Sunday, January 29, 2012

You know something, I'm not going to go gently into that dark night...

I have, I must confess, been confronted with signs of my mortality of late. No, I'm not dying, I'm not even ill. it's just that, in recent months, the notion that I am still young has taken a bit of a kicking. I've known that I'm in my mid-forties, but there has been a piece of me that, emotionally at least, has striven to deny the fact that I am, to put it kindly, getting on as bit.

I've been dwelling on my long-term finances, on my health, on the future. Ah yes, the future. I've never been very good at that, apart from planning trips (and I'm really good at that...). And now, whilst I don't have to be really good at it, it does make me realise that, eventually, one day, I might die. So, perhaps I ought to be a little more relaxed about duty, and slightly keener on fun, worry less about things that might go wrong, and wonder  more about what might just happen.

I wonder what will happen...

Lobbying Reform: sorry Eirian, but sorry doesn't cut it...

Today, it emerges that Eirian Walsh Atkins has resigned. For those of you who don't know her, until Friday, she was the head of constitutional policy at the Cabinet Office. Why was she important? Perhaps because she has been preparing the government's consultation proposal on a statutory register for lobbyists... a key part of the political reform package promoted by Liberal Democrats.

Interestingly, she resigned because of a message on her Twitter feed, wishing "that Unlock Democracy would die". Now you might think that such an attitude is, to put it mildly, unhelpful. You might also wonder if her attitude had led to potential bias in terms of her handling of the issue. I know that I do.

And, there is a suggestion that she has displayed such bias. We do know that she has refused to meet with the Director of Unlock Democracy, Peter Facey, to discuss the proposals. We also know that she has refused to meet with Spinwatch, an independent non-profit making organisation which monitors the role of public relations and spin in contemporary society. On the other hand, she is understood to have met with representatives of the UK Public Affairs Council four times since September 2010. Equitable treatment? I don't think so.

She also led the Cabinet Office's rejection of a freedom of information request to disclose details of its contacts with the lobbying industry since 2010. On the basis of what we do know, it might appear that she was covering up her own behaviour.

But before I continue, time for a declaration of interest. I am a member of the Council and Management Board of Unlock Democracy, and a civil servant, so I have multiple perspectives on her behaviour.

The Government has talked big about cleaning up British politics, and whilst I wonder if everyone is entirely committed to doing anything more than talking about it, the commitment to cleaning up the lobbying industry is a key step towards improving the transparency and integrity of our body politic.

And part of that body politic is the Civil Service, a body supposed to be beyond reproach in its dealings with the public and with those that govern us. As a reminder for Eirian, here are our core values, as placed on a statutory footing by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010;
  • Integrity – putting the obligations of public service above personal interests
  • Honesty – being truthful and open 
  • Objectivity – basing advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence
  • Impartiality – acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving governments of different political parties equally well
So, let's see how Eirian got on...


That would be a fail. She had a duty to serve the public interest, and publicly declared her view towards a leading campaigner on the question under discussion. She has given a clear impression of favouring one side of the debate over the other.


In one sense, she has passed. After all, her view of Unlock Democracy is refreshingly direct, even if unwise. On the other hand, if her refusal of a seemingly legitimate Freedom of Information request was intended to prevent scrutiny of her conduct, she has failed.


Article 11 of the Code states;

11. You must not:
  • ignore inconvenient facts or relevant considerations when providing advice or making decisions
Is it possible to imagine that she could now be, or has ever been, objective? Can you credibly suggest that she has taken into account all of the facts? I really can't see that one standing up.


Oh dear, another fail. The merits of the case? She clearly doesn't believe in taking them seriously, and has evidently failed to serve this government well. Of course, she could have been equally useless under the previous Labour administration, but given her rank, it seems somewhat unlikely.

Article 13 of the Code reads;

13. You must not:
  • act in a way that unjustifiably favours or discriminates against particular individuals or interests
So, not a good score, methinks. I'm pleased that she has resigned as head of constitutional policy, but might I suggest that this civil service thing isn't really her forte? After all, if you were a Cabinet Office minister, could you really trust her work? I couldn't.

Time to go and get a job as a lobbyist, Eirian. Don't worry, I'm sure that they'll look after you...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

I can count, I can...

I am, somewhat unexpectedly, being educated again. Well, I say educated, in that I am part of an HM Revenue & Customs pilot study, testing the value of the NVQ Level 2 in Operational Delivery.

I've met my assessor, Barry, and done the mandatory literacy and numeracy tests. And that's my first concern. The picture shows one of the sixteen numeracy test questions, indeed, one of the more difficult ones.

Remember, I'm a tax official, working in an organisation that requires academic evidence of numeracy as part of our recruitment process. I have an 'O' level, two 'A' levels and a degree in Mathematics. I do find myself wondering why I am obliged to take a test that I would have been upset at failing when I was five. It appears to be 'education by box ticking', something that I don't really approve of.

And, to be blunt, it doesn't appear to be particularly rigorous. Keep the answers short, I am told, avoid detail. There I was, thinking that this might offer an opportunity to give some serious thought as to the way we function, and whether or not we provide a service that meets the actual needs of our customers, rather than one that fits with what we're willing to provide. Clearly, I am being naïve.

Once upon a time, we had proper, rigorous training, where you were taught not only what to do, but why you are doing it. But that's expensive, so instead consultants are brought in to break down our work into simple bite-sized chunks that a slightly slow gibbon could master.

That's fine, so long as you have a basic knowledge of the job. However, if you don't, as soon as something unusual crops up, you're floundering at the end of a long rope, with managers appointed on the basis of managerial competence, rather than any knowledge of your job.

And that, my friends, is why bureaucrats become jobsworths. If in doubt, stick to the letter of the law...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Eric Pickles redefines 'moral duty'

Not only has Eric Pickles failed to extend his largesse to Parish Councils, but he now accuses me of failing in my moral duty by increasing the Parish precept by 13%.

I would love to freeze our share of the council tax this year. But I can't - the numbers simply don't add up.

Like councillors around the country, I have a legal obligation to secure the finances of my authority. Each year, we fret about balancing the books, about long-term sustainability, about maintaining essential services, about protecting our staff and treating them with respect. Even in good years, difficult choices are made, but in hard ones...

Some of my colleagues on principal authorities have concluded that, rather than take the 'bribe' equivalent to a 2.5% increase on the previous year's budget, they will increase council tax. Their logic is that, one day, the bribes will stop and, when they do, the gap between income and expenditure will need to be bridged by a large increase in the precept. A little basic arithmetic tends to support their contention.

Others argue that it is better to protect council taxpayers this year, accepting the likelihood of a big increase for 2013/14. And if you're up for election in 2012, one can see the political attraction. Or, if you hope that the economy will improve so that the increase will seem less painful, it is entirely logical.

But, whatever decision they've taken, it has been one which has not been taken lightly. And given that Eric's largesse has no impact on the deficit, and that it is being paid for by taxpayers, I thoroughly object to him bandying around the phrase 'moral duty'. It is my moral duty to do the best for my community - all of my community. That may mean cutting costs, it may mean increasing council tax levels.

And by the way, Eric, you've just passed a Localism Bill, giving me a power of general competence. The idea was that local councils were to be trusted to get on with things without vast layers of central bureaucracy or diktat. For pity's sake man, read the memo. Or, if it's all too complex, it's your moral duty to get someone to explain it to you. I'd ask Andrew Stunell, if I were you...

For the benefit of Iain Duncan-Smith: a definition of homelessness

This morning, on BBC's Breakfast Show, Iain Duncan-Smith was talking about the impact of his proposals on a benefit cap. He suggested that the 'scare stories' were exaggerated, claiming that the Shelter definition of homelessness was unrealistic.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceWhen pressed, he stated that their definition of homelessness includes circumstances where bedrooms are being shared. At this point, Ros noted that he was being less than entirely accurate.

So, I thought that I ought to check. Given that Ros has plenty of knowledge on housing issues, and has held senior office at District and County level, I'd tend to trust her judgement. And here, for the benefit of the Secretary of State, is Shelter's actual definition;

"Homelessness means not having a home - most people who are homeless don't sleep on the street. Even if you have a roof over your head you can still be homeless. This is because you may not have any rights to stay where you live or your home might be unsuitable for you due to severe overcrowding or other reasons."

If I was being extremely generous, I would accept that he may have misinterpreted this. But I'm not. To my mind, most people would see severe overcrowding as being rather more than simply sharing a bedroom.

So, either he is wilfully misrepresenting the facts, or he is ignorant of them. And on that basis, he is unworthy of any faith that Parliamentarians might wish to place in his judgement. And that rather casts doubt on the quality of the legislation he is promoting...

A benefit cap: victimising people at taxpayers' expense?

I freely admit that I haven't given an awful lot of attention to the Welfare Reform debate. Odd really, because Ros cast her first ever vote as a rebel against the proposal to punish those in receipt of housing benefit who have a spare bedroom. But nonetheless, it isn't an area of policy that I'm terribly knowledgeable about.

But I do like to think that a proposal should add up. And the benefit cap doesn't seem to do so. As I understand it, the proposal will lead to a direct saving of £270 million from the social welfare budget. So far, so good. But are there consequential effects?

Some of the people impacted, indeed, a lot of them, will be living in private rented accommodation. If housing benefit is reduced, they will probably lose their home unless rents drop in their area across the piece. That seems, to put it politely, somewhat unlikely, given that landlords will not want to reduce their income, and that overheads are likely to increase as interest rates revert to more sustainable long-term levels. If they lose their homes, they aren't intentionally homeless, and their local authority is obliged to house them, which comes with a cost to the local authority. If they have available housing, that cost can be held down but, if temporary rented accommodation is required, that can be quite expensive.

If the senior official in the Department for Communities and Local Government who wrote that the resultant costs would exceed the benefits of the cap is correct, the Government will have achieved something superficially popular and fiscally inept simultaneously. Quite some achievement, might I suggest?

Tim Leunig offers what seems like an entirely sensible alternative, suggesting that you could make equivalent savings by increasing the housing stock by 1.3%. You would create jobs, impose some downward pressure on housing costs across the board, and create an asset which will generate a return, all of which are obviously good.

I'm uncomfortable about the idea of punishing people on the basis of an arbitrarily chosen number. Yes, it is right that we should give people an incentive to seek work, but it can't just be about sticks - carrots need to play a part too. And whilst Liberal Democrats approach it by taking people out of income tax at the bottom end of the income scale, Conservatives appear to prefer making them so impoverished that any job, no matter how poorly paid, and no matter whether or not it allows them to live with dignity.

And so, in the unlikely event that Iain Duncan Smith happens to see these words, I'd be grateful if he put fiscal responsibility ahead of a rather perverse insistence on self-reliance...

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Even a bribe from Eric Pickles wouldn't help me this time...

Last year, I was rather pleased that I had managed to freeze the Parish Council precept by cutting a swathe of utterly superfluous proposed expenditure from the draft budget. Indeed, I probably felt a bit smug about it at the time.

But something was bothering me. Our Parish Clerk produces an exquisitely detailed budget document each year, which we, the Parish councillors, look at and, apart from my enthusiasm to cut out things that I deem unnecessary, accept. I had therefore assumed that the income and expenditure balanced, as it all added up.

And, indeed, it does. However, it gradually dawned on me that I didn't have a grasp of the whole picture, a failure which annoyed me somewhat, as I take a degree of pride in my basic numeracy. So, this year, I produced my very own income and expenditure account, based on the budget figures, stripping out the earmarked funds for elections and the funds inherited from the Community Council intended to finance the playing field.

As a result, my vague unease was crystallised into a rather ugly realisation, that we were actually spending more than we were bringing in. To be honest, I should have spotted it earlier, but you know how it is, everything seemed alright, and I didn't want to be too aggressive as a reasonably new councillor.

Luckily, I'm not alone. Our Parish Clerk has seen the same iceberg, and has proposed some changes that will help address the problem. I've added my own thoughts, and we've filled much of the gap. Unfortunately, inflation and a transfer of waste management costs from the District Council make the numbers more difficult.

Which leaves one last option - increasing the precept. Not a palatable one, but really the only viable one we have. And so, taking a deep breath, I've joined my colleagues in agreeing a 13% increase in the precept for 2012/13, about £5 for a band D household.

It doesn't sound like much, 10p a week, but it's my friends and neighbours who will be paying it, so none of us have done it lightly. Hopefully, though, it will allow us to stabilise our finances in future years.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I do wonder how these people do it...

It is said that getting involved in Liberal Democrat Voice is a certain route to blogging damnation. With the 'curse of the BOTYs', whereby all winners have almost entirely stopped blogging thereafter, and the workload involved in being an editor, you can kind of see why that might be so.

And, alas, I seem to be sliding into the same trap. Blogging here has been a bit light of late, partly caused by my being on holiday, partly because my other responsibilities are keeping me from the blog.

Ironically, most of what I write for Lib Dem Voice is not what I have included on my own blog and, in truth, I haven't written that much for the site. It is a bit of a distraction though, and I really need to start managing my time a little better, so that I can keep up.

So, we'll see what can be done here, but in the meantime, it's my day today on Liberal Democrat Voice so, if you have any comments on how it's going, feel free to add them here...
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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Don't you just hate it when an accountant spams you?

There are few things that genuinely annoy me - I'm a fairly placid soul at heart. But one thing that really does irritate me is commercial spam comments on my blog.

Last week, I blogged about an Indian chartered accountant turned standup comedian. So far, so commonplace. However, in my inbox is notification of a comment, reading as follows;

"For your peace of mind, Gordons Knight offer a 100% Guarantee on our chartered accountant london services in the UK."

Now, I don't know the firm myself. However, their action in spamming my blog gives an impression that they are a bunch of opportunists, rather keener to attract clients than to worry about ethics. That might seem unfair, but it annoys me. They clearly don't know me too well either, as the chances of an HMRC official needing an accountant are, I would suggest, fairly small.

So, to those 'nice' people at Gordons Knight, might I offer a piece of advice? Spamming people is annoying, regardless of how well meaning you might be. Indeed, it gives the impression that you might not be that well meaning, something that I look unkindly upon.

Luckily, they're in South London, so I'm less likely to encounter them, but if you're looking for an accountancy firm in South London, don't ask me for a testimonial...
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Saturday, January 07, 2012

No more unlikely than a chartered accountant doing standup...

One of the things about visiting family is that I am simultaneously inside, and outside, of my comfort zone. Inside, because I am with my family, and outside, because I tend to find myself doing things that I might not otherwise do. My second cousins, Dylan and Arlene, are somewhat younger than I am, and are incredibly social. So, when cousins are in town, they are keen to do things. And, for some reason, if there's karaoke involved, all the better.

We had been part of a shopping exhibition to Phoenix Mills, a rather chi-chi mall in Lower Parel, and the existence of comedy was noted. As, to my knowledge, stand-up comedy is not a traditional Indian artform, and having noted that one of the comedians was a local ex-chartered accountant, when the idea of a night out was mooted, we thought, why not?

So, on Thursday evening, we set off from our hotel, an edifice so vast that you can presumably see it from space, and so over the top that Graham Norton would claim it to be tasteless - just what purpose does the young lady wishing us a good morning actually serve? - in an air-conditioned taxi to the mall, where we were joined by Dylan and Arlene.

And yes, it's that 'Comedy Store', transplanted to South Mumbai for the benefit of a young, almost painfully hip audience. With a Geordie compere, who rapidly alighted upon a young man isolated on the front row, and kept coming back to him with some quite concerted advice on how to make friends, and made a series of suggestive comments about the sexuality of the guys further down the row.

I was intrigued, because homosexual acts are still punishable by imprisonment here, and somewhat surprised by the reception he was getting - uproarious laughter.

He was, it must be said, very funny in a 'thank God he hasn't seen me' sort of a way, and he had evidently made a real effort to research a bit of Mumbai culture first, with gags about biscuit adverts and Amitabh Bachchan (the Big B, as he is known).

Now I know that Will Howells has taken up stand-up and, whilst I haven't seen his act yet (so, when are you playing the Regal, Stowmarket, Will?), I sense that Karun Rao has given me a hint of what I might expect, as he delivered a set of jokes about being a chartered accountant and about how difficult it is to get laid when you are one. Geek humour at its very best.

Our last act was a black comedian from Greenford, near Southall, called Nathan Caton. As a West Indian kid at a mostly Indian school, he'd learned a pretty impressive number of Hindi swear words, which he tested on a fairly receptive audience. I have to say that I was least impressed by him, as he seemed to think that doing a bunch of gags about his mother would be enough.

The beer flowed, and the sushi was good too, and all in all, it was a really pleasant evening. But somehow, I can't see me getting into the Comedy Store in London for less than a fiver...