'd worked for the EU

Enron's Jeffrey Skilling has just been sentenced to a 24 year prison term for false accounting. Quite right too. That's what happens if managers of private sector companies fail to produce accurate and timely accounts.

But in the public sector, it's a whole different ball-game...

Item 1: the EU's auditors have just refused to sign off its accounts for the 12th successive year:

"The auditors certified the EU’s administration, development and some agricultural spending, but found errors in programmes accounting for around two-thirds of its €105bn (£70bn, $130bn) budget, particularly structural funds going to poorer regions. These included incorrect paperwork, missing documents and possible fraud."

And the Commission's response? They say the auditors are being far too picky, and they want laxer standards. The Admin Commissioner says:

“The Commission is frustrated... If this methodology continues, we will never have a positive audit.”

"Frustrated"? Let me rephrase that for the Commissioner: the EU is such a total shambles it cannot manage its affairs according to the same high standards we routinely expect from the private sector. It cannot be trusted with our money.

Item 2: the Public Accounts Committee yesterday grilled HM Revenue & Customs on the tax credits fiasco (see previous blog). As we know, the National Audit Office qualified HMRC's accounts after discovering £1.17 bn's worth of fraud and error- and that only relates to 2003-04, with later years not yet even assessed.

No wonder the PAC Chairman described it as a "disgrace", and a "matter of shame". Although I don't seem to recall anyone going to jail. True, after July's damning NAO report, the previous head of HMRC did leave rather suddenly... but only to move next door to HMT (see this blog).

Moral: What these two cases illustrate is that the public sector is far behind the private in matters of basic financial probity. No matter how good its original intentions, Big Government's complexity and inefficiency mean that it just cannot be trusted with our money in the way our leading companies can.

Monday, October 23, 2006

£2.2bn NHS Waste?

Andy Burnham tribute band

This morning's Daily Telegraph led with a story of £2.2bn waste in the NHS:

"According to an analysis of hospital activities and finances set out by the Government today, if the worst performing primary care trusts did as well as the best, then £2.2 billion could be saved on a range of activities, including how long patients spend in hospitals, the level of "unnecessary" operations and the numbers of sick referred for hospital appointments."

Here's how the potential savings supposedly break down:

Not for the first time we're struck by the incredible precision of the numbers. A man from Mars might well wonder how a government department that had made such an absolute horlicks of spending a doubled budget could possibly know the potential savings from reducing "unnecessary" surgical procedures are £73m, rather than £74m, or £75m, or £5.137bn, or - as is much more likely in the real world - nil?

Yes, yes, we know it's a top-down benchmarking exercise, designed to put some backbone into the managers of "customer" Primary Care Trusts in their "market" negotiations with their hospital "suppliers". But listen to the ministerial twaddle that accompanied it:

"Productivity is about working smarter not harder... We know that for every challenge the NHS faces, someone else in the NHS has a solution... Enabling trusts to compare themselves to other organisations in this way gives local staff the opportunity to identify where they should be focusing their efforts to improve services."

Smarter not harder... challenge... solution... enabling... opportunity... it's like something out of a twenty year old Teach Yourself Management book. And it's being dished out by Comrade Health Minister Andy Burnham, a union hack politico whose only experience of management was... er, well I suppose he did manage to get himself a safe Labour seat. How would you feel as a Primary Trust CEO being forced to listen to that?

We've blogged the real NHS waste picture many times (see here for summary). Briefly, 80% of the extra money has gone into higher costs rather than expanded services (source- Kings Fund), and overall productivity has been falling by 1% pa for at least a decade (source ONS).

£2.2bn is certainly a gross underestimate of waste. And yet more top-down threats and exhortation from the Commissariat will not reduce it. However, unless you're a heavily tattooed transsexual, you're probably going to find yourself having to get that "unnecessary surgical procedure" done privately.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The True Cost Of Westminster Politicos

Your 'avin a larf, aintcha?

Many years ago, Tyler was taught politics by Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, and a very informative teacher he was. Today he is a world expert on political funding (eg see here), so his comments on the outrageous Hayden-Phillips endorsement of state funding for UK parties should be carefully noted.

As Michael reminds us, Hayden-Phillips used to head the Department for Constitutional Affairs, from where he drew most of the Enquiry's staffing - hardly balanced. And his so-called public consultation was a complete sham, mainly comprising a small number of manipulated focus groups:

"25 people representing a cross-section of the public would be presented with a set of charts and tables setting out the “facts”, and they would be invited to provide their opinions in the light of these “facts”.

The private rationale of the workshops (as revealed under the Freedom of Information Act) was that public views about the issue of party funding are “inconsistent and contradictory”.

The formula sounds a bit like a Chinese re-education session: “The possible future options for funding are prone to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. In order for informed debate to occur a strong degree of information provision will need to be built into the process, allowing citizens to fully understand . . . possible future models . . . in order to achieve an in-depth and considered response towards party funding.”

And the "information provision"?

"Attendees were given a pie chart showing that less than 10% of party funding comes from the state, no more than £5m in the past year for the three main parties combined. Slides gave as established fact the statements that there is “limited public funding” and that “parties need more money than they used to”.

But both these statements are totally unfounded:

"There are no reliable data either on the amount of public funding of party political activity or on trends in political spending since the 1980s and 1990s.

If and when the research is carried out, the total amount of public funding during the past year is likely to be £50m or more (depending on the valuation of in-kind subsidies) rather than £5m.

On top of the established subsidies, such as free political broadcasts, the party system has been undergoing a quiet revolution because of the rapid growth of new forms of indirect state aid. MPs regularly use parliamentary grants for campaigning and for partisan purposes in their constituencies.

This money filters into party politics. So do payments to MEPs and to members of devolved authorities. Parliamentary money has transformed the financing of local party organisation. There are further payments to the political staffs of ministers, elected mayors and party groups on local authorities (“Widdecombe” money). Quango jobs serve too as another form of state funding.

A member of a party management committee in a northern constituency informed me that 28 out of 31 members had a paid elective or patronage job. The cost of party advisers to Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, and to elected members of the Greater London Authority is itself greater than the entire £5m in public funding of political parties declared by the Electoral Commission.

The Phillips inquiry has chosen to play down this system of indirect public funding. It does this by classifying the channels of indirect state aid as “incumbency benefits” rather than as forms of public funding of party activity (which is what they are). By defining “public funding” too narrowly, the Phillips report misrepresents its size. This serves the purpose of artificially strengthening the case for yet more public subsidy. "


And these appalling people who 40% of voters can't even be bothered to vote for have the gall to ask for more.

Where's my flaming torch and pitchfork?

Recent Bonfires- 36

Your choice mate

In the news this week:

£300m pa to remove tattoos: "THE National Health Service spent millions of pounds removing tattoos last year... doctors carried out the procedure, involving either skin grafts or lasers, on 187,063 tattoos. Even conservative estimates of the cost of removing a small tattoo under anaesthetic on the NHS put the bill for 2004-05 at £37m, but some consultants suggested a figure of £300m. Because tattoos penetrate under the skin, removing them is expensive. The tattooed area must be cut out and skin grafted over the gap. Removing tattoos with skin grafts in the private sector can cost £1,000-£2,500. Laser surgery costs from a minimum £200 to more than £2,500... Earlier this year a health trust in Manchester agreed to spend £2,500 removing the tattoos of Tanya Bainbridge, a 57-year-old transsexual. The former merchant seaman, previously called Brian, claimed the large tattoos on her forearms were “not ladylike.” (Sunday Times 22.10.06)

£55m pa blown on bungled prosecutions- "POLICE officers and prosecutors are accused of an “alarming” catalogue of bungling and inefficiency leading to delays in magistrates’ court cases that cost taxpayers £173 million a year. Hundreds of cases collapse each day because of poor administration and incompetence, MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee say. Blame for nearly a third of the money wasted in delayed trials can be laid on the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, which have jointly incurred £55 million in wasted costs, it has found... Most delays caused by the CPS are avoidable — files are mislaid or not updated owing to poor case tracking; insufficient time is allowed to prepare cases; and inadequate prioritisation of cases means that urgent action is not completed before the next hearing." (Times 19.10.06)

£1bn Child Support Debt written off- "A PROMISE to track down more than £1 billion owed to thousands of single mothers by absent fathers has been abandoned by the Government. Ministers will change the law to authorise the Child Support Agency to write off debts where there are “limited prospects of recovery”. The decision means that about 130,000 single parents will never see an average of £14,000 in unpaid maintenance. Critics say that the CSA has already given up on many cases. Buried in the small print of the agency’s most recent accounts, it classified £1.9 billion of its £3.5 billion debts as “probably uncollectable”. In many cases that means that the CSA has lost track of the errant father. It has a poor record of keeping tabs on absent parents and has no powers to require people to inform them of a change of address." (S Times 20.10.06)

£1.10p for convicts to play scrabble- "VIOLENT and disruptive prisoners are being paid by the Prison Service to play Scrabble, look after fish tanks and learn the guitar. Offenders with a long history of causing trouble in prisons are being paid to undertake a range of activities in a “jail within a jail” at Whitemoor top-security prison. A Prison Service spokesman said “Prisoners in close supervision are encouraged to take part in constructive activity and, through a cashless system [worth £1.10 a session], they can buy approved items within the prison.” (Times 18.10.06)

Total for week: £1,355,000,001.10

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Burning Our Money... For Real

The cash machine has landed

"A secret slush fund of more than £1million sent to Afghanistan to bribe local warlords was destroyed when the Special Forces aircraft carrying it burst into flames as it came in to land.

The cash - all in brand new American notes - was packed into two four-wheel-drive vehicles being carried on the RAF Hercules C-130 plane.

Officially, the money was to support 'development projects' in Helmand. But a military source said: "We knew little about Helmand and needed to gather intelligence fast. It doesn't matter where you go in the world, people respond to cash. In Helmand, warlords who run the narcotics business have a lot of influence - and we needed to have that influence on our side."

Actually, I have no problem arming the SAS with cash: it's a lot safer than their normal kit. And I've always felt we should use it more extensively to deprave and corrupt our enemies.

As Matthew Parris suggested yesterday, if the aim of the Iraq War really was to to topple Saddam, couldn't we have saved a lot of bloodshed (and money) simply by offering him $20bn and legal immunity to leave for Switzerland?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Tax Cuts For The Rich

But surely they'd benefit too...

It's most unwise to argue with the excellent Institute For Fiscal Studies. Over the years they have built up a formidable and deserved reputation for serious impartial research into all matters fiscal.

So when they point out that the Forsyth tax proposals wouldn't do much for the poor, you have to listen. Robert Chote, director of the IFS, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

"This package, if it were to be implemented in its entirety, is likely to benefit people on relatively high incomes rather than people on relatively low incomes.

"That would certainly be true of the income tax cuts, which help people in the middle or towards the top, and the same with cuts in inheritance tax and capital gains tax.

"It’s also worth bearing in mind that the Conservatives are likely to say that this will be paid for in part by increases in environmental taxes, and these do tend to be, at best, neutral across the income distribution or tend to hit the least well-off harder than the best-off."

Spot on Robert. But the question is, what should we make of it?

The first point is that green taxes were not actually part of Forsyth's recommendations at all. It is certainly true they hit the poor hardest because the poor spend a greater proportion of their incomes on fuel etc. But that's not a just problem for Tory tax policy- it's something all advocates of fashionable green taxation have to answer. So far, there's been virtual silence.

The second, and more fundamental point, is that Forsyth's recommendations on company and personal taxation are designed first and foremost to boost Britain's economic competitiveness and lift our future growth rate. To be sure, they also have an eye to fairness, simplicity and predictability (eg see Report para 1.2.2), but Forsyth is basically about increasing the size of the pie, not how it's divvied up.

Back in the good old post-Keynesian days, consensus economics used to say that growth was determined by technical factors somehow beyond the influence of tax rates. So it didn't matter much if tax was 30, 40, or even 50 per cent of GDP. To help the deserving poor, you could squeeze the idle rich with impunity.

Even at the time, most ordinary people thought that was cobblers, and unfortunately for Big Government, they turned out to be right. (This was yet another area where Keynesian economics totally ignored what the great man himself had said- that there'd be serious difficulties if tax rates went above 25%).

There's now been a fundamental rethink, and the overwhelming conclusion from recent research is that taxes do matter- even the OECD now says that higher taxes have had a major impact in depressing growth (see report).

And the evidence also says that the most damaging (or "distortionary") taxes are those on incomes and capital: the very taxes that bear most heavily on the richer members of society.

So the choice is very simple: either we accept the lower growth that goes with current high levels of these distortionary taxes, or we recognise that our priority tax reductions can do little directly to help the poor. And even worse, not all those who do benefit will be thrusting entrepreneurs creating loads of new jobs and trickle down wealth- some will just be the idle rich.

To pretend we can somehow have our pie and eat it is not only misleading, it also rules out that "grown-up" debate our politicos always reckon they're so keen on. The politics of envy help no-one.

Real Politics

Stuck in the middle with Mary Ann
As discussed on last night's Your Money programme, the Tory response to the excellent Forsyth report was disjointed and confusing. And freaked out by his first-strike savaging from Balls and the BBC, George was forced even further into the corner:

“We will not be promising reductions in taxation at the election. Any changes in taxes will be revenue-neutral.”

Naturally, the lib media is pleased. Mary Ann Sieghart positively drools over George's political shrewdness in making tax cuts secondary to "economic stability". We all know (Mary Ann probably included) that these things are not actually economic alternatives, but as she notes, "stability" is reckoned to be political code for "we won't push your mortgage rates up to 15% again".

So we're well and truly stuck. All three parties clinging together on the perceived electoral centre ground of tax and spend, frightened to move in case they fall into a chasm.

Meanwhile the real right gathers strength, fueled by a shared contempt for Westminster politics, and rapidly coalescing via the new media (as Danny Finkelstein was pointing out on Newsnight last pm). We're even getting out to meet some like... real people.

Bring it on.

PS Mrs T has this strange idea that Mary Ann once posed nude for Non-Asian Babes. But having perused the top shelf at some considerable length, I can't find it. Any info anyone?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Forsyth Saga- Picturebook Edition

"It's. The. Same. Old. Tories.... Have you got that Jeremy, Jim, John etc etc?"

"Here is the news. The Conservatives today admitted they intend to destroy the NHS and kill all the firstborn."

The lib media's reaction to the Forsyth Tax Commission Report has been grimly predictable: the tax-funded BBC has been especially dire.

Few if any of our celeb media jockeys will actually have read the report's 176 pages. But since their stories were ready to roll already, I guess they didn't need to.

Which is a great pity, becuase for anyone interested in understanding the real issues on tax, Forsyth's report is an instant classic. Drawing on the latest experience and research from around the world, it analyses where we've got to, explains why "do nothing" is not an option, and sets out a detailed programme of reform- not just its widely reported headline tax measures, but also how Brown's cumbersome ill-informed machinery of tax decision-making can be brought back under control.

We will be using the report as a key reference point over coming months, but as a service to lazy journos everywhere, here's the picturebook version:

High tax means slower growth....

...and Britain has become a high tax economy...

...especially in company tax...

...but also with more and more people dragged into income tax...

...and our tax system has become far more complex and costly...

...so you see we're going to need rather more than the odd headline grabbing summit with "business leaders".

Common As Muck

A matter of breeding

Mrs T has a thing about toffs. It's not just the thoroughbred fetlocks and impeccable house training, but it's also that duty thing. Apart from anything else, without the drive and dedication of Britain's toffs, she reckons most of our charities and voluntary organisations would simply collapse.

So she can't wait until Dave and Samantha slip into Number 10 and start redressing some of the grotesque excesses of the nouveaus currently in residence. No more tax-funded bling celeb parties, and no more money grubbing gobby wife syndrome.

I keep telling Mrs T that for a girl from a council pre-fab, she's being kinda picky. But then I read of Cherie's latest little earner:

"It emerged she could earn up to £60,000 for delivering two lectures in America this week. On Tuesday night, Mrs Blair delivered the keynote speech at a women's summit in Chicago where members of the audience paid up to £80 for a ticket... The billing described Mrs Blair as a "wonder woman" who managed to balance "her high-powered professional life, high-visibility public life and intensely consuming private life".

So that's on top of last year's £30,000 Washington lecture, and the notorious £100,000 Anzac tour.

Bring on the toffs.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Wasting Energy... And Money

Over at the Daily Propaganda, Alan Drew draws attention to the latest exploits of government quango the Energy Saving Trust. The EST has cost us £135m in the last two years, in exchange for which it has pumped out almost as much half-baked eco propaganda as the BBC.

Alan focuses in on their recommended eco car, the electrically powered G-wiz, which thanks to the EST's seal of approval, qualifies for all kinds of tax breaks:
  • Exemption from road tax (worth £150)
  • Exemption from the London congestion charge (worth over £2,000 p.a. if you drive in every day)
  • Free parking on meters and pay & display bays in Westminster and the City (at a minimum of £10 per day, worth £3650 if driving in every day)
  • Minimum 96% discount on central London MasterPark season tickets (just £200 p.a. and worth over £6,000 p.a.), with 52 free charging points
  • Free parking in 7 City car parks (6 with free charging points - again worth several grand)
  • 100% Year 1 tax write down for business (worth £1400)
  • Lowest rate of company car tax at just 9% (maximum is 35% - again worth several grand)

Which on my calc means it could save you well over ten grand a year: ten grand the rest of us do have to pay.

Ah, you say, but it's saving the planet.

Except that according to Alan, it isn't. Because although the EST reckons it's "the most energy efficient car on the road" and better for the planet, it's only that way if you don't count the carbon cost of generating and transmitting the electricity to charge it up. Once you do, it turns out it's more carbon generative than a bog standard Ford Focus 1.6D. Which doesn't qualify for any of the financial breaks.

So that's £70m pa on a quango that's so useless it's actually encouraging the very behaviour it was supposed to stop.

Farm Fiasco

Still waiting for Defra

We've blogged the fiasco at Defra's Rural Payments Agency before (eg see here), but today's National Audit Office report reveals the problems are even worse than we thought.

Briefly, the RPA has cocked up bigtime on dishing out £1.5bn of subsidies to 116,000 English farmers. As a result, many farmers have still not been paid for last year, around one-third of completed payments are wrong, and we taxpayers now face an EU fine.

Clearly there were the usual specific instances of incompetence, but the NAO highlights some more general themes:
  • Goldplating Brussels- because we're in the EU we have to implement the EU's new Single Payment support scheme; only instead of following the simple approach used elsewhere, Defra decide to implement the most fiendishly complex variant known as the "dynamic hybrid" model... with all-too predictable results
  • Half-baked planning- eg "The Agency did not adequately pilot land registration and underestimated the amount of work involved in mapping the land. Instead of the expected 1.7 million parcels of land, it had to deal with 2.1 million, and instead of 200 maps a week it received 1,200. By September 2005 there was a backlog of 31,000 forms and 59 per cent of farmers reported difficulties in finalising maps."
  • Unresolved priorities- Under Gordo's mad Gershon cuts, RPA was trying to reduce staff by nearly one-half at the same time as implementing this gigantic new system
  • Rubbish IT- "The timetable ... became tighter following changes to the original specification of the IT system to incorporate changes to EU Regulations, legal clarification of the Regulations, Ministerial decisions and operational changes such as the design of the application form... Each element of the IT system was tested, but the system was never tested as a whole before the scheme was introduced, and problems arose once it went live."
  • Rubbish management- the top man has now been sacked... or rather, he's been suspended on full pay while the wimps above him wibble about what to do next
  • Rubbish staffing- clearly nobody in their right mind would work there permanently, so the RPA has to rely on temporary and agency staff, who haven't the faintest idea how to do anything

So what's the damage for us taxpayers?

It goes without saying that we shouldn't be subsidising farmers at all, but setting that on one side, as at March, the implementation costs for this shambles were put at £122m- nearly double the original estimate, but now almost certainly even higher. The late payment fine from the EU is so-far undecided but officially estimated by Defra at £131m - so let's say £250m. And on top of that, the shortchanged farmers have had to borrow to tide them over, which the NAO estimates at up to £22.5m.

Meanwhile that appalling airmiles woman who presided over this fiasco is now supposedly representing us on the world stage.

I'd like it to be known she doesn't represent me.

PS In case anyone has forgotten, the CAP costs British taxpayers directly about £4bn pa. But because the CAP also keeps our food prices above world market levels, the overall cost to consumers and taxpayers is around £10bn pa- or £400 pa for every household in the land (see previous blog here).

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More Trough Snufflings

Queuing for expenses

More disgusting grunts from the trough (courtesy Freedom of Information):

  • "The cost of entertaining by Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street and Chequers soared to more than £101,178 last year.The annual bill has almost doubled since Labour came to power in 1997 when the cost of parties at the Prime Minister's residences was £57,303. Guests included Sting, Bono, Sir Elton John, and Prince Girolamo Strozzi Guicciardini, his wife and daughters. The Blairs enjoyed two free holidays at the Italian nobleman's Tuscan villa. No 10 officials had tried to keep the guest list secret, saying confidentiality was needed because some guests could have been involved in "policy development and analysis". " (Telegraph 17.10.06)
  • The excellent Heather Brooke (who runs Your Right To Know) has been rebuffed in her attempt to get details of MPs' travel expense claims. Her FOI request has been rejected by the House of Commons Commission. Publishing the corresponding information in Scotland "recently led to a huge drop in the amount that members of the Scottish Parliament claimed for travel, and exposed abuse by two MSPs that led one to quit and another to resign as Tory leader". Now I wonder why our Westminster porkers don't want us to know?

Freedom of Information is all downside for our rulers. Which is precisely why they're so busy trying to get it back in the box. To this end, the DCA commissioned Frontier Economics to come up with some reasons why it should be curtailed. Their Report focuses on cost, reckoning FOI requests currently cost £35m pa to process; Charlie Faulkner naturally says that's far too much, so FOI requests will henceforth be rationed. By an impartial person such as his good self.

Even if you accept the £35m figure (given that Frontier Economics does include the last Cabinet Secretary among its directors...), it represents just 0.007 per cent of public spending: less than the rounding error on Prezza's pie bill. And we can all think of a load of stuff that should be junked well before FOI.

It's never been clear how half-baked Nu Labour ever thought they were going to manage Freedom of Information. Obviously it wasn't intended to be more than another bit of image flim-flam. But now it's out of the box they're sort of stuffed.

Just like those porkers.

Failing Schools... Again

The Public Accounts Committee has now published its report on failing schools. As they remind us, despite a decade of Education, Education and Education, a million of Britain's children are still attending sub-standard schools. In the words of the original NAO report:

"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."

We've blogged this many times, and back in February we estimated the total cost of the shambles:
  • £3.25bn pa spent on the failing schools themselves
  • £837m (2004-05) on Special Measures aimed at sorting them out
  • £160m (2004-05) on replacing the worst with flashy new Academies
  • £4.5bn pa on post-school remedial education

So we got to a total identifiable taxpayer cost of £8.75bn. Annually.

But of course, the true cost is much higher. With 13 per cent of our kids denied a proper education, the economic damage to Britain is massive and long-lasting.

Now, repeat after me... education is much too important to leave to politicians.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Deputy Dawg

Go ahead punk... Make my day

Tyler has always been dog phobic. To him, all dogs are wild slavering beasts just waiting for the first chance to rip out his throat.

Which is why he thinks police dogs are such a spiffing idea. Even the most aggressive yob is surely going to think twice about risking the flashing gnashers of a pumped up Dirty Harry style Alsatian. Cost effective policing in action.

Which is what makes today's report from the North Wales police so extraordinary:

"Police dogs are being muzzled to stop them biting and injuring suspected criminals.

Officers say the toothless tactic provides a safer way to tackle unco-operative offenders, and it may soon be adopted by dog squads across the country.

'Instead of biting, the dog is muzzled and launches itself like a missile at the midriff of the target,' said Deputy Chief Constable of North Wales, Clive Wolfendale (if he isn't known as Deputy Dawg, I'll eat my own muzzle).

'It is one of the additional options open to us to muzzle our dogs and get them to use a head butt,' said Sgt Ian Massie. 'We believe it is a safer option for an offender to be head-butted.'

Sorry - is Sgt Massie taking the piss? Even I might be prepared to risk a mutt head-butt; your average Welsh hardman probably wouldn't even notice.

Of course, North Wales police are under the control of bonkers Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom. Among his previous lunacies were plans to award his officers points for making arrests or handing out fines under which they'd receive twice as many for seizing an abandoned car as for making an arrest. As the Government's adviser on road safety and speed cameras, he's also earned himself the nickname the 'Mad Mullah of the Traffic Taliban', calling for the number of cameras to be trebled, and getting officers to 'hide behind road signs and walls' with handheld devices. And that's on top of launching costly inquiries into alleged anti-Welsh comments by Tony Blair and Anne Robinson. No wonder his force has such an appalling record on tackling real crime.

This is yet more proof of why we need those elected sheriffs. And surely even poor old Ollie Letwin must see that.

PS My dog phobia was strongly reinforced a few years ago when there was a break-in at our neighbour's house. They were away, so I went round to let in the police. Worryingly, they pitched up with a dog, not only unmuzzled, but also the size of a small ox. Worse, its handler got it to sniff everything, including me. But as I desperately struggled not to run, I noticed the WPC I'd been talking to had also frozen. And when I asked her why, she said she was terrified of police dogs because "they're trained to go for you". She should get a transfer to North Wales.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tax Tax And More Tax

Taxpayers are starting to roost

The chickens are coming home: two more big articles today on the damage wrought by Gordo's taxes:

The Sunday Times carries a piece by the ever-excellent David Smith summarising the recent clucking:
  • The OECD says the share of national income taken in taxes is rising more sharply here than anywhere else in Europe. Taxes in Britain are now higher than the industrial countries’ average and are significantly above those in America, Japan and Germany.
  • According to calculations by the accountants Grant Thornton, many middle-class households can expect to see half their income disappear in taxes, either when they earn it or when they spend it
  • Richard Lambert, director-general of the CBI says “Current corporation tax levels are unsustainable. Either companies will relocate or corporate taxes will have to come down. Changes will be required.” HSBC, Britain’s biggest bank, has let it be known that it is considering moving its headquarters elsewhere
  • In May 1997 tax freedom day was May 24. This year it was June 3, the highest since the 1980s, with a particularly big increase over the past two to three years.
  • Professor Peter Spencer of York University says Britain’s tax burden was about to top that under Denis Healey in the 1970s, when he famously made the “pips squeak”, and under the Tories in the early 1980s when Sir Geoffrey Howe took steps to clear up the mess Healey had left. “Although many people are aware that the tax burden has gone up, I suspect there are large swathes of middle-class people who don’t realise the extent of it."
  • Under Brown, the number of people paying higher rate tax has risen from just over 2m to 3.5m
  • A recent estimate by the accountants Ernst & Young suggests that a rising tax bill, combined with higher energy costs and only modest increases in salary, mean the average family is 10% worse off than four years ago.

And yet... and yet, even though their own Forsyth Tax Commission is about to recommend those £20 bn of tax cuts, the Tory leadership is still frozen in the headlights. It's not just frustrating - it's downright inflamatory.

James Frayne of the TaxPayers' Alliance hits the nail on the head: “When even poll-obsessed people in the Labour party are worried and a centre-left party like the Liberal Democrats is proposing some tax cuts, it just shows how out of touch the Tories are. They’re stuck in the 1990s.”

Meanwhile, the Sunday Telegraph leads with news that the true cost of Gordo's infamous ACT raid on our pensions is at least £100bn. The calculation is set out in a paper for the Institute of Actuaries by Terry Arthur, a Fellow, and one of the profession's most respected voices (see here for more detail). He says:

"What happened in 1997 represented an enormous and ongoing raid on the assets of UK company pension schemes. My research shows it would be very hard to justify an impact of less than £100 billion — and even £150 billion may still be a conservative estimate."

No wonder it destroyed Britain's world leading final salary pension system.

And no wonder Gordo's appalling legacy of fiscal mismanagement will be remembered with such anger by taxpayers and pensioners for years to come.

PS The world of small staters is certainly starting to coalesce. As it happens, Tyler personally knows three of those mentioned above, having worked for one, had one as a client, and regularly shared pork scratchings with a third. And having fulminated against Big Government with all three.

Recent Bonfires- 35

Bizarre spectacle at Havering Council

In the news this week:

EU regulations cost Britain £120bn pa- "The EU's Competitiveness Commissioner Gunther Verheugen is complaining yet again that the excessive weight of EU regulation, compared with the USA, is costing the EU's economies €600 billion a year. Actually, the figure is not €600 billion but £600 billion. And it does not take long to calculate Britain's share of this as £120 billion, putting the cost of excessive EU regulation to the UK economy at £4,000 per second. Anyone wishing to dispute this should remember that it comes from the European Commission. So it must be true." (Christopher Booker in Sunday Telegraph 15.10.06)

Tackling NHS overspending costs an extra £20m- "The Department of Health has forced deficit-hit hospitals to pay out at least £10.6 million to financial consultants in the past two years to sort out their problems. The fees for the consultants are added to the already existing deficits, further jeopardising frontline care... On top of the hospitals’ own consultants bills, the department has spent £11 million on tackling the deficits, bringing the total cost of dealing with the crisis to more than £20 million. This is four times as much as the Government admitted in June, when it said that the bill was £5 million." (Times 11.10.06)

£10,000 chasing sheep impersonator- "Council bosses have spent £10,000 in a bid to establish who baaed like a sheep during a planning meeting. Havering council has forked out the sum over the last 12 months on a 300-page report into the bizarre incident. But the chief suspect is no longer a councillor and therefore cannot be punished. A council insider said today: "This is absolute madness. We've wasted a load of money and a lot of time on a councillor who baaed like a sheep - and we've got absolutely nowhere." (Evening Standard 14.10.06)

£90,000 pa for two pupil school- "A local authority is spending more than £90,000 a year to keep a school open that has just two pupils. Cross Inn Primary School, near Aberaeron, west Wales, was one of five Ceredigion Council planned to close this summer. Four of those schools were shut but Cross Inn Primary school, which had six pupils in January, remains open after parents of two girls refused to send them elsewhere for their education.... Councillor Emlyn Thomas “When you have to consider cutting other services, every penny needs to be accounted for. We can’t possibly keep paying to teach these two kids at £45,000 a piece when the average spend is £3,000 a pupil. It’s just not on.” The council plans to enter a period of consultation later this year with a view to closing the school but if one person objects, the matter will be referred to the Welsh Assembly." (icWales 11.10.06)

Total waste for week- £120,020,100,000.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

More Hopeless IT Projects

We've blogged so often about hopeless government IT projects, we've already ground our teeth down to the gums. But the latest revelation is right in Gordo's own living room:

"New figures from the Treasury reveal projects undertaken by Gordon Brown’s department are reportedly 17 years and 3 months behind schedule.The delayed projects include the Child Trust Fund (6 months late) and the Pensions Schemes project (one year behind schedule). One project in the Government's Actuary Department is over 3 years behind schedule."

Given his enthusiasm for all that Gershon efficiency guff, this ought to have our brilliant Chancellor chewing the duvet at 3am. Hmm.

From the NHS Supercomputer, to the national gun register, to the notorious Libra project, our government has routinely run some of the slowest IT projects since Babbage first came up with his cogs. The specific causes are many, but the common themes are a lack of realism in the initial requirements, frequent spec changes during construction, and poor management of contractors.

And most of these projects involve technology that's well established and routinely used otside government. When it comes to stuff on the leading edge of technology, like biometric ID cards say, the idea that government could successfully implement it is simply laughable.

I wonder why we're not laughing.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Self Assessment Vs Customer Assessment

Home angioplasty kit

No blog yesterday as I took my Dad to have his angioplasty.

Interestingly, it was the same day that the new Healthcare Commission hospital ratings were published. And as we got ready to leave for the hospital, who should pop up on the Today programme but the very consultant in charge of the very bit of the very hospital we were heading for.

The hospital trust had been three-star rated under the previous system, and we were relieved to hear it was still rated "excellent" for "quality of services" - one of only 6.4% of all English hospitals. We were even more relieved when the consultant proudly highlighted the brand new angiography unit where we were going.

But the new rating system also includes a score for "use of resources", and there the hospital had been rated "weak". Should we be worried?

There was no time to think about it yesterday, but having now investigated:
  • The scores are largely based on self-assessment- which raises all the usual issues. My Dad's consultant may be very happy with his new kit and get along famously with his staff, but we want to know is what's he like on the needle? How many punters has he lost?
  • When these scoring systems were first established, we were all given to understand it was to help everyone monitor how well hospitals do their primary job - ie making sick people well. Bolting on a whole great section about use of financial resources may help the Department of Health's name and shame campaign, but it doesn't actually help patients
  • No less than 41.2% of acute hospital trusts are rated "weak" in their management of resources. That's a helluvalot. And what it underscores is that this is not a personnel problem of a few crap managers: this is a systemic issue which requires a systemic solution

The bottom line is that these ratings are not meant for us customers: they are yet another instrument of top-down management. And the irony is that they highlight just how hopeless that approach is.

PS My Dad's treatment seems to have gone very well, and we've both been highly impressed with the facilities and the staff. The only wrinkle is that although they had intended riddling out two arteries, after some difficulty getting the flue brushes up the first one, they decided to stick at one. They told him that might well do the trick, but they could always come back to the other one later. Now, did they do that for medical reasons- ie they didn't want to put an 82 year old through too much riddling at one go? Or was his table time up, and they need to improve that weak resource management score? And if so, who'll bear the cost of a second go? They're known as perverse incentives.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Anyone For A Meat Sandwich?

Shouldn't there be some meat here somewhere?

Our politicians are great at talking the talk of public service reform, and "devolving power to the frontline". But when it comes to walking the walk...

Item 1 - Schools. According to a survey conducted for the School Teachers' Review Body by the Office of Manpower Statistics:

"Headteachers in English secondary schools are working well over four hours a week longer than they were six years ago, despite government promises to ease the burden.... headteachers' hours have increased dramatically to over 65 hours a week on average. Deputy headteachers' working weeks have also lengthened. They are clocking up 61 hours a week, whereas two years ago their hours had dropped to just over 54 a week."

And the reason? You guessed it - the non-stop avalanche of initiatives, priority programmes, directives, box-ticking, and other assorted rubbish brought down on them by central government.

We've blogged before about the jobs from hell, and how being the middle management meat in a particularly inedible sandwich has caused a headteacher recruitment crisis (eg see here and here). Real reform will not be possible until the DfES gets off the backs of headteachers - and whatever David Willetts may hope (see here), the only sure way of doing that is to put the buying power directly in the hands of customers - ie parents.

Item 2 - Hospitals. CPO Commissar Hewitt is once again railing against failings in her own hospitals (which for those old enough, puts me in mind of the complaints department in Monty Python's classic Argument Clinic*). She blames the management, and is about to issue yet another name and shame list. It seems she can't get good staff to be the meat in her sandwich either:

“I’m afraid that a lot of the trusts with the worst financial records are also weak on quality of care. You can see why when you visit hospitals like that.

They are not making the best use of their resources, not working through the processes of making sure everybody is paying attention to hygiene and cleanliness, and if they’re not doing that, they’re probably not going through the processes of making sure everything else is being done properly.”

Yeah, thanks for that Pat- especially since my Dad is going in for an angioplasty tomorrow. Really helpful. Now why do we need you, again?

*Footnote: For those not old enough, the M Python complaints sketch goes a bit like this:

(Voter/patient goes to Dept of Health. Opens door.)

Voter: I want to complain.

Hewitt: You want to complain! Look at these shoes. I've only had them three weeks and the heels are worn right through.

Voter: No, I want to complain about...

Hewitt: If you complain nothing happens, you might as well not bother.

Voter: Oh!

PS No blog yesterday as Tyler spent all day wrestling with the technology of videos for 18 Doughty Street. Turns out to be much trickier than he'd imagined, but fortunately the guys actually at the controls seem to be somewhat more expert. Well done to everyone for getting it on the road last night. And hope you're all taking a look here.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Whitehall To Pick More Winners

Pilot of the future

As angry taxpayers wait for the doomed Super Dumbo bills to come in, it's good to see the spirit of enterprise is alive and well at the MOD:

"THE Ministry of Defence wants to foster a “start-up culture” in the UK, giving equity backing to scientists and entrepreneurs to develop the next generation of military technology in their garages and university laboratories. Lord Drayson, Defence Procurement Minister, believes that providing research money to entrepreneurs will lead to a more vibrant and dynamic defence industry."

Lord Drayson of course has form. Here's GMWatch's summary:

"Drayson... made a substantial donation to Labour while the Ministry of Defence was deciding who should be awarded a smallpox vaccine contract. Drayson gave a further donation of half a million pounds to Labour just six weeks after the PM made him Lord Drayson. Controversially, the Blair government awarded Drayson's company, PowderJect, the smallpox vaccine contract without any competition. The contract was worth GBP32million and Drayson is thought to have made around GBP20m for PowderJect from this deal."

This man is now in charge of Defence procurement- getting on for £20bn pa of our money. Hmm.

But even setting that aside, defence is something even we small staters recognise must be left in government hands. And if we're going to put our boys and girls in harm's way, we need to make sure they have the very best kit- pretty well whatever it costs.

Unfortunately, as shown once again in Iraq and Afghanistan, MOD routinely fails to do that. Not only do they cheesepare on basic stuff like body armour and armoured vehicles, they use the procurement budget to pursue non-defence objectives - most notoriously in their "Buy European" policy.

So here we are with another objective - picking start-up winners - which can only conflict with the primary purpose of this spending, putting even more lives at risk. Isn't it time we all learned that government is hopeless at anything like that: after all, Gordo has already burned billions proving it once again (eg his half-baked R&D tax credits).

PS MOD has a long and appalling record of waste. Boys toys like the TSR2 have an obvious appeal to politicos and Eagle readers alike (the 2006 Airfix kit version apparently sold out its 10,000 production run within days). But even though it's 40 years since Wilson famously scrapped that and bought American, our politicos and defence bureaucrats are still obsessed with the idea of propping up Britain's own defence contractors. Even when it costs us a fortune and routinely leaves our guys with inferior kit to the Americans they share the trench with.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Recent Bonfires- 34

In the news this week:

History of pockets cost £140,000- "A Government quango which spent £140,000 of taxpayers' money to fund research into the history of pockets was accused today of "totally wasting" public funds on frivolous projects. The grant was awarded to Southampton University by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to study the topic over three years. Researchers used the cash to explore the history of the tie-on pocket, which were worn by women under their petticoats or aprons from the late 17th century. Their aim was to "bring them back into the public consciousness and to understand more clearly what they meant to the women who wore them." (Press Association 6.10.2006)

£3,000 grapes- "A wine-maker has accused the Government of a "colossal" waste of taxpayers' money after four officials were sent to his vineyard to pick 10 bunches of grapes as part of a European Union sampling exercise. Bob Lindo, an award winning wine producer in Cornwall, estimated that as much as £3,000 of public money was wasted. The team comprised two officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), a member of the Food Standards Agency and an inspector from the Wine Standards Board. "I can't think of any reason for four people to come down," said Mr Lindo."Clearly these people were just on a jolly down to Cornwall to enjoy a spot of grape picking at the taxpayers' expense. If you multiply salaries for two days, train fares, hotel rooms, breakfasts, lunches and dinners by four, it must have cost something in the region of £3,000 to pick a few grapes." (Telegraph 6.10.06)

£30,000 fried chicken fiasco- "TWO supermarket workers who were the subject of a £30,000 trial for allegedly stealing fried chicken thighs worth less than £2 walked free yesterday after a judge said they had no case to answer. Describing the decision to prosecute the two women as a waste of taxpayers’ money, Judge Mushtaq Khokar yesterday threw out the case at Manchester Crown Court. He criticised the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for repeatedly ignoring his advice to reconsider the prosecution. The Judge said : "Here are two ladies who to all intents and purposes can be treated as having good characters. There does not seem to be anything that can be thrown at them which would make the charge brought against them stick. We are talking about £1.84. Is it really in the interests of the public and taxpayers that we spend two days trying to sort this out?” ( Times 7.10.06)

£2m on useless red lines in Solihull- "Solihull's MP has slammed the latest red route to be introduced to the borough as a 'waste of taxpayers' money'. Lorely Burt asked for the cost of the Lode Lane/Blossomfield Road/ Marshall Lake Road scheme and discovered it cost £2 million, three times more than any other red route in the borough. Mrs Burt said: "Whilst some of the safety improvements are welcome, they are totally outweighed by the unnecessary waste of taxpayers' money by painting red lines and festooning the streets with notices to solve a problem which doesn't exist. I have never seen a car parked on Lode Lane unless it has broken down." (Solihull News 6.10.06)

BBC puffs cost £76.1m pa- "Yesterday, BBC One revealed its new channel “identity” in a £1.2 million rebranding campaign. The eight 30-second films, costing £150,000 each, feature surfers, stunt motorbike riders, kite fliers and hippos, whose activities converge in the shape of a spinning circle — or a globe, to older viewers. A further seven films, known as “idents”, will be produced, taking the total budget of the campaign to £2.25 million. The new campaign is more expensive than the dancers series, which cost £700,000 for six films. The glossy new films feature exotic locations... The surfers were filmed at Puerto Escondido in Mexico, with cameras mounted on jet skis. Another film, known as Moon, was shot on the Kamenjak peninsula in northern Croatia and features a group of people in fishing boats piecing together a giant moon on the horizon... Last year the BBC spent £76.1 million on on-screen promotions, marketing, consumer research and publicity — more than the annual programming budget for Radio 4." (Times 27.9.06)

Total for week: £78,273,000