Understandably, there’s a lot of speculation over the future of certain Cabinet Ministers at the moment. The strongest argument against predictions of Andrew Lansley’s impending departure is the claim that David Cameron wants to avoid a reshuffle in the foreseeable future.
However, it seems that it’s not only those on the outside of Government who think one might be coming.
Two of this blog’s readers were out for a curry last week and found themselves next to a very loud table who, it soon became clear, were staffers from the Private Offices of Ken Clarke and his fellow Justice Minister, Crispin Blunt.
The civil servants in question were nattering away about the internal politics of the Coalition, so my correspondents decided to talk loudly about politics, SpAds and other Westminstery topics in order to give them a subtle message that people could hear them.
They carried on regardless, and it’s interesting to learn that the prime topic of conversation from Ken Clarke’s aides was who is going to replace him as Secretary of State for Justice.
I’m told by my man with the tikka masala that the civil servants’ top tips for the MoJ job were Francis Maude and Chris Grayling. Ones to watch…particularly if you’re Ken Clarke.
The AV referendum on the 5th of May (on which I’ve made my support for the No side pretty clear, I think) is posing a bit of an existential challenge for the Electoral Commission. We live in an increasingly quango-hostile age, and the Commission has only really survived so long its present form because it’s been able to keep its head well below the parapet. Now, with a national referendum to deal with, it’s no longer able to avoid controversy.
Interestingly, the most vitriolic group on the topic of the Commission appear to be returning officers themselves. One I met recently told me that while he’d been running local and general election counts for years, the Commission seemed intent on patronising him to an unimaginable degree. According to him, Jenny Watson – the Electoral Commission’s Chair – has issued the absurd total of 206 instructions and guidelines on the AV referendum.
At the Association of Electoral Administrators’ annual conference in Brighton a couple of months back, Watson was meant to be taking part in a panel session about the referendum. She missed the start of it, having been delayed on her way to Brighton. As one wag remarked, presumably she’d given 206 instructions to her taxi driver, assuming she knew best despite the fact he’d been doing the job for years.
I wrote just over a week ago about the demographic futility of the 2011 Census, which once completed will go out of date at 5,600 people a day. On the back of that post, I’ve been leaked an intriguing account of the chaos behind the scenes by one of the census enforcers whose job it is to go from door to door persuading those who haven’t filled it in to do so. For anyone who believes in competent Government data management - or anyone who is a taxpayer – it does not make comfortable reading.
Here are a few extracts on a range of topics…
On the training we learnt all sorts of absolutely useless things none of which I have used. For instance I spent a lot of time learning what to do if a house is now a communal hostel or if there are more than 6 people living there. The basics of what you would do day to day in 99% of circumstances weren’t drummed into individuals. The training should have focused on key scenarios (household lost questionnaire and households asking if they have to do it). There were lots of stupid group exercises where we learnt things like take an umbrella because it might rain. Don’t forget to take your wallet because you might want to buy a chocolate bar when you are out. Take spare pens. Be polite. If you don’t know these things you shouldn’t work on the census.
Our original staff meeting was a bit of a disaster. All of our collectors were there for a number of hours. We sat around as our coordinator had to give out our work individually meaning that the other dozen of us just sat around doing nothing. This should have been done individually to save time. 15 people, at a rate of 7-10.42 an hour, for 3 hours is almost £500 at the top end (including the coordinator)…For a lot of us about 20% of your time is spent at these meetings every week.
If you consider that there are apparently 29,000 census collectors across the country, that bill for paying people simply to sit around swiftly adds up.
The Computer System
The computer system is a disaster. It crashes regularly. The printers are not designed for the amount of printing that needs to be done, meaning our coordinator needs to watch all the printing personally. Sheets spurt out of the machine and therefore end up in the wrong piles (which can be fixed but it takes time and mistakes are made). The system is very slow and constantly needs restarting. Sometimes it is down for hours.
There are different types of forms that I alluded to earlier so if a house is empty we fill in a ‘dummy form’. If we give them a replacement questionnaire it is a different one. The system does not cope well when you scan in one type and then scan a second type. You have to reset the system to say now you are going to input a dummy form or a replacement. Again solvable by scanning in all your replacement forms first and then dummy forms but it takes time and running through dozens of pieces of paper looking for the minor differences in barcodes that indicate which form is which means again mistakes.
A Government computer system that doesn’t work properly? I didn’t see that one coming…
Reading the papers I was aware of the Lockheed Martin connection and the possibility of boycotts. The guy running the training had never heard of this and didn’t know how to address questions about LM’s role. Ironically our coordinators have said an unexpected development has occurred that they hadn’t anticipated with people refusing to do the census because of this. Quite how they failed to anticipate this I don’t know.
We are supposed to say on the door that Lockheed Martin do lots of good things like supporting our troops in Afghanistan. I have little problem with their involvement in the census but it strikes me as a monumentally stupid response – the kind of people who are boycotting the census for this reason will only be strengthened in their view that it is immoral because people who refuse to do the census because of arms manufacturer being involved aren’t going to be placated by saying it helps the war in Afghanistan! It is a red rag to a bull.
Quite. Can you imagine what is going to happen if someone from the Stop the War coalition is boycotting the census because it’s being run by a defence company, and is told that they should fill it in precisely because that defence company is involved in Afghanistan? Regardless of your views on the war, it’s hardly a sign that there’s any forward thinking being applied to the Census at all.
My anonymous source concludes that:
Reading back through this I think you could make a case that this is all rather silly and that I should just stop making mistakes. The point is basically the standard of census collector isn’t particularly high . Lots of mistakes are made and when you are working in an outdoor environment often in the dark against the elements the system has not been designed to minimise risk and maximise efficiency.
This is the key point. The Census deals in two valuable commodities – personal data and taxpayers’ money. From this account, it doesn’t seem like either are in safe hands.
The question of whether British politicians have got a good enough handle on the uprisings in North Africa is increasingly occupying the minds of political commentators. Against that background, I was recently told a fascinating snippet from someone inside the BBC which casts further doubt on whether Westminster is up to speed.
It goes a little something like this…
When Ed Miliband appeared on the Andrew Marr Show back on 16th January, he arrived for makeup beforehand, plonked himself down in the chair and announced “By the way, what’s been happening in Tunisia? I know absolutely nothing about it.”
A slightly shocked silence ensued, with the BBC staff present dually wondering a) how on earth he hadn’t been briefed for a major interview on unrest that by then had been running for a month and had in the previous two days led to the Tunisian President fleeing into exile, and b) whether they should prep Marr to grill him on it as a weak point.
As it turned out, for whatever reason Marr didn’t ask about the topic at all – but it hardly inspires confidence that Ed didn’t know about the topic and, more worryingly for Labour, just merrily announced that he didn’t to the staff of the BBC’s major political chatshow.
I should say at this point that this is single-sourced (albeit from a person who was apparently there at the time) , so it’s further to the tittle-tattle end of the news scale than the hard-copy-leaked-document end, but interesting nonetheless.
One of the most fascinating (and enjoyable) aspects of my time at the TaxPayers’ Alliance was being right in the middle of the melee during the MPs’ expenses scandal. We were in the right, whilst the opponents of transparency (particularly Michael Martin) made blunder after blunder – and as a result we were privileged enough to have great fun and great success in a good cause.
The difficulty was always going to be in getting the right solution to the problem. I am utterly unsurprised that, now they are fully up and running, IPSA is under fire for its mishandling of the new expenses regime.
I, and the TPA more generally, was always uncomfortable with the idea of a quango designed to oversee MPs’ expenses. It is clear that the opacity and unaccountability of the quango structure tends to produce inefficiency and unresponsiveness – the very things which neither taxpayers nor democracy can afford from a Parliamentary expense system.
The ideal solution would have been much simpler – to audit expenses, publish the claims and receipts in full and then give the people the power of recall, allowing them to sack any MP whom they felt to be misbehaving.
Instead, we got IPSA. As an aside, it’s hilarious to see MPs now objecting to the organisation when it was they who introduced the law to set it up – and in doing so rode roughshod over Sir Christopher Kelly’s popular and largely effective inquiry into the expenses system that was running at the same time.
Once IPSA was set up, we had to do our best to work with it in order to make it the best it could be. To that end, I sat on their Implementation Advisory Panel along with various other transparency campaigners and IPSA’s Chief Executive, Andrew McDonald.
It was worth engaging to push them in the right direction, but it wasn’t a very satisfying process – there were various issues where the panel didn’t concur with us in proposing a sufficiently strict scheme to protect taxpayers and I felt from the outset that IPSA was missing big opportunities.
One issue where it did seem that Andrew McDonald got it, though, was on transparency. As one of the original architects of the Freedom of Information Act, he appreciated that secrecy around MPs’ claims had allowed reprobates to abuse the system in the first place and turned a scandal into a wildfire once the truth began to came out. Transparency, he regularly agreed in those Implementation Panel meetings, must be the fundamental foundation of any new expenses system.
It’s bitterly disappointing, then, to see that IPSA are now refusing to publish the actual receipts for MPs’ expenses. I don’t know what in particular happened to push Andrew McDonald off the right path (though I could hazard a few guesses), but this is a betrayal of taxpayers and British democracy. What I do know is that this will always be the way of quangos – designed to be unaccountable, they will almost always end up disregarding the actual will of the people.
I have lost count of the number of times I have said the following words in recent years, but it seems sadly necessary to repeat them again:
Without full openness, trust in Parliament will never be fully restored. Worse than that, secrecy will allow people to steal from us again in future.
Jonathan Djanogly has got himself into some trouble today for hiring private investigators to snoop on his own colleagues and constituency party officials. Reportedly, he was trying to find out who was leaking information about his dubious use of expenses.
This was an error in general terms, particularly given the Conservatives’ pitch against snooping and widely publicised conversion to expenses transparency. It doesn’t look good that while he was saying he “completely understood” the public’s concern about his expenses, he was also seeking to prevent taxpayers finding anything more out about them.
More specifically, he was simply wasting his time and money trying to catch the leaker(s). In the modern age they are increasingly difficult to track down, due to a combination of technical and human failsafes that you can use to protect their identities. Having handled a fair number of leaks from official bodies, political parties and elsewhere in my time I thought it be useful to provide a brief guide to why his attempts were futile.
For a start, the kind of information that was coming out about Djanogly seems to have been human intelligence, which doesn’t require a documentary trail. The Telegraph’s initial story about allegations surrounding his cleaner/au pair does not contain any new information – rather, it means someone rang the Telegraph up and talked them through the expenses documents they already had. That suggests it was someone who was acquainted with the Djanogly family, or a contact of someone who was.
Furthermore, even if there were documents being leaked they are very hard to trace back to anyone. In the rare cases where leakers are identified it tends to be when the material involved had a very limited circulation list, allowing investigators to deduce the identity of the leaker by a process of elimination (or entrapment).This seems to be what happened to Chris Galley, who was leaking very high level information to Damian Green.
There are always rumours of computer programmes that insert deliberate errors or graphics in documents on larger circulation lists, allowing you to identify the leaker from the code hidden in their document. However, doing so is complex and too costly for the limited benefit. Even then, any would-be leaker is likely to protect against digital records by photocopying the document and then rescanning it or simply transcribing the information by hand, trading the quality of the documents in return for some added security.
The final and biggest challenge for Jonathan Djanogly is that judging by the findings of his own investigators, there were a lot of people around him who weren’t his biggest fans. If the PIs had found everyone loved him except one obviously grudge-bearing individual, then they might have got their guy. Even then, most leakers are too savvy to go round drawing suspicion by making their dislike or resentment publicly known. As it happened, it seems that most of his constituency party were happy to slag him off even to someone whom they thought was a journalist.
In that situation, he should have realised that the leaker was the least of his problems.
It was almost inevitable that the first document leaked from Parliament to this blog would be more about smutty double entendres than earth-shaking scandal. Still, you’ve got to start somewhere.
A letter sent out by Research In Motion (RIM), the people behind Blackberry, to MPs last week has left more than a few Parliamentary researchers sniggering. I doubt Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans ever intended to host an event at which “RIM experts will be on hand to offer tips…”
The “small gift for your office” was a jar of Blackberry jam (geddit?). Very Last Tango in Paris…