November 28, 2007

Is Labour in the modern world?

Lord Cunningham pointed out on Today this morning that two successive Labour treasurers have been kept in the dark about party funding - Jack Dromey about the pseudo-loans, and the current incumbent about Mr Abrahams.

Jack is of course husband to Harriet Harman, whose deputy leadership campaign apparently took £5,000 from Mr Abrahams in one of his disguises. She says she thought it would be acceptable to take the donation because the name was on Labour's list of registered donors - which seems reasonable. It's hard not to feel sorry for this patently inadequate politician, which is worrying.

Mr Watt wasn't just pitchforked into the job of General Secretary after being a nurse. He worked his way up the party ladder, so he must have been aware of the issues around political donations from his previous jobs in the Labour party headquarters, especially as he seems to have spent a spell in compliance! (His predecessor as General Secretary is now a junior minister.) What other fiddles has this party hack connived at?

During an inadequate performance on Monday's Newsnight, Gavin Essler ignored good questions from Sir Alistair Graham - surely, he said, in this age of money laundering the party's committee should have had robust compliance arrangements in place.

This is far more important than the bizarre activities of Mr Abrahams (his importance is for the aura of sleaze his every utterance strengthens). The abiding impression is that Labour care nothing for the rules they expect us little people to abide by, and are incapable of running anything properly.

Are they in the modern world? Mr McBadger thinks a capital gains tax concession that the first £100,000 will be free of tax should cut the mustard. He thinks £18,000 is a meaningful concession to a serial entrepreneur or someone who is selling a business they have built up over a lifetime?

Similarly Mr McBrown thought families who owned their own home in the south east would think it reasonable to pay inheritance tax on a substantial proportion of the property's value. But those families know that their offspring will need to pay those prices to buy homes of their own.

And Labour's attitude to personal data is so out of touch as to be ridiculous. They shouldn't need an expensive report to tell them what to do. (Actually they were told two years ago, but down in their bunker they weren't interested.)

If they only got out into the world, they'd find it richer and more complex than they conceive.

Stalin, or is it BrownIn their own grey world they expect people to be passive takers of the state's provision. Take, for instance, the postcode lottery of the amount your local health trust spends on cancer care. Some trusts spend three times more on patients than others. Each NHS trust decides independently which cancer drugs to offer and how much money to spend.

These trusts operate fairly independently as arms of the state and decide health policies for their territories. Their bosses are agreeably remote, their local subjects have no say.

Will the government's subjects accept such arrangements with passive gratitude? It feels impossible that the present unimaginative, lacklustre incumbents could countenance anything so radical as genuine local democratic influence over centralised state provision.

Trapped in their grey timewarp, they achieve the seemingly impossible - to make the Tories look fresh and new.

November 25, 2007

Taking governing seriously

The press has heaps of newsprint which it fills with details of the government leaks of IT information. The story is in everyone's mind - it even got a passing mention last night in the scarcely political Strictly Come Dancing.

Doubtless it would suit the government for people to become bored by the detail, so let's focus on the big picture. CD's containing confidential data seem to have been routinely whizzing about the country. In addition to the CD's lost on their way to the NAO, several have been lost in Scotland, and several have been sent to private firms doing contract work for the government.

This cavalier treatment of personal data would never be tolerated in the private sector. If a bank was found doing this, the chief executive would resign at once and be hauled before Brown's buddy John McFall on the Treasury Select Committee for a public mauling.

The government has set up a review, as it usually does when something's gone publicly wrong. As I blogged before, it will be needlessly expensive.

Did all this take the government by surprise? It shouldn't have. They were warned two years ago, and told how important it was to put it right, and told what they needed to do. But nothing happened.

(To take one example, HMRC should never have sent the database to the Audit Office at all. If the NAO wanted to sample it, they should have sent at least two people to HMRC to examine the minimal data required under secure conditions.)

Despite all this, Mr McBadger says it's not his fault. He's right.

Ministers set policies which need large organisations to implement them, but then they take no interest in those organisations until one of two things happen - they blow up in their face (like the child support agency), or the minister decides to take an initiative. Oh dear. This usually involves an arbitrary slashing of staff numbers or some other decision which takes no account of how organisations actually work, like Margaret Beckett's decision to change the way the Rural Payments Agency had to deliver, at the same time as cutting its staff numbers.

If ministers have had any outside experience at all before entering politics, it is usually as lawyers or lecturers. They have no experience of working in a large organisation, and no feel whatever for how organisations work. They think they're uninterestingly easy.

What to do? Government organisations can break governments - ever more easily, as they intrude more and more into our lives. But ministers are uninterested in them and clueless about them. So let's put these important organisations under one senior ministry which will accord them the importance they deserve, and which is responsible for making sure they deliver - and nothing else.

We could call it the Department of Administrative Affairs.

It would be headed by a cabinet minister, who would therefore have direct access to the former Chancellor, who is after all the man responsible for this mess.

(Don't miss Richard Littlejohn's perceptive and hilarious extended comparison between Gordon Brown and Steve McClaren.)

So McBroon would have a plausible senior fall guy available, and McFall would have someone he could reasonably safely berate.

The minister would need to be a big hitter from outside politics with senior large commercial organisation experience. Voters would be more inclined to trust the person just because they were from outside politics, with no career reason to kowtow to political convenience or correctness.

But this is just one example of Labour's lack of interest in actually governing. Hence the Better Government Initiative by the great and the good. Opening your borders can lead to population projections of 90 million, so you might have to concrete over more green belt, and build more prisons - or you might have to set 10,000 prisoners free early. Governing is about these sorts of issues rather than seeking to recruit Fiona Phillips because McBrown says "we need to get messages across to people so they don't think we're lecturing them".

You have to think issues through first - formatting messages comes way down the line.

Two-pronged approach to incapacity benefit

There are good and bad people on incapacity benefit.

The case of David Le Compte shows how difficult it can be to get back into work. He highlights the bureaucratic uselessness of the DWP. Its job centre staff get paid however inadequate they are.

He wants to work. What government skills courses are likely to help him? They'll keep him off the numbers for a while, but what then?

We need a job placement agency paid by results. Not just a small bonus for placements, but the bulk of its income.

At the other end of the scale we have crooks like Glenda Askew. This wasn't an incapacity benefit case, but she defrauded the welfare system by claiming £11,604 in widow's benefits by pretending her husband was dead - for eight years. Unusually, she has been sent to prison. Usually the punishment is community service, much of which goes unserved. And these criminals can't realistically afford to pay back large sums.

Here's a proposal which should deter many of them. If they get a conviction for falsely claiming a benefit, they should be disqualified from claiming that benefit again. For ever. That should deter a lot of cheats.

There should be one exception. If the magistrate declares the offence to be merely technical (like Mr le Compte's 4p) or a genuine mistake, then entitlement could continue. Deliberate fraud would always be a disqualification. A lie on a questionnaire would mean disqualification.

Offenders must receive a punishment which means something to them. This is it.

November 21, 2007

Labour's Black Tuesday?

This is the question bring asked by The Spectator's blog. Fraser Nelson writes that "people are pledging to shut down bank accounts and vote Labour out. They seem utterly unmoved by assurances that all is well, and no one is really at risk."

Certainly an unpolitical friend of ours walked in this morning and immediately started talking about it. It had clearly been a topic of worried conversation at home.

Fraser goes on, "En route to PMQs, I bumped into a minister and we got talking about this. "Who on earth are these people?" he asked."
The answer: the British public. People who live miles away from the Westminster village, who switch off when politics comes on television, the type who queued outside Northern Rock to withdraw savings because they did not trust a syllable of the reassurances uttered by this government. They are the people who celebrated the Queen's golden jubilee to the bafflement of the media and political class; the people who Tony Blair understood instinctively and spoke for so eloquently on the death of Diana ten years ago.
The Telegraph reports in a piece I can't see on their website
A new government register of every schoolchild in England will leave young people vulnerable to paedophiles, according to a survey.

ContactPoint, which will go online next year, will contain the address, medical and school details of all 11 million under-18s in England and will be available to an estimated 330,000 vetted users, including doctors and social services officials.

But children questioned by Ofsted, the education watchdog, said they were "very concerned" that the data would fall into the wrong hands and thought paedophiles would try to break into Contactpoint. They said too much information was being stored on the network, and there should be tighter regulations on those able to access it.
This computer system is to cost £224m. Would any parents now want such detailed information about their children collected on a single government database, let alone one available to 330,000 people?

Money down the drainAnd what is it for, this £224m computer system?
The aim is that social workers, doctors and schools will share information on young people to stop children falling into gaps between different services.
That must surely be affect a tiny minority of children. But all children are to be included and it is to cost us £224m.

And it is for England only. So it need not concern McBroon's constituents. It seems only English families are to run this risk.

P.S. Terrible coverage for Labour on BBC1's 10pm news. The copying and despatching is laid at the door of a (so far anonymous) 23 year old - and the BBC highlighted Gordon Brown's smirk during Prime Minister's Questions.

Brown's apology misses the point

Gordon Brown has apologised because a junior employee broke the procedural rules when he copied off details of 25 million people.

This represents a completely mistaken view of data security - which is required by a law which his own government passed.

It's not enough to bung data on a computer and then have a piece of paper saying people can't copy it without a senior sign-off.

The point is that you protect the data so that it can't be copied without at least two of said senior people inputting their own personal codes. And they know they'd better have darn good reasons. Nobody of any seniority would have permitted such copying, let alone the methods of transmission.

So the question from today's statement is - does Brown understand that he's talking tripe?

Probably not, or he wouldn't have given a hostage to fortune by pretending that this was the issue.

This immense gaff has far further to run, not simply because the Information Commissioner (who is probably stunned by the depth of the Revenue's incompetence) was already investigating previous breaches.

Incidentally, the government has typically gone for an expensive solution by bringing in the chairman of one of the big accountancy firms to conduct a review.

All they need to do is to hire a few IT security professionals. Poach a few from a major bank. They're used to protecting databases, and they'll know what's required. Conceptually it won't be difficult. But it's beginning to sound as if it will entail a major culture shift in Revenue and Customs.

The question also arises - is this the standard of computer security in the rest of the state sector?

This scandal strengthens the case against big government. If they can't run it properly, we'll just have to try other solutions.

November 20, 2007

Breathtaking insecurity

What happened in the leak of child benefit data by Revenue and Customs? Present reported snippets are even more astonishing than the bare headline.

Such sensitive data sets should never have been held together in the same place. The Information Commissioner has said he was already investigating other breaches by the department, so they were on notice.

No telling the National Audit Office they can come and sample data at Revenue and Customs under secure conditions.

No secure electronic data transfer for them.

The data was apparently copied off by one junior employee. No dual control security codes? How easy is this?

It was not encrypted.

Password protection can be broken in minutes by a professional.

The first disk was just sent in the internal departmental mail. A poster on Adam Boulton's Sky blog claims items in the department's internal mail often go missing for weeks.

It vanished. The second disk was sent by post, recorded or registered. Of course this is also hugely insecure.

The department's computer security should be tougher than a bank's. First because it covers more people. Second because it IS the government.

As for risk, the risk isn't that a criminal accesses your bank account. It is that the combination of the data items makes it easy for a gang to perpetrate identity fraud - maybe months later, when the initial fuss has died down.

And if the first disk turns up in a week or two - or even tomorrow - where has it been? Who's had access to it?

Care to trust the government with your ID data? Thought not.

Competence, anyone?

What do they think they are playing at?

My umbrella blog colleague The Huntsman has usefully picked up an article from Sunday's Scotsman about the West Lothian question. Both pieces are well worth reading. The Scotsman includes a contribution by Tam Dalyell explaining the origin of the phrase, while The Huntsman provides a fluent background summary from an unashamedly English viewpoint.

The main part of The Scotsman's article and The Huntsman's commentary concerns answers proposed by three scots Labour MPs to what they may call up there "The English Question". All have the political sense not to ask why scots Labour MPs can't simply say they won't vote on purely English laws (answer: it would make the Defence Secretary look silly, it would make the International Development Secretary look silly, it would make the Chancellor look silly, it would make the Prime Minister look silly, and it might stop Labour getting occasional English bills through).

Most of the MPs who commented followed the party line by saying it wasn't urgent, it would need further study etc and kicked it back into the long grass. But three self important scots Labour MPs decided to share their views with the reporters. The general thrust is that they think the english should have more devolution whether we want it or not.

Doubtless they have now had pretty frosty sessions in the Labour whips' office, and been reminded that party policy on this is to say nothing, since there is no course of action which can avoid causing Labour political damage - hence the stonewalling by Ruth Kelly, Jack Straw and Gordon McBroon among others.

Even if Labour did want to do something - and it doesn't - there is no chance whatever that this cautious scots Prime Minister would impose a Regional assembly on an english "region" after the thumping referendum defeat in the north east.

And of course there is even less chance that he would offer another referendum on the subject, since it would renew clamour for a referendum on the EU constitution and he would be 99.9% certain to lose it.

So what were these scots MPs doing? Is there some devious political game being played here? Probably not. These minor players let their self-importance get the better of them when a reporter asked for their opinions on something.

The whips' office probably told them they had better hope it wouldn't get picked up by the Tories or make the London press. As The Huntsman points out, so far it hasn't. Thanks to him, maybe that will change. Booker, anyone? Simon Heffer, maybe?

Much ado about very little

Money down the drainThe government's trumpeted initiative to cut the 2.7m people on incapacity benefit - who cost us £12.5bn last year - turns out to be much ado about very little. As we blogged yesterday, they aim to cut the numbers on the benefit by 20,000 people each year.

That's because the new system will only apply to new applicants for incapacity benefit. Oh, and the new tests won't be introduced until next October.

The Financial Times provides a useful analysis piece. One expert blames Whitehall resistance for the long delay in starting to tackle the problem.
Civil servants pointed out that notes validating sickness benefit had been signed by patients’ GPs, and then assessed by another doctor reporting directly to the social security department. By questioning the high numbers of people going on to IB, ministers were in effect questioning the very efficiency of the civil service – a big charge for ministers newly in government to make.
Ministers also thought the numbers on incapacity benefit would fall as claimants retired. But no, a new generation picked up on it.

As Frank Field has pointed out, people aren't stupid. If they see a free meal ticket that suits them, they're unlikely to turn it down. It's government's job to design the system so that it doesn't operate like that.

Back to the validating process. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, so society can't leave it to doctors to decide on an individual basis how many adults it is going to have to support financially. Standards have to be set. They have to take account of affordability. And so they are political.

Maybe we have to set a number that we decide to afford. People have to be graded, with physical disabilities taking priority. There should be charities which can help people who don't score enough points to make the cut-off point. Taxpayers could choose to make voluntary donations to them.

There has to be a limit to compulsory funding by taxpayers. The government is still not gripping the problem, only tinkering.

The NHS is just too big to run

More than 10,000 patients have died from deep vein thrombosis (DVT) because hospitals are not following guidelines, reports The Telegraph. Only a third of hospitals reassess whether patients are at risk of DVT and treat them.

This is nearly three times the number who have died of the superbugs MRSA and C difficile combined.

The Telegraph's report explains the medical background.

Quite apart from the loss of life, a thrombosis charity points out that
The total costs of managing DVT within the NHS are estimated to be £640 million and it's deeply concerning that the simple step of risk-assessing patients is not being taken.
All this is despite guidance being given to hospitals by the Government's chief medical officer back in April. The parliamentary thrombosis group now want the guidelines to become mandatory.

Government struggles to bring accountability to the Nationalised Health Service. But the NHS is just too big to be run properly.

Hospitals have evidently been able to choose to ignore these sensible guidelines without any criticism or accountability.

If they must be run centrally, they should have mandatory sections of their websites where they have to tell their local communities what they are doing about health initiatives like this.

But then the hospital managements would feel less autonomous, and the government would lose more of the illusion that they are in control.

Privately owned, competitive hospitals would be keen to tell their communities about their advances because they would be keen to attract business.

But meanwhile, ministers, with their hubristic conviction that they know best, and that they can make a success of this huge ideologically inspired beast (against all the evidence), continue to kill people.

November 19, 2007

Taxpayers can't afford this incapacity benefit

Money down the drainThe Times splashes its revelation that almost two thousand people who are too fat to work have been paid a total of £4.4 million in benefit, with other payments going for instance to fifty sufferers from acne.

Colourful though the details are, they obscure the main point. Around 2.7 million people currently claim Incapacity Benefit, which costs £12.5bn a year, as The Sun spells out.

There are around 29 million employed.

The key point is that some 9% of the potentially economically active population are on incapacity benefit. Doubtless this gives a warm feeling to officials who sign them off. Less so to taxpayers who are given no choice about contributing.

It beggars belief that so many people are too unhealthy to do any sort of work whatever. 9% is a huge number. The government are trumpeting that their new measures will see an end to sick note culture.
It will deny Incapacity Benefit to 20,000 claimants each year.
Which - as the numbers above show - is hardly touching the problem. 2.7 million people would be reduced to 2.68 million. Are there really even 1 million people who are too incapacitated to make any contribution to society at all?

So called "support payments" cost £4,000 per household each year. Many taxpaying households need that money.

The government's tinkering for maximum publicity.

The case against big government

Money down the drainThe case against big government is simple and devastating.

Politicians have big ambitions, but low competence. This is not an issue of party political rhetoric, it is a matter of numbers.

Consider. The Taxpayers' Alliance has suggested that every household in Britain has £4,000 taken each year in tax and thrown away on useless projects and other waste by the government. More here.

And there are currently 5.4m people of working age who are not working but drawing benefits instead. And overall, we're spending over £100bn pa on "social protection" (excluding that spent on pensioners). That's about £4,000 pa per UK household. More here.

Is this a good way to spend £8,000 per household? Every year?

So the government has two redistribution policies. £4,000 a year from your money on "social protection" of people of working age. Then there's another £4,000 a year of your money. For all the good it does they might as well take it into a field and burn it. But in fact they redistribute it to expensive consultants and IT companies.

Did you vote for that?

This is not a party political point. Just as all the established parties favour state funding of political parties, so they all favour big government. They all have missions. That means missions at our expense.

So what political party is going to come out and say, We recognise that governments are institutionally incompetent?

But they are. That's why accountable transparency would be so important.

Sometimes the policies are barking, like the target of cutting Britain's emissions by 60% by 2050. And is the nation clamouring for "the government" to cut deaths and serious injuries on the roads by 40% by 2010 compared with the average figure for the mid-1990s?

So governments have some daft policies. They always will. Governing attracts tinkerers and meddlers and people who are sure they know better than you or me.

But it's very expensive. Take one recent example. The National Audit Office is to investigate the programme to buy £700m worth of private-sector care for NHS patients after it emerged that ministers had spent over £100m on the procurement.

This happens time and again. The Taxpayers' Alliance blog is a good source of material, but gets chaotic because instances of waste pile up so fast.

Take two core truths from this post.
  1. Governments waste over £4,000 per household each year. And that's just what we know about.

  2. The Opposition won't make this point, because they want their turn.
Wouldn't you rather have your money back?

November 11, 2007

A disappointing contribution

The Adam Smith Institute has produced a disappointing report about benefit reform, Working Welfare. The proposals won't work.

Something does have to be done. The reports notes there are "at least" 51 separate benefits, and less than 19% of current working age welfare benefits are in any way conditional on getting work. As Burning Our Money points out -
There are currently 5.4m people of working age who are not working but drawing benefits instead. And overall, we're spending in excess of £100bn pa on "social protection" (excluding that spent on pensioners). That's about £4,000 pa per UK household.
The paper claims that time limiting of benefits in the USA hasn't worked (without explaining why), but suggests that there should be more conditionality in welfare benefits, and that they should be administered by counties, with block grant from central government. Thus local best practices could be passed around.

This is quite a touching little paper, replete with references about US experience but short on any feel for the UK. Indeed, it reads as if the author might be an American graduate student.

First off, counties are not States. They are smaller, and doubtless a higher proportion of the workforce is employed across county boundaries than across the boundaries of US States. Some local authorities have a higher proportion of their populations out of work - Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow for instance spring to mind - and with depressed economies they would have less scope for placing people in jobs.

States were doubtless sympathetic to the general thrust of the US welfare legislation. This is unlikely to be true of left wing local authorities in the UK - Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow for instance spring to mind. Can anyone see them determinedly implementing a welfare to work policy which was highly likely to be unpopular with their own voters?

Consider next how efficient local authorities are. Think of the duplication of effort among police forces as they each struggle to understand data protection legislation. Then consider how efficiently counties would enforce a system of "at least 51 benefits".

The proposals consider differences in practice amongst counties as an advantage, since best practice could then be spread.
Best practice would spread between different areas ... councillors would start speaking of “adopting the Surrey model” or “introducing Essex–style reforms”.
And MPs would start speaking of post code lotteries - and central government would respond to the prospect of such unwelcome controversy by churning out ever more detailed rules.

Even if counties had the same proportion of local workers living within their boundaries as States - an unrealistic assumption - would they be able to bring the same influence to bear on local employers as State governments on theirs? With fewer taxation powers and lesser powers of patronage, it seems unlikely.

And even if they could, would it be legal? Brown is now spinning that what he meant by British jobs for British workers was preference for those on benefits.
The Prime Minister said that he was only seeking to persuade firms to offer jobs to people on the unemployment register and said no-one would be discriminated against.
Which they are free to do now. So the policy is meaningless without some degree of positive discrimination. But it's clear that many employees would prefer to recruit workers from overseas rather than locals on benefit, as the foreigners can be more highly qualified and tend to work better.

Nor is it clear that such discrimination would be legal. Keith Vaz has said that the policy risked fuelling racism, would introduce 'employment apartheid' and implied foreigners were 'stealing jobs'. We know that it's illegal for the Nationalised Health Service to discriminate in favour of British doctors when filling vacancies. And if an employer discriminates in favour of applicants on benefits, that is surely indirect discrimination, as it will tend to be British applicants who are receiving benefits.

This is an impractical contribution to an important debate.

Are the opponents of the EU constitution serious?

Has anyone seen any publicity listing the 50 vetoes which the UK would surrender under the EU constitutional treaty?

No one expects UKIP to produce serious information, but Bill Cash or Open Europe might have managed it.

If anyone can show me a list - rather than pointing me to a long and deliberately obscure official document - I'll be delighted.

Why is this important? Because the government concentrates on safely boring the voters to sleep by goading activists on whether the treaty is or isn't a constitution. It knows most voters will understand little of this and care less.

Why does the government not set out what the treaty is designed to achieve? Because they know numbers of UK voters would understand and would care.

John Redwood started the process by explaining the implications for energy policy. But it needs to be carried right through for all the vetoes.

Policy failing - let's court cheap publicity

This blog enjoys a bit of high policy as much as anyone, but it also likes looking under the bonnet to see whether the new model might actually work - or, more commonly, why the clapped out old banger of a policy being given its nth cheap respray isn't likely to start performing all of a sudden.

We're talking about competence.

The government proposes to bring in new powers to seize uninsured vehicles.
Powers due to come into force from April 2009 will make it possible for vehicles to be confiscated as soon as their insurance lapses unless their owners take them off the road.
I've blogged here and here about the government's continuing failure to reduce the numbers of untaxed and uninsured vehicles. When a policy is failing, what better than some cheap publicity? Much better than thinking through how an uncontroversially desirable policy might actually be made to work.

"Uninsured drivers are a menace," say the insurance industry (well, they would). "They often drive unroadworthy vehicles, and the cost of compensating their victims adds an extra £30 a year to premiums paid by honest motorists."

The most unroadworthy vehicles won't be driven by those whose insurance has just lapsed. They're the vehicles that have been uninsured for years.

But how much easier - the new proposal - to write to people who have newly dropped off the database. You know where they live, and many of them will be law-abiding if absent-minded.

According to industry calculations, 5.7% of motorists - about two million people - are uninsured. Most of them are not people who've just dropped off the database ... and it's the long-term uninsured that society should be targeting.

Needless to say, the announcement has no provision for this at all. Several years ago I recall a commentator going out in a police car equipped with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) software. As The Telegraph says
A number of those caught driving uninsured cars have also been charged with other - in many cases serious - criminal offences.
This makes the software attractive to the police. But as they sat on a busy south London road the software picked up so many unregistered vehicles that the police were overwhelmed and had to give up - which isn't surprising as the 5.7% of uninsured motorists would have had difficulty taxing their vehicles.

So what realistic plans does the government have to reduce this number? Apparently none.

November 08, 2007

Pouring money down urban drains

Money down the drainThe Policy Exchange think tank calculates that government has spent over £30 billion on urban regeneration policy initiatives over the past ten years.
Yet over the last 10 years, and despite a doubling in funding levels, the very cities that have received these record levels of funding have fallen further behind.
Many cities in the north, says the report, have become marginalised.

The Telegraph suggests that this money has come from suburbs.
Yesterday, the leaders of councils that have had huge sums diverted from their funds to pay for urban regeneration reacted with fury.

Susan Williams, the leader of Trafford council in Manchester, said: "Middle England will not stand for it much longer."
Still, it's money for Labour councils and Labour quangos.

The government says
We will continue to improve the prosperity of these areas through the £2 billion announced last month through the comprehensive spending review.
More money from the suburbs.

The Taxpayers' Alliance has suggested that every household in Britain has £4,000 taken each year in tax and thrown away on useless projects and other waste by the Government.

This probably qualifies.

In further financial mismanagement, the Public Accounts Committee has reported that 36 completed schemes under the Highways Agency's Targeted Programme of Improvements cost some 40% more than the initial estimates. For the 67 Agency schemes still under development, estimates had increased by 27% from the initial estimates of £8,952 million to £11,410 million in July 2006. One in four schemes that should have started in 2005-2006 were delayed.

The Home Office wasted more than £29m on an asylum centre that was never built, says the National Audit Office.

And councils have been told they must cut their budgets for tackling foot-and-mouth and bluetongue this year because of a funding mistake by Defra, it has been claimed. Animal health teams are facing cuts of up to 12% because of a shortfall of more than £1 million between what councils were promised and the cash available.

November 04, 2007

Liam Byrne hypocrite

Liam Byrne used his handheld mobile while driving. Why does this make him a hypocrite? Because he has campaigned on the importance of road safety.

So it is one law for the little people and another rule for people of importance like Liam Byrne.

Are we seriously to believe this was the first and only time he has used a handheld mobile while driving? I doubt it.

Don't you?

Is the tide turning against big government?

According to journalistic lore, if an article is headed by a question, the answer to it is usually No. Perhaps this is an exception.

Brown is Labour's Edward Heath, not because he is set on closer EU integration, but because both men lacked empathy, lacked imagination, were intolerant, and got stuck deep in the ruts of their own mindsets - in Brown's case, tax and spend.

It's only a few weeks ago that Brown was calling for his government to be judged by its competence. How distant that trumpet call sounds now!

Since then we've heard dire news about the nationalised health service. Respondents to the Patients' Association say they want to continue to pay for healthcare through taxation rather than insurance. But that is not the point. The question is, should the government continue to make such a mess of running this nationalised industry, or become just a purchaser.

We have also seen the misjudgement on capital gains tax. This will prove worse than entrepreneurs' protests alone suggest: there are plenty of short term speculators quietly astonished at the drop in their tax rate from 40% to 18%, and the City especially will be working on plausible-looking schemes to convert income to capital gain. I'd guess the marginal rates will be the same again within five years.

Mr Balls has demonstrated the disadvantage of being educated in the Brown school of government, where you never consult, you just spring a policy on the country. To push through a contentious policy like clawing back part of schools' surpluses, include it as part of a larger package you put out for consultation. Then it may slip through unnoticed. If not, you can withdraw it without too much loss of face.

Easily the worst and most dangerous incompetence concerns immigration and jobs. The numbers have changed and changed again, merely reinforcing the correct perception that the government doesn't know what it's doing in this area.

This is dangerous enough. But what's worse is that the government has minimal power in this area.
There are still some signs of decent growth, including the rise in retired people working and the increase in hours worked in the economy. But it is hard to see how, with the flow of immigrants, the UK’s relatively poor starting position and an environment of weakening economic growth, the employment outlook could improve in the near term.
And the government has sacrificed power over immigration to the EU and on the altar of human rights.

Brown's promise of British jobs for British workers is generally and rightly derided for the feeble spin that it was, but the government thinks that it has found a way round its dilemma, by urging employers to introduce programmes to favour those on welfare.

This policy has several problems.
  1. The last thing many of those on benefits want is a job

  2. Immigrants are often better qualified, with a better work ethic

  3. This is surely "indirect discrimination", since it tends to be British workers who receive British benefits. Government has promoted the concept of "indirect discrimination" to limit employers' freedom to do things it doesn't like. It deserves to be hoist with its own petard.
Money down the drainThis starts to make incompetence look routine, which in turn makes ministers look tired. Every example of waste adds to this impression. Today, for example, the Home Office's penalty payments of £35m over cancelled centres for asylum seekers are back in the news. Every week brings more examples of public sector incompetence and waste.

Tories - panicked into conference policy announcements by the threat of an election they didn't want - are starting to look fresh in contrast with this governmental tiredness. Some commentators worry that they might let some of these policies drop as their panic recedes.

Michael Gove does sound serious about giving parents a greater choice of schools, which has to be coupled with a policy making it easier for schools to grow and contract, for new schools to be set up, and for unwanted schools to die.

If the Tories hold their nerve, their empowerment of parents can make an attractive contrast with a left-wing think tank's statist proposal that all secondary school places should be allocated by lot.

As part of the debate about jobs and migrants, attention is focusing on the unwillingness of many on welfare to give up their comfortable lifestyles for the demands of paid employment. Questions are sure to be asked about the Wisconsin policy. For instance -
  • In Wisconsin, benefits could be linked to performing tasks, such as sweeping up leaves in parks. How would this sit with trades unions and minimum wage legislation?

  • How would we tackle the ridiculously high levels of officially recognised incapacity?

  • How would time limiting of benefits work? Would women be able to stay on benefits for decades by regularly producing children?

  • What happens to the able-bodied whose entitlement to benefits has expired? Should they be compulsorily supported by taxpayers, or helped through charities by those who actively want to continue to pay for their support?
On welfare the theme will have to be one of tough love, with limited reliance on taxpayers for a temporary hand up rather than lifelong support. The government could return welfare savings to taxpayers as a lump sum dividend each year, to make them more prominent.

A third theme should be that the government wastes taxpayers' money almost every time it spends it. Governments need to curb their enthusiasm to do everything.

What of big government on a wider canvas? Across the EU, migration may become a pressure point before the euro. Certainly if lawless Romanian migrants set up shanty towns outside London, as they have done outside Rome, the government would find the legal remedies at its disposal entirely inadequate.

Maybe that is only a matter of time.