Monthly Archives: December 2009
Jeremy Hunt, Shadow Culture Secretary, says the Conservative Government would offer a prize of £1,000,000 to someone:
[T]hat develops a platform that enables large groups of people to come together online to solve common problems and develop new policies…
Explaining his proposal on the Today programme yesterday, he said:
What this idea is, is can we find a find a way of structuring these ideas so that you give more weight to people who have more expertise or who are recognised as having a better track record in terms of previous ideas they’ve had. I think if we can do that we can actually harness the ideas that people have.
The response from his political opponents has been predictable, but disappointingly superficial.
For the LibDems, Jenny Willott:
This prize is clearly a publicity stunt and a total waste of taxpayers’ money. There are already a multitude of ways to communicate with large numbers of people online, from Facebook to discussion groups.
Maybe the Tories are so out of touch they don’t know what’s out there, but they shouldn’t waste £1m of public money reinventing the wheel.
Ouch. It really sounds as if the Tories have put their foot in it. May be Labour were more positive? Apparently Labour MPs were queuing up to comment.
Tessa Jowell, Olympics Minister:
Families want serious, thought-through policies that meet their aspirations, not short-term public relations stunts. Labour already makes full use of collaboration and social networking technologies to consult with people.
Kerry McCarthy, government lead for online campaigning (aka “The Twitter Czar”):
The idea that a Conservative government would spend £1million of our money on giving people a say in picking the England football team when it’s already being talked about in every pub across the country is absolutely barmy.
Ben Bradshaw, Mr. Hunt’s opposite number:
The Tories’ lack of policies is becoming more and more transparent. Instead of developing serious policies they are now just dreaming up gimmicks.
With that kind of negative response, either Jeremy Hunt’s dropped a phenomenal clanger, or this is really rather a good idea. Which is it?
To be clear, two things are proposed. The criticism has failed to focus on one or other, probably in part to avoid the more complicated message which would result from measured criticism of one or other aspect. It’s important to seperate them out so as to properly evaluate what’s being suggested.
- First, method: having a prize competition to procure an IT system, rather than using traditional procurement methods. There has been some direct criticism of this – Tessa Jowell and Jenny Willott’s comments certainly are, and Sunny Hundal on Liberal Conspiracy appears to echo this (although his main point is about the partisan-ship of the Taxpayers Alliance, and not Hunt’s proposal).
- Second, objective: an IT system, the online platform which the competition winner would need to provide. This seems to be attacked by almost everyone, generally dismissed as a gimmick.
Taking the method first, what about prize competitions? From the opponents, there appears to be a lack of appreciation for the history of such exercises. When asked whether she would have opposed the Longitude Prize, Kerry McCarthy responded:
I have absolutely no idea what that was, but I suspect it’s an analogy that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. [The] Tory idea is silly gimmick.
[The Longitude Prize was instituted by by an Act of Parliament in 1714, in order to encourage the development of a method for determining the longitude of a ship at sea. The prize itself was £20,000, concidentally equivalent to about £1,500,000 today, and as with Jeremy Hunt's proposal it was seen as an alternative to funding the development directly. Some limited R&D funding was available under the Act, but only for further developing existing and proven work which showed promise of achieving the goal.]
In terms of scrutinising the analogy, it is difficult to see why it doesn’t stand up. In both cases, a prize is offered to encourage research and development towards a specific goal, rather than the state providing up front funding. In both cases, the offering of a prize allows participation by anyone who could make a real contribution (in contrast to the barriers to entry posed by traditional procurement exercises) and outsources the funding of the R&D work.
Sunny Hundal offers a more developed criticism of the analogy:
It’s usually private money or philanthropy. This is taxpayers money.
My initial reaction to this is that he’s simply wrong, but in point of fact he’s correct, provided you limit your historical review to the earlier part of the 20th Century. During that period there was certainly a predominance of private innovation prizes over public ones, but this was a relatively new development historically.
Important earlier examples (the 1714 Longitude Prize aside) include the Alkali Prize offered by Louis XVI in 1775 (promoting commercial processes for the production of alkalis), and the the Food Preservation and Turbine Prizes offered by the Society for the Encouragement of Industry in 1794 and 1823 respectively (prompting the development of food canning and water turbine generators).
The 19th Century the growth of industry and philanthropy saw a development of private innovation prizes, culminating in the Chicago Times-Herald Prize, offered for a 54 mile race conducted in 1895. The entrants were self-propolled carriages; the prize prompted the development of some of the earliest true cars.
As to the 20th Century, it is generally forgotten that the history of aviation is a history of innovation prizes. Betwen the turn of the century and the early 1930s, a sequence of prizes offered for duration, Channel crossings, and ultimately trans-Atlantic flight led to many of the pivotal “firsts”. Both Alcock & Brown and Charles Lindbergh made their trans-Atlantic crossings in prize competitions. The modern day X Prizes for space flight are in a grand tradition.
Whilst government was no longer the only source of innovation prizes, they continued to provide them. The 1958 act which established NASA provided for payments and prizes for technological and scientific innovations which furthered NASA’s objectives (many have since been awarded), and in the 1980s and 1990s the US FCC used valuable non-cash prizes (such as spectrum grants) to encourage the development of new technology.
The past decade has seen a growth in government innovation prizes, prompted in part by the success of the Ansari X Prize in driving the development of commercial space tourism. The US has built on its long standing traditions in this area with projects such as DARPA’s Grand Challenge (for driverless vehicles) and Network Challenge (for network based problem solving), and NASA’s COTS programme, which like the 1714 Longitude prize offers both a lucrative incentive and some limited R&D funding available based on interim results.
The Labour Government in the UK has also been keen to use prize competitions, with the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts offering a £1,000,000 prize for community-led responses to climate change, and the MoD running its own “Grand Challenge” competition, focused on the development of battlefield technologies.
If the use of prize competitions to encourage innovation has a long and successful history (and indeed is a method adopted by the currenty government), it is difficult to give any credance to any criticism leveled at Hunt for his method. As noted above, this may well be why none of the politicians have bothered to properly discriminate between the objective Hunt sets out, and the method he proposes.
After all, traditional Government funded IT projects do not have a happy history. A combination of poor management by ministers and civil servants alike, and what often appears from the outside to be a frightening lack of technical knowledge and compentence, leads to massive cost overruns, poorly designed systems, and a failure to deliver project objectives. The key difference with a prize competition is that the winner must deliver, or they do not recieve the prize. If EDS or Capita had been subject to such conditions, it is doubtful they would have profited from failure to the extent they have over the past decade.
As Jeremy Hunt himself said (when challenged by Justin Webb to offer a prize of just £100,000):
We think a million is about the right amount if we’re going to get some serious IT development done, and if we do that we think it could be a lot better value for the taxpayer than the £12 billion pounds spent on the NHS IT system.
Whether £1,000,000 is the right amount is a penetrating question (little wonder it was Justin Webb posing it, rather than any of the professional politicans). The answer depends on an evaluation of what Hunt is actually asking for. If he simply wants Twitter or Facebook with government branding then £1,000,000 does look excessive, and Jenny Willott appears to be correct when she observes:
This prize is…a total waste of taxpayers’ money. There are already a multitude of ways to communicate with large numbers of people online, from Facebook to discussion groups. Maybe the Tories are so out of touch they don’t know what’s out there, but they shouldn’t waste £1m of public money reinventing the wheel.
Unfortunately for Ms. Willott, she’s missed the point. Online communication tools certainly do exist, but they lack a key element needed for the kind of platform Hunt is proposing. James Harkin, a social scientist asked to counter Hunt on the Today programme, observed:
[O]f course the real problem with the wisdom of crowds is that there’s no proven way of aggregating all of those ideas, totting them all up, into a coherent consensus. In other words, you end up with a bureaucrat who’s simply able to pick and choose.
Hunt met that head on:
The trouble at the moment with these online forums is that you don’t know what’s happening with your idea. You post a comment on a government website or the BBC website and it’s sort of vanishing into the ether. What this idea is is can we find a find a way of structuring these ideas so that you give more weight to people who have more expertise or who are recognised as having a better track record in terms of previous ideas they’ve had. I think if we can do that we can actually harness the ideas that people have.
In other words, Harkin (like Jenny Willott) has failed to understand what’s being proposed. Yes, Hunt wants an online platform which shares some characteristics with existing online platfrms, but which adds a new and truly innovative element – a way of sifting, weighting and aggregating input.
Both Tessa Jowell and Kerry McCarthy appear to have ignored that vital detail: Jowell because she views this as being about communication tools; and McCarthy because she ignores the question of how multiple opinions are aggregated and given weight. It may be true, as McCarthy says, that people up and down the country discuss the England football team selection in the pub. This does not explain how you identify the former professional footballers, coaches, and managers from amongst the multitude, and weight their opinions to reflect their proven experience and expertise.
Aggregating opinion is difficult enough, but weighting it to favour experience? There’s nothing around that does that, beyond simplistic tools for other users to rate contributions, or rewarding contribution (such as used by Yahoo! Answers). Developing systems which can understand what people’s experience is, and evaluate how it relates to the issues being assess, presents considerable challenges across a range of disciplines. Solving those challenges will cost money, and the value of the prize must be sufficient to incentivise the entrants.
Nor is this simply about letting the public make policy, as Simon Jenkins assumes in the Guardian. Justin Webb made a similar, but much better focused point: invoking Margaret Thatcher (as her first Cabinet papers are released) he asked whether this proposal showed a lack of leadership the Iron Lady would never have countenanced. No, says Hunt, because this platform would make the greatest contribution to implementation: developing policy, not originating it.
We’re looking at some the worst things that have gone wrong over the past few years. Look at the U-turns over child care vouchers, over the 10p tax, over the NHS IT system.
It is crazy that these things have gone wrong when you’ve got lots and lots of retired health professionals, retired policemen, people in the teaching profession, who have huge knowledge and expertise and had they been able to contribute better to the policy-making process we could have avoided some of these problems. [Press Association]
The ultimate gimmick of the Blair years was…march[ing] hooligans to cashpoint machines…there will have been thousands of retired police officers or retired people in the courts service who could have said immediately that this is a useless idea and it’s not going to work. [Dailymail.co.uk]
The Today programme’s decision to ask James Harkin to counter Jeremy Hunt was ill-judged. Harkin is a talking head, a university lecturer in social and political theory who has managed to parlay his academic expertise into a number of jobs holding forth on social trends. He is not an expert in the technologies under discussion, and his suggestion on the Today programme that either Twitter or Facebook could deliver the platform Hunt seeks reveals a lack of technical understanding about the challenges inherent in the weighting and aggregating of inputs. (It also shows startling inconsistency – given his own argument against crowd sourcing relies heavily on the inability of existing platforms and environments to aggregate and weight contributions so as to find “correct” answers).
Harkin wrote a book earlier this year in which he argued against “crowd sourcing”. His most timely attack – and frankly, the one which probably got his book published – is on the idea that large groups will in aggregate behave optimally, and he argues that the global financial crisis proved this to be false [That conclusion is questionable, but that's for another day]. He also states that many organisations use mass-engagement as a public relations exercise, something he also said on the Today programme in response to Jeremy Hunt.
I mean, in my experience, researching the book that I wrote, it struck me that lots of organisations were doing this, but often they were doing it simply as a kind of gimmick, often very desperate organisations, which were using this not really as a means to harness the collective intelligence of anyone, but really as a means of cosying up to their public, trying to reinvent themselves by drawing the audience further in. In other words, they were really flattering the intelligence of people by saying we’re listening to your opinions, we really want you to be involved, we want you to be constantly punching in your ideas to us.
This is not a criticism of Jeremy Hunt’s proposal, but it is a caution: government which implements this kind of platform must be prepared to engage properly with it. Tessa Jowell may be right when she says that “Labour already makes full use of collaboration and social networking technologies to consult with people”, but the Greenpeace lawsuit over the Government’s nuclear power consultation demonstrated the extent to which consultation is given lip service by some in government (and this is by no means an exclusively Labour trait). As the old business joke goes, “Being consulted is a time saving measure. You get conned and insulted all in one go”.
More broadly, Simon Jenkins’ piece in the Guardian is another response which ignores what is being proposed – in this case to push direct democracy. He argues for the election of a plethora bodies which are currently minimally democratic or simply appoinbted. In offering this as a reposte to Hunt, Jenkins ignores the extent to which our society already relies on a range of voluntary service which gives weight to individual’s skills and expertise. School governors, lay magistrates, advisory committees, members of the Independent Monitoring Boards; millions of our fellow citizens already provide their skills and expertise free of charge in a variety of roles. What Hunt proposes could turn the whole nation into potential members of an advisory panel, then sift their opinions based on their skills and expertise. Direct democracy might well obviate the need for what Hunt’s proposing, but nobody – left or right – proposes true direct democracy. Whether true direct democracy is even desirable or workable (Switzerland, minarets; California, state bankruptcy) is another issue.
Overall, it is Jeremy Hunt’s critics who fail to convince, largely because they fail to engage. Both the method – a prize competition – and the objective – a platform for public engagement which can weight and aggregate input – have considerable merit. The devil may well be in the detail, but this is one proposal which should be taken forward.
[For Jeremy Hunt's Today programme debate with James Harkin, see here, at 0715]
Twenty years ago, the future had a date: 2010.
Now 2010 is upon us, and I have just one question:
WER IZ MAH MONOLITH?
There’s a danger that our politics can colour our view of reality, and a particular danger that it can cause reinforce our view that our position is “the mainstream”. I was reminded of this yesterday, in respect of capital punishment.
The execution of Akmal Shaikh has dominated the headlines again today, just as his case had for several days. Gordon Brown is apparently ‘appalled and disappointed’:
I condemn the execution of Akmal Shaikh in the strongest terms and am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted. I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken.
At this time our thoughts are with Mr Shaikh’s family and friends and I send them our sincere condolences.
The state run english-language newspaper China Daily’s take on the situation is slightly different:
The [Supreme People's Court] said in a statement that Shaikh had broken China’s Criminal Law by smuggling huge amounts of heroin, and “the evidence was certain and the facts were clear.”
The SPC also said that the defendant’s litigation rights and legitimate treatment had been fully granted in custody and trial.
Officials from the British embassy in China and a British organization had proposed a mental disease examination on Akmal Shaikh, but the documents they provided could not prove he had mental disorder nor did members of his family have history of mental disease, the SPC said.
Akmal Shaikh himself did not provide relevant materials regarding him having a mental disease, according to the SPC.
“There is no reason to cast doubt on Akmal Shaikh’s mental status,” the SPC said.
Since the Supreme People’s Court had ordered a mental health check on him and proved that his mental situation could not exempt him from being punished, his relatives have no reason to ask for another test. But, even if the authority had not done it thinking there was no need to do so, the decision holds water and should not be interfered with.
Of course, in the UK we can take comfort that, unlike in China, the death penalty is opposed in principle, and whatever the truth about Shaikh’s mental health the decision to execute him will be condemned.
His case has prompted outrage in this country from politicians and from the trendy metropolitan elite, for whom drug use is a fashionable habit rather than serious criminal offence.
Yet for all this orchestrated wailing, is it not possible that China is right to put Shaikh to death?
McKinstry goes on to argue that the death penalty keeps drug crime in China down:
In China, the death penalty can be invoked against anyone carrying more than 50g of drugs - and that is one obvious reason why China, proportionally, has nothing like the drugs problem that we have in Britain.
Serious dealers and abusers know they could be looking down the barrel of a gun if they are caught.
It is the height of hypocrisy for the Labour government, the human rights brigade and celebrity loudmouths to lecture China when Britain’s own strategy has failed so disastrously.
I got into an argument on Twitter last night as to whether McKinstry’s view was ‘logical and mainstream’. I contended that it was.
Let’s be clear, I don’t share McKinstry’s views regarding the death penalty. I oppose it in principle as well as in practice. The only circumstances in which I can conceive of a coherent argument being made in favour of it are for the most serious offenders, those who can never be released because of the danger they pose to the public, and even there I don’t accept that such an argument is right.
That he was logical wasn’t really challenged, and it’s easy enough to be logical but wrong. There are various assumptions which he makes that are highly questionable (for instance the multiple assumptions inherent ibn arguing China has less of a “drugs problem” than the UK due to its use of the death penalty), and the deterent effect of the death penalty has been extensively debunked (here’s a literature review from the Death Penalty Information Centre).
The issue I was principally picked up on was my contention that McKinstry’s views are mainstream, but I’d say the evidence for this is fairly clear cut.
In April 2003 the Observer conducted a broad ranging poll on crime, which asked several questions about the death penalty. The headline result was this:
Do you believe that the death penalty should be re-introduced in Britain for certain crimes?
The survey then asked those in favour of the death penalty for which crimes they wanted it available:
Which of the following crimes do you think should be punished with the death penalty?
Drug dealing 13%
So 13% of those who wanted to see the death penalty reintroduced wanted it available for drug dealing – 8.71% of the sample. That’s more people than voted Green in the 2004 European Parliament elections.
An ICM poll conducted for the News of World in 2005 found that 55% supported the death penalty for murder, while in July of this year Mori found that 70% supported the reintroduction of the death penalty for at least one offence (annoyingly neither ICM nor Mori failed to ask about drug offences).
In October Metro reported a Harris poll which showed 54% in favour of the death penalty, and of those 29% (or 15% of the sample) in favour of the death penalty for “major drug dealers” [Unlike the polls above, I can't find either the data tables or a report in a reputable newspaper, so this result needs to be treated with some caution].
[There is, of course, a difference between drug smuggling and drug dealing, but my hunch is that the great British public would treat the latter more seriously.]
The death penalty for drug dealing is clearly a minority position (like opposition to the death penalty!) but does that mean it isn’t a mainstream view? Let’s put it in perspective: 10% of the UK listens to the Today programme on Radio 4, and around 2% read the Guardian.
What’s mainstream also depends on where you happen to be, and how old you are. As the Observer stated in 2003:
Support for the death penalty is strongest among those aged 65+ (86 per cent) and lowest among those aged 25-34 (55 per cent). Those who have been a victim of crime are more likely to support capital punishment, but the most striking differences in attitudes are regional ones. Ninety-four per cent of those living in the West Midlands support the re-introduction of the death penalty, compared to just 34 per cent of Londoners. Indeed, Londoners appear out of step with the rest of the nation on this issue – London is the only region where capital punishment is opposed by the majority.
If you’re young and from London (and from a higher socio-economic group, based on the 2003 ICM data tables) you are more likely to oppose the death penalty than if you’re older and from the regions (and in a lower socio-economic group…). For me this just confirms what I already believed – the UK’s political and media classes are more “liberal”/”progressive”/”sane” than the population as a whole. We (since I include myself in that bracket) like to believe that attitudes have shifted far further than is actually true.
It’s a reality which was brought home to me a couple of months back, with the homophobic assault on James Parkes in Liverpool. That weekend a friend and I had been discussing which Homotopia events to go to, ande ended up discussing homophobia. We both (he’s gay, I’m straight) felt Liverpool was far better than London (where a vigil was due to be held the following week for the victim of a fatal assault in Trafalgar Square) and the biggest issue was latent prejudice, not the violence and overt discrimination which had been an issue and still seemed to be in some parts of the UK.
At roughly the same time on the other side of the city centre James Parkes was being beaten by a gang of youths. The gang included a child of 14.
Following the attack, a vigil was held. The organiser said:
The great people of Merseyside will stand as one, shoulder to shoulder, within Liverpool’s ‘gay quarter’ to mark the beginning of the end of homophobia.
Liverpool has taken its bruised ego and turned it into an incredible positive shift in public opinion relating to hate crimes and specifically homophobia.
Whether that “…incredible positive shift in public opinion…” was transitory or permanent remains to be seen. I don’t believe the desire to commit homophobic hate crimes is itself mainstream, but the homophobia it evidences certainly is, and it may be that the only thing that will change that will be time (and deaths from old age).
For me, the main lesson is that the fact I consider someone’s views abhorrent does not prevent those views being mainstream, and nor does the fact they are in a minority. Hopefully homophobia is now a minority position, but I would not be at all surprised to find that it wasn’t. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Cashman was right when he told the BBC:
Within faith schools we are still getting a message of anaesthetised hatred – ‘we don’t hate these people but they’re not equal’. If that is said enough, it softens the brains of young people and that’s so dangerous. And it’s a message echoed by sections of the press.
There’s a real danger that we can be blinded to the extent to which our personal beliefs are not representative, especially if we’re not personally confronted with anyone who challenges them. We need people like Peter Tatchell and Clive Stafford-Smith to carry on exposing the truth: the rest of the country/world doesn’t think like us. If we lose sight of that and become complacent, it would be all too easy to erode progress that has taken decades to achieve
Full credit to the BBC for finally deciding to give top billing to the Iranian protests. Couple of days late, but who’s counting…
The UK’s political classes, meanwhile, are more interested in heading off class war or crying over sold gold reserves. To add insult to injury, today Liberal Conspiracy offered us arguments against military intervention if Iran went nuclear.
Yesterday brought news that that Ali Mousavi, nephew of the reformist leader Mir Hussein Mousavi, had been killed. At best, he was shot by police. At worst, he was assassinated, knocked down with a car and then executed where he lay.
The killing of Ali Mousavi is a major escalation of the crisis in Iran. Aside from being a direct assault on his uncle, it provides the crowds with a martyr around which to focus their anger, in the same way that the death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri originally provided the impetus to get them back on the streets.
Moreover, the killing will play very badly to the cultural and religious traditions of the Iranian people: as Juan Cole noted today, the Mousavi’s are Sayyids, male line descendants of the Prophet.
From a narrative point of view, the situation could not be worse – the Iranian government regime kills a direct descendant of the Prophet on the Day of Ashura, which commemorates the death of the Prophet’s grandson in a battle against an oppressive regime.
Personally, I doubt this story has a happy ending. The Iranian regime will put down the protests, with many deaths, and will publicly and not so publicly set about jailing and killing the reformist movement. The window of opportunity will close.
The West, meanwhile, sits by. The most apparent contribution made by the US so far was the pressure to keep Twitter up during a scheduled downtime back in June. Meanwhile the FCO sees its priorities in Iran as…er, drug trafficking.
It was ever thus. Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Romania in 1989, Iraq in 1991. The West sometimes egged on, always stood by, and then watched while people struggled for freedom.
Often they didn’t make it.
When the West did act, it rarely did so in support of the values it espoused. In 1953 the US helped remove the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, setting up the autocratic regime of the Shah that would be toppled twenty-five years later. 1968 saw the US fighting to preserve the government of South Vietnam, and when the Romanian revolution hung in the balance in 1991 US troops were marching through Panama City.
The establishment of the No-Fly Zones in Iraq in 1991/2 was at least a minimal attempt to protect people who had risen up with the tacit encouragement of the US, but the Balkan Wars showed the limitations airborne interventions. In Kosovo the West finally took military action in support of a popular uprising, and saved many lives as a result. But for the attacks in September 2001 that doctrine of humanitarian intervention might have persisted.
Events in Afghanistan – particularly the continuing preservation of the regime of President Hamid Karzai, and the decision to legitimise the rigged election results that saw him returned to power earlier this year – are setting up the toppling of Hamid Karzai. It demonstrates that the Western powers haven’t learned the lessons of history.
Let us hope that the Iranian Reform movement has. If they are to topple the regime of Grand Ayatollah Khamenei they must do it alone without the expectation of support or assistance, and they must not move unless they can succeed alone.
Then they need to learn to fix smiles for when the West decides to come and congratulate them.
There’s been some interest today in the launch of a new website called Tory Stories. It seems a nice premise – well written and researched criticisms of Tory activities. Conservative Home’s “Left Watch” welcomed it, and Sam Coates in the Times apparently thinks it’s “well researched”.
The only problem is that the site doesn’t really deliver. One telling sign is the decision to disable comments, and having read through some of their material I think I can see why.
The current lead on that site is ‘”Failure of leadership, culture and governance” at Surrey County Council’, penned by Jeremy Cliffe, a student at Oxford and head of the University branch of Compass. It’s dripping in hyperlinks, and certainly looks like every detail is supported.
The article purports to be a scathing indictment of Surrey County Council, focusing on the removal of a popular subsidised school bus service. The merits of that decision aside, the article contains some highly questionable claims. Take this eye catching statement:
Having considered four possible options for its future, the Conservative council opted for “maximum savings at the earliest possible date”: ending the service in July 2010 and selling the twenty-two buses at a loss of £1.7 million.
Cliffe links his claim of a loss of £1.7 million to this document, an options paper put before the Council’s cabinet. At paragraph 17 it says:
The initial purchase cost of the 22 Pegasus buses, owned outright by the County Council, was in the order of £2.8m. Using current industry estimates for the resale value of similar vehicles it is expected that their residual market value in December 2010 would be around £1.1m They could reasonably be expected to have a further 12 year life and are in good condition.
In other words, Cliffe took the original cost of the buses and deducted the residual market value. The difference, he says, is a loss.
Except it isn’t. As the position paper makes clear in paragraph 1:
The Ride Pegasus School Bus Service was developed as a five-year pilot
finishing in December 2010. The intention was to seek government funding for a
wider school bus scheme, and act as a national pilot for the ‘school bus’ concept.
There’s this little thing called “depreciation”, which Cliffe seems never to have heard of. Simplistically, if you buy a large capital asset – like a bus – good accounting practice is to reduce the value of that asset each year it is used, and at any given point it will have a residual value. The Council isn’t losing £1.7 million, since it has owned the asset for several years.
Having failed one maths part of his task, Cliffe moves on to compare and contrast the cost of running the bus service with other bits of expenditure. The service had a net cost of £900k per annum, so if Cliffe can find £900k of waste he should be able to make a decent case for saying the Council could have cut other things.
He doesn’t even come close.
The best he can manage is £162,000, made up of £147,000 allocated for preparations for the 2012 Olympics, and £15,000 for a High Court appeal against an Ofsted inspection result. In fairness to Cliffe, both seem on the surface pretty questionable.
Or are they? The Olympics one is a little bizarre, requiring as it does the parroting by Cliffe of a line originally taken by the Daily Telegraph – namely that Surrey should not be spending this money because it isn’t hosting any part of the Olympics. In a shocking twist, the Daily Telegraph missed the point. Surrey’s own option paper makes clear that the Council is spending the money on pump priming a variety of projects (and, yes, managing this allocation) to achieve a number of objectives:
5. Business Outcomes:
The South East of England is expected to gain over £1 billion from the 2012 Games, both through Games related contracts and from increased tourism. Our aim is to help Surrey companies to compete for their share of this business…
6. Community Outcomes:
We will bring communities closer together by increasing participation in sporting, cultural and skills-development activities associated with the 2012 Games. The County Council will particularly want to ensure that Schools take full advantage of the opportunities that this programme offers. We will encourage and support volunteering activities, and will improve educational attainment in Surrey by providing every young person with the opportunity to participate in 2012 projects.
7. Health Outcomes:
We will use the Olympics and Paralympics to inspire the people who live and work in Surrey to take up more active and healthy lifestyles. We will improve Surrey’s sporting achievement by helping to transform today’s sporting talent into world-class athletes of the future, in part through collaboration with the national charity SportsAid.
8. Training Camps:
Surrey has 19 excellent sporting venues qualified to offer training camps to nations competing in the 2012 Games. In addition to these registered venues, we hope to make the most of other top quality Surrey facilities, such as those in our independent schools. Surrey has already hosted visits from nations evaluating training facilities and communities, visits that have attracted positive media coverage as well as engaging the public’s imagination. Each nation will have a London 2012 grant of up to £25,000 to spend on facilities and associated training costs, with the added potential of wide-ranging benefits to the host community as well as the visiting nation. We aim to gain the commitment of at least one competing nation to a Surrey training camp.
Local Council in promoting local business and community involvement shocker!
All of this sounds strangely familiar. I wonder where I’ve heard a politician putting a broad set of objectives forwards in connection with the Olympics?
The Olympics is that once in a lifetime opportunity for hundreds of thousands of people to discover new, thrilling and unexpected ways of fulfilling their creative potential in all its forms.
But these opportunities are not limited to London. Building the Games is a truly nationwide endeavour:
- London 2012 will directly award £6bn worth of contracts, creating around 75,000 business opportunities along the supply chain
- Already more than 900 businesses have won contracts together worth around £3.5bn. Almost half of these have gone to UK firms outside London, two-thirds of which are small or medium sized enterprises
Apparently Jeremy Cliffe didn’t get the memo regarding the way the Olympics isn’t just for London.
He’s spot on regarding the £15,000 apparently wasted by Surrey County Council on appealing the Ofsted decision, but that’s looking a little paltry now – given Surrey County Council’s projected savings from cancelling the service: £2.19 million over three years. It’s also looking a little hollow – since there was an election earlier this year, and the Council leader and much of the cabinet were replaced. And the new leader accepted many of the criticisms about the Council’s culture made by the outgoing Chief Executive, Michael Frater.
I must have missed that last in Jeremy Cliffe’s piece – despite the fact that I’m linking to the same piece as he is. Funny, he quoted at length from Frater’s report, but forgot to mention the leadership had changed, or thatthe new leader’s response.
Obviously just an unintentional oversight.
Tory Stories? On current evidence, Compass Fairy Tales is more like it.
It felt like Back to the Future this week. From nowhere, fox hunting is a political issue again.
Boxing Day has always been an important day in the hunt calendar, and consequently an important day for opponents of hunting. The latter, led by Hilary Benn, have used the occasion to launch a new petition.
To be accurate, the petition isn’t from opponents of hunting: it’s from the Labour Party (complete with shiny Tangent Labs website).
The petition statement is worth a read:
David Cameron has pledged to dedicate Government time to a bill abolishing the ban on fox hunting as a priority, if the Tories were to win the next General Election.
The Labour Party is proud to have banned hunting with dogs, and will be campaigning alongside animal welfare organisations against the Tories’ proposed re-introduction of this cruel practice.
To show your support for our campaign, and receive future updates on our work in this area, please sign our online petition below
Let’s pause for a minute to consider the defeatism (or realism, depending on your taste) that embodies. Labour may assert it will win the next General Election but the people behind this petition aren’t buying it. Their priority is to start a campaign now, so that there is a groundswell of support to greet the incoming Tory government.
This makes good sense. Labour is playing for high stakes: survival, not re-election. Their nightmare scenario isn’t losing the general election, it’s losing their core vote. They need a rallying cry to stitch it together.
Worringly – for Labourites – the only thing that the party seems to have identified is class, and it’s not something they’ve had much success with before. Back in 2005, John Prescott was doing his best to attack David Cameron, then recently elected as Tory leader, with a charge of “having been educated at Eton.” Notable effect: Nil. Gordon Brown’s loyal lieutenant Ed Balls had a try in 2007. Notable Effect: Balls looking silly when it was pointed out that he was privately educated. [Insert "Balls-up" joke here]
Since Gordon Brown apparently believes “third time lucky”, he tried recently, and proved that not only will old fashioned class warfare fail, it is actually counter productive. Brown’s “playing fields of Eton” jibe was meant to label David Cameron an out of touch toff. Instead it made Gordon Brown look like a throw back to the 1970s.
The last thing Gordon Brown can afford is to be viewed as more at home on the hard-left of politics. At a time of recession, with a burgeoning national debt, the public could easily see parallels with why they kicked Labour out in 1979, and why they kept them out until 1997. That people have been drawing comparisons between Gordon Brown and Jim Callaghan for some time only adds to the problem.
Class war is also quite difficult to wage if your class enemy won’t engage with you. As Frankie Goes to Hollywood might have asked,
What if class war breaks out, and nobody turns up?
Alistair Darling was hoping to do some damage with his super tax on banker’s bonuses. A singularly stupid policy – populist and insignificant, without any real impact on the issues it claims to address – the Tories couldn’t oppose it without being hit by charges of being too close to the city. So they, er…didn’t, since they hadn’t committed themselves one way or another.
To wage class war, Labour needs something the Tories are already committed to, which looks like it favours the upper classes, and which – unlike a commitment to raise the inheritance tax threshold - isn’t aspirational for the working and middle classes.
All the evidence is that Hilary Benn is a good deal smarter than Brown, Balls or Prescott, and appreciates this. You can have your class war, but only if your class enemy is sufficiently different and strange, sufficiently removed from the mainstream, such that you can demonise them without people making up their own minds. Criticising Cameron for being educated at Eton doesn’t cut the mustard the way it might have when Hilary Benn’s father (Westminster School; New College, Oxford) was in government. But hang on, Hilary’s found something better:
He used to hunt foxes; he talked about fox hunting in his first ever speech to Parliament; and he has said that if he becomes prime minister he will get rid of the fox hunting ban.
But, like the vast majority of people, I think that the barbaric act of letting dogs tear foxes to pieces shouldn’t return to our countryside.
Fox hunting and the “countryside lobby” are ostensibly perfect. All these funny country people in funny costumes, riding horses and quaffing sherry before the off. If they can afford those horses and red coats, surely they must all be upper class? And killing furry animals for sport! Ewww…
For Labour’s core support, these people might as well be from Mars.
All of which brings us to Admiral Ackbar. Ackbar is a space squid in Star Wars, most famous for uttering the line “It’s a trap!” when he realises that he has been tricked into attacking a Death Star.
Ackbar’s famous line applies just as well to the debate over fox hunting. It’s a trap, and it’s an elegant one.
Labour would like the Tories to react in a rational way, to talk about civil liberties, to try and explain that they’re proposing a free vote, not repeal per se. They’d like that, because that would play to Labour’s core support as the Tories backing the upper classes, and could easily spill over into a broader perception that the Tories are a party of privilege – which the Labour has been trying and failing to assert for some time.
The Tory response should be much simpler: ignore Labour’s campaign. If asked about it directly, just say “Unlike Hilary Benn and Gordon Brown, we’re concentrating our energy on the things that matter – jobs, and schools, and hospitals.”
This might seem to fly in the face of the latest claims from the anti-hunting lobby, which commissioned an IPSOS-Mori poll. They say it showed 75% of the public think fox hunting should be illegal.
If you actually read the data tables, however, you see that the question asked was whether fox hunting should be legalised – which introduces the usual bias against legalisation of illegal minority activities. You also discover that the pollsters didn’t bother to ask how important this issue was to people. Personally, I consider the addition of sweetcorn to tuna mayonnaise a criminal act, but I’m not going to demand legislative time and enforcement budgets be spent on stamping out the problem.
My hunch is that the public doesn’t really care about this issue, and if Labour gets sufficiently caught up in it the public will see it for what it is – an attempt at class warfare. That will do serious damage to Labour, but it relies on the Tories heeding Admiral Ackbar’s advice that:
It’s a trap!