Ofqual, another bit of the British state that failed in a crisis

Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of school leavers and their parents, will be hearing Ofqual’s mild mannered chairman, Roger Taylor, row back on its use of an algorithm based moderation process for A levels and revert to grades assessed by teachers on news bulletins this evening. They will note his prompted apology bitterly in many cases.

Now thousands of students will have new hope of getting a university place or a place closer to their heart.

The irony is that the overall automated process that links together schools, universities and exam boards had done a great job by many measures already. 88% of students had got their first choice university places on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high. Similarly the number of disadvantaged students.

Now university admissions departments will be thrown into chaos having to find new places for students who qualify and dealing with those that want to withdraw from safety offers and pursue their original first choice. Many universities had already changed their offers to unconditional ones in anticipation of this crisis, notably Worcester College, Oxford.

The problem for those who care about A levels as a qualification, grade inflation and the ability of universities and employers to identify talent is that teachers estimated 38% of exams were worth an A or A*. This means that not only is it hard to differentiate between candidates this year it puts this cohort at an advantage compared to recent ones. Will fairness demand that almost 40% of exams get the tops grades next year?

Who is to blame? Certainly Ofqual. It came up with a technical solution to a complex problem and was not able to convince the rest of the education sector to back its judgement. Who knows whether that is through lack of transparency on Ofqual’s part or an unwillingness on the part of the teaching profession collectively to accept that moderation is a valid process. The spectacle of schools publishing their own results makes you wonder if there wasn’t some professional muscle flexing going on.

Ofqual’s chief executive, Sally Collier, has been notably absent from the public debate. Was a career civil servant rather than an educationalist the right person to lead this public body? Her chairman, Roger Taylor, an entrepreneur who made his name with the Dr Foster business, has a background in using statistics to drive health outcomes but again is not an educationalist.

This was bound to be a political hot potato and one that got hot in August when not much else is in the news. The politics of students waving their attenuated results around was always going to be incendiary. The vast majority of students and their families will be happily planning for the start of term but the media and the opposition were always going find enough unhappy students to make a silly season crisis. The political failure was to not realise that Ofqual had not done the necessary job of persuasion itself to make its solution stick.

Once again we have seen an organ of the British state fail to rise to a crisis. Whether it is the Met Police in the 2011 riots, the London Fire Brigade at Grenfell or Public Health England in pandemic planning and managing Covid testing we have too many examples of state bodies trundling along doing business as usual but unable to flex at speed to deal with a crisis.

National politics Uncategorized

Dr Miles Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, UWE Bristol – Bad acting video clipper

On the great time sucker that is Twitter one of the viral videos of the febrile Covid-19 moment is a clip of the Prime Minister on the ITV This Morning show last Thursday talking, loosely maybe, about “taking it on the chin”. It has been viewed over 2 million times and shared by a list of people who should know better. Johnson’s rhetorical style maybe lets him down here but he was merely trying to illustrate what his government was not going to do.

The source of this clip is a chap called Miles Thompson. He is not some spotty oik in his Mum’s back bedroom. He is somebody who knows better, a professional clinical psychologist, a PhD, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England. He has clipped the TV show to make it look like the Prime Minister was saying the opposite of what he was wanting to convey.

In his Twitter bio Thompson calls himself a “leftie”, and certainly scrolling down his feed you get the impression of someone with a consistent, left of centre, probably far left to most people, point of view. Clearly his animus for Prime Minister Johnson has overcome his professional good sense that it is better not to spread untrue rumours when the country is facing a very large scale public health emergency.

Thompson is patient zero for this irresponsible and mendacious piece of work. I don’t know what his university employer, UWE Bristol, or his professional body, Health and Care Professions Council, thinks about this kind of behaviour but I think it stinks.


The Labour manifesto and its giveaways is the real threat to the NHS

There is no doubt that the Labour party is really pushing the “Trump: our NHS is not for sale” line at this election. But the big question is why is Labour investing so heavily in this flimsy idea? It does not survive the most cursory of inspections.

BBC health correspondent Nick Triggle puts his finger on the issue this morning pointing out there is not much difference in the core financial offers being made by the three main parties at this election. Labour is relying on the Trump message as its own cash offer is really not so different from the Conservatives’.

Triggle goes on to note that the gap between Labour and the Conservatives grows even smaller when you consider that the government has already promised to help with NHS pensions, and if that is included then the difference between the main parties drops to £3.5 billion or 2.3%.

But if Nick Triggle is in the business of spotting differences he has missed some huge ones. Labour’s manifesto makes some eye catching promises to British workers. Promises that have the capacity to cut huge chunks out of NHS budgets and make the whole institution unviable.

The first big promise is four extra bank holidays. Very nice you might think. A disaster for the NHS. NHS full time staff work just fractionally over 200 days a year. So four extra bank holidays represents a loss of 2% of staff time. With an annual pay bill of £60 billion in the NHS and assuming that the lost time has to be back filled at overtime rates or with locums the cost is going to be about £2 billion a year.  The promise would need to be enacted next year otherwise Labour would immediately lose credibility. The same promise was wheeled out in 2017. This loss of staff time in the NHS could not be replaced by productivity improvements that quickly. Already Labour’s manifesto has taken away £2 billion even assuming that you can find 2% more staff at a time when staff shortages in the NHS are widespread.

Next Labour’s manifesto promises “year-on-year above-inflation pay rises, starting with a 5% increase” for public service workers. This must include the NHS. Currently the benchmark CPI rate of inflation is running at 1.5% so Labour is promising to increase the NHS pay bill be 3.5% in real terms in the first year and to keep on adding above inflation rises for staff. Again, this sounds wonderful for staff, but it is simply not costed into Labour’s spending plans. In the first year they are adding £2.1 billion to the pay bill with more to come.

So our first two manifesto promises have more than wiped out Labour’s extra spending for NHS England in their first year with more damage to come with each above inflaton pay rise thereafter. It is Labour’s third promise that threatens to rip the NHS apart.

Labour promises that:

Within a decade we will reduce average full-time weekly working hours to 32 across the economy, with no loss of pay, funded by productivity increases.

The NHS’s Agenda for Change terms and conditions assume a standard working week of 37.5 hours. Getting to 32 hours requires the NHS to give up 17% of its working time. If nurses and most other clinical staff in the NHS are getting 17% of their time back everyone on other contracts will expect the same. The idea that this is going to be made up with productivity in such a short period as 10 years is laughable, especially when you are trying to cover 24 hour rotas, meet safety criteria and provide service levels for different specialities.

If you can squeeze out more productivity it is not really clear that patients will welcome the benefits being passed on to staff with no strings attached. Patients might expect the benefits to be at least shared equally. 

17% of the NHS pay bill is £10bn.

So in summary Labour is proposing to dispense with 19% of NHS staff time (2% for 4 bank holidays and 17% for 32 hour weeks) with a cost to replace of about £12bn (£2bn for 4 bank holidays and £10bn for 32 hour weeks). 

The NHS is already having to run incredibly fast to recruit and retain staff. You can’t just get hold of another 19% of staff.  If Labour’s manifesto promises become the norm for British workers NHS staff shortages will be double or triple their current levels.

Labour’s manifesto will look very attractive to NHS staff but patients should be very afraid. Labour’s election giveaways could easily make the NHS unaffordable and unviable. 

National politics Uncategorized

The Alston report is built on statistical voodoo

On Wednesday Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, published his final report.

This Australian academic, who is based in New York, made wide ranging comments over 21 pages that essentially placed the blame for the creation of a “digital workhouse” on post 2010 austerity.  Alston built his argument on a succession of misused and garbled statistics.  He has created a misleading and nakedly political piece of work, and one that lets down struggling families by mistaking political point scoring about austerity with a forensic skewering of real problems in the benefit system.  In Alston’s view the economy is in a good place and the government simply refuses to roll back austerity because of its “ideological agenda”.

Alston makes six howlers with his data:

1. Wealth

The first plank of his argument is that:

 the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth largest economy

Well, yes, of course, but the UK is also very populous and on a measure of GDP per head at purchasing power parity the UK is listed 26th by the IMF in 2018.  So the UK is a middling wealthy country in the EU and OECD to be fair.

2. Poverty

He contrasts the UK’s wealth with its poverty.

one fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty

The 14 million number comes from the Social Metrics Commission work published in September, an attempt to recast existing HBAI poverty data to come up with an agreed measure of poverty as this is a hugely contested area of public policy.

If you scroll down to page 133 you can see their metric compared the HBAI one.  It is lower than it was before austerity in 2009 and remains pretty flat over 16 years.  Like any measure of relative poverty it slowly undulates with the overall economy.  Counter intuitively they tend to be worse in good times and get better in bad.

If you compare relative poverty in the UK with the rest of the EU the UK comes out dead average, not much worse than Germany.

So, Alston’s chosen measure of poverty in the UK is actually marginally better than it was pre-austerity, largely flat over time as you might expect from a relative measure and unexceptional in the wealthy EU.

Only on Thursday of this week Philippa Stroud was promoting the work of the Social Metrics Commission on Conservativehome.  By misusing their data Alston makes it harder for them to succeed.

3. Child poverty

Alston mentions child poverty 5 times, citing forecasts of possible increases.  The reason he talks about forecasts rather than the actual record is that the past tells the wrong story for him.  Again the SMC data shows child poverty slightly better than in 2009 pre-austerity and an OECD comparison shows the UK in a good light not far above Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

4. Destitution

Alston claimed:

1.5 million [of them] experienced destitution in 2017

This comes from work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published in June.  This is a made up number invented by JRF themselves.   Alston did not notice or did not choose to highlight that, on a like-for-like basis, JRF “destitution” had fallen by 25% between 2015 – 2017.  An apparently miraculous positive performance that was left unremarked upon.

The JRF exaggerate their numbers and use constructions such as:

the number of people who were pushed into destitution during 2017

to obfuscate the fact their headline number multiplies a short brush with hardship into a year long experience of “destitution”.  On page 13 they explain how they get from a count of 184,000 in their reference week to a number 8 times larger.

If unemployment statistics were done like this a week of unemployment would keep you in the numbers all year.

There is robust EU-SILC data, share of population living in severe material poverty, for which the data is collected by ONS.  They interview 15-20,000 households in the UK per annum to get this data so it is top quality.  Again on an EU comparison the UK is well below average and only marginally changed from before “austerity”.

5. Food poverty

Alston refers to food banks 10 times in his report.  I won’t even start on how unsound food bank counting is.  Alston says there are no UK measures of food poverty.  Maybe, but again there is robust EU-SILC data on this (data gathered by ONS remember in very large scale survey).  The series Population unable to afford a meal with meat, fish, chicken or a vegetarian equivalent every second day must be some kind of measure of food poverty.  On this measure the UK improving and better than Italy, Germany, France and Belgium.

6. Suicide

Finally, I wanted to mention suicide.  Alston mentions suicide 3 times, once in a frankly snide references to a minister for suicide prevention.

In the UK suicide is historically low, 2017 was the lowest ever year for male suicide and female suicide is at recently typical levels. The UK has very low suicide rates compared to other EU countries. We have the 4th lowest suicide rate in the EU.

Alston simply had no business raising suicide.


There is a bone headedness about the way that Universal Credit is being implemented.  Alston might have done struggling families more of a service if he had kept his focus on specific system failings rather than having a generalised whinge that does not stand up to scrutiny.

It is too easy for the government to dismiss Alston as someone with an agenda taking a swipe at UK government policy as a result of Alston’s active misuse of statistics.  As an Australian based in New York representing the UN Alston fails to make any international comparisons.  I assume because they would spoil his argument.

In the process Alston has abused the good work of the Social Metrics Commission (SMC).  Alston has ensured that he will not be heard.  Hopefully he has not trashed the SMC brand too.


Labour’s Land Value Tax would be excruciating for London

On page 86 of its manifesto Labour raises the prospect of a Land Value Tax (LVT):

A Labour government will give local government extra funding next year. We will initiate a review into reforming council tax and business rates and consider new options such as a land value tax, to ensure local government has sustainable funding for the long term.

I did the calculation for my house. My current council tax is £2,270. Under Labour’s LVT proposals this would go up to £5,890, a rise of £3,620 or 160%. It would be excruciating for my family. Finding £3,620 out of an already reduced after tax income would effectively mean the end of holidays or a move to a smaller property.

It is quite easy to do this calculation for yourself. Get your property value off Zoopla. Multiply by 0.55 to get an estimate of the value of the undeveloped land. Multiply 0.0085 to get the tax you would pay. The rate of 0.85% comes from proposers of the tax themselves.

It is no good Labour claiming that this is scaremongering. They have raised the proposal and stated the rate. We know it has to be a large amount because they themselves are presenting it as a get out of free jail card for local government finance. Here is a mechanism that will allow Labour to pump vast funds into its local government clients without affecting headline tax rates for regular people.

The 1%ers will pay! Unfortunately that means anyone who has struggled to buy a property in London. Good luck on Thursday!

Health, housing and adult social services Uncategorized

Onkar Sahota will get an early visit from CQC

20141118_231254Today the Daily Mail went over the top with its front page. The CQC’s risk based approach to doing assessments of GP’s surgeries seems sound and it is good they are being transparent and publishing the whole thing. The Daily Mail should have covered it more objectively.

I wasn’t impressed when I heard chairman of the BMA’s GP committee, Chaand Nagpaul, complaining on the BBC Today programme this morning that the data should have been kept secret. In the public services we have too many highly paid people keeping data out of sight. Believe me after 8 years of being a local councillor I have seen it too often. Nagpaul’s Twitter account is headed with the phrase “The NHS is a revered public service not a shopping mall.”

Reverence isn’t very 21st century. Transparency is.

The whole thing did make me ask though – how is Onkar Sahota’s business doing? Sahota is the sole shareholder of Healthcare 360 Limited which owns three GP’s practices. Privatisation isn’t a dirty word for Dr Sahota. One of Onkar Sahota’s practices is going to get a visit soon having been rated 1 (ie highest risk). None of the three practices got the lowest rating (6).

Greenford Avenue Family Health Practice

Rated 1 (most risky)

Potentially not identifying enough Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, not doing enough flu jabs, not nagging smokers enough and a poor result in their patient survey.

Somerset Family Practice

Rated 3 (risky)

Potentially not identifying enough Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary at a level that CQC consider to be an “elevated risk”. Only 29% of patients reporting that it is easy to get through to the surgery on the phone.

Hanwell Health Centre

Rated 5

Potentially not identifying enough Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and dementia.


Cllr Tailor: Please stop claiming credit and clean up Hoylake Road

Tailor's Potemkin VillageIn its rush to be seen to getting things finished off before the local elections Labour is cutting a few corners. On Wednesday the Council put out a press release along with a photo of Labour’s Cllr Tailor who speaks on housing for them. Cllr Tailor is photographed at the rear of the three new houses in Hoylake Road.


The view out the front is somewhat different. The council’s contractor has left a load of old pallets and a full pallet of turf out on the green half way down Hoylake Road. The mess on the right is on the public highway and simply shouldn’t be there. I do hope that Cllr Tailor will get this mess cleared up quickly. He is quick enough to brag about the council building new council houses in his ward, typically he doesn’t even notice the mess outside the front.

The council’s press release was at least even handed enough to point out that this programme dates back to 2009 and was started under the previous Conservative administration. The Hoylake development is first identified in cabinet papers in January 2010. Cllr Tailor has been in charge of this programme for four years and it has taken four years to get the job done. Why so long?

Labour bragging

Cllr Tailor and his Labour comrades would have you believe that Labour is the fount of all good things in the Borough. In truth there is very little that Labour can brag about that wasn’t started off by the Conservatives four years ago. The only major exceptions are the Southall car park, the gold-plated civic quarter and shiny new hub offices for council staff.

Freeze strap

Ealing and Northfield Uncategorized

Council leader short changes Ealing twice over with South of France jolly

Julian Bell at MIPIMCouncil leader Julian Bell arrived in Cannes in the South of France yesterday afternoon for the MIPIM property show in time for the opening fireworks and cocktail party at the Carlton Hotel. He has just completed a six day cycle ride from London. It started off last Thursday morning and ended yesterday afternoon. The MIPIM property show in Cannes goes on until the weekend.

Carlton Cannes

Councillor Bell is short-changing Ealing twice over. He draws an allowance of £41,400 from Ealing council on the understanding that he is doing a fulltime role. Unlike previous leader Jason Stacey who did do the job fulltime, taking a pause in a successful career, Bell still moonlights two days a week as a paid researcher for Ealing Southall MP Virendra Sharma. Not only does Ealing lose Bell’s full attention but most residents would be uncomfortable with the conflict of interest inherent with the leader of the council being so closely associated with one part of the Borough. Talking of conflicts of interest what does Ealing owe Broadgate Estates now?

Both of Bell’s jobs come with significant downtime which coincides with school holidays. Parliament wasn’t in recess last week or this and the council is in full swing. Taking 10 days out for a jolly is not on.

Freeze strap

National politics Uncategorized

#CostofCameron 1: Energy bills up almost £300

Energy bill up graphicAs a part of its mendacious #CostofCameron campaign Labour is talking about energy bills.

I guess the basic claim is about right. Labour don’t show their working so it is hard to know. Certainly energy price rises have been big news recently and they stick out hugely because the Coalition government has largely succeeded in freezing many people’s council tax for the last three years. By comparison energy prices are painful. But in fact they rose more quickly under Labour before Labour’s 7.2% single dip recession.

Look at this picture taken from page 6 of House of Commons Library Note SN/SG/4153.

Actual energy prices

In the 5 years under Labour, 2004 to 2009, gas prices went up 88% and electricity prices increased by 54%. Although they are still going up now the rate of increase is less than then. Labour was lucky in that the worldwide slump in energy prices fed through into consumer prices in the UK in 2010 so the average dual fuel bill of the typical consumer went down by £79 in 2010. But even taking this into account dual fuel prices rose £361 in the 2005-2010 period. The rise in the 2004-2009 period was an eye-watering £524. Look at tables 2 and 3 at the end of the note. All figures Standard Credit/All.

So the Cost of Blair/Brown was way worse than the Cost of Cameron until the world energy price slump partially rescued their numbers.


That David Attenborough tweet

Today I have created a bit of a storm with a comment I made on Twitter about David Attenborough. It was an off the cuff, ironic comment and I didn’t set out to make anyone miserable. If David Attenborough is unhappy I am sorry. I don’t suppose he expects to comment on such contentious topics as population control and not get a strong response.

The background to this is that David Attenborough has for many years been a patron of the Optimum Population Trust which now calls itself Population Matters. My tweet reflected my frustration with Attenborough repeatedly using his “national treasure” status to promote a set of views that see people as being a problem. His prescriptions seem always to apply to other people.

My view of the world is that we have to work out how to make sure that the 9 billion people who will populate the world by 2050 all have a good life. They all have hopes and dreams and don’t need to be told what to do by Attenborough and his organisation.

I won’t be discussing this incident any more.