Categories
Public sector waste

Little people, big burden

Yesterday I attended a licence hearing in the faded grandeur of Hammersmith Town Hall. I had applied for a variation of a premises license under the so called 24 hour drinking laws (otherwise known as the 2003 Licensing Act) and a neighbour had objected triggering a hearing in front of the Licensing Sub-committee.

In the Council Chamber there was the clerk of the Licensing Sub-committee, a representative of the environmental health department, the Police licensing officer, a legal adviser plus an observer, a licensing officer from the council, two councillors, our vexatious complainant and her husband plus myself. Eleven of us gathered at the appointed hour of 4pm on 3rd October. Three of us had had to take the afternoon off work. Six were future index-linked pensioners and two were on allowances increasing in line with civil service pay levels.

The chairman solemnly pointed out that this was a quasi-judicial process and that the matter would be decided on the evidence produced. The site notice emerged as the first and ultimately only issue. My vexatious complainant being quite short was complaining that the notice had been placed high up on a door and that it had been hard to read. It emerged from this conversation that the notice had not been printed on light blue paper.

“Light blue paper?” you say. “Yes, we all keep a stock of light blue paper for statutory notices”. No we don’t. I applied to West London Magistrate’s Court last year for a Justices’ On-Licence and posted a notice on white paper. I applied to the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for a marriage licence this year and posted a notice on white paper.

Apparently in drafting the regulations that sit behind the 2003 Licensing Act the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) have managed to specify that these notices have to be blue or rather light blue. When Hammersmith wrote earlier in the year to ask me to re-apply for the licence I had already got from the Magistrates they specified black ink, they specified 16 point or larger type, they specified A4 or larger paper, they specified that the notice must be displayed for 28 days. They did not specify light blue paper.

The chairman was not sure of the law although the licensing officer was adamant that the notice had to be blue. The legal advisor was not sure. The twenty-something legal advisor with an Australian accent was sent to check the regulations. After a delay of ten minutes or so she came back with a thick book and confirmed that regulations did indeed state that the notice had to be light blue.

The chairman considered the matter for 3 milliseconds before he somewhat shamefacedly told us that the hearing could not proceed. He did not have the power to ask the room if anyone objected to proceeding in the face of this deficiency. The notice had achieved its purpose of bringing forward a representation as they call fact free, meandering letters from NIMBYs. The only reason we were in the room was because the VC had seen the wretched notice. Without the non-light blue notice she would not have made a representation, there would have been no hearing and the application would have gone through on the nod. The Chairman’s embarrassment was such that he did ask the licensing officers to consider waiving their fee if we re-applied. We all trooped out after half an hour having achieved nothing.

Up until yesterday, as a fan of the new localism, I had been of the opinion that most people had missed the point with the 2003 Licensing Act. Here was one small example of our overweening central state actually giving some power to local authorities. Giving the power to make licensing decisions to local councillors. As a candidate for next May’s local elections I thought here is a new useful thing that councillors can do for their local areas. How wrong.

This experience is a fable for how the modern British state works:

  • central government starts off with a good idea – make the licensing regime self funding and put the decisions in the hands of councillors rather than magistrates
  • Whitehall civil servants, DCMS in this case, then produce overcomplex regulations and make arbitrary and silly decisions like making everyone re-apply for their licences at the same time so that the new council licensing departments are as overworked and stressed as they are inexperienced and untried
  • local authorities hire lots of mediocre people who are incapable of translating the regulations into some instructions that businesspeople can follow
  • Councillors feel that they have so little power or confidence that they cannot ignore pettifogging regulations.

I am sure that I will be told that all of this is my fault. I should have hired a licensing solicitor to guide me through this minefield. He would have charged me a couple of grand and advised me that light blue paper was a key issue.

Categories
Localism

New localism

The Telegraph today finished its four-part series covering the new localism proposed by a group of Conservative MPs, MEPs, candidates and activists in a book called Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party. A really challenging set of ideas.

For more information go to http://www.direct-democracy.co.uk/.

Categories
Communications disease

Communications disease

During this year’s conference season the Liberal Democrats quite rightly identified government waste as a target and in particular £4 billion of savings that could be made by abolishing the DTI, cutting the number of ministers from 90 to 60 and purging spin doctors. Their Treasury spokesman, Matthew Taylor, cited the 37 press officers in the Home Office, the 23 press officers in the ODPM and the 18 press officers in the Cabinet Office as examples of so-called communications departments that could stand slimming down. Matthew Taylor is of course only scratching the surface. He really does not get the scale of the problem.

Only last Sunday the Sunday Times carried a job advert offering a six figure salary for a new Permanent Secretary for Government Communications. Apparently, this is a new strategic role at the heart of government. This person will act as Head of Profession for all five channels of communications, marketing and related functions. So now the thousands of graduates of crap marketing degree courses who eke out their livings by promoting State services that we have no choice about using will have a champion at the “highest level”. God help us.

Is this purely a central government phenomenon? Last week the local Tories pushed a leaflet through my door. It told how the London Borough of Ealing has increased its publicity budget by 37% in two years. I decided to check out a few authorities. Ealing (Labour), a London borough, spends £3 million per annum or 1% of its revenue spending. West Sussex (Conservative), where my parents live, again spends £3 million but this is only 0.5% of its much larger revenue spending as a county council. In Tony Blair’s Sedgefield (Labour) only £235,000 is spent on publicity but this is 1.5% of its spending being a tiny district council.

With 353 local authorities in England and a further 80 in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland let’s suppose that they spend about £1 million each on publicity. That is almost £0.5 billion of spending right there.

The good news from local government is that the Tory’s Local Government Act of 1986 requires them to keep track of and publish their publicity spending so local authorities are at least transparent in this area.

Nowhere is the bogus communications culture more deeply embedded than in the NHS. Last week at my rowing club in Hammersmith I picked up a copy of the 2002/3 Annual Report of the Hammersmith and Fulham Primary Care Trust. I guess as a local voluntary body we were sent a copy as stakeholders or something? Very expensive. Not very informative. Beautifully designed and produced by The Design Studio, whoever they are. 27 specially commissioned photos including the obligatory mug shots of unphotogenic management types. Fatuous captions such as: “young and old need healthcare”, “children are at risk from accidents and disease”, “attracting local people to the NHS” and “workshops let staff have their say”. If the budget for this project was any less than £50,000 I would be very surprised. Informative? No, there was no breakdown of expenditure.

A quick trip around NHS websites reveals that there are 300 primary care trusts, 170 acute and specialist trusts, 31 ambulance trusts, 81 mental health trusts, 28 strategic health authorities, 20 special health authorities and 8 care trusts. Are they all doing the same thing? Let’s see. I went to look at two randomly chosen organisations.

NHS Litigation Authority. 31 pages of sober 2 colour design from Thomas McGurk Ltd, 9 photos of more plain, middle-aged manager types. Cheaper than some but what is wrong with a word processed document?

The Northumberland Care Trust goes for full colour, with 37 colour photos, decorated with specially commissioned artwork. Well pricey.

Let’s be charitable and say that the average cost of these reports is £25,000. Across the 638 trusts and authorities listed above, and excluding all of the Whitehall-based bits of the Department of Health, we get a spend of £16 million for reports that no-one reads, filled with superfluous photos, giving no proper breakdown of expenditure.

Finally, a last example exposed again by the job ads. In September the National Institute of Clinical Excellence were looking for an External Affairs Director. Passing over the fact that they think that it is appropriate to have offices in the Strand we find that a salary of £90K is offered for someone to lead a team of 22 “professionals” and manage a budget of £3 million. Weep.

This year the State is planning to spend £5.2 billion more on the NHS than it did last year. How much of this is being sluiced down the drain in communications?

In the private sector the annual report has developed as a way of communicating not only with shareholders, who are the major audience for this document, but also customers and staff, for whom it has become an annual review. Especially in business-to-business markets the annual report becomes a selling document that tries to establish the organisation described as financially sound and a suitable business partner.

State bodies have no shareholders and no amount of talking about stakeholders can justify this expenditure. I am quite sure that concerned citizens, local councillors, MPs and civil servants can read word-processed documents cheaply reproduced on laser printers and photocopiers. Are their attention spans really so short that they need artwork, photos and design to amuse them?

With the communications phenomenon the State manages to give us the worst of both worlds. We tolerate excessive spending on promotion in the private sector because companies competing in any market segment need to explain the comparative strengths of their offering. This is where the communications culture comes from. The users of public sector services have little choice about the service provider. We not only get producer interest dominated services that do not benefit from the discipline of competition but then we have to pay for the promotional overheads that are typical of the private sector as well. How mad is that?

Perhaps the first job of Tony Blair’s new Permanent Secretary should be to get a handle on all of this spending and identify ways it can be reduced. Then he or she can quickly make themselves redundant.