Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Prolonging The Agony Of School

New designs for the staff room

Raise the school leaving age to 18? Teachers think it's a shocking idea. Geraldine Everett, chairman of the Professional Association of Teachers, says:

“Here is a Government that has toyed with the idea of lowering the voting age to 16 in order to promote a greater sense of citizenship among our young people. Yet it proposes to extend compulsory education or training to 18, to compel the already disaffected to, in their perception, prolong the agony.

To make them conscripts is likely to reinforce failure, leading to even greater disaffection. Enforcement could lead to mass truancy, further disruption to other learners and staff, maybe even needless criminalisation if enforcement measures are imposed.”

Of course, the commissars will not listen to the teachers. Piff! What do they know?

Instead they will impose yet another top-down half-baked Plan to tick yet another box- moving Britain up the league table of "educational participation".

But as we all surely know, truancy is already a major problem, particularly in the tough inner city schools where raising the leaving age will cause the worst damage. One pupil in five already plays truant. And there is no top-down government Plan that can fix it: Labour's much vaunted anti-truancy programme has already cost us £1.5bn but has been a total flop, with truancy hitting record levels (eg see this blog).

And what will it all cost? Ah well, the commissars don't really want to discuss that. The white paper Raising Expectations: staying in education and training post-16 bangs on at huge length about the supposed- though unquantified- benefits, but virtually nothing about the costs (cf the cost-free Newsom Report which ushered in comprehensivisation- see this blog). Last week, Schools Minister Jim Knight (yes, him again) would only say:

"We plan to raise the participation age to 17 from September 2013 and 18 from September 2015. This will not involve additional costs over current plans in 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10. We estimate that it will incur additional capital costs of £28.2 million in 2010-11 and £19.7 million in 2011-12, and additional training costs of £0.2 million in 2010-11 and £0.5 million in 2011-12."

So that's about £50m.

But of course there's much more. The Local Government Association tracked down some further figures (taken from the department's Regulatory Impact Assessment). They run through them, adding their own commentary:
  • £593m pa once ‘steady state’ is reached- to include ongoing staff and running costs; but as is so often the case, the RIA "does not explain how this is calculated"

  • £50m pa for "tracking, attempting to engage and enforcing the duty (including bringing any prosecutions)"; that doesn't sound nearly enough given that local authorities will need to hire Gomulka Associates to "enforce duties" on the North Peckham Estate, say

  • £6.7m pa for Attendance Orders for young people failing to participate as part of a civil process; an amazingly precise figure, but again, "there is no explanation as to how this is calculated"

  • £3.38m pa legal costs- many kids won't want to be enforced, so there'll be lots of criminal court action: legal aid costs between £0.25m and £0.7m, court costs up to £2.5m, plus £0.18m aid for disgruntled hoodies sueing local authorities; all amazingly precise figures that can't be worth the paper they're written on

  • £90m pa on additional educational maintenance awards

  • £121m for additional staff training- presumably that's training in fending off knife attacks armed only with a stick of chalk

  • £81m on additional buildings, including strongpoint panic rooms for teachers

Tot it all up and you get to set-up costs of £202m and ongoing costs of £743.08m.

And if you believe that, you'll believe anything.

You can sign a petition against raising the leaving age here.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Hopeless Home Office Boobs Again

If you can see the number 10,000 you can run the Home Office stats division

Here on BOM we try hard to get our facts right, especially when it comes to numbers.

One key fact we've referred to many times is a striking crime statistic: that half of all our crime is committed by just 100,000 persistent offenders. We got it from the excellent David Green of Civitas (see here). And he got it from a Home Office white paper, Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead (2001).

So imagine our shock when following up a reference in a recent report from the Home Affairs Select Committee (blogged here), we found the Home Office itself quoting the figure not as 100,000 but 10,000.

The Home Office site Operational Policing says:

"Home Office research published in 2001 showed that 10,000 offenders (10 per cent of all offenders on the offenders index) in England and Wales are responsible for over half of all crime."

Yet the HO's Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead says:

"Recent research suggests that a small group of hard core, highly persistent offenders, probably no more than 100,000 strong – about ten per cent of all active criminals – may be responsible for half of all crime." (para 1.28)

They can't both be right can they? Or had we somehow got it wrong? Had the Major and I had one too many noggins of his extraordinary Albanian claret one evening and simply bungled the figures? How shaming.

In a blind funk I emailed David Green and asked if he could explain the discrepancy. Very kindly he did: the 10,000 quoted on the Home Office Police site is plain wrong.

So while the HO's policy left hand knows that half our crime is committed by 100,000 persistent offenders, its "operational policing" right hand is working on the basis that it's only 10,000.

No wonder the police detection rate is only about 20%- they think they're only looking for 10,000 hardened criminals, when in fact they should be looking for 100,000. And no wonder we don't have enough prison places, etc etc.


Well, no. Not unbelievable at all.

The fact is the the Home Office has long been functionally innumerate. Staffed largely by BBC socio-arts wibble types, it doesn't really see numbers as being interesting or important.

Just last week, the Public Accounts Committee issued yet another damning report on all the HO numbers that don't add up (blogged here). Recent fiascos include wildly innaccurate counts of released but not deported foreign brigands, duff data on anti-social behaviour, and of course, duff financial accounts.

When last sighted, the Home Office was spending £1.1bn pa of our money on administrating itself. It was employing 22,000 staff to do so.

With that kind of budget, you'd sorta think they could just get one or two employees who weren't completely number blind.

Wouldn't you?

PS For future reference, let's just remember: half the crime is committed by 100,000 persistent offenders (para 1.28, above); "about 20,000 will be in prison at any one time" (para 1.29); and there are one million (!) active criminals in E&W (para 1.28). As David Green argues, by locking up the 80,000 persistent offenders who are not inside at any one time, we could halve crime. Lock 'em up, the Major says.
PPS The HO's incapacity to produce accurate numbers suggests it should hand over all its stats responsibilities to the Office for National Statistics soonest- especially since Brown has promised a more independent ONS. But for some reason not unconnected with the desire of our politicos to "manage" the supersensitive crimes stats, that won't be happening. Once again, our politicos are the block to reform.

Limits Of Taxation Update

Adaptation or disability?
News that some of Britain's paralympians are repaying all that tax-funded support they get by defrauding us out of even more:

"A BRITISH Paralympics squad has allegedly become embroiled in an multi-million-pound scam involving the tax-free sale of top of the range luxury cars.

Several members of the team are alleged to have purchased scores of cars each for their “own personal use”. The cars – including Range Rovers, Land Rover Discoveries, Bentleys and an Aston Martin – were bought Vat-free as part of a tax break to help the handicapped.

The vehicles were then resold to dealers who shared in the profits from the 17.5% Vat discount. In some cases the car never left the showroom as it was bought back by the dealer who sold it...

Two of the former internationals are alleged to have bought more than 100 cars each... 'He said he was going to stop when he got to a million,' said a source close to the deals."

Sweet as a nut. So sweet, you have to guess it's been going on all over.

What this case underlines once again is that high taxation imposes high costs. It isn't just the damage it inflicts on enterprise and effort: it also incentivises criminality and brings the law into disrepute.

Take tobacco. With just about the highest duties in Europe, smuggling into the UK has become a major industry. Even official estimates put the lost taxes at £3bn pa- nearly 1p on the standard rate of income tax- and others reckon the real scale is higher still (see previous blogs here and here).

VAT missing trader and carousel fraud is another huge problem, which according to the PAC has cost taxpayers £16bn since 1999 (see many previous blogs eg here and here, where we surmised the real numbers may well be much higher).

Then there's oil duty fraud (£800m pa), duty loss on smuggled spirits (£200m pa), tax credit fraud (£1.3bn), etc etc (see this blog).

But of course, it's actually much broader than that. High taxation drives the Black Economy. And most serious estimates of the Black Economy reckon it now accounts for at least 10% of national income (see here for Economic Journal article- its estimate of 10.6% was produced even before all those Polish plumbers came in).

Last year we had a go at estimating just how much overall we honest taxpayers are losing to tax fraud and evasion. We came up with a figure of £60-80bn pa, or about £3,000 per household.

That's a extraordinary amount. As we pointed out, it means that if HMRC was doing its job properly, they'd recover enough to fund some major tax cutting. In fact, we could abolish Stamp Duty, CGT, and IHT outright, and still have enough left over to cut the standard rate of income tax to 8p.

But although HMRC is pretty rubbish at doing its job (eg see this blog), let's not lose sight of the underlying message. High taxation encourages evasion and fraud. It turns even paralympians into criminals, and makes mugs of the rest for passively paying up.

PS They've been discussing this over at PistonHeads. To qualify for VAT exemption, the cars have to be "adapted" for use by a disabled driver. But that can be as little as a loosely fitted, easily removed, knob on the steering wheel. Although as one forum member asks "Is a steering wheel knob an adaptation or a disability?" (very good, Hendrie).

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Recent Bonfires 73

In the news this week:

EU water directives blow £65bn- "Water bills have already been soaring in recent years. But by far the greater part of that money has been spent, not on repairing pipes and drains, to avoid floods and provide us with extra water, but on complying with three over-the-top EU directives on water purification. As the Government admitted to Lord Pearson of Rannoch, these directives have so far cost us no less than £65 billion, leaving the water companies with only £14 billion to spend on infrastructure." (Sunday Telegraph 29.7.07)

£24,000 bonus for flood quango chief- "SENIOR executives at the Environment Agency face new controversy after it emerged last night that they received five-figure “performance bonuses” shortly before the recent floods hit Britain. Baroness Young, the quango’s chief executive, got a bonus of about £24,000 on top of her £163,000 salary. A further eight executives, including the director of water management, shared in the bonus handout last month. The average paid to each executive was equivalent to 10% of their salaries, although Young received 15%." (Sunday Times 29.7.07)

Metal tree costs £350,000- "Plans approved for a 21 ft tall metal sculpture tree, surrounded by floodlights in cleared woodland... The creation, called Tree Stories, is part of a £12 million "Greening for Growth" initiative to improve the environment of Stoke-on-Trent. But angry locals have likened it to the Blackpool Illuminations. They say it makes a mockery of a campaign by the council to encourage residents to cut back on their own energy use by driving less and not leaving their televisions on standby. With eight 26 ft high lights and 30 floor lights, the £350,000 project does not appear to be a shining example of carbon-neutral policy... In all, 20 trees will be removed to make way for Tree Stories." (Sunday Telegraph 29.7.07)

£6m on limos for Ministers- "The government spent nearly £6m last year on cars and drivers to ferry ministers around. The cost of providing 86 ministerial cars in 2006-07 was £5,902,900 - up from £5.47m the previous year." (BBC News 26.7.07)

£484,000 for typing injury- "A CLERK in the RAF has been paid £484,000 compensation for an RSI-style wrist injury—nearly NINE TIMES what a soldier would get if his leg was blown off in action. The scandalous payout, which will astonish troops who have been mutilated in Iraq and Afghanistan, went to an unnamed typist in her twenties who developed the strain in her right hand. Yet a serving soldier who comes home from war suffering "permanent severely impaired grip in both hands" would receive only £16,500 compensation. The official tariff of payments to servicemen and women shows they can expect just £28,750 for blindness in one eye, £57,500 for loss of a leg and £8,250 for injuries sustained surviving a gunshot wound to the torso." ( News of the World 29.7.07)

Total for week- £65,006,858,000

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Bloke Joins Olympians

The Bloke has always been a fine athlete. And now he's joined a team of experienced Olympians to Go For Gold.

Well, more specifically, he's joined the new TaxPayers' Alliance 2012 Watchdog monitoring panel, which will be scrutinising the progress of the money inferno. We want to make sure taxpayers can register just how much of our cash is being chucked onto the flames.

Along with British Olympic rower ALEX STORY, and British Olympic skier MICHAEL LIEBREICH, British Olympic skiver THE BLOKE will be blowing the whistle, taking the early bath, and generally pulling out all the stops to stay in contention.

We'll be posting news, analysis and comment on the dedicated 2012 Watchdog site.

Friday, July 27, 2007

PFI Debt- Slightly Uncooking The Books

The Financial Times reports today (here and here) that up to £30bn of PFI debt may shortly be reclassified back to where it belongs- on the government's balance sheet. As BOM readers will know, up until now Mr Brown's Enron style fiscal accounting has massaged most of it away (see many previous blogs, eg here).

The FT reports:

"Billions of pounds worth of private finance initiative projects are poised to come back on to the government’s balance sheet.

The move [is] the result of the government’s promise to adopt international financial reporting standards for public accounts from next April...

IFRS says that most PFI projects should be off-balance sheet for the private sector. The logical consequence is that the public sector should put PFI on the books: the alternative – assets floating in the ether, owned by nobody – is intolerable."

So hurrah?

Well, it will certainly mean the official definition of the National Debt is a bit closer to the truth. But only a bit.

The reality is that £30bn does not come close to the true PFI liability we taxpayers have incurred. Last time we did a detailed calculation, we got to £90bn, and it's increased since then- let's call it a round £100bn.

The difference is probably caused by that pernickety distinction between finance leases and operating leases (see here), with operating leases still being excluded. The argument is that the private sector does the same thing. But as our Canary Wharf correspondent pointed out here:

"Although Operating Leases are off-balance sheet under most GAAP schemes (so many companies do the same trick), credit rating agencies recapitalise them and count them as debt when establishing a credit rating. So this will come back to sting the government (sooner than the actual debt will)."

What we taxpayers are concerned about is whether we are committed to pay- which to all intents and purposes, we are- not some nit-picking technical nomenclature that still lets the government ignore the bulk of PFI liabilities.

What's more of course, even if the whole of our £100bn PFI debt moved back on balance sheet, that would still mean the official figure for the National Debt was grossly understated. In particular, it would still fail to account for the £1 trillion of public sector pension liabilities. BOM calculates the true total for our National Debt is around £1.7 trillion, or £70,000 for every British household (see here).

The FT argues that Darling shouldn't oppose the inclusion of the PFI debt, even though it will embarrassingly mean busting Brown's rule that official debt must not exceed 40% of GDP. As the FT points out, Brown's meaningless rules have zero credibility anyway.

The reality is that Gordon Brown has saddled us with an ocean of debt that we'll be struggling with for decades. Fessing up to £30bn will mean the forthcoming squeeze on public investment will be that much tougher (as the FT notes), but there's a lot more bad news still to come.

Sadly, taxpayers ain't seen nothing yet.

ID Cards: Already Burning Money

The memory- and the cost- linger on...

You may have thought that the £19bn ID cards project (see BOM's cost primer here) was safely asleep in the long stinging nettles, but it isn't. It's alive and well and already costing us plenty.

Computing reports:

"The government has spent £53m on consultants for the national biometric identity card scheme, and continues to use 83 external contractors at a cost of nearly £50,000 per day.

The figures are more than double the value of the original £19m pre-procurement consultancy contract signed in 2004, according to data released to Computing by the
Home Office under the Freedom of Information Act."

Why the cost over-run already?

Turns out the technology and the specs aren't nearly as straightforward as old Charlie Clarke promised.

What a surprise.

Not. In May we surmised that moving from Clarke's original all-singing all-dancing all-weather scheme to a Heath Robinson lash-up would still cost plenty. (and see the original LSE expert report here).

As we've blogged before, the procurement deadline has already slipped by nearly two years (originally set for Oct 2005).

But it seems the money fire is already roaring away nicely.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Teaching To The Test

Teaching to the test: getting better all the time

Before you read this blog, you need to click here and watch the video.

Blood boiling?

We're all surely aware by now that the government's regime of school management via tests and tables has some serious shortcomings.

In particular, by building everything on a raft of "high stakes tests" for teachers and schools, it strongly reinforces their incentives to teach to the test, rather than the much more important job of teaching for understanding.

Take for example this fairly typical report from Times Educational Supplement about the infamous Key Stage 2 tests, sat at age 11 to make sure kids have mastered the basics before they move from primary to secondary schools:

"This year's Year 7 intake to Cyner Afan comprehensive school... had the best collection of national test results ever.

So head Wynn Williams was taken seriously aback when his classroom teachers started to tell him that many of these level 4 students needed special-needs support because they could not read.

He gave them the latest version of the London Reading Test, as he does to every intake, and found the teachers' verdict borne out: the national test results may have been the best ever, but the reading test scores were the worst.

"Some of these children are coming in with level 4 in all three subjects and they are barely literate," he says. "We haven't seen any difference in standards, and yet the national test scores are going up all the time.

I can only explain it by saying that my colleagues in primary schools are doing an extremely good job teaching to the test. We know how it works because we are now doing the same thing with KS3 tests. Our results show a significant improvement but we know the children are no better. It's just that our staff are better at teaching to the test."

And remember also, this is a game of statistics, not individuals. Success is the overall percentage of pupils who can be lifted above the magic hurdle rate, be it KS2 level 4 or GCSE grades A-C.

So for schools and teachers, the key is not to waste loads of time helping very poor performers who will never make the test grade. Still less is it the more fulfilling task of stretching very bright pupils. No, the key is to identify those pupils who are just below the pass grade, and to do whatever it takes to nudge them over.

As the Rowntree Trust recently reported, it's called triage (see this blog):

"There is much research evidence for ‘triage’ within schools (concentrating resources on the students who can be helped to turn Ds into Cs, at the expense of the low performers and the best)."

So now it seems the exam industry itself has geared up to provide teachers with the tools to manage triage even more effectively. And very useful they look too, as all those awe-struck teachers in the video testify.

Unsurpising really, because this is the profit maximising private sector at work.

Private sector?

Yes, that's right. Unknown to most of us, Edexcel, Britain's biggest public exam setter, is now fully owned by Pearson Plc, Britain's biggest educational publisher.
Now I have absolutely no objection to the private sector being involved in education- indeed I welcome it. But I think we can all see the faintest sliverette of a conflict there.

Even worse, what we're getting here- yet again- is a bastardised institutional arrangement which is almost guaranteed to give us the worst of both worlds. Once again, a lumbering simple shopping state monopoly is subcontracting vital services to a sharp profit maximising private sector operator.

If end customers had effective choice, that would be fine: any serious failure by the school's subcontractors would result in the school itself losing business. But in the absence of vouchers, the vast majority of school customers do not have that choice. They have to take whatever they're given by the state, even if the state allows its subcontractors to foul up completely.

ResultsPlus. Remember the name, because we should be hearing a lot more about it.
(htp Rory Geoghegan)

Splish Splash Splosh!

Does anyone have a clue where we're heading?

Halfway across a severely swollen river is not a good time to let the tiller go. But that of course is precisely what Cap'n Al Johnson is doing on the good ship NHS. Whereas the Commissar had it hard about (or was that just the way her trousers were hanging?), Cap'n Al has let it go all floppy.

Yesterday he told the Health Select Committee he was junking one of the Commissar's most cherished but highly contentious policies:

"I don't believe there is the need for another independent sector treatment centre [ISTC] procurement and there won't be a third wave.

We will instead move towards greater local determination."

On one level this is good news for taxpayers. The contracts with these ISTCs have been classics of the Simple Shopper's art, with taxpayers being required to pay whether or not the NHS actually uses the service. Their total cost is £1.7bn, they are on average 11% more expensive than their NHS equivalents, and 20% of their paid for capacity is not used. Brilliant. (Also see here for details of the £1m paid to a Chesterfield ISTC for orthopaedic operations not carried out because patients chose to use existing NHS services).

As we know, the whole DoH programme to get more private companies involved in healthcare has been a shambles of overpayment and poorly designed contracts. Taxpayers have paid through the nose, even if the services are not used or actually fit for purpose.

The scandal of hospital cleaning shows just how bad things can get when you try to manage top-down via boilerplate contracts: with nobody directly in charge on the ground, the critical business of real hygiene on the wards in the hospitals has simply fallen down the dirty cracks in between (eg see here for latest on C.difficile crisis).

And let's not forget the great money pit that is PFI. When last sighted, the 83 PFI hospital contracts were set to cost us £53bn over the life of the contracts, compared to an actual value of facilities of just £8bn. Indeed, private sector refinancing profits have been so munificent that even the normally placid PAC Chairman couldn't stop himself spluttering about the "unacceptable face of capitalism" (see this blog and others for details on the mega refinancing gains made by some PFI players).

So Al's been put in to stop the whole thing- private money, contestability, reform, it's all systems stop.

Obviously the unions are delighted (although not so delighted about the grim outlook for their future pay rises). But should we taxpayers also rejoice?

The answer of course is no. We're locked into a whole load of expensive contracts designed to support a more open NHS, but Johnson is junking the programme before we've actaully seen any of the promised benefits.

Our once in a lifetime opportunity to reach the other shore of real choice and competion has been lost. Taxpayers may be spending £105bn this year on health (over £4,000 per household), but effectively the money's run out. 80% of Labour's increased spending has been frittered away on increased costs.

The Tories- even in the increasingly unlikely event they got re-elected- have already bottled out of the radical choice policies that would offer real reform. So there's absolutely nothing else on offer.

We're back to drifting downstream.

As we've said before, if you can possibly afford it, get yourself private health insurance.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

All New TaxPayers' Alliance Website

For those of you who haven't yet found it, the TPA has a brand new all-singing all-dancing website - here.

It's updated throughout the day with all the latest news for angry taxpayers, including the various campaigns now underway to cut Leviathan back down to size.

May I urge you to take a look. And also- if you haven't already done so- may I urge you to sign up as a member. It's entirely free, and the more of us who join, the more clout we get (cf the National Trust).
PS You may notice a certain similarity between some posts on BOM and the TPA. I'm afraid The Bloke can't stop himself copying our work.

Red Tape Industry

Production is booming

Quite apart from taxes, government imposes a further huge burden on us in the form of regulation.

One part of this- although only one part- is red tape. Successive governments routinely promise to slash it, but somehow the slashing never seems to inflict much more than a mild scratch. Even worse, the slashing itself spawns an entirely new tax-funded industry devoted to... er, slashing red tape.

So what does it all cost?

The National Audit Office has just published its first review of the present government's much trumpeted slashing programme (see this blog). And it helpfully summarises some of the key numbers.

Total costs are officially estimated at £31bn pa. But £11bn pa of that supposedly relates to "business as usual" paperwork that businesses would have to do anyway. Which means the net cost of government red tape- the "administrative burden" of government- is officially put at £20bn pa. The government's target is to reduce that by 25% by 2010.

On this basis, the four worst offenders are our old friends the DTI (as was), HMRC, Communities and Local Government, and the Health and Safety Executive. Together they acount for about three-quarters of all red tape (by cost):

These estimates were cooked up... sorry, put together, by consultants PWC and KPMG, using a survey based approach known as the "Standard Cost Model" (see Report Fig 6), And nice work it is too- consulting fees have so far amounted to £17m (para 2.2).

Of course, the consultants are not the only ones making a living from "slashing" red tape. The government's own Better Regulation Executive (BRE) is "a dynamic force... tasked by the Prime Minister to minimise bureaucracy for businesses and front–line staff in the public sector and to help charities and the voluntary sector to make a greater contribution to society."

Dynamism, tasking... you'd almost think they were part of the old DTI. Except of course, that was so full of red tape it was abolished. So it can't be.

Except... I've just noticed the BRE (numbers and costs shrouded in mystery) is part of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which... well, blow me down... is just the old DTI with a new nameplate. The DBER is investigating itself: I have a teensy feeling we shouldn't hold our breaths for action.

But there's another Much Bigger problem. As we've already mentioned, red tape comprises only one part of the regulatory burden. And it's unlikely to be the biggest part: that comprises the burden of the regulations themselves.

The British Chambers of Commerce produces a well-known annual running score of the broader regulatory burden: the Burdens Barometer:

"The BCC Burdens Barometer is compiled in partnership with academics from the London and Manchester Business Schools. The 'Burdens Barometer ' calculates the compliance cost to business since 1998 of new regulations. It is calculated using the Government's own Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) figures which means it reflects the Government's own generally conservatively estimated costs. It has been calculated at £10 billion in 2001; £15 billion in 2002; £20.6 billion in 2003; £30 billion in 2004; £38.9bn in 2005; £50.27bn in 2006 and £55.66bn in 2007."

So using the government's own conservative estimates, the BCC calculates the burden has increased by £55.7bn pa just since 1998.

And it sure wasn't zero before that: indeed according to the NAO report, seven out of the 12 most onerous bits of regulatory legislation were enacted by the last Tory government (especially the Employment Rights Act 1995, and the Town and Country Planning Act 1990- see report Fig 9).

On that basis, the government's estimate of £20bn red tape cost doesn't come close to capturing the whole regulatory burden. That's at least three or four times bigger.

So will the "targeted" 25% reductions even be noticed? You know the answer.

The NAO looked at other countries that have already tried the same thing, and the story is universal: proud government boasts that its reduction targets have been met sit alongside a real world where the victims don't see a blind bit of difference (report Appendix Three).

In its own understated way, the NAO condemns the whole exercise as a total waste of time and money:

"2.21 There is, therefore, no guarantee that a 25 per cent reduction in administrative burdens will lead to a noticeable change in the resources that businesses devote to complying with regulation. Administrative burdens are likely to be a relatively small element of total cost to business of complying with regulation (Box 2). As it is difficult to establish the impact of regulation on productivity, there is no benchmark for the level of reduction needed to deliver an increase in productivity levels. Equally, there is no benchmark for the level at which the benefits of regulation to business would start to diminish as a result of reductions."

Let's hope the PAC gives the clowns in charge of this outrage a roasting. I'm booking my seat now.

Meanwhile all we taxpayers have got is yet another expensive government bureaucracy and yet more consultant fees.

PS For the avoidance of doubt, yes, BOM wants to see less red tape, but through a radical downsizing of government, not redesigning a few forms.

Big Is Bad- Stick To The Knitting

The knitting

The bigger they get, the more difficult it is for them to stick to the knitting.

General Motors, ICI, the British Empire, Nazi Germany.... throughout history, big organisations and their leaders have a built in tendency to take on more and more, straying far from their original purpose, and far from their area of expertise. Hubris and overstretch- it always ends in tears.

Big Government does it all the time, of course, which is one reason it's so pants.

But even more concerning is the tendency of those much vaunted charitable and voluntary organisations to do the same thing. Remembering of course, that they represent everyone's Big Idea for improving public services, and even civil society itself.

This morning we get some particularly distressing news from an organisation of which Mr and Mrs Tyler are longstanding and paying members: the National Trust.

The NT is by far Britain's biggest membership charitable organisation. And I'm guessing most of us want the same thing- the preservation of Britain's great historic buildings, and the best of our landscape.

But the Trust has just reached a new high of 3.5 million members, or a staggering 6% of the population, and with sad predictability it has suddenly decided to invade Russia:

"In what the the conservation charity calls one of the most fundamental shifts in its 103-year history, the trust announced the intention to mobilise this vast public support "to drive conservation and quality of life agendas, and in particular to combat climate change".

From now on, said director-general Fiona Reynolds, the trust will advise people how to adapt their lifestyles to climate change and challenge government to be more ecologically aware. "If we think that public policy is not right, then we will say so."

In a strategy document, the trust said it was in a unique position to help counter climate change. "The biggest challenge of our time is climate change," said Ms Reynolds."

Yes, well, Ms Reynolds, Mrs T and I did not join the NT to campaign for more eco-wibble policies. Not only have you not asked us, that's not why we pay our £70 pa. If we want to join Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth or David Cameron's Conservatives, we will.

What's that, Peter Nixon, NT Director? "In the past we have been cautious about expressing our voice loudly. Now we recognise that we have to engage in public debate on a very wide scale. If you have 3.5m members you can go to government with a different kind of authority."

Look, chum, the only reason you have 3.5m members is because they want you to take care of the precious things. Not go off eco campaigning.

One key reason this is happening is that the senior staff of charities increasingly come from a government/quango background: Fiona Reynolds previous job was Director of the Women’s Unit in the Cabinet Office (and cf Martin Narey at Barnardos). And that's on top of their increasing financial dependence on government (see previous blogs here and here, although note that the NT is not so dependent- so far... well, if you exclude the Lottery, that is.).

So Fiona, this might be difficult for you to understand. But you must forget about invading Russia. Leave eco campaigning to the eco campaigners.

We want you to focus on the job we gave you.

Get it?



PS In case you don't recognise it, the pic shows Tyntesfield in Somerset, acquired by the NT in 2002, and still being restored. Tyntesfield was famously built on bird shit, and if you like Victorian gothic, you'll love Tyntesfield. Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Yobs- Another Home Office Shambles

Sorts out the yobs, and keeps the kids entertained

The dysfunctional £15bn pa Home Office is a national disgrace. Quite happy to dream up no end of rules and regulations to hamper the lives of normal law abiding citizens, they're rubbish at tackling real threats. They're also rubbish at managing their own business (see many previous blogs, starting here and here).

The Public Accounts Committee has just published its report on Tackling Anti-Social Behaviour. According to the PAC, the direct cost to taxpayers is £3.4bn pa, with untold further costs born by victims.

At one time local communities dealt with local yobs directly, using tried and tested methods. But the Home Office long ago stopped all that, deciding it could do better, and subsuming all meaningful power to itself.

So instead of the stocks etc, these days we have to deal with yobs using things called "interventions". And what a tangled thicket of incomprehensibility they turn out to be. Just take a glance at this lot:

Not finished yet... it goes on:

No wonder the PAC found that local implementation is a dog's breakfast: few local authorities can fathom out the full range of controls and sanctions available to them:

"Comparable local areas use different approaches to dealing with anti-social behaviour and there has been no comparative evaluation of the success of these approaches. Nor has there has been a comprehensive evaluation of the use and success of the different measures and powers."

Can you believe that? Surely, you'd think the HO would want to know which of its ragbag of "interventions" actually works, and would therefore monitor results very carefully. Wouldn't you?

No, of course not- this is the Home Office. They have no idea how successful their interventions are because they don't measure it. In fact, the only way the NAO could get any handle on success rates was to mount its own survey.

And you know what it found? Half of all "interventions" are directed at a hard core of real yobs. And each of them has an average of 50 criminal convictions.

50 convictions!

Now, as regular readers will know, Tyler is very tolerant of criminals. But 50 convictions! And the worst case actually had 271 criminal convictions, along with 25 breaches of his Anti-Social Behaviour Order.

WTF aren't these thugs locked up? They are seriously useless and unpleasant people and we simply don't want to have them among us. They make our lives a misery. Sure, they may have problematic home lives, but we have no idea how to fix them, and meanwhile they create mayhem for other people.

Yobbery: yet another area where a succession of tough talking Home Secretaries has totally failed to deliver.

The PAC also took another look at the HO's appallingly slipshod internal record keeping. It was a familar catalogue of systemic failure. Specifically, the PAC noted:

  • The Home Office provided data to the National Audit Office on perceptions of anti-social behaviour which the Home Office later admitted was incorrect

  • The Comptroller & Auditor General disclaimed an opinion on the Home Office’s Accounts for 2004–05 because weaknesses in the accounting system and financial management within the Home Office meant that the Department was unable to submit its accounts in time for the audit to be completed to the statutory timetable

  • Inaccurate data was provided to PAC in 2005 and 2006 on the release of foreign national prisoners released from custody without consideration for deportation. In July 2006 PAC concluded that the Home Office did not have a grip on the issue of foreign nationals released from prison and not deported

  • 27,500 cases of British nationals committing criminal offences abroad were not entered onto the Police National Computer. The backlog was finally cleared this year, but many of the 2,198 individuals who have been involved in the most serious types of offences or have committed crimes of a sexual nature can no longer be located. They could be living next door.

The Cabinet Office recently assessed the Home Office as being the very worst functioning of all our poorly functioning government departments- some achievement.

As with most Big Government, we'd all be much better served, and much safer, if power was simply returned to individuals and local communities.

PS The Major reckons he could knock up a set of village stocks for about fifty quid. Any interest?

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Night At The Fag Packet Olympics

2012 planning meeting

As we've blogged many times, the 2012 London Olympics nightmare is a classic of fag packet planning. And that original £2.375bn budget was almost certainly dreamed up after ten pints down the Stoat and Weasel.

Last week the National Audit Office produced its second report on the whole disaster (see this blog for PAC hearing on first report). And this time they've had a go at unravelling just how such a half-baked budget could ever have been cooked up.

What they conclude is a shocking testimony to the prevalence of wishful thinking and outright deception among our rulers.

The fag packet was first scribbled on one evening down the Weasel in 2002. It was then that the DCMS, the Greater London Authority, and the British Olympic Association jointly commissioned consultants Arup to produce "a study".

At £85 grand, it wasn't cheap. But it was certainly half-baked. It purported to be "a high level cost-benefit analysis of a ‘specimen’ Games (excluding regeneration) for appraisal purposes". And it reckoned the whole thing could be done for a public subsidy of just £494m (para 25).

That's right. £494m.

Even though the Sydney games- one of the most successful ever- had just cost Aussie taxpayers over £1bn, and Athens was well on course for £5bn.

The DCMS ordered up another round (£31 grand) and asked PWC to do another "study". Sniffing the political air (or something), they reckoned it would cost between £1.1bn and £2.1bn (para 26)- both figures being way beyond the initial Arup estimate.

So in the space of just two rounds, the fag packet had gone from £494m to maybe £2.1bn.

It was at this point they decided to kick off the advanced version of the Withnail drinking game. Tess entered into a "memorandum of understanding" with Ken that she could down two pints of Stella and a triple Bacardi before he could name all the members of the winning 1966 England World Cup team.

They agreed the wager would be £2.375bn (para 27).

To be settled by taxpayers.

Game on!

Tess downed the first pint, no sweat.

But then someone pointed out they hadn't agreed proper rules. Where were these so-called "specimen- or should I say urine specimen- games" actually going to be staged?

Tess narrowed her eyes and drew heavily on her Regal. "Oh, I dunno. Anywhere. What about Stratford?"

She asked PWC to do another "study" (for a further £182 grand). This time they reported that "the net costs associated with hosting the Games" would total "some £4.5 billion" (para 28).

Going UP.

Tess downed the second Stella in one. "Sod that! We're just gonna cut costs!"

She asked Partnerships UK, who happened to be sitting at the next table, to come up with some private sector dosh. "Shhhuuurrre," they slurred, "shhhuuuurre... for a boootifooll bird like you... how about £1.336 billion?" (para 30).

Tess wiped the slaver off her vest and rounded it down to £738m (the latest highly wobbly estimate is just £165m).

She downed the triple Bacardi.

Which was probably her Big Mishtake.

Big BIG Mishtake.

But at least she only woke up in a pool of vomit with a gigantic hangover.

The rest of us woke up having to pay the bill.

£9.325bn at the last count. Plus another £8bn or so in transport and other infrastructure.

And we didn't even get to enjoy the drinks.
PS Given the shambles so far, the NAO also asked whether the latest £9bn budget presented by Tess in March (see this blog) is at last sound and complete. And the answer is- surprise- nobody really knows. There's still big uncertainty whether the contingency reserve will be enough, how much construction inflation will be pushed up by all the building work, what will be the detailed design specs, how keen contractors will be to undertake the work, and detailed cashflow benchmarks. As the NAO concludes: "The budget for the Games as announced by the Secretary of State is in effect an outline budget... A baseline budget should be underpinned by clear definitions to help ensure that costs are allocated consistently and financial information can be relied upon... The budget was finalised only shortly before the Secretary of State’s announcement to Parliament, but the timescales meant that the formal drawing together of the budget, the key assumptions and judgements underpinning the cost estimates, and the key deliverables which the Olympic programme is expected to bring had not been completed." (paras 78-82)

Trust Meter On Empty

We've heard a lot recently about how the great and the not so good are going to rebuild our trust in them.

The £570bn pa dysfunctional government is going to rebuild it after narrowly wriggling out of the slammer for selling - ahem -"honours". The £3.3bn pa biased BBC is going to rebuild it after being proved the bunch of overpaid fakes we always knew they were. And lo-cal lo-carb Dave is going to rebuild it after 18 months of crypto-minging. Well, no, scrub the last one.

I wish I could find a reason to believe.

I really do. I really want to believe things will only get better.

But the fact is that every time I put my trust in any of these people, the next thing I know, they've let me down.

And it's not just the highly distressing case of Auditor General Sir J Bourn, although, as someone whose jib I once greatly admired, I do feel particularly let down by him (see many previous blogs eg here).

It's pretty well all of them. As soon as they climb into the cockpit of state, or even just get a sniff of its finely tooled leather upholstery, they can't wait to lose the very thing we value most in our rulers- I N T E G R I T Y.

Nick Herbert is the latest.

Nick's a very bright boy, and until 2005 was head of the excellent Reform think tank. I heard him speak a few times, and he always impressed me with his informed commitment to smaller government and the reform of public services based on choice and competition.

Then he became an MP, parachuted in to take over the safe Tory seat of Arundel and South Down from the unfortunate Howard Flight. I had great hopes for him, and he's achieved rapid advancement.

But sadly, he's gone to the dark side. Last week, we discovered he'd been at the corporate hospitality trough: BBC Biased reported he was among five MPs (including also Shadow Chief Secretary Theresa Villiers, supposedly the Tory frontbencher most concerned with cutting government waste) who had accepted a £255 boonie ticket to Glastonbury.

Now it's no surprise that the BBC thinks it's perfectly OK to spend £68 grand OF OUR MONEY on corporate schmoozing at Glastonbury- they do it all the time, from Wimbledon to the Albert Hall. But WTF does Herbert think it's OK to accept? WTF didn't he blow the whistle and scream about the waste of taxpayers' funds?

I'm sitting here still shaking my head. Maybe I'm just too naive. But once again, I feel badly let down by one of the few members of the ruling elite I thought I could trust.

As a North American BOM reader commented under a previous post, "I have found a good rule of thumb is to disbelieve ANYTHING a politician or salesman tells me (and keep my hand on my wallet) until I've done my own research."

Who'd want to argue?

Temping Docs

Hands up anyone who'd like to try a brain op

We've blogged before about how the NHS wastes vast amounts of money through employing expensive- and quite possibly poorly qualified- temps (eg here).

Now it turns out that hospitals are having to employ hundreds of locums to cover for shortages caused by the disastrous breakdown of the junior hospital doctor recruitment system (MTAS- see here).

Junior docs are supposed to start their new jobs next week (1 August), but thanks to the MTAS fiasco, 2,320 of the training posts are still unfilled. Many of the gaps are being filled by locums (eg see here for situation in Basingstoke).

Cost? We don't know. But the Northern Ireland Audit Office recently reported on the cost of locums there, and highlighted the case of a locum radiologist who was paid £240,000 for a year's work- well over three times the cost of a permanent radiologist.

The NI Auditor General also underlined how such waste had escalated over recent years:

"Expenditure on temporary and locum staff in Northern Ireland [rose] from £8.7m in 1999-00 to £31m in 2003-04."

A near fourfold increase.

Readers of BOM will be quite familar with this. The NHS spends around £1bn pa on temporary nurses alone.

More broadly- as we blogged here- the public sector is by far and way Britain's biggest employer of temps. 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.


The fundamental reason is shocking management. Flipflop strategy, fantasy planning, and gripless implementation- a surefire recipe for chaos and waste.

Temping docs are just one more symptom of a far, far deeper malaise.

Pinko Pink 'Un

It's certainly pink

For 25 years Tyler was a regular reader- and buyer- of the FT.

But the FT changed. Whereas it was once the definitive source of objective and informed analysis on pretty well everything (its coverage of the Iran-Iraq War was outstanding), its political and economic coverage gradually slid to the left.

By the 1992 election, it had travelled so far it formally came out in support of Labour. And it has supported Labour ever since.

But we can already read the Labour line- much more entertainingly presented- in the Grauniad. So as soon as Tyler retired from the City, he stopped buying the pink 'un. He now just scans its headlines on the net. And he's not alone- the paper's UK circulation has more than halved in the last 20 years, and is now well under 100,000.

This morning they carry a typical story. Headlined "Backlash in rich nations against globalisation" , it gleefully reports:

"A popular backlash against globalisation and the leaders of the world’s largest companies is sweeping all rich countries, an FT/Harris poll shows.

Large majorities of people in the US and in Europe want higher taxation for the rich and even pay caps for corporate executives to counter what they believe are unjustified rewards and the negative effects of globalisation.

In response to fears of globalisation and rising inequality, the public in all the rich countries surveyed – the US, Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain – want their governments to increase taxation on those with the highest incomes. In European countries, a large majority want governments to go further and to impose pay caps on the heads of companies."

Well, that ain't quite the way I'd read their results- see their summary chart above. In particular:
  • View of globalisation- in no country does the majority have a negative view of globalisation

  • Redistribution- yes, in Europe- not the US- there is a majority for pay caps on big bad bosses, but that's not a real question about redistribution; that's a free-hit, politics of envy, question (see this blog)
Pinko Pink 'Un.


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Recent Bonfires 72

Hope you guys are insured...
In the news this week:

Hull Council's insurance fiasco cost £200m- "Taxpayers face a massive bill to repair flood damage in Hull after the local council admitted that its properties were not insured. Officials at Kingston-upon-Hull City Council revealed that most of the city's 28,500 council houses, schools and other public buildings were not covered for water damage. Hull now faces a £200 million repair bill following the devastating flooding that hit Yorkshire last month. The decision not to insure council buildings goes against government policy." (Sunday Telegraph 22.7.07)

MoD's £39m pa spin doctors- "Defence chiefs are spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on 1,000 "spin doctors" in an attempt to boost the military's public image. Yet in a striking admission, an internal Ministry of Defence (MoD) document reveals that senior officials have "no clear idea" of who they are, whether they are making an impact, or their actual cost to the country. The report states: "We have no clear idea of the number of people involved in defence communications work or their costs. Over 1,000 people in MoD have a media/communications job code. This excludes many military personnel involved in communications work." The average salary for an MoD public relations official is approximately £39,000 - equating to an annual pay bill of £39 million for the 1,000 staff." ( Sunday Telegraph 22.7.07)

£1m lost on failed cash for honours probe- "Met Police chief Sir Ian Blair, is to probe the handling of the cash for honours inquiry amid concerns about its length and £1m cost. He will produce a report for the Metropolitan Police Authority, (MPA) which oversees the force... [Assembly member] Richard Barnes said: "It is most disturbing that the police should spend £1m on an investigation which lasted nearly 16 months and ending with the CPS laying charges against no one. We all need to be assured that the decisions reached were reached properly and without outside interference." (BBC 20.7.07)

Metronet collapse already costing £20-30m per week- "Since the Metronet consortium plunged into administration on Wednesday, Transport For London - the other party to the giant 30-year contract - has already had to find a loan of hundreds of millions of pounds, to pay for the administration process, which will cost £20-30m a week... it shows that where major public infrastructure projects are concerned, the risk can only ever be partly lifted off taxpayers' shoulders: a fact made explicit in the original contract, in which TFL guaranteed 95 per cent of the £2bn debt the five-member consortium took out... while the shareholders have walked away from the legal and financial nightmare that was the PPP, the one certainty seems to be that taxpayers - or tube-travellers - will be left with the rest of the bill." (Observer 22.7.07)

Total for week- £270m

Slightly OT- Global Warming

Global average temperatures (source: NCDC)

On global warming, Tyler likes to characterise himself as an agnostic. Which means he can see the planet is warming, but is unconvinced anyone really understands why.

But for the last couple of Sundays the inestimable Mr Booker has referenced a chart which apparently shows warming has stopped. This week he says:

"A graph of satellite data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that, over the past eight years, average global temperatures have flattened out well below their peak in 1998. The 2007 figures to June show a dip to a level first reached in 1983, 24 years ago."

On a weekend when most of England is underwater, and the cry for more Big Government action is getting louder, that's very interesting. I want to believe it. So I've just tried to find the chart.

Unfortunately, all I can come up with is this page from the US National Climatic Data Center, drawing on the NOAA satellite data. It includes this chart:

What it shows is that sea surface temperatures are indeed down- 2007 ytd is only the sixth warmest year ever. But land temperatures are up- 2007 ytd is numero uno, the warmest on record.

Highly inconvenient.

Have I missed something?

Does anyone know?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Police (In)Efficiency

Paper trail
Here on BOM we have always doubted claims that our £17bn pa police are efficient. The latest report into police funding from the Home Affairs Select Committee spells out precisely why we are right to be sceptical.

First, there's the issue of how they've spent all the extra money they've been given. According to the Report, between 1996-97 and 2006-07, police funding increased by 40% in real terms. Which means in today's money they have something like an extra £7bn pa to spend (about £300 per household).

We taxpayers imagined they were going to spend it on more cops for our lawless streets. Have they? Have they hell. Here are the numbers:

As we can see, since 1997, the number of police officers has increased by just 11% - only one-quarter of the increase in money. The man from Association of Chief Police Officers - the ironically named Dr Brain (no, really) - explained to the Committee:

"The investment has not been blindly spent on additional officers but has been wisely invested across a range of initiatives so as to maximise the return in relation to service performance."

Oh yeah? Like what?

Er... Airwave.

Airwave? That's that wildly overpriced police mobile phone system (see this blog), isn't it? Yup, that's the one.

And quite apart from the simple issue of police numbers, there's the issue of how they spend their time. For example, the Committee produced this shocking summary of the time spent on paperwork:

But although 20% of their time is spent on paperwork, the government actually counts most of that as "frontline policing". As the Committee drily observes, that "skews the statistics and gives an exaggerated impression of the Government’s success in returning police officers to street duties."

You might want to remember that next time some minister brags about how much more police time is being spent on "the frontline". It probably just means even more paperwork is being processed.

Then there's the whole issue of the widely touted fall in crime. One big problem there (as we blogged here) is that although some crimes have fallen, the serious crimes we really worry about haven't. Moreover, much of the overall fall has had nothing to do with the police. As the Committee notes:

"In the case of both vehicle crime and burglary, improvements in security—far more than any government action—have probably been a significant contributor to overall falls...

Excluding successes on burglary and vehicle theft, there has been a more mixed picture in tackling overall crime, particularly given the increase in resources available to the police. For example, between 2002–03 and 2005–06 violent crime as measured by the police recorded crime statistics showed a 21% increase..."

The Committee also highlights the inconvenient (for the police) fact that the big decline in British Crime Survey crime came before the surge in police budgets:

"The significant drop in overall BCS-measured crime occurred between 1995 and 2001, with crime levels remaining roughly stable, or only slightly decreasing, between 2001 and 2006... It is striking that much of the decrease in overall crime rates over the past ten years occurred before the major increase in investment." (para 20)

And then there are those wretched tractor production targets. The police boast that production has never been higher. They told the Committee:

"The numbers of offences brought to justice (OBTJ), the key government crime reduction target, “have increased by 20% (from 1998–99 to 2005–06)” and that there has been “an increase of 6% in the number of OBTJ per police officer over the same period”.

The trouble is that much of this apparent achievement relates to petty offences. The Committee noted:

"The Government’s key crime reduction target, ‘offences brought to justice’, is not a good indicator of success in relation to the types of crime which the public fear most.

Performance against the target improved by 20% between 1998–99 and 2005–06. However, in the twelve months to March 2006 a large proportion (38%) of offences brought to justice were made up of petty offences in the form of warnings, Cautions and Penalty Notices for Disorder, and only 53% comprised convictions. There is a strong case for excluding summary justice measures from this target." (para 30)

So that's yet another useless- and probably counterproductive- top-down target.

The blunt truth is that neither the government nor the police have any idea whether they're delivering value. And frankly, they don't really care. As the Committee observes:

"On the basis of the data currently available, it is difficult to assess how effectively the increased spending on the police in recent years has been deployed. The Home Office, ACPO and APA have not yet developed mechanisms to collect or analyse information in any comprehensive way to assess the productivity and cost-effectiveness of the police service."

One more reson why we need to remove responsibility for policing from central government and return it to local communities.

PS As we've blogged many times, the police often seem to use their expensive resources in some pretty unproductive activities. For example, on Thursday, four forces mounted a massive operation on the Severn Bridge. A local BOM correspondent reports:

"200 police officers spent the day watching all 80,000 vehicles crossing the two Severn bridges, using number plate recognition technology. They were supported by immigration officers, vehicle inspectors, etc, etc - at least 50 supporters.

But they only stopped about 150 vehicles. So the tally is 3/4 of a vehicle stop per police officer. My guess is that it cost over £1,000 per stop."

And the final result? Just 19 arrests, for "breach of bail, theft of motor vehicle, possession of class A drugs, being in possession of an offensive weapon and fraud".

200 officers from four forces. A whole day. Just 19 ragbag arrests.

True, it got on BBC TV Points West, which may well have been the object of the exercise. But it's not what we pay our taxes for.

Closer to home, what should we make of the helicopter response to Tyler's lawn mower burglary? Very impressive, but a good use of resources? The Surrey chopper costs £1.8m pa to run, and 20 minutes after the event, there was never a cat's chance it was going to apprehend my burglar. It's supposedly instrumental in about 200 arrests pa, but round here people reckon its main purpose is to impress fretful punters like me. Plus, it sure beats doing more paperwork.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Record Breakers: Sir John Bourn

He would not be amused

We've blogged the dismaying case of our Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) freeloading expenses many times (eg here, here, and here). Sadly, he still hasn't done the right thing, and the PAC still hasn't made him.

So what happens now?

The problem is that Sir John holds a unique position in Britain's governmental system. It's extremely hard to get rid of him. With a backsliding monarch you've always got the straightforward option of cutting off his/her head, but with the C&AG it's much more difficult.

Take a look at what it says on the NAO website:

"The absence of a written constitution in the United Kingdom means that the Supreme Audit Institution is established by Act of Parliament/Legislative body.

The National Audit Office's (NAO) independence derives from the unique position of the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG - the head of the SAI). All statutory powers and rights governing the audit of central government finances are vested in the C&AG personally; the NAO has no independent corporate status - the NAO are the staff of the C&AG, and the C&AG himself is part of the NAO.

The C&AG is appointed by HM The Queen, the Head of State, on an address from the House of Commons moved by the Prime Minister after agreement with the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

The C&AG can only be removed from office by HM The Queen on an address from both Houses of Parliament.

The appointment of the C&AG is "without limit of time"; the officeholder cannot be a Member of Parliament, a Lord or hold any office under the Crown. The C&AG's salary is paid directly from the Consolidated fund rather than from a Departmental Vote. The staff of the NAO are not civil servants, and the C&AG, within certain guidelines, determines their salaries and conditions of service. The C&AG has ultimate discretion as to his work programme and how it is executed.

The various conditions of service of the C&AG to secure independence are:

  • Special procedure for appointment

  • Special procedure for removal

  • Unlimited tenure

  • Control over resources/budget

  • Immunity/protection from the actions of others in the performance of his duties

  • Independence to frame workplans"

Now, we can all see why Gladstone set it up like that: he wanted to make quite sure that the C&AG was not dependent on any government department for his pay and rations, or his freedom to probe and harry.

But Gladstone probably also assumed gentlemen's rules: that a gentleman would always know when the time had come for the bottle of scotch and pearl handled revolver.

At 73, Bourn is way beyond normal retirement age. And he's been in post since 1988, almost two decades- way longer than most C&AGs. In fact, he's currently running second in the record books, getting close to the longest tenure ever, the 21 years put in by the very first C&AG, Sir William Dunbar, between 1867 and 1888.

But we taxpayers don't want a record breaker. We want a C&AG who is above suspicion, and is not compromised in his pursuit of government waste. And we want a C&AG who is accountable to us, and who cannot simply hold onto power as long as he likes.

It just won't do.

Bourn should make a gentleman's exit soonest, and his successor should be appointed on a fixed term. Just like virtually every other Auditor General in the developed world.

PS For future reference a BOM correspondent has provided this (virtually) complete list of office holders:

1867 Sir William Dunbar
1888 ?
1896 R. Mills
1900 D. Richmond
1904 Sir J. Kempe
1911 Sir H. Gibson
1921 Sir M. Ramsay
1931 Sir G. Upcott
1946 Sir Frank Tribe
1958 Sir E. Compton
1966 Sir B. Fraser
1971 Sir D. Pitbaldo
1976 Sir Dennis Henley
1981 Sir Gordon Downey
1988- Sir John Bourn

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Spinning Crime

Aide memoire for crime stats

Good News! According to the latest annual crime statistics, we Tylers live in the lowest crime area in the whole of England!

Yes, it's true. Our police force area has only 69 recorded crimes per 1,000 people, which compares to the national average of 100 per 1,000.

Hurrah for us, and hurrah for the Surrey constabulary!

And yet...

In a week when I interrupted an attempted burglary in my own back garden in broad daylight (see crime report here), somehow we don't feel like cheering. In fact, for the first time in our lives, we're wondering if we really are safe in our own home.

It's not just the idea that our insured belongings will get nicked- although that's outrageous enough. The real worry is what might happen if some really bad guys came round and things went beyond simple thieving. We have no wish to face the machete men at 2am.

So the chances are we'll soon be following many of our neighbours in installing electric gates, CCTV, and mantraps.

The reality is that hardly any of us believe all those government claims that crime is plummeting, or even today's Home Office more measured assurance that "crime is stable". And in truth you get the distinct impression that the Commissars don't believe it either- why else would they choose today of all days to generate their headline grabbing inhalation smokescreen?

So what do the latest numbers really say? I've taken a canter through the 200 page HO report to find out.

Here's their headline summary chart, showing crime as measured by the British Crime Survey. The BCS is the government's preferred measure of crime, although as we've discussed before, it is actually little more than an elaborate opinion survey. But it does show a dramatic fall in victims' experience of crime since its peak in the mid 1990s:

There are a couple of immediate points to note.

First, thank God for Michael Howard. If he hadn't insisted on pushing through his prison building programme- despite everything the BBC and their multi-million Paxo could throw at him- we'd have had a disaster on our hands. Note how as soon as the present clowns took over and the building programme fizzled out, the BCS crime fall also came to an end. Indeed, BCS crime has actually increased for the last two years running (we should simply guffaw at the appalling McNulty's gloss that the increases are "not statistically significant"- it's up 4% in two years).

Second, we should all understand that the BCS concept of "crimes" includes a ragbag of trivial items most of us don't lose a second's sleep over. No surprise that less than half of BCS crimes end up getting recorded by the police, and for some- like perceived violence without any injury- the proportion recorded is more like 10%. If crimes are that trivial, why would we care? Are they even real crimes?

What we really want to know about are the serious crimes. Those are the ones the key stats should home in on.

Fortunately, the Home Office spells out what it thinks they are. Its report provides this table of the estimated economic costs of different crimes. And it includes the costs to us, the victims:

Rational economic beings that we are, it's pretty clear which crimes we take most seriously- homicide, sexual offences, serious wounding, and robbery. And rational number crunchers that we are, we'd much rather take the number of recorded crimes from the police, rather than some opinion poll where someone reckons they were the victim of of a serious wounding but never bothered to report it.

Let's consider the period since 1997 (see Report table 2.04). Since then, the recorded crime category of "most serious violence against the person" (including homicide and serious wounding) was up 35%. The category "most serious sexual crime" was up 40%. And robbery was up a staggering 61%*.

A straight average of these three categories says that serious crime- the crime we actually worry most about- is up by 45%.

Serious crime up 45% since Labour took over.

So when Jacqui Smith tells us straightfaced "today's crime statistics show we are holding the improvements to the falls in crime", she must be figuring we're as fond of the old Wacky Baccy as she is.

Of course, the government and its apologists argue that you can't use police recorded crime data, because the coverage and counting method has gone through two significant changes since 1997.

How very convenient that is.

But the truth is the changes primarily affected less serious crimes, with for example the inclusion of a raft of additional summary offences in 1998. And by focusing on serious crimes, we avoid most of that noise*. So sucks to them.

Whatever the government may say about the crime wave being all in our heads, the serious crime we actually worry about has shot up since they came to power.

* Tedious stats footnote- The recorded crime stats have had two databreaks since 1997. The first was in 1998, but is not a problem because the Home Office published "before" and "after" stats, and in the case of our serious crimes there was virtually no difference. The second in 2002 is more of a problem because there are no before and after stats. But for our serious crime categories, the break doesn't look to have affected things that much- even if you exclude the entire increase between 2001-02 and 2002-03 (a pretty extreme assumption), our 45% increase figure only falls to around 30%- still a chunky increase.