Archive for September, 2010

Bonfire of the Quangos

Posted in Politics with tags , on September 24, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Today’s Daily Telegraph news story which leaks Government plans to close circa 170 Quangos (that’s Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation for the uninitiated) will sharply divide the political classes. Those on the left of the political spectrum will foam at the mouth over the cutting. Those on the right will rejoice.

I suspect the reaction in the country will be far more apathetic. Those with experience of dealing with the Advisory Committee on the Government Art Collection or the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors (presumably a left-over from the Great War) will potentially mourn their loss, but I suspect most of us will read the list of Quangos under threat and ask the perfectly reasonable question of many of them, what do they do exactly?

There is a wider issue. Labour at their party conference next week will present this as a threat to public services, but many of the bodies scheduled for the axe sit between Government and those actually implementing on the ground. From my experience many of those on the ground regard the elongated chain of command as cumbersome and a direct threat to effective implementation.

Let’s take the Health Protection Agency for example. I remember speaking to the Director of Public Health for one of our major cities during the height of the swine flu outbreak. I was told that in order to temporarily close a school or even send out a press release informing the media of outbreak numbers, she had to seek permission from the Health Protection Agency, who in turn asked the Department of Health. The answer normally came back about a week later.

Now I’m assuming that the Director of Public Health for one of our major cities is paid quite a nice salary and knows what he or she is doing. But with that salary must come responsibility (to be fair she wanted responsibility just wasn’t allowed to have it). There is little point in paying for a Director of Public Health if even their minor decisions have to be signed off by a quango, which in this case was even unwilling to take responsibility itself.

One of the most interesting parts of Andrew Marr’s recent interview with Tony Blair was the former Prime Minister’s admission that, with hindsight, he should have turned off the cash tap in 2005 and started to drive value through public services rather than continue to spend. I’m not anti Quango and there are legitimate concerns about who will pick up responsibility for key issues, such as waterways protection with the decline of British Waterways, but it is vital that the public gets value for money.  If that is what Cameron now has in mind, rather than just slash and burn, I suspect it will find favour with large swathes of the electorate.

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A whiff of news management in the air!

Posted in Politics, PR with tags , , on September 23, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Just a quick word on the table thumping of the last few weeks. With the Autumn Spending Review less than four weeks away all hell is threatening to break loose as all wings of the political spectrum from the trade unions, through to the normally mild-mannered LibDems get themselves in a huff about the potential carnage in public services.

As a client of mine said recently, “they’re running it [Government] like a business, saying you’ve got to take 25 per cent out of your departmental budgets, but what would you do if you had to take 40 per cent?” Clever, in that it identifies other areas of potential cutting, but it also gets the bigger figure out there, which of course the media and those opposed to balancing the budget latch onto.

Of course the unions have bought wholeheartedly into this. I heard Mark Serwotka of the Public & Commercial Services Union last week say that actually the debt wasn’t that bad and that we spent most of the last century with a borrowing requirement much greater than the one we have know.

Well yes, technically that’s true Mark, but the last century also played host to two world wars which all but bankrupted this country, and the Great Depression. That’s not to mention such trifles as oil shocks, IMF crises etc.

My gut feeling is that we are being news managed (it takes a PR man to spot it!). Yes there will be cuts but I would put money on the lower end of the spectrum with us all breathing a huge sigh of relief on October 21st.

What has happened to the party of Lincoln?

Posted in American Politics with tags , , on September 17, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

I have at times bemoaned the duality of British party politics (I think it is looking every day even more of a duality despite a third ‘force’ arriving in the shape of the LibDems) and have wondered whether a primary system to elect party candidates for general elections would help bring fresh thinking and new blood into parliament.

Then I look at the American system and conclude we are much better off with what we’ve got. Tuesday’s primary election results demonstrate what can happen when a major political party is hijacked by one of its wings, in this case the American Tea Party movement, spearheaded by Sarah Palin.

Christine O’Donnell who beat the establishment Republican candidate in Delaware is the new poster girl for ‘Tea Party-ists’. She is a product of the Christian Right who believes the Bible should be interpreted literally and is anti-masturbation, pro-guns and pro-torture (I’m not kidding!). She is widely regarded as being unelectable in the general election when she will face a Democrat on the first Tuesday in November.

Personally, I can’t wait to read her manifesto. Presumably the American public will be told that they can sell their youngest daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7) and put to death any shop workers who defy the Sabbath and turn in for work (Exodus 35:2).

I’m being facetious, but there is a wider point here. Moderate Republicans, who are willing to reach ‘across the aisle’ and look for bi-partisan agreement in Congress on key legislation which could help lift the US economy out of recession and put people back into work, fear being branded collaborators or even worse ‘liberal’ by the Tea Party Movement who have no qualms about putting up one of their own candidates in a primary to face them.

How long will this go on for? There have been ‘movements’ in American politics before, notably the Bull Moose Party, the Progressives, the Populists and even Ross Perot. All have shone brightly for a time and then flamed out. It is likely that the Tea Party Movement will go the same way, but it could cause unbelievable damage in the meantime. It is difficult to believe at times that this Republican Party is the same party that Abraham Lincoln belonged to.

For Obama, the Tea Party movement is good news. He was looking at a whitewash in November but can now brand the Republicans as extremist. There is every chance now that the Democrats can hang onto the Senate even if they lose the House.

However, the Democrats have a long history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory or in this case catastrophe from the jaws of a setback. As British comedian John Oliver said last night on the satirical news programme The Daily Show, he fully expects a leading Democrat to be photographed battering to death the American Eagle with a copy of the Koran any day now.

A taxing problem for the Revenue (and the rest of us)

Posted in economics, Politics with tags , , on September 10, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The current problems of HM Revenue & Customs in relation to the circa six million people who have had their tax bills incorrectly calculated highlights two truths about the UK’s current taxation system. Firstly, that the current PAYE (Pay As You Earn) method of payment is failing to cope and, secondly, our tax system is unbelievably complex.

PAYE dates back sixty years to a far simpler time when people stayed in one job their whole working lives. The only calculation involved taking a percentage of yearly salary which didn’t change very much. Contrast that with current transient working habits with the average stay in a job somewhere around three years, contract working, part-time working and an employment benefits system, which includes company cars, healthcare and bonuses, all of which must be included in the calculation.

Now factor in more recent changes to the taxation system like child tax credits, which involves taking a calculation of a combined household’s income. The result is failure of the kind we are witnessing now.

The advice from the Institute of Taxation earlier this week was that anyone receiving a letter should check their new tax calculation very carefully. That’s all well and good but I remember talking to the tax office about company car taxation many years ago and coming away more than a little confused and with a blinding headache.

The truth of the matter is we now have the worst of both worlds, a failing PAYE system that is struggling to cope which is part of a wider taxation system which is so complex the average man in the street has little hope of being able to spot any mistakes.

Our current Chancellor has already initiated a review of the current taxation system to make it much simpler. It can’t report a moment too soon.

New York Times puts Met PR in the dock

Posted in Media, PR with tags , , , , on September 3, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

That it has taken the ‘Paper of Record’ to bring to light not only more evidence of continued News of the World phone-hacking, but also the lackadaisical approach of the Metropolitan Police towards investigating illegal phone-tapping operations, is only one extraordinary part of this unfolding story.

The entire New York Times article can be read HERE (it’s eight pages long so one for lunchtime probably!) but for those who have better things to do the facts are these. Firstly, unnamed sources within News International are now saying that Andy Coulson, then editor of NOTW and now David Cameron’s director or communications, knew full well what was going on and actively encouraged it.

There’s no surprise there, but what is extraordinary is the role of the Metropolitan police. Apparently, the Met’ has chosen not to investigate evidence of industrial-scale phone hacking of celebrities, MPs, members of the security services, football administrators because they were too busy, choosing to limit its investigations to hacking of Prince Harry’s phone.

What’s more, the Met’ has chosen not to inform those hacked by the NOTW that they had been targeted, which means that the targets can’t launch civil lawsuits against News International which could cost the organisation hundreds of millions. Gordon Taylor, Chief Executive of the Professional Footballers Association, has already taken them for £700,000 for one hack.

The article infers that the cosy relationship between the Met’ and the NOTW, encouraged and defended by police communications people (subsequently denied), has got in the way of the legal system. In other words, neither party wanted to disturb the flow of tip-offs about arrests in return for positve police-friendly headlines.

There are a number of concerns here, not least that hacking, according to the article, continues at the NOTW to this day and also the role of Coulson as special adviser to the Prime Minister.

However, I believe there is also a wider issue, namely the precise role of civilian PR representatives within the police service and, critically, how proactive they should be in publicising the work of the police.

I have no problem with the publicising of CSR related ‘good works’or arrest rates. However, working in PR, I know that the natural inclination of the PR person is to justify our existence with news headlines and ‘good coverage’. I worry that this tendency has potentially led to television cameras and the press pack outside football manager Harry Redknapp’s house at four o’clock in the morning when the police knocked on his door. What were they doing there? How did they know?

If, and it remains an if, civilian PR people are responsible for these tip-offs then many would argue that they exceeding the boundaries of their job and encouraging the sort of cosy relationships which could potentially hinder the proper investigation of criminal activity.

The Met’ is under pressure now and may well have to re-open its investigation, but the New York Times has also highlighted a wider issue which deserves debate in the PR community and beyond.

Blair’s Journey: We need thirty years and an independent biographer

Posted in Politics with tags , on September 2, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Apparently, the major revelations from the release of Tony Blair’s biography yesterday are that Gordon was difficult to work with (quelle surprise!) and that sometimes the only way he could unwind at the end of another head-banging session with his Chancellor was a large glass of wine or a gin and tonic (I know the feeling!)

I am being facetious, but there is a wider point here. This is the settling of old scores, the wider history of New Labour is yet to be written. What we need now is not Blair book or a Mandelson memoir, but thirty years and an independent biographer.

Why thirty years? Because the passage of time provides perspective. Even Nixon, the most disgraced of modern Presidents, became an elder statesman by the time of his death. Although criticised at the time, much of his foreign policy, rapprochement with China, détente with Russia, now looks positively enlightened compared to Bush 2.

Secondly, time provides the opportunity for the individuals themselves to think again. Robert McNamara in his book, In Retrospect published in 1995, took responsibility for the grave errors of the Vietnam War admitting, “we were wrong, terribly wrong”.

Time also loosens tongues. Robert A Caro, during the course of his research for his mammoth four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, was desperate to speak to George Brown, co-founder with his brother Herman of Brown & Root Engineering Company, who did so much to bankroll Johnson’s political career. Brown refused, until almost his dying breath when he agreed to meet with Caro, giving him much dynamite information, including what Johnson aides like John Connelly actually did with the “brown paper bags stuffed with money” during the disputed 1948 Senate Primary.

Finally, it is often the case that the lesser-lights rather than the ‘big beasts’ cast the most interesting light on the inner workings of Government. Richard Crossman’s diaries, for example, are rightly regarded as the definitive insider’s account of the Wilson Government and, crucially, the workings of the Civil Service. I, for one, would be very interested to hear what Jack Straw has to say about his role in trying to get the second Iraqi resolution through the United Nation’s Security Council and his removal as Foreign Secretary, but only once he is well out of Government and in his dotage.

I think there is a great book to be written about New Labour, but I very much doubt whether it has been written yet.

Port of Dover sale could be Cable’s first big test

Posted in business with tags , , on September 1, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Article first published as Port of Dover Sale Could be Cable’s First Big Test on Technorati.

It is difficult to get involved in the debate over the future of the Port of Dover without sounding like a rabid Europhobe, but I’ll try.

The issue is this. The Port, currently owned by the Government, is to be voluntarily privatised in the near future, with the full support of the current management team. A number of bidders are rumoured, including UK-based Forth Ports, a French Consortium (sacre bleu!) along with a plan for it to be bought by the people of Dover.

Inevitably, much of the media has gone to town on this, ignoring the strategic business implications and instead focusing on the trivia, such as 5 Live insisting on interviewing Dame Vera Lynn yesterday with a certain song in the background (“There’ll be bluebirds over . . . blah , blah, blah” you get the drift).

From a business perspective there are two key issues. Firstly (and this is where I potentially sound like a Europhobe) I can’t help but ask whether the French would agree to us buying Boulogne. I suspect not and it is worth remembering that the Chirac Government declared Danone yoghurt a strategic national asset to block a hostile bid from Nestle many years ago. Yes yoghurt!

Secondly, what if a listed British company buys Dover but is then bid for itself by a foreign company? Does the Government just throw up its hands and declare, “nothing we can do, it’s the market!”.

Post-Kraft, Vince Cable, our Business Secretary, has talked about tightening the takeover rules by lifting the threshold for shareholder approval and potentially even introducing a public interest test. Much of this is controversial and the Institute of Directors in its submission to the Takeover Panel, which is investigating a change in the rules, opposed such a measure.

However, again, it must be remembered that other countries have no qualms in ring-fencing companies from foreign takeover citing the public interest, witness the furor in the US when Dubai Ports tried to take over six port management operations four years ago.

There is one other option, namely that the Government holds a strategic percentage blocking stake post-privatisation. This is of course the route that the French Government has taken with the partial privatisation of EDF Energy.