The Taxpayers Alliance are a right wing pressure who demand openness on public sector spending despite having opaque funding. As an anonymous blogger points out they’ve gone a bit shy when it comes to big ticket Government waste.
It’s been a busy few days for news, so I’ll forgive you missing this story, but did you see the Ministry of Defence managed to spend almost £5.7m on ear plugs that didn’t actually work?
Phew, £5.7m, that’s an awful lot of foam rubber buds, but it doesn’t stop there. There was more than half a billion alone on a cancelled programme to modernise the Warrior armoured fighting vehicle, easily enough to run your average local authority for a year.
There’s a moral point here, this is our money, spent on stuff that’s supposed to protect the people who serve our country, yet due to general incompetence and faulty systems it gets wasted,
Just the other day the Treasury wrote off £4.3bn stolen from its emergency Covid-19 schemes. That’s money that was stolen, not misspent, and Government has decided not to pursue it. There are probably reasons for this, it may cost more to investigate and prosecute, but it still sends out a poor message.
At the smaller end of the scale it cost £62,000 for Dr Liam Fox MP not to get a job as Director General of the World Trade Organisation, a good proportion of which was paid to a public relations agency.
As you’ll see from the links, this stuff was reported widely at the time, just swallowed up by a news agenda that was understandably concentrating on cheese and wine parties. We tend to accept waste as part of the process and it is true to say that in any complex system some money will be poorly spent.
But I think there is a bit of a double standard here. Look carefully at the website of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and you won’t find any reference to the examples I gave above. There is some focus on national spending – for example Government office space – but if you looked at their version of waste you’d think the local state was the prime offender.
Take the TPA’s exhaustive work on printing costs for local authorities. By a Herculean feat of largely pointless FOI-ing they managed to work out that UK councils spent £41,610,366 on printing costs between April 2020 and February 2021 (this was a decline of £31.9 million from 2019-20, or 43 per cent).
Sounds expensive, when you realise that a lot of the spend isn’t on Basildon Bond, it was fees paid to external suppliers to print stuff that helps our citizens find and understand services.
I’m sure there is room for some savings but this is justifiable spend, not money wasted, and the figure is going down not up.
The same with the salary figures in the TPA’s annual Town Hall Rich List. I’ve been that press officer who deals with media enquiries on the back a six figure payout.
I’ve patiently explained fruitlessly that monies paid to pension funds for departing staff are not really a fair measure of incomes received and that local government leaders need to be paid well for a job of huge responsibility.
The thing is, I kind of get what the TPA argue. It is hugely important that the state spends its money wisely and transparently. Like them, I believe in a smarter, and probably smaller, state that better serves its citizens. However, I also believe that we should treat investment in local services as an investment not a cost burden.
Of course, money should not be wasted in either locally or nationally, but by focussing on the Town Hall rather than Whitehall, the TPA and others often have the wrong target.
Maybe we should just push back more?
The author is a public sector communicator with more than a decade of experience.