Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A snapshot of our nannying, controlling, interfering, public sector

Just today:

1.       The Royal Town Planning Institute called for a new enforcement regime on minor unpermitted developments  - these changes are currently permitted as they are not worth pursuing and there are rarely objections. The RTPI wants a planning application to be submitted retrospectively – great business for its members and a further imposition on ordinary householders.
2.       Kevin Barron, Labour’s nanny-in-chief is in a froth over the tobacco industry providing funding for the retailers of its products in their battle against the lunatic proposals for the banning of tobacco displays
3.       Teachers at a Warwickshire primary school told parents to discipline boys “after they were spotted making gun-shapes with their hands
4.       Police Officers are being provided with guidance on diet, exercise, hobbies and even bedtime routine – all in the interest of providing “...staff with advice and support to enable them to function effectively while maintaining a good work-life balance.”
5.       Back with evil tobacco, the launch of an ultra-slim cigarette – Vogue Perle – has been criticised as “scheming, calculating and cynical” by the usual nannying culprits. Apparently because it might be preferred by young women (not that these campaigners provide any evidence of course).

Everywhere we look interfering, judging, controlling and bullying people are trying to undermine our choices as free individuals. It’s enough to make you cry.


Cut the tax on flying George


I received an e-mail from Leeds Bradford Airport today regarding the consultation on proposed increases in Air Passenger Duty (APD):

LBA is warning that passengers still face the prospect of ‘double taxation’ and further increases in flying taxes when aviation enters the EU Emissions Trading Scheme in 2012; and also that the Chancellor may raise APD next year.

APD in the UK is already up to 8.5 times more than the European average. Many European countries have either already abandoned their aviation taxes, or indicated that they will do so, due to the negative effects on their economies, including: Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Ireland and Malta.

Even with the freeze, the UK economy is already losing £750m in GDP and 18,000 jobs as a direct result of the recent November 2010 rises in APD, not to mention the thousands of UK tourism jobs lost because less people can afford to holiday here. 

You can submit your comments and join me in urging George to cut the tax on flying - send your response to apd@hmtreasury.gsi.gov.uk by Friday 17 June 2011.


Why the FA should leave FIFA

Much debate has followed from the latest round of corruption allegations directed at senior board members of football's governing body, FIFA. The boss, Sepp Blatter is blustering his way through the ensuing media furore:

Asked if bribery allegations against two of his most senior former allies, Mohamed Bin Hammam and Jack Warner, and continued questions over the probity of the Qatar 2022 bid constituted a crisis, Mr Blatter said: “What is a crisis? Football is not in a crisis. When you see the final of the Champions League then you must applaud. So we are not in a crisis, we are only in some difficulties.” 

Let's be clear about this - FIFA's owners (the various national football associations) are unwilling to act, to prevent bribery, to throw out corrupt officials and to deals with the games financial problems. This is because none of those national FA's are prepared to risk being outside the sty, away from the trough. And, of course, FIFA controls the World Cup.

However, there comes a time when tolerating corruption, bribery and malpractice simply to get the right to enter a competition ceases to be acceptable. And offering soft challenges, threatening to abstain and calling for delays doesn't cut the mustard - the fat cats running FIFA will simply ignore the FA. The only lever is for the FA (ideally along with a couple of like-minded associations) to inform Blatter that they will be withdrawing from FIFA until such a time as the organisation addresses corruption and reforms its governance.

What I do know is that we will not get a reform of FIFA so long as the criticisms of the FA and others can be ignored by FIFA's executives. Pulling out might be painful in the short run but may prove the only way to force FIFA's hand. Right now Sepp Blatter can ride out the criticism because it can't really damage FIFA sufficiently to require substantive governance changes. And in a few weeks time all the press will have wandered off to the next story leaving FIFA to wallow happily in its sty once again.


Enterprise Zones - what a good idea, let's have them everywhere

Now don't get me wrong, I really think that the Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership should choose Bradford City Centre for its Enterprise Zone. However, I would also like to say again that if we believe that lower taxes and relaxed regulation encourages growth and regeneration then we should be applying this everywhere - even in picturesque market towns like Richmond (pictured above).

The government seems set on there only being a few and, as bureaucrats love, has set about a competitive selection process setting place against place, building up political resentment and offering an advantage to one poor place over another poor place.

The Government proposed an open competition for areas who want to bid to host one of the ten remaining Enterprise Zone spots to ensure the best possible applications come forward for these unique growth opportunities.

Local enterprise partnerships, which bring together local businesses and local councils, are expected to nominate specific sites that offer the best opportunity for growth. Applicants will have to show their prospective zone has genuine potential to create the new business and jobs they need, with positive benefits across the wider economic area.

We return again to area-baseds approaches to regeneration - narrowly helpful but politically devisive. What we really need is those benefits - simpler planning rules, lower business rates and investment in super-fast braodband to apply everywhere rather than just to a few chosen places.


Monday, 30 May 2011

Cut taxes....


I know I've said it before but we should be cutting taxes if we want the economy to grow. It would be good politics and would address the immorality of us slaving away to pay the government for nearly half the year. Thankfully today is Tax Freedom Day:

“Tax Freedom Day underlines the huge burden of government on working people’s lives. For five months of the year, we are slaves to the state. No wonder growth is so slow – we need robust tax reform now, bringing lower, simpler, flatter taxes. The government should resolve to make Tax Freedom Day something we can celebrate earlier and earlier each year.”

Hallelujah Brother! George, can we start tomorrow please?


Sunday, 29 May 2011

Tenders, framework agreements and suicide-bidding - how public procurement isn't working


We can expect that – for many reasons not least the need to drive out costs in public administration – there will be renewed attention given to the processes of public procurement. After all if more provision is to be outsourced we need to know that the process by which suppliers are selected is fair, transparent and delivering value. I’m not sure we’re in such a position for three reasons – the tender process is over-complex, public agencies are relying on framework agreements rather than open market procurement and these problems are encouraging market distorting practices such as suicide-bidding.

Anyone involved with seeking business from public bodies will be familiar with the complexities of tendering – here’s just one cry of pain at the onerous requirements in the process:

Reading through the documents today was a jaw-dropping insight into the dream world of public sector morons.

Method statements, framework agreements, key performance indicators, robust performance management systems, equality and diversity policies, performance evaluations, environmental advancement, partnership milestones, sustainable procurement narratives, race and gender statements, service quality monitoring, volume forecasting, operational delivery reviews, governance structure audits, outcomes recording methods, business continuity plans, and contingency planning systems.

All of the above must be installed before we are even allowed to see the work we may be able to bid for, if approved. And, of course, there is no guarantee - by their own admission - that it will be of any quality.

Here we have a classic example of procurement processes seeking to capture every regulatory nuance – to the point where most suppliers and especially smaller suppliers simply give up and go away. And this process is intended simply to create the “framework” from which the public body can procure the services it requires. It is a process intended to limit the competitive environment by excluding those who fail to ‘tick the boxes’.

However, framework agreements are becoming a bigger problem than this – we are seeing them used as market control mechanisms. Rather than allowing any business that qualifies to bid, these agreements are setting limits on the number of qualifying firms. In one recent example, Leeds City Council (on behalf of a consortium of Yorkshire authorities) sought to procure a framework of businesses to provide outsourcing and redundancy support – the framework limited the number of suppliers to just five from the hundreds of possible providers of these services. There is no doubt in my mind that this process is anti-competitive and should be stopped. We should either have a tender process or a prequalification process, combining the two through a framework system compromises the market and acts only to provide procurement convenience rather than public benefit.

Given the nature of this complexities and the creation of a deliberately limited pool of competitors (protected for the duration of the framework agreement from new market entrants and, in effect, behaving as an oligopoly) the market response throws up some problems – not least what has been dubbed ‘suicide-bidding’:

Although EU law allows businesses to reject abnormally low bids, it does not define ‘abnormally low’, which has lead to disputes with bidders.

Paul Dooley, director of estate regeneration at Poplar Harca, said the association decided to act after receiving several low bids, including some of up to 20 per cent lower than the average. He said: ‘We feel that without a clause in the contract we could be subject to contractors making a challenge.’

The move follows concern in the sector about ‘suicide-bidding’, in which companies bid at amounts that do not cover the cost of their work. This can lead to poor quality service and to firms seeking contract loopholes to charge clients extra.

With complicated tendering processes, combined (and ever larger) contracts, longer contract periods, the temptation is to go for business at a low price and back your managers – and lawyers – to be better than public sector managers and lawyers. After all, it’s pretty difficult to get out from under a six volume contract on the basis of work being ‘not quite good enough’, a little slow or snag-ridden.

The process of public procurement is a minefield but one where Councillors tend to doze off – it’s not exactly sexy politics after all! We should be paying more attention to these processes. I started to complete a pre-qualification questionnaire for some work with Manchester City Council (or rather to get on a framework to be allowed to bid for some work) – the nature of the questionnaire was such that even the mid-sized organisation on whose behalf I was applying decided the requirements were too onerous.

Not only did Manchester require written policies on equalities, health & safety, environment, sustainability & climate change to be submitted (along with three years of accounts, bank references, nine public sector referees and insurance documents) but asked for detailed information about the implementation of these policies. Now Manchester may be the worst authority in this respect but sadly other large authorities – Leeds, Bradford, Liverpool – are little better.

Procurement departments are now pressured to deliver significant savings while maintaining standards of service delivery. And these departments will also be responding to new procurement environments resulting from the Localism Act. To deliver on price, quality and continuous improvement and to support new providers emerging in local communities, procurement systems need to be freed from these requirements linked to other policy requirements and to be encouraged to widen rather than narrow the market. We cannot continue with the too complex, anti-competitive, market distorting approaches that currently dominate public procurement.


Get off my pond!

Yesterday featured a meander around Ogden Water a Yorkshire Water reservoir managed as a country park by Calderdale Council. And the Council do a good job of managing - we met a litter picker on the path so they're keeping up to it at the weekend and the place is well kempt with paths and fences right for the rural setting. And we didn't mind too much that it was spitting with rain and rather breezy. Especially since in the woods that's broken up through the trees.

So there we were meandering through, breathing in the great smell of a damp pine wood, listening to the chaffinches shouting their heads off (it always amazes me that such a loud noise can come from such a tiny body) and we arrive at the little pond beyond the bridge at the head of the reservoir. Last time we were there it was a lovely domestic scene with mum and half-a-dozen ducklings swimming about in the still water.

This time it was a different picture, the cute bliss of the ducklings had gone and was replaced with this chap:

And when a couple more mallard drakes arrived his response was:

Get off my pond!


Friday, 27 May 2011



Sharon Shoesmith, who was Director of Children's Services in Haringey at the time of the 'Baby P' case, won her appeal against being sacked as a result of the case. I am not concerned with the details of this case - it was a terrible and perhaps avoidable tragedy and I'm sure Ms Shoesmith acted throughout as a professional officer.

My worry is that Ms Shoesmith's denial of accountability for her department's failures serves us, the public, poorly. Let me draw a comparison - and a contrast:

Dear Margaret, 

The Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands has led to strong criticism in Parliament and in the press of the Government's policy. In my view, much of the criticism is unfounded. But I have been responsible for the conduct of that policy and I think it right that I should resign. As you know, I have given long and careful thought to this. I warmly appreciate the kindness and support which you showed me when we discussed this matter on Saturday. But the fact remains that the invasion of the Falkland Islands has been a humiliating affront to this country. 

We must now, as you said in the House of Commons, do everything we can to uphold the right of the Islanders to live in peace, to choose their own way of life and to determine their own allegiance. I am sure that this is the right course, and one which deserves the undivided support of Parliament and of the country. But I have concluded with regret that this support will more easily be maintained if the Foreign Office is entrusted to someone else. 

I have been privileged to be a member of this Government and to be associated with its achievements over the past three years. I need hardly say that the Government will continue to have my active support. I am most grateful to you personally for the unfailing confidence you have shown in me. 

Yours ever 


That is accountability.


Things you don't often read in the Guardian...

Not being (which won't surprise you dear reader) a regular Guardian reader, I'd not seen anything by Dave Clements. And I guess I would - in my intolerance - have simply labelled him another trendy lefty public sector worker. Today though he wrote this:

With the exception of those whose livelihoods depend on it – reportedly half a million took to the streets in March – there has been a notable absence of opposition to the cuts from the wider public. The funny thing is that for all the official plaudits, nobody dare mention the apparent indifference of the supposed beneficiaries of public services. The institutions borne of the welfare state are far from “cherished”, as the leader of the opposition would have us believe. If anything, they are endured because of the lack of an alternative.

I think Dave's got it about right there - in my recent election campaign, the "cuts" were only mentioned by those facing possible redundancy (a feeling and experience I was able to understand having been in that situation up to Christmas - when possibility became reality). I was also struck by Dave's questioning of the statist norm:

It is not so much that the state is a drain on private enterprise; it is more that the political culture it gives expression to inhibits social enterprise. It crowds out – to borrow a phrase – the social action on which a healthy society is dependent. If we are to revive the public service ethos and defend public services that people need and want, we must first develop a respect for people’s autonomy and begin to recognise their capacity to run their own lives.

It seems to me that this position - rejecting the controlling Fabian state - represents the opening for a new politics where autonomy and liberty are given. A politics that embraces left and right, debates the merits of collective and individual rights and argues about the balance between personal choice and community power but does all this in the context of a much smaller state.

If more on the left embrace this option - and there are many, I don't doubt, who share Dave Clements' view - we might stumble towards a society less helpless in the face of officialdom, less dependent on the state, more grown up in its independence and less prepared to be pushed about by government, big business or their agents. We might get closer to sorting out our own problems - to that mystic place where 'Big Society' is real rather than something teetering close to being just a differentiating slogan.

I guess I can dream a little!


Lies, damned lies and alcohol statistics - the truth about those hospital admissions figures

I was rather bothered yesterday by the revelation - leapt on by, it seems, every second media outlet with excitement - that "alcohol-related hospital admissions" had doubled since 2002.

The number of alcohol-related hospital admissions in England has exceeded one million in a year for the first time, a report has found.

Figures compiled by the NHS Information Centre for the year 2009-2010 revealed 1,057,000 hospital visits in relation to alcohol, a 12% increase on the previous year and more than double the amount recorded in 2002-2003. 

I was especially bothered since alcohol consumption has fallen year on year since 2002 and this degree of increase in alcohol-related ill-health simply doesn't tally with that fact.

I now know why thanks to Chris Snowdon and Nigel Hawkes that there's a pretty straightforward explanation:

These figures use a new methodology reflecting a substantial change in the way the impact of alcohol on hospital admissions is calculated. Previously the calculation counted only admissions for reasons specifically related to alcohol. The new calculation, for which the methodology is described in the report, includes a proportion of the admissions for reasons that are not always related to alcohol, but can be in some instances (such as accidental injury).

So these admission figures are not actual people really admitted to hospital for a drink-related reason but an approximation based on the estimation of a proportion of a given condition - say being hit on the head with a hammer - that, in aggregate can be attributed to drink.

And, as Chris Snowdon points out, where we really do know the admission is drink-related, the figures are falling:

Alcohol-related deaths – that is, those caused by conditions directly linked to alcohol – fell from 6,768 in 2008 to 6,584 in 2009. Much of the fall was attributable to a fall of nearly 250 in deaths from alcoholic liver disease.

Now that's not what they were saying on the news was it now?  This is twice in two days where the nannying fussbuckets have either misunderstood or misrepresented statistics about alcohol and health - I'm beginning to believe it's being done deliberately.


Thursday, 26 May 2011

You're a Councillor, you can't say anything political!

Ruth Billheimer was re-elected to Bradford Council (for the wrong side I'm afraid but she did beat a Liberal) at the beginning of this month. Today she tweets:

They told me if I'm using council resources, including emails, or saying I'm a councillor I can't say anything political.

I am at a loss for words - are these people competely stupid? OK, so we can't use Council resources to produce our election literature or load a party blog onto the web site but don't we expect politicians to be political?




Dear Nick, competition doesn't mean "flogging off to the highest bidder"


When some people speak of ‘privatisation’ they refer to the process of commissioning private businesses to deliver public services through some form of tendering process. And it leads to the Cardhousian contortions of Nick Clegg:

In a speech at a London hospital, the Lib Dem leader will say he supports the use of private providers in the health care service and that they have improved patient choice.

However, he will add: "It's not the same as turning this treasured public service into a competition-driven, dog-eat-dog market where the NHS is flogged off to the highest bidder."

So there you have it – after all the shouting about how the Liberal Democrats will be different, about how they will die in the ditch to protect the beloved NHS from evil Tories what do we get? Just what we have already – a system using private providers but where those providers are accountable only to NHS managers not to those using the service or to elected officials (and don’t give me all that nonsense about accountability to the Secretary of State for Health).

Now I’ve trawled through the collected comments (well perhaps not all of them) of health ministers, have looked at the proposed changes and nowhere in all this can I see any proposal – not even an inkling of a proposal – that the NHS will be “flogged off to the highest bidder”. There is a discussion as to how we improve health outcomes and a debate about the merits (or indeed demerits) of competition in helping deliver these improved health outcomes but that isn’t about selling chunks of the service off, it isn’t about ‘cherry-picking’ and it isn’t really much of a change from the programme of change instituted under the last Labour government.

The idea of ‘any willing provider’ is the central element of these pro-competition policies – this isn’t privatisation any more than using external suppliers is privatisation. What AWP is about is preventing NHS commissioners from closing off the market by saying they have to consider any organisation that is able to comply with the requirements. The result should be a more diverse supply to the system and end of the current situation of bureaucratic inertia.

As competition dawns there will no doubt be many providers, both larger and smaller, seeking to offer so-called integrated approaches in particular communities, which are, in fact, a byword for long-term monopoly. Once the commissioning bodies are dependent on the new arrangements the provider can turn the handle, raise prices and lower quality as much as it wants.

If this happens, it will be an expensive route back to what we have today in most public services: costly, unmoveable, low-quality, low-innovation services. The solution, of course, is for the principle of diversity of supply – allowing no one to become dominant – to be an absolute non-negotiable in local public service markets.

The comment above – from a Liberal Democrat with expertise in health care markets – signals the problem we face. The current situation isn’t good enough and the core solution of pumping ever larger amounts of cash into the service isn’t working well enough (which isn’t to say the cash isn’t welcome, merely to observe that health outcomes haven’t risen in line with that spending increase). However, within that diversity of supply we have to recognise that price must be a consideration in commissioning decisions – this isn’t about simply taking the cheapest but does recognise that price is a driver of efficiency and improved outcomes.

My big worry is that populist considerations fuelled by healthcare producer lobbies and trade unions (and sucked up by an increasingly clueless Labour party) will lead to a big climb down and we will lose the momentum towards using competition to provide accountability for NHS decision-makers and real advances in health outcomes. And it seems more of the evidence points to competition as the most important factor in driving improvement:

This is particularly ironic given the strong evidence now emerging that hospital competition not only works abroad, but also in the UK. Dr Zack Cooper of the London School of Economics and Professor Carol Propper of Imperial College have each produced studies showing that hospitals in more competitive areas performed better on quality and efficiency than those in less competitive ones. The LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance has shown that competition increases managerial quality in hospitals. Dr Nick Black and colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have shown that the much-maligned independent sector treatment centres, introduced by the Blair government to shake up provision of simple elective procedures such as cataract removals and hernia operations, have produced work of equal or better quality than their NHS equivalents.

None of this is about changing the NHS model of free care at the point of need – instead it recognises that there is more than one way to deliver this promise. Breaking away from the hideous monopoly of the centralised NHS – a process begun haltingly under Blair – is essential if we’re to get the full benefit of that “investment” put in over recent years.


More on Bradford's free schools (elsewhere and apologies for the photo)


My little piece at ConHome - complete with links to the exciting new schools can be read...

Bradford needs free schools

 Cllr Simon Cooke, the Deputy Leader of the Bradford Council Conservative Group, welcomes the range of groups proposing free schools in his city



Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Economics quote of the day

From @MediocreDave on twitter:

Think it's deeply flawed to suggest there is objective evidence for competition providing better results.

The problem with the left is that they believe this rubbish.


Alcohol Concern Cymru - the most ignorant of nannying fussbuckets


Although BBC Wales does its best to make Alcohol Concern Cymru not seem like a bunch of idiots even they can't quite manage it with this story:

An alcohol charity claims there a "silent epidemic" of heavy drinking among elderly people in Wales

But Alcohol Concern Cymru's (AAC) report quotes statistics that have been challenged by drinks industry body The Portman Group. The group argued overall trends showed "a positive and continuing decline in the rates of excessive drinking".

Andrew Misell of AAC said there was anecdotal evidence from elderly support workers to back their claim.

All your typical row until you get to look at why AAC issued their scary press release:

The paper compares figures from Welsh Government-commissioned Health Surveys of 2003/4 and 2009 as "evidence that the proportion of older people drinking more than the recommended amount is rising".

AAC said the number of over 65s who said they had drunk more than the recommended maximum in the previous week rose from 22% (men) and 7% (women) in 2003/4 to 34% (men) and 17% (women) in 2009.

See scary - a huge increase in wrinkly boozing is evidenced from the surveys. Except that - as the BBC eventually explain:
However, BBC Wales understands that as a result of changes in methodology adopted by the compilers of the Welsh Health Survey in 2006 the two sets of statistics are not comparable.

Ah, there you are you see! No increase in drinking. However AAC keep wriggling:

When challenged on the paper's use of statistics Mr Misell said: "Those statistics were taken as an illustration. It's certainly the case that more work needs to be done in terms of finding out what exactly is the pattern of drinking among older people.

"The point of the paper is that it's a hidden problem. If you talk to people working with older people they will say there's quite a lot of anecdotal evidence to support the fact that alcohol is a problem."

The problem is so hidden that the statistics can't pick it up and are showing old folk drinking less rather than more. Something must be done!


Dr Harris and the sexual health debate - a tale of judgemental intolerance


The Government has announced the membership of its Sexual Health Forum including the anti-abortion charity, Life but dropping the British Pregnancy Advice Service. Apparently this is a truly terrible thing:

...former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris said Life's presence could prevent the panel from functioning properly.

He told the newspaper: "When you have an organisation campaigning against the law and against current policy on sexual health, which is pro-contraception and about ensuring that abortion is a choice, then the risk is that you prevent the panel being given access to confidential information."

Quite why this is I don’t know but it reveals – in a man who lays claim to the mantle of “liberalism” – a considerable degree of intolerance. Who is he to say that one or other view on any issue should not be represented to ministers? But then Dr Harris has a bit of a track record of such judgemental intolerance, for example in condemning anti-abortion GP, Tammie Downes:

The Guardian reported that Liberal Democrat MP and noted abortion and euthanasia campaigner, Evan Harris, denounced Dr. Downes to Health Minister Dawn Primarolo and asked for an investigation.

And, as a member of the BMA’s ethics board Dr Harris tried to:

...remove the legal right of doctors to refuse to refer for or arrange abortions.

None of this makes Dr Harris wrong – there is a genuine debate to be had about abortion and I am willing to listen to the arguments for and against the status quo, tighter controls or liberalisation. Sadly, Dr Harris wants Government to only receive advice from those who share his view that abortion should be much easier to obtain. As with so many on the left – and Dr Harris certainly isn’t what I would call a liberal – the intention seems to be to close off the debate and to characterise those who take a different view as brainwashed religious zealots.

What concerns me most in all this – and I worry far more about the issue of “mercy-killing” than I do about abortion – is that by closing out the debate, Dr Harris directly contradicts his own oft-stated belief in free speech. By saying that only pro-abortion views should be presented to the Government’s deliberations about sexual health is to deny access on the basis of prejudice rather than to promote free speech.