On Byline Times: The Cabinet Office, a rushed controversial contract and a revamp of how you will get the right to vote

Cabinet Office building in Whitehall Pic credit: gov.uk

I have put up tonight a very interesting story on Byline Times about a rushed award of a £1.7m contract without competitive tendering to Idox, an electoral management software company, which will change the canvassing system to get you on the electoral register next year and mean sharing data on you held by the Department of Work and Pensions. Read it here.

Should £1 bn of unclaimed pensions, shares and insurance policies be used to alleviate austerity?

Rob Wilson

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

Just before Christmas the government  that promised a ” bonfire of the quangos”set up a new one.

It is called the Dormant Assets Commission and it is unusual in that every member of the quango is a wealthy business person.

Not surprisingly there was little coverage of this body. But the government itself provided a lot of information about what it would do and who was sitting on it. I have written about it in last week’s Tribune magazine.

It has been given a year to scour the financial markets to find unclaimed stocks and shares, pensions, bonds and insurance policies which have not been claimed for more than 15 years.

The quango, set up by the Cabinet Office, follows on the work of identifying dormant bank accounts which led to £850m being distributed to good causes by the Big Lottery Fund since it was set up by the last Labour government in 2008.

The decision on who will get the new money however will depend on Cabinet Office ministers who are making it clear that it is likely to go to charities which are replacing services provided by local government and the state.

Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson said:

“More than a billion pounds of assets, that might otherwise sit gathering dust, will go into funding for charities that make a real difference to people’s lives across the country.

“To build an even more caring and compassionate country we need to transform dormant resources and give the funds to those who need it.”

The commission is entirely staffed by business people – many global players – under the chairmanship of Nick O’Donohoe, chief executive officer of Big Society Capital until the end of last year and a former head of global research for bankers J P Morgan.

The business people aiding him are Richard Collier-Keywood, PwC Global vice-chairman; Kirsty Cooper, group general counsel and company secretary, Aviva plc;Gurpreet Dehal, former chief operating officer Global Prime Services, Credit Suisse;Rachel Hanger, partner, KPMG; Jackie Hunt, non-executive director, CityUK and member of the Financial Conduct Authority Practitioner Panel; Mark Makepeace, group director of information services, London Stock Exchange Group and chief executive of FTSE Group; Susan Sternglass Noble, senior advisor to the Investor Forum; and Martin Turner, group business risk director, Lloyds Banking Group.

Richard Collier-Keywood was the head international tax expert for PriceWaterhouseCoopers advising international companies on global taxation.

Rachel Hanger from KPMG is also another international tax adviser for hedge funds providing what her biography describes as “pro tax advice” to fund managers.

Mark Makepeace is the man who co-ordinated the “big bang” deregulation at the London Stock Exchange and runs his own global index business. He is the only one of the new appointments who declares any interest in charities, having been a long-standing supporter of Unicef.

To my mind the present Conservative government is pursuing a pretty nasty policy of cutting services. But should it make up the shortfall by grabbing other people’s assets and employ wealthy people skilled in tax avoidance to find them.

And how will ministers spend other people’s money. Will  the ” sofa style ” government of Tony Blair be replaced by the ” dinner party ” style of government by David Cameron and George Osborne distributing other people’s assets to their mates favourite charities or services in Tory marginal seats.?I am deeply suspicious of this venture and we are entitled to know more about it.

Misusing deregulation to smash journalists’ freedom

One of the most precious freedoms for journalists is the protection of their sources. Now it appears the Cabinet Office is using an obscure bill – as part of the government’s drive to cut “red tape”- as cover to erode that freedom.
By changing the rules to allow the police to go to court to obtain reporter’s notebooks, pictures and computer files- without facing an open challenge from newspapers, TV, or even individual freelance journalists themselves – they are placing that protection in serious danger.
No wonder the Newspaper Society is up in arms and media lawyers are raising very serious questions. There is an excellent and elegant argument on the Inforrm blog by Gill Phillips,the Director of Editorial Legal Services at Guardian News and Media, about the dangers.
She rightly concludes: “This appears to be yet another backdoor attempt to limit and restrict essential and hard-fought journalistic protections.”
Bloggers should also be aware of this as it could affect them – and they will be much more vulnerable to a police raid- as they would be in a weak position to defend themselves. It is worth reading Vox Political’s blog on this point and taking action.

The official response according to my former colleague Owen Bowcott in the Guardian has been muted.
He reports :A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “Every measure in the deregulation bill is intended to remove unnecessary bureaucracy. Clause 47 would bring the Police and Criminal Evidence Act into line with other legislation in this area and would allow the criminal procedure rules committee to make procedure rules that are consistent and fair.

” However, the government has noted the concerns raised about this issue and Oliver Letwin is happy to meet with media organisations about this before the bill goes to committee.”
I think the government should go further and drop this now. It can hardly save much money and I think their motives in introducing this are questionable and undo good work under the Defamation act and by the Information Commissioners’ Office to protect journalists from interference by the police and the state.

Whitehall’s nasty agenda:Impoverish the low paid, reward their bosses with riches

The Student Loans Co headquarters in Glasgow

The Student Loans Co headquarters in Glasgow

The government has always claimed that the main reason it is holding down pay in Whitehall, schools and the NHS is because the taxpayer can’t afford it and we need to cut the deficit. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister responsible for Whitehall’s industrial relations, claims to have safeguarded the very lowest paid and attacked perks given to richer civil servants. The ex banker is on record as saying ” It is absurd to expect that people can be paid the same amount in the public sector as they are paid in the private sector.” This reference is to the higher paid where he is pledged to end perks. It was made in 2011 just at the time when Ed Lester, head of the Student Loans Company, had secured a very lucrative deal where he avoided paying tax or national insurance at source on a £223,000 a year package.
Now in the very same organisation a new drama is being played out which also proves the government is lying about its intentions to protect the lowest paid and curb bonuses for the rich. I have written about it in Tribune.
The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents Whitehall’s lowest paid, put forward a rather interesting negotiating ploy for 2014. They suggested that his successor, Mike Laverty, forgo a £25,000 a year bonus on top of his £160,000 salary and taxable expenses of £30,000 a year. Instead it suggested that the bonus be redistributed to the staff,benefiting the lowest paid.
The union had calculated that, if all the money available, including a below inflation rise and one off £265 payment (worth £595) for those earning less than £21,000 a year and a one-off £560 payment to those over £21,000, all 2400 staff could get an increase of more than £600 incorporated into their salaries. The few very lowest paid would get a £960 pay rise to take them up to the nationally-recognised living wage. It would benefit people working in Glasgow, Darlington and Colwyn Bay.
But it is understood that the Cabinet Office blocked this move and are insisting the bonus is paid to one person instead.
Now it is not known whether Mike Laverty, the present chief executive of the SLC, would have agreed. But he is unusual in that he returned some £80,000 to the Treasury last year from a previous redundancy deal when he got his new job. This is almost unknown among senior mandarins.
Unfortunately he is so media shy, he seems worried, like his predecessor,to talk to me. I can’t think why.
However what this sorry saga exposes is that the lower paid are not having to take a pay freeze to save taxpayers’ money to help bring down the deficit because such a deal would hardly have cost the taxpayer another penny.
What it does show is that the government WANT to keep the lower paid poor and reward the rich – probably because those at the top in the private sector are seeing their salaries soar during the recession.
The results can already be seen in the prosperous parts of the country with the rich looking for things to spend all their money while the poor economise or go into debt.
I was behind a well paid young couple in Berkhamsted Waitrose at the butchery counter who were ordering fillet steak – not for their own dinner- but to feed their dog. The complacent man boasted that he wouldn’t normally be at Waitrose because he regularly got the fillet steak for the dog at Harrods food hall.
I have no doubt Francis Maude – if it is he who approved this – is happy for the rich to buy fillet steak for their pampered pets this Christmas, while the poor juggle the cost of the fuel bills to cook their Christmas turkey. He has created a system where this happens every day.