£10.9bn of unpaid tax written off by government? Who cares!

The Treasury does not adequately monitor the way it spends public money, according to MPs.

If there was ever an anti-climax, it was the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA). The publication of a report detailing exactly how the government spends its money should, by rights, have set the agenda in a time of deep public spending cuts. After all, it was the first time that Treasury officials, ministers, MPs, or the public were able to look at the total cost of policies over time. But it was not so: published in November last year, a full 20 months after the end of the financial year it covered (2009/10), the report failed to make an impact.

Today, the Public Accounts Committee, a powerful panel of MPs, has published an assessment of why that might be.

On first glance, it is difficult to understand why the report has not had more of an impact. It found:

  • £10.9bn of unpaid tax was written off by government
  • The government is expected to pay £15.7bn to settling outstanding claims for clinical negligence
  • Future commitments under PFI schemes totals £131.5bn -- four times the value of the assets secured through the deals

Most worryingly, today's report notes that the Treasury failed to spot these trends, or to do anything with the data in its possession. Apparently the Treasury "showed surprise" at the £10.9bn of unpaid tax that was written off, and had no knowledge of trends in clinical negligence claims or of plans to reduce the cost to the taxpayer. The report said:

We were surprised to find that the Treasury did not have a grip on trends in some key areas of risk or plans for managing them.

Essentially, the data was assembled, but the Treasury did not do anything with it, such as identifying risks to public funds, or requiring bodies included to show that they are addressing these risks.

Certainly, it was an ambitious project, with 1,500 bodies included. But the information is dated: it covers the last year of the Labour government but was not released until the coalition had been in power for nearly two years. This is more than double the nine months it takes other countries, such as France, the USA and America, to compile such reports. Even more importantly, publicly owned banks and Network Rail were omitted, so it fails to give an accurate picture of public spending. The National Audit Office is damning on this point:

Of particular concern is that the WGA significantly understates the true value of public assets and liabilities by excluding the publicly owned banks, the Bank of England and Network Rail which, in the opinion of the Comptroller and Auditor General, are owned and controlled by government. It also gives limited analysis of spending across the main functions of government, such as defence and education, or on services such as consultancy, which would make the account more useful to the reader.

"Information is power," said David Cameron in July last year. "It lets people hold the powerful to account, giving them the tools they need to take on politicians and bureaucrats." It's a laudable sentiment, but clearly there is a very long way to go before we are close to achieving it. Assembling data is one thing: making use of it quite another.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad