Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Waste: A Panic Closer To Home Than Foreign Taxes

It never stops
As the moral panic over taxing foreign companies continues, MPs and other politicians must be increasingly relieved not to be focusing on far bigger problems closer to home.

For a start, the UK government has a lot of trouble keeping track of its own finances, which must suit those on the inside very nicely. While France, the U.S. and Australia can produce a comprehensive set of government accounts in less than nine months, it took 20 months to produce the UK’s first set of “Whole Government Accounts”, covering 2009-2010. Worse, the Public Accounts Committee was “surprised to find that Treasury did not have a grip on trends in some key areas of risk or plans for managing them.” 

Now you might be worried that the government wrote off £10.9bn in unpaid taxes, and perhaps a bit personally alarmed that it expected to pay out £15.7bn for clinical negligence claims. 

But let's get this into perspective. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the government spent just under £700bn in 2010-211, up £30bn on the year before. At about 50% of GDP, that alone explains why our economy has ground to a halt. Of the total, 60% went in just 3 areas: social welfare (30% or £200bn), health (18% or £120bn) and education (13%). After that came defence (6%), public order and safety (5%), personal social services (4%), transport (3%) and housing (2%). Spending on trade, industry, energy, employment and the environment together only add up to 3% of total spending.

The UK government has never received tax revenues above 40% of GDP, and by far the majority of what it does receive comes from individuals. In 2008/09, the UK government collected £41.8bn in corporation tax and £149.6bn in income tax. Together, we and the corporations paid about another £180bn in National Insurance and VAT.

So we need to forget about taxes if we're to have any chance of turning around the public accounts. 

Public infrastructure projects and government consumption are great places to start. And they provide plenty of big corporate scalps to go after.

The Private Finance Initiative (“PFI”) was invented in 1992 as a way of funding the construction and operation of public infrastructure using private funds, so that the cost could be kept neatly off the public balance sheet. While initially attacked by the Labour government, the programme was massively expanded once they came to power in 1997, after the Health Secretary now infamously remarked, "when there is a limited amount of public-sector capital available, as there is, it's PFI or bust." 

As a result, there are 717 PFI contracts in the UK with a total capital value of £54.7bn. The woolly "Whole Government Accounts" put the present value of payments due to private financiers at £131.5bn. However, the true cost to taxpayers has since been discovered to be about £300bn, including running costs and interest payments at rates well above what the government could command directly. Yet the Treasury have trumpeted savings of only £1.5bn so far.

Government also tends to reward bidders who over-estimate the utility of large scale procurement projects, and under-estimate their cost. This "Planning Fallacy" is explained in Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow, and the recent West Coast railway fiasco is a case in point. Such a tendency can only suit the public and private institutions involved. It certainly isn’t benefiting commuters or taxpayers. Costs are about 40% higher on Britain’s railways than comparable European networks. And taxpayer subsidies, adjusted for inflation, have reached approximately £7 billion per annum. Approximately 10% of trains don’t arrive on time. Only 42% of rail customers are satisfied with value for money for the price of their ticket. Only 69% say there is sufficient room for all passengers. And only 80% of rail customers are satisfied with punctuality. 

But if you really want to indulge yourself in a good panic, you need go no further than the government's own expense accounts and the suppliers who benefit. 

In his review of government financial efficiency in October 2010, Sir Phillip Green found that “the government is failing to leverage both its credit rating and its scale” in its expenditure of £166bn on goods and services. He attributed the inefficiency to poor data, fragmented procurement activity, the lack of motivation to save money, the absence of budgeting processes and inconsistent commercial skills across departments. 

The Green review estimated that the government could save up to 40% on its telecommunications bills by acquiring its own telecoms capacity. Travel savings were harder to get at. Two widely varying estimates were put on central government travel, before the real figure of £551m emerged. No figures could be discovered for the wider government travel bill (I'll bet it's those pesky railways again). There were also 71,000 central Government buyers with payment cards that had a monthly spending limit of up to £1,000, none of which was monitored. Railways again?

Phillip Green declined to estimate the total waste or the corresponding savings opportunity, but said rather ominously: 
“There is a huge opportunity that has been clearly identified both in central Government and beyond, but without a clear mandate, energy, focus and commitment, this cannot be delivered.”
Sadly, however, notwithstanding this "huge opportunity", it seems our MPs would rather focus on the amount of tax paid by foreign corporations. Even where those corporations are abiding by UK tax law and the sums to be gained (if any) are paltry by comparison to wasted expenditure that might be saved. 

What a waste.

The Bumper Book of Government Waste is available here.

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