Conservative Diary

See-through government

30 Jul 2013 12:06:08

How Maude believes government could save more taxpayers' money

By Paul Goodman
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For all Francis Maude's ultra-modernising views, his Conservative roots run very deep: after all, his father, Angus Maude, was Margaret Thatcher's Paymaster-General and co-author, with Enoch Powell, of Biography of a Nation.  In his time, man who now holds the same post as his father has been a Treasury Minister, lost a seat, found another, served as Shadow Chancellor and been Party Chairman.  In short, Maude is a veteran politician who could have put his feet up in office - as others have been known to do as they age - and treated his appointment as a bit of a last hurrah.

This hasn't happened.  Even his critics concede that he has made "far-reaching reforms", and Maude himself points out that the civil service is now at its smallest since the Second World War.  And although some of the work will doubtless have been outsourced, there's no doubt that the waste and extravagance of the Brown and Blair years is being curbed.  Behind the Times's paywall today, Rachel Sylvester describes how a team of civil servants helped to drive finding £500 million of savings last year, and believes that there are big digital reductions to be made across Government - "the Cabinet Office believes it can save 40 per cent on the cost of building secondary schools". (Peter Hoskin has described the enthusiasm of younger civil servants for change on this site.)

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17 Apr 2013 07:53:32

A Government website has won a design award?! It’s true and, what’s more, it’s deserved

By Peter Hoskin
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_MG_3243[3]Mike Bracken, Nick Hurd MP, Ben Terrett and Rohan Silva with's award.

If I told you a Government IT project had won an award, you might be surprised. If I then added that the award was a design award, your surprise might turn into shock. And then if it was for Design of the Year as chosen by London’s Design Museum… what the Hell?!

But that’s exactly what happened last night, when the website – which collects information that was previously spread across numerous other websites – beat off competition from the Shard, Louis Vuitton and others to land the Design Museum’s top award. And much deserved it was, too.

Why so? Well, in truth, the website isn’t exactly a paragon of beauty. As designed by Ben Terrett (pictured above) from inside the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service, it’s more about clarity and functionality – and that’s precisely the point. The idea is that ‘most anyone should be able to use the site, from someone starting up their first business to a granny checking up on her pension. As anyone who’s struggled against Government websites in the past will know, that idea, and its execution, was precisely what was needed.

And it delivers benefits for the Government, as well. By making it easier to write and administer to things such as passport applications, is expected to save taxpayers around £50 million a year. Not much, perhaps, against a deficit of £120 billion – but it’s only a start, with more to come. Last year’s Digital Efficiency Report suggested that the “greater digitisation of transactions” could save around £1.8 billion a year.

This clever use of IT was always one of this Government’s most promising ideas. Indeed, in an article for The Spectator in 2010, Neil O’Brien (now an adviser to George Osborne) and I suggested that – in the guise of the “Post-bureaucratic Age” – it could even count as David Cameron’s Big Idea. What’s happened since then is that Mr Cameron has spoken about it less and less, but the Cabinet Office, supported by folk such as Rohan Silva (also pictured above), has kept on working at it, programming code while the rest of Whitehall sleeps. And it’s got to the point where the PBA, as a public concept, has rather come back to life. There was last night’s award, of course, but ministers such as Jeremy Hunt are also eager to deliver reform by keyboard and mouse.

Of course, it’s not all perfect: itself isn’t yet complete, and there are still dark question marks over the Government’s ability to deliver bigger, trickier computer systems (here’s looking at you, Universal Credit). But at least progress is being made. Whatever happens at the next election, future governments will have a better operating system installed thanks to the efforts of this one.

4 Mar 2013 13:15:12

Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander’s quiet revolution

By Peter Hoskin
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Tax cuts, secret courts and Nigel Farages have set the political pages ablaze – but there’s a more unassuming story that could actually turn out to be more significant than any of them.

It concerns a new initiative, called the “What Works Network”, that Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander are launching today. You can read details at the Cabinet Office website, but it’s basically a new grouping of watchdogs to sift through evidence and determine which policies actually work. To start off with, this grouping will cover four policy areas – promoting local economic growth, reducing crime, bettering the lot of disadvantaged children, and looking after the elderly – that amount to £200 billion-worth of public spending.

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2 Mar 2013 10:40:48

Now’s the time for Honest Dave, Mark II

By Peter Hoskin
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Trust in politics, ever notice how it keeps coming up as an issue? In the past few weeks alone, we’ve had two stories that have likely eroded the public’s already limited faith in politicians: the outcome of the Chris Huhne trial, and the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard. These scandals may not have tipped the vote in Eastleigh, but Ukip’s strong performance there can probably be put down to a general dissatisfaction with the three main parties. As one Ukip supporter put it in a recent letter to the Times (£): “On so many issues they are no longer to be trusted…”

The cost to David Cameron of mistrust in politics could be severe. And it’s not just the Ukip effect: a recent YouGov poll found that 23 per cent of the public trust what “leading Labour politicians” say, whereas for “leading Conservative politicians” the figure reduces to 19 per cent. What’s at stake isn’t just votes – although that’s certainly the crux of it – but the possibility of a fair hearing in the first place. Conservatives can rattle on about Europe, immigration, welfare, whatever they like – but if the public doesn’t believe them, then it’s just so many words into the wind.

This is part of the reason why I’ve previously suggested – once, twice and more times – that David Cameron work on restoring trust in politics. And now the advice ought to take on even more urgency. As Paul Goodman suggested a couple of days ago, it’s unlikely that the groping allegations will remain restricted to the Liberal Democrats. Parliament may not quite burn down from the media and public opprobrium that will follow, but it’s another few shot-glasses of fuel for the flames. Fire-fighters ought to be in place.

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17 Feb 2013 15:27:18

When it comes to trust in politics, David Cameron should sweat the small stuff

By Peter Hoskin
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There’s a small item in today’s Sun that ought to make big waves. It concerns the subsidised food and drink in Parliament, and how certain politicians are working to block price rises. Apparently, MPs are insisting that the costs remain frozen, for reasons including that, “breakfast in the Commons would cost more than ‘nearby commercial venues’”. That means fillets of sea bass for £3.50 and glasses of white wine for £2.35 from here on in, all funded by the taxpayer to the tune of £6 million a year. Take that, commercial venues.

Stacked against a debt burden of £1.4 trillion, that £6 million may not add up to much – but, symbolically, it’s important. Not only is it an affront to the unsubsidised general public, at a time when supermarket prices are rising and wages stagnating, but it’s also a reminder of the pocket-lining tendencies that contributed to the expenses scandal. After Chris Huhne’s resignation, you’d think politicians would be especially alive to that little ideal called ‘trust’. Sadly, not all of them are.

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13 Nov 2012 15:33:16

The Post-Bureaucratic Age comes back to life

By Peter Hoskin
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Forget the huskies — computers were a considerably more important part of the early Cameron leadership. The man himself could barely stop talking about them, about the Internet, about data and technology. And much of this fell under the banner of the Post-Bureaucratic Age, the idea that ordinary citizens, armed with little more than keyboards and information, could take greater control over the services they receive. It was all part of the Google zeitgeist.

Sadly, some of this fell away with the birth of the Coalition. The very phrase “the Post-Bureaucratic Age” was subsumed underneath the bigger umbrella term, “the Big Society”. And Mr Cameron stopped enthusing about computers so much, as he turned to the austere business of deficit reduction. It wasn’t so much that his Government had turned away from post-bureaucracy: it hadn’t, as its continuing efforts to free-up government data amply demonstrate. It's more that was talked about less.

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2 Oct 2012 08:23:23

Another escalation in the battle against Whitehall’s permanent government

By Peter Hoskin
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Outside of Manchester, the most significant political speech of the day is being delivered by Francis Maude to the Institute for Government. Indeed, it could actually be more significant than “the most personal speech ever given by a British political leader,” too. For Mr Maude’s subject is the structural relationship between government and the civil service, and how it should be altered. His words will mark an escalation in the struggle against Whitehall.

And, judging by this report in the Financial Times, what an escalation it will be. Mr Maude is set to claim that senior civil servants have blocked government policy or advised other officials not to implement it. And while that will be no surprise to Whitehall watchers, and while Mr Maude will describe these cases as “exceptional”, it still amounts to an accusation that some civil servants don’t just fail to do their job, but succeed in the doing the opposite of it. It’s another sign of what I’ve written about before: Mr Maude’s growing impatience and determination on civil service reform.

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17 Jul 2012 17:41:55

The rising SpAd population isn't in itself a bad thing for Britain

By Peter Hoskin
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My apologies to Paul for copying, with two extra words, the headline from his earlier post. It's just that another census was released today — the quarterly (or quarterly-ish) headcount of the government's Special Advisers — and it too highlights a rising population. The number of SpAds has increased from 66 in the first of these lists, from June 2010, to 72 last July, to 79 now. They must be breeding.

But, like the headline says, this isn't in itself a bad thing. There was a time once, in the Coalition Agreement, when David Cameron and Nick Clegg talked in terms of population control for special advisers; but this was misguided. The grim excesses of the Gordon Brown years — the smears and the briefings — were not necessarily an argument against SpAds themselves, but against bad SpAds.

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2 Jul 2012 18:33:06

Cameron and Osborne announce parliamentary inquiry into banking industry

By Matthew Barrett
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At the end of David Cameron's European statement, the Prime Minister made a short statement on an inquiry into banking following the Barclays/Libor scandal:

"We need to take action right across the board. Introducing the toughest and most transparent rules on pay and bonuses of any major financial centre in the world. Increasing the taxes banks must pay. Ensuring tough civil and criminal penalties for those who break the law. And above all, clearing up the regulatory failure left by the last government. The British people want to see two things. That bankers who act improperly are punished. And that we learn the broader lessons of what happened in this particular scandal."

Mr Cameron then announced his plan for a parliamentary - rather than judge-led/independent, etc - inquiry into banking:

"[T]he Serious Fraud Office are looking at whether there are any criminal prosecutions that can be brought, and they are using the full force of the law in dealing with this. ... I want us to establish a full parliamentary committee of Inquiry involving both Houses chaired by the Chairman of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee [Andrew Tyrie]. This Inquiry will take evidence under oath have full access to papers, officials and Ministers – including Ministers and Special advisers from the last government and it will be given, by the government, all the resources it needs to do its job properly."

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5 Apr 2012 16:02:55

The London mayoral candidates releasing their tax returns sets an unfortunate precedent

By Matthew Barrett
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During last night's mayoral debate, the candidates reportedly agreed to release their tax returns. This arose from the fact that Ken Livingstone is suspected of keeping his taxes arranged in an exotic manner, so Boris Johnson and Conservatives in Parliament attacked Livingstone for his tax affairs, and therefore Ken began to question Boris' own arrangements. The day before last night's debate, Boris told Ken "You've got to stop lying" about his taxes, and the culmination of all these allegations is that all four candidates released their tax returns today, as ageed during the debate. Ken had a little more difficulty than the others, but that's a different issue to the one I wish to address.

Earlier this afternoon, the Independent on Sunday's John Rentoul tweeted: "That Americanisation was quite sudden. London mayoral politics now requires the publication of candidates' personal tax returns."

This is a very disappointing situation. I have two gut reactions to the idea that British politicians - one assumes all Parliamentary candidates may now have to do this in future - should release their tax returns. The first is that if we want Parliamentarians of the Carswell school - patriotic people who have decided to enter Parliament not for fame (Today programme fame, anyway), career advancement, or to cash in, we will quickly find the incentives for them to do so are running out. Not only will they endure the general distrust towards MPs as is currently the case, but in future they will be expected to undergo the public trial of having their tax returns released and examined by the local or national press. This is made more important by my second point.

In America, where candidates regularly release their tax returns, there is no great question of a divide in the wealth of candidates. That is to say, both candidates are likely to be millionaires, therefore the real reason for seeing their tax returns is to ensure they have clean records of handling their own affairs. They might use clever lawyers to pay a bit less tax than their opponent, or they might be making money from some sort of insider-y schemes that indicate corruption. Both of these would raise questions about the candidate.

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